Monthly Archives: May 2019

The final hand-over

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I handed this beauty in to MMU for assessment this week. On Tuesday, first thing, I submitted a digital version of the thesis and signed the RDDEC form to say it was all my own work etc. Then I went into Manchester and took the long walk to the bookbinders on Higher Cambridge Street. It was hot and I was tired. I called into MMU on my way back to hand it over. I had an attack of the usual angst I feel when I’ve had to fill in an official form: for some reason official forms always make me feel like a liar. RDDEC had several tick boxes, including that no part of the thesis had previously been published; or if it had, that the published part should be included in a pocket in the thesis. I took this to mean publication in academic journals, so I ticked ‘no’. But as I was travelling into Manchester on the tram I realised that several of the poems had been published, and an article had appeared in The North that was inspired by the thesis, although was not directly part of it. So the old proforma angst pecked my head again: had I lied on the form? Should I dob myself in? I couldn’t edit the form now I’d signed it off. So I spoke to the wonderful Deborah, who deals with all the queries about Post Graduate Research degrees. I’d included all my publication history in an acknowledgements page; would my reply on the form be an issue? She assured me it would be fine and not to worry. Not to worry? I always worry about official forms. I suffer from proformaphobia. After our phone conversation, I met her in the foyer of the Righton Building and handed over two copies of the thesis. It was lovely to meet her in the real world, we’ve met in the virtual world of email so many times over the last four years. She promised to look after my baby and make sure it gets to the official rendezvous with assessors. I’ll hear from my DoS about a date for the viva in about eight to ten weeks.

 I left the MMU campus and walked into Manchester. I needed to go to the Pen Shop for cartridges for my fountain pen. When I got there, the shop was closed with notices in the window about letting queries. I am bereft! This was one of my favourite shops, a real old-style store with the most beautiful pens available. I treated myself to a Mont Blanc fountain pen when I was awarded a distinction in my Creative Writing MA: a treat to myself. I know, most people would have treated themselves to a holiday, or a day in a health spa, or a bottle of champagne. I just love stationery. My son had given me a Mont Blanc ball point for Christmas some years ago, and I promised myself when I started the MA that if I managed a distinction, I would buy myself the fountain pen to go with it. I did, and I did. My partner bought me the mechanical pencil to match, and a leather pouch to put them all in for my birthday, which was about the same time. So I used to love to go into the Pen Shop to buy my cartridges and drool over all the beautiful, and reassuringly expensive, pens they had for sale. And now it’s gone. There’s still one in the Trafford Centre as far as I know, but the one in town is closed. It’s a sad day for pen lovers. The next day I ordered eight packs of cartridges from www.penshop.co.uk  and they arrived the next day. Delivery was free. How’s that for brilliant service? Anyway, I walked from the Pen Shop to Exchange Square where I had lunch al fresco at Wahaca. I sat in the warm sunshine with a glass of wine and a quesadilla, celebrating the official hand-over of my work for assessment.

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Me, reading at the Square Chapel, Halifax on Monday this week.
(photo courtesy of Hilary Robinson)

Poetry has been big in my life this week. On Monday evening Hilary and I went to Halifax to read at Square Chapel poets, hosted by the irrepressible Keith Hutson. Strange discovery: people in Halifax don’t eat on a Monday. Or at least that’s how it seemed: every restaurant we passed was closed on Mondays; until we found a lovely little Italian restaurant, Julio’s, down a side road. We had a lovely meal and a glass of Pinot Grigio before our reading. Ian Walker, another MMU creative writing MA graduate, was also reading. It was a lovely evening. I treated the audience to some of my ‘alternative mothers’. Of course, Hilary and I both read from Tonia Bevin’s poems in Some Mothers Do…as well as reading some of our own. It was a small audience, but an appreciative one. We sold a copy of our book.

‘Life’ has been large this week, with the thesis gone. On Wednesday we went to Stamford, Lincolnshire to visit my sister. Stamford is the town they often film period dramas in for the television. It is a Georgian-style stone-built town, you’ve probably seen it in televisual adaptations of Jane Austen novels. Anyway, it was Jane’s birthday last week, so we met for lunch to wish her a belated happy birthday. I was tied up with prepping the thesis for submission around her actual birthday. We had a lovely day and a lovely lunch. On the way home I picked up a nail in my rear driver’s side tyre. I didn’t realise until I wanted to go out the next day and the tyre was pancake flat. I drove it carefully to the nearest garage and had it replaced. The mechanic, Danny, said he could have repaired it, but because I’d been driving on it flat, I had damaged the wall of the tyre and weakened it. That must have been when I was driving home from Stamford because the garage was only a couple of miles from home, and I don’t think driving that short distance would have done the damage. I hadn’t felt the flat tyre in my driving at all. Apparently that’s the way with modern tyres. I remember the first time I drove on a flat tyre, when I was a newly qualified driver a lifetime ago. The steering felt heavy, difficult to control. But it was snowing at the time and I’d blamed the snow. My husband wasn’t pleased when he knew I’d driven home on a flat. But on Wednesday I didn’t feel a thing. So, on Thursday I needed a replacement tyre. I also asked Danny to replace the front tyre that had an advisory notice at MOT, so I had to fork out for two new tyres. Not too bad, actually; less than I’d feared.

On Saturday I collected Hilary at lunchtime and we drove to Coniston for our annual Line Break writing week. We started out six years ago with four poet friends going away together. Then there were five of us. Over the years a couple of friends have moved on. Last year there were three of us. This year Polly couldn’t make it, so it’s just Hilary and me. We feel like a story line in an Agatha Christie: ‘and then there were two’. So I’m writing this from my bed in a cottage in Coniston. It’s a nice cottage, quiet location almost next door to the pub, an Indian restaurant across the road. What’s not to like? Later today we’ll be writing and planning the various writing workshops and readings we have coming up in June. We’ve brought lots of old notebooks to go through looking for poetic gems that have fallen by the wayside. A poet’s life, eh! It’s all go.

So, a poem. This is a poem I wrote in one of Carola Luther’s workshops in St. Ives in April. We were asked to think of a significant event from our lives and write about it, incorporating a repeating image. I took the image of the python to describe the road and the hedgerows snaking away, and Ann Cowling’s long legs. It is also the image of the pain of a fractured skull, a python crushing my head. This actually happened when I was nine years old. My head hit the road, I was knocked unconscious and I spent five days in hospital. What we didn’t know at the time was that it also knocked the three little bones of the inner ear out of sync, so that the hearing was impaired in my right ear. That wasn’t discovered until I was sixteen. No treatment, no use of hearing aids. Only delicate surgery would repair the damage, and as long as I can cope with sharp hearing in the left ear, it’s best left alone. Mostly it’s fine. Sometimes I mishear things, which can be amusing; like the time a friend told me about her ‘everlasting’ bra. That seemed like a good buy, so I asked her where she got it. ‘Ethel Austin,’ she said. ‘I just told you!’

Anyway, here it is, ‘Python’:

 Python

The road snakes away, a python
slithering from the village to Brownlow’s corner.
Red, or rust really, its skin
leaks molten tar on hot days.

The hedgerows are wild, untamed—
also python, their skins shedding regularly
from brown through green, white with May,
the red spots of autumn’s bounty.

Fact: Ann Cowling can run. Her legs
are python too, long and strong.
On that day I was tuned out from sound
she pushed me on the scooter until
her feet ran away with her,
her hands let go the handlebars.

I know the feeling of a scooter’s wobble,
the panic just before the fall. I know
the weird sense of being at my own front door
unsure how I got there. I know the pain of a skull
being crushed by a giant constricting snake.

Rachel Davies
April 2019

Nothing if not feisty

I did it. On Sunday I printed off a copy of the thesis, poems included. I sat in my study going through it with a nit comb, looking for typos and grammatical errors. I found a fair few. I don’t see them when I read on screen, they’re so much easier to spot on paper. I worked on it all day. Correcting errors in some of the poems led to a bit of editing; one poem that I’ve never been entirely sure about I re-drafted completely. I worked on it all day Sunday and again on Tuesday. By the end of Tuesday it was finished. I saved it on the USB drive, put it safely in my purse and felt free. And a bit sad. But mostly unbelievably released. Since Wednesday I’ve been practising life beyond PhD.

On Wednesday, I took the thesis into Manchester to the bookbinders, ready for the final submission to MMU for assessment. I’d saved it to the USB drive as a Word document. When I eventually got to the front of a very long queue—it’s the summer term, lots of students having theses/dissertations bound for assessment—the girl said I should have saved it as PDF file: Word files can reformat on different computers. She said I could check on one of the computers at the back of the room to see if the formatting had changed. If it had I would need to save it as PDF on the computer I had it stored on, my own computer. When I checked, it looked OK; except now it ended on p. 168: the contents list ended on p. 167, so somewhere it had acquired an extra page. And here goes Sisyphus again, pushing that rock. Luckily I’d had the foresight to take my MacBook with me, so I sat in the bookbinder’s waiting area, resaving the thesis on my MacBook as a PDF file. I promoted myself to the front of the queue when I’d done and the girl saved the file on the shop’s computer. I’ve ordered three copies in black buckram binding with gold lettering. They’ll be ready to collect on Tuesday coming, when I’ll take it to MMU, along with the USB stick and submit the work for assessment.

There have been days in the last four years when I didn’t think I’d get to this point. At times the job has seemed too big, like the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s been a long and difficult journey but I’ve reached the end; well, almost: I still have to submit it successfully; and I have the final assessment about twelve weeks from now. But the reading, writing, editing, redrafting, rewriting, revisiting, re-rewriting, re-re-re-editing is done. I am done. Bill and I went for lunch to celebrate after I’d dropped it off for binding.

In other news, my iPad cover split this week along its magnetic strip. I tried unsuccessfully to glue it back together, so while I was in Manchester on Wednesday I called in at the Apple store to buy a replacement. So now I’m £45 poorer, but I have a lovely new, bright red cover for my iPad. It’s almost like having a new iPad. Except cheaper. This is how I rationalise spending a massive £45 for the new cover: a new iPad would have cost considerably more. And it looks new. So…

Friends keep asking me what I’ll do now the PhD is nearly done. When I say ‘nothing’ they don’t believe me. ‘You’ll do something,’ they say. ‘You’ll sign up for another degree before long.’ NO. I won’t. I’ve reached the summit of my personal Everest, I have nothing left to prove. So for the rest of this week I’ve been thinking about what I will do post-PhD. And the first thing, the thing I promised myself all along, is to give the house a jolly good spring clean. Something has to go when you do a PhD; the time commitment means you can’t keep doing exactly the same stuff as you did before you started. I was determined poetry wouldn’t suffer: what would be the point of doing a PhD in poetry if poetry was going to be the thing to miss out. So the thing to go had to be some other aspect of my life. Housework was number one on the list. I’ve done some, obviously. Practically, it’s hard to see how you could do none at all for four years. In return for me doing her business paperwork, Amie pays for a cleaner to come in for a couple of hours a week. She concentrates on the lounge, kitchen, bathroom etc. And that’s wonderful, a load off… But the house hasn’t had a really deep clean for four years. This week I’ve put together a plan of attack, one room at a time. I’m going to be starting with the kitchen, cleaning out cupboards, chucking stuff that’s out of date, sending surplus plates, dishes etc. to the charity shops. I’ll start when I come back from Coniston towards the end of May. It’s been four years: I’m in no hurry to get started. This week, before I go to Coniston, I’ll finish putting together my plan of attack. It’s almost doing the work. Nearly. Planning is an important stage, after all. Isn’t it?

On Saturday I came south to Peterborough with Amie. We came to visit my son Richard and a friend, Maria. We all went to Hunstanton, a Norfolk seaside town, yesterday. The weather was lovely, clear blue skies and hardly a cloud, just one or two, low down near the horizon. We went to an amusement arcade and spent too many 2p coins on those machines that push coins and prizes off down the shoot, if you place your coin in exactly the right spot. Which of course, you rarely do. I did win a few coins—extra goes on the machine—and a tiny stick of Hunstanton rock. I also had a couple of spins on the wheel of fortune. I won 500 and then 1000 prize tokens. A little boy was watching me collect the 1000 tokens, his eyes were saucers: it did look an impressive amount of tickets spewing out of the machine. He asked his mum if he could have a go. I saw him a few minutes later. He was so excited: he’d also won 1000 tokens. I was happy for him. We changed our tokens for a magic set, including a top hat. We went to a fish and chip café for tea, and Richard entertained us with magic tricks while we waited for our meals. Were we impressed? Don’t give up your day job, son!

So I’m writing this from a hotel room in the Great Northern Hotel in Peterborough. It’s a three-star listing, same as the Britannia Hilary and I stayed in in Birmingham in February; but it’s as different from that Birmingham hotel as Christmas cake is from dry bread. I have a huge bed, a long, long desk area; there’s a sitting area near the window; there’s a bath and shower that I’m fairly confident won’t flood the rest of the hotel room. The décor is lovely. This is what a three star hotel looks like in the real world: the Britannia was definitely from an alternative universe. Richard and Maria are meeting us here for breakfast at 9.00 a.m.

In other news, we heard from Kei Miller this week, with the entry codes and titles of the winning poems for the Poets&Players annual competition. Kei was late sending the results, and has had to pull out of the celebration event for personal reasons; which is really sad, because sharing the stage to perform your work alongside a leading big-name poet is part of the prize; but it can’t be helped, these things happen. With only one week to go before the event, we didn’t see how we could find a suitable replacement in time for the event on the 18th; so we’ve been forced to cancel, with apologies to our winning poets and our regular audience. The names of the poets and their winning poems will be on our website by Saturday May 18th, so watch out for news: https://poetsandplayers.co/competition/competition-2019/We’re planning to incorporate the winning poets/poems into our next event, which will be on September 21st. I’ll post details nearer the time. In the meantime, please pass on news of the cancellation of Saturday’s event. The workshop with Keith Hutson will still be going ahead in the morning, so if you were planning to come to that, please do. I believe there are still one or two places left on the workshop if anyone else wants to come. And the P&P committee will be having a lunchtime meeting in the Whitworth café to discuss the rest of this year’s programme so if you’re coming to our workshop we might see you there.

Lastly, huge congratulations to Simon Armitage, who was revealed this week as the new Poet Laureate, taking the baton from Carol Ann Duffy. Simon was also one of my tutors when I did the MA in Creative Writing at MMU a few years back. I know he’ll be a great successor to Carol Ann, who has done a wonderful job in promoting poetry at grass roots level, making poetry an accessible art form. I know Simon will do a great job in carrying that particular baton.

I’m getting a real taste for life after PhD. In the old cliché, this is the first week of the rest of my life. So far it’s pretty satisfying.

A poem. It’s one of my ‘Alternative Mothers’: a favourite of mine from literature, Chaucer’s ‘Wife of Bath’. When I wrote this I intended to invent a feisty daughter for a feisty mother: the Wife of Bath is nothing if not feisty. But as I wrote the poem, the daughter came through as really bitter and abandoned. Robert Frost said something about if there was no surprise for the writer, there’d be no surprise for the reader. This poem was a surprise to its writer from the outset. I feel so sorry for this abandoned daughter, living out her life in a convent, cut off from society, an embarrassment and a shame to be hidden away. I love the Wife of Bath; but she’d have made a hellish and selfish alternative mother, I think.

 

Alternative Mother #3
Alysoun, Wife of Bath

I’m your secret but not your shame,
clearly. You had me in this motherhouse
when you were just a girl. Now I’m
your skeleton closeted in a catacomb

and you’re married off, no questions asked,
to some old bloke firing blanks, so no more
birthing cramps for you, no heirs to share

the takings and I’m stuck here
suffocating for your sin while you take
your choicest quoniam to the market place,
making sure your remedies for love bring
no more secrets. It’s just me then, enduring

 

Vigils,                         Lauds,                       Nones,

Vespers,                                Compline,

 

The Great Silence.


Rachel Davies
2018

 

choicest quoniam’= a woman’s sexual organs. A modern derivative might possibly be ‘quim’.

 

I might just have a cheeky beer

This week, on Tuesday, I met my support team for the last time. I caught the tram into Manchester. I was early, I had time for a coffee on the way to MMU. I called into Java near Oxford Rd. Station, read the anonymous submissions for the Stanza meeting while I drank my coffee, making notes on the poems as I read. After coffee, I walked on to the university. I was still a few minutes early so I sat in All Saints Park in the sunshine, winding the clock down. A woman came and sat beside me: her daughter was resitting an exam and she — the mum — was feeling nervous. She was having a cheeky beer while she waited. ‘I’m sixty-five,’ she said, ‘I don’t care what people think any more.’ We talked while we both waited, then just before 2.00, I left her and her tinny to go to my meeting.

We discussed my redrafted thesis, the one I’d reorganised under sub-headings. To cut a long story short, the redraft works well on the whole. We went through it together: there were still a few minor edits, but altogether it’s ready for submission. Phew! The news I was hoping for, as I only have a couple of weeks to spare and I still have to arrange to have it bound. We talked about submission, about the viva voce, about the final process. And then it was over: my last meeting with the team: sad and wonderful. I gave them both a hug as I left: I couldn’t have got through the work without them.  I’m really on the home straight now. I left there and treated myself to another coffee. I thought it might have involved cake, but I still have plenty of St. Ives fat to get rid of, so I settled for a pot of fruit instead. Oh Lord, sometimes I’m just too sensible.

So, on the PhD front, the rest of the week has been all about doing those last minute edits suggested by the team. I decided to get on with it straight away: the sooner started, the sooner it will all be over. So on Wednesday I got down to work at about 8.30 a.m., going through the advice on the redrafted thesis, addressing the team’s suggestions. I worked till about 10.45 then stopped for a brew. When I came back to work half an hour later, MacBook had had some kind of psychotic incident. It was frozen. I rebooted it, it was fine. Except all the edits I’d done on the thesis before the break were lost. When the document was recovered, it was as it had been before the work I’d put in in the morning, proof if you need it that I am Sisyphus. I keep pushing that boulder uphill; and down it rolls again. So, after having my own minor meltdown, on I pushed, redoing all the work I’d already done once, and by lunchtime all the minor edits suggested by the team were finished. After lunch I worked on the poems, revisited a couple I was less happy with. I took out two of the poems I’d added since St. Ives: Jean felt the ink was still too wet on the page, they weren’t quite ready to earn their space; and anyway, she said, you should keep them back because you’ll need a couple of poems to work on after you submit. The creative stream might slow to a dribble; I know from doing my MA that it happens. So I took them out: it doesn’t take a genius to work out that this led to more contents page rejigging. I keep pushing that rock! By the end of Wednesday, I had only the contents to re-re-re-edit, and the footnotes to revisit. I saved the work and left it for the day. I came back to it on Saturday morning. I re-did the contents, went through the footnotes with a nit comb, checked through the whole document for those annoying little wriggly red and green lines that the grammar/spell check puts under perceived — usually American-style — errors. By lunchtime I was happy with it. Later today I’ll be printing out a full version, poems and all, and reading it through closely to check for errors the spell/grammar check didn’t spot. And then…I might just have a cheeky beer myself.

I rang the book-binding shop this week, I’ve arranged to take the thesis in this coming Wednesday to have it buckram bound, ready for submission. I’ll have it back the week after, when I’ll take it straight to MMU for the final submission. Yes, I know I said I’d be glad to see the back of it. I may have lied. It’s a huge responsibility to send your offspring out into the world to earn their living. I’m having empty-nest syndrome already, and it hasn’t even left home yet.

In other news: poetry. I sent out the anonymous poems to my stanza poets last weekend, ready for the meeting on Tuesday. There were some seriously good poems in the set this month. I hadn’t had time to read them properly until I was having my coffee in Java: the week had been dominated by preparing for the PhD meeting. But I did read them, and make notes for discussion at the meeting. There were six of us in a rather crowded Buffet Bar. I book the small room at the end of the corridor for our meeting. There were two groups of drinkers in there when I arrived. I told them we had the room booked from 7.30, that we’d be discussing poetry. A man at one of the tables said, ‘that’s OK, we won’t mind, we’ll be talking. You won’t disturb us.’ Erm! It was one of those surreal moments. They stayed: to be fair the Buffet Bar was so full I don’t think there was anywhere else for them to go; but we had to discuss our poems against a back-drop of (rather loud) conversation. He was right: we didn’t disturb his conversation. I wish I could say his conversation didn’t disturb our poems.

On Thursday I met Hilary for lunch: we were planning our Line Break week in Coniston. We go straight after the Poets&Players competition celebration event on the 18th. We’ll be planning for a couple of writing workshops we’re leading in June; doing some writing of our own; working on a commissioned poem for Lydgate Stitchers, a poem to go with a lovely mural they’re sewing to commemorate the development of Lydgate as a village. We planned meals, prepared an online shopping list, decided what we need to pack for writing and cooking while we’re away. We’re planning a visit to Leighton Moss bird reserve, a boat trip on one of the Lakes—don’t mind which one, although Ