Monthly Archives: April 2019

Poetry, cider and an excess of seagull poo

I’m in St. Ives in Cornwall. Hilary and I travelled down here by train on Sunday. We had to change trains at Birmingham New Street. The train was packed and as we were trying to get off the train, other passengers were pushing to get on. Someone helped us with our bags, but I nearly got knocked over on the platform, which was crowded with people so you couldn’t move out of the way; in fact it was only the density of people that saved me from falling. They were all wanting a place on the train I’d just left, but there wasn’t any space on the train, so they couldn’t get on until someone got off anyway. It was chaos, so we upgraded to first class for the rest of the journey. It cost us £15 each. Well, be rude not to. We arrived at the hotel on Sunday evening, in time for the evening meal.

I’ve been on a poetry writing course led by Kim Moore and Carola Luther which just got better as the week went on. I’ve had a room with a sea view. The weather has been lovely, sunny and [mostly] warm. The food has been good this year. The hotel took on a new chef team in the autumn, and the food has improved no end. It was so good I think I’ve gone up at least one dress size. And all worth it for the poetry. It’s been a wonderful week; and I have some new poems that I’m excited by.

The theme of the week was ‘Intimacy, distance and perspective’ in poems. We met as a group on Monday at four o’clock: our daily cream tea time. At 4.30 we started the first workshop, exploring what the words of the theme mean. We didn’t do any writing in that workshop, but Kim set us a task to work on in our own time: to write a ‘meandering’ poem, one that wanders around its own country lanes to get to its point. I wrote mine in bed on Tuesday morning, early, while the sun rose over the sea. I wrote it with a pencil, in my notebook. I often write straight from the keyboard, but it’s difficult to meander at the keyboard, the inner editor is too close to the surface, so I wrote with a pencil, then typed it up on the MacBook.

Tuesday and Wednesday Carola and Kim ran workshops that involved reading and discussing poems and then writing poems inspired by our reading. On Tuesday, I wrote a couple of drafts that might become poems in the future; by Wednesday I was warming up, drafting poems with ambition, poems I could see making something of themselves. I wrote a poem about being lost in the book, in my case Alice in Wonderland.I like that draft already, not far to go to be complete. Thursday was a bit different. We had a discussion about Frank O’hara’s ‘personism’ style of poetry, a style that requires the intimacy of writing to one other, as you would in a letter or postcard. We read a lovely O’hara poem, ‘The Day Lady Died’, to illustrate his ‘personism’. Then we were sent into St. Ives to observe and write our own poems in the personist style. Hilary and I sat in a beach bar with a Rattler Cider, observing and taking notes. A woman digging like she meant it in a huge hole she’d made on the beach turned up in several of the poems. She was extraordinary, throwing spadefuls of sand behind her like a mad thing. I wrote my poem when I woke at 4.00 on Friday; it’s a productive time of day for me, and I have a poem I love. Yup, the woman in the hole is in there. It needs a bit more work, but it’s almost done.

As well as the workshops, we have been meeting daily in small groups to discuss and offer feedback on our early drafts. This was really useful. Sometimes you are too close to a poem, you can’t see its flaws. Of course, it’s your poem and you don’t have to act on the feedback, but at least you have your eyes opened and can implement the advice or not; you can act on some of the advice, all or none of it. On Friday morning we met as a whole group. We had to bring one poem from the week to read to the group and have it discussed and critiqued by the group. I took the poem I’d written at 4.00 a.m. and the feedback I received from the group was really useful. I’m quite excited about this poem.

Apart from the writing, there were readings organised for the evenings after dinner. Kim and Carola read from their work on Tuesday evening. Very different poets, their readings were wonderful. On Wednesday, Ann Gray came to read. Ann won the Poetry Business pamphlet competition in 2018; her pamphlet’s called I Wish I Had More Mothers(Smith Doorstop Books, 2018). So I had to buy that, get it signed, didn’t I? Ann read from her two collections and the pamphlet. On Thursday, course members read two poems each of their own work that they’d brought from home. I read a couple of my ‘alternative mothers’. On Friday we read a couple of poems we’d drafted from the week. These were good evenings, such a variety of poems from fourteen poets. And interesting to see how fourteen poets can come up with fourteen distinct solutions to the same prompt. It was fascinating to try to match the poems people read to the prompts from the week. The woman in the hole in the beach was a give-away in some of the poems; others were less easy to spot.

There has been free time in the afternoons to do the ‘holiday’ bit. Hilary and I walked into St. Ives two or three times, looked in the lovely shops, spent money we didn’t intend to spend on things we didn’t need but we wanted. I’m going home with four new tops, a skirt and two pairs of earrings I didn’t bring with me. On two visits to the town centre we were pooped on by seagulls and had to come back to the hotel for a shower before dinner, and to wash clothes that were bombarded. They keep telling me it’s lucky to be pooped on by a bird; perhaps I should buy a lottery ticket?

Yesterday, most of the poets went home after breakfast, but Hilary and I stayed an extra night. We went to the Healey’s cider farm, home of the Rattler cider, between Truro and Newquay. We took the bus to Truro then a taxi out to the cider farm. Oh my, the bus. We were abused by an old man for sitting in the seats reserved for ‘older passengers and those less able to stand’: we both have our own mobility issues, not that it’s his business. As he came down the bus to sit in a similar seat across the aisle, he said we shouldn’t be sitting there, we weren’t disabled. Hilary showed him her walking stick and he said a walking stick didn’t mean anything. He kept moaning on to the man next too him about us taking up the seats reserved for old folk—I’m 72 by the way—even though the man next to him looked about sixty, didn’t even have a walking stick and appeared able bodied. After a couple of minutes I said to him ‘excuse me, would you not talk about us, you know nothing about us.’ Bloody women, he snarled, so perhaps it was gender and not invisible disability that offended him. Bloody misogynist, we might have said but didn’t. The incident didn’t spoil our day. At the cider farm, we had a ride behind a tractor around the orchards; toured the production line and museum; tasted lots of samples; and had a complimentary pint of cider with our cream teas at the end of the tour. The taxi collected us at 3.00 p.m. and we took the relatively uneventful journey back to the hotel.

It was strange in the hotel last night, all the poets had gone and just Hilary and me left of our group. We felt a bit bereft until a lovely couple from London joined us at our table. We got to talking, and by the end of the meal, we’d sold them one of our books, so that was nice. Poetry is such a rewarding way to spend your time.

I’m going to give you a poem from the week, so naturally it’s an early draft. I don’t know if it will mature, if I’ll develop it or leave it as it is. Either way I’m not planning on sending it out to earn its keep any time soon. But it was fun to write. It’s a poem that addresses your own body directly, and I guess poems don’t come more intimate than that. Here’s mine:

Oh, Body

I’ll not give up on you
now you’re no longer pert.

He said my stretch marks were beautiful,
a poem on childbirth. Body, you and I both know

that’s bullshit. Poems are art and you, Body,
are science, a physiological record of degeneration.

You started to die the minute they cut
the umbilical cord. But dying, I’m pleased to say,

is a slow process. And long may it continue.
I’m sorry I didn’t always put you first:

I broke you, cut you, squeezed your feet
into too-tight shoes, soaked you in long hot baths.

On the whole, though, I think
we’re doing alright, Body, you and me.

Rachel Davies
April 2019

*insert smiley face emoji*

Last Sunday I worked like mad to get every aspect of the thesis finished. I think I’m happy with it, even though I know there is still work to do. In the afternoon, I sent this latest draft off to my team. Which is good because I’m off to St Ives with Hilary later today for a week of poetry in workshops run by Kim Moore and Carola Luther. I’m so excited, I actually started packing on Friday, which is a first for me; I’m a last minute packer normally. I copied Jean Sprackland into the email so she can have an idea how the creative interacts with the critical. It’s gone. I can relax again for a couple of weeks, I thought as I pressed send.

Wrong. I decided to fill the days following with finding out about presenting the thesis for submission. It requires a title page, obviously; but what does that look like? And what else will I need? I checked out a few theses available online to see what they contain. One, from Goldsmith’s College, had a title page, an abstract, an acknowledgements page, a list of contents. I searched the MMU website for the establishment minimum and couldn’t find anything at all; so I emailed the woman who is designated a point of contact for queries such as this. She sent me some good advice and a copy of the Post Graduate Research Handbook. How had this passed me by? It stands to reason there had to be one, but I didn’t give it a thought. I need a title page, an abstract and acknowledgement of any published work relating to the thesis. It was really useful; and especially, being a PDF file, the links in the handbook were clickable, so I found my way to a couple of MMU thesis abstracts. Then I started stressing all over again about academic language. It scares me. Some people are more than competent at it, I’m not.  So my problem on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday was how to describe my twenty thousand words and its related creative collection in 300 comprehensible but fairly scholarly words. In the end, I did what I always do: I just wrote it, in plain English. Writing is communication, so accessibility is the key for me. I wrote 300 words and sent it off to Hilary for comment. She has read the thesis. Twice, bless her. So she is best placed to assess whether the abstract correctly reflects the thesis. She said ‘yes it does; and I understood it!’ So, I’m buying her a Rattlers cider on the beach on Monday. I sent the abstract off to the team, with a view to discussing it at our next meeting. I can go to St Ives without taking the thesis and the angst it causes, not even virtually. It’s out of my head.  Hopefully I’ll have a relaxing break, eat scones, drink cider and write some brilliant poems—not necessarily in that order. Well, three out of four ain’t bad!

Yesterday I went to read at Saddleworth Literature Festival with Hilary. It was based at Saddleworth School in Uppermill this year. Hilary and I had an early afternoon slot. We met up on Tuesday to discuss our input over coffee. We planned to read from Some Mothers Do…kicking off with a couple of Tonia Bevins’s poems from the book; unfortunately Tonia died before she had chance to see her poems in print, so we always share some of her work whenever we read from the book. Then we planned to perform a duet on one of my poems, ‘Motherhood’ and one of Hilary’s, ‘Jean, the tree in the wood’. They’re poems with two voices so it makes sense to share the reading. We agreed a fifteen-minute slot to read our own work followed by a book signing at the end of the session. I charged up our little ‘Madonna’ mic in case we needed it; and spent a couple of days practising my reading in any spare time slots. I like to be prepared.

Suffice to say, Saddleworth Literary Festival is not one of the big ones. They’re still using banners from three years ago, with A4 paper alterations over old dates etc. We arrived at 12.45 for 1.00 p.m., got the room ready as we wanted it, had a complimentary cup of tea and waited. And waited. No-one came. No audience, no member of the organising committee to see if we had all we needed, or to welcome/introduce us. We waited until 1.30 and then we left. We should have been wary after that festival three years ago, but we decided to give it another go. One year of poor organisation is beginners’ bad luck. Two is incompetence. We won’t be accepting another invitation until they get some writers on the organising committee and access funding streams. We went to the local garden centre for a bite to eat and sat out in the lovely April sunshine. At least we enjoy each other’s company. *insert smiley face emoji*.

Lastly, the upfullness of a poem. I wrote this a couple of weeks ago at the Poets&Players workshop run by Mark Pajak. We talked a lot about how poems resemble jokes, in that poems, like jokes, have a ‘set-up’ and a ‘punchline’. The only writing activity on the day was the last activity before lunch. Mark gave us a list of poetry ‘punchlines’ and asked us to write a poem towards one of them. I chose the first punchline on the list, it spoke to me straight away. As a child I had this headful of truly unruly curls—I still do. Not smooth, Shirley Temple curls, more like an explosion in a wire wool factory. It’s why I keep my hair very short now: I have to show it who’s boss around here. Anyway, you’ll understand how much I hated my hair when I tell you I always wanted to have long, straight, blonde hair, kink-free and Swedish looking, the very opposite of my own mane. At grammar school there was a boy in my class, Peter, I really fancied him. I got my mum to let me go for a shampoo and set, as it was called then: your hair pulled tight onto rollers to tame it and shape it. I felt like the bee’s knees when I came out, my hair was constrained! In school on Monday morning, Peter Brock—yes I’ll name and shame him—asked me if the crows had left the nest.  I was mortified! Anyway, the first punchline on the list was ‘I tried it on, of course/but no.’ I don’t know the original source of the quote, but it was a give away for this true story. Here’s the poem:

 

Hair

Mine
an explosion of black
Afro unruly
filling the house like a mattress
butting jokes about crows and nests
untameable
making school photos manic.

Kathleen Kilsby’s
blonde
smooth as snow on the piste
silver silk
spinning down her back
weaving me jealous.

Years later
Westgate House Department Store
hair pieces, extensions
toupés and full wigs, then
the complete blonde Kilsby,
the hair she crushed me behind the door for
when hair was given out.

I felt it, smelt it, drooled over it,
tried it on, of course,

but
no.

Rachel Davies
March 2019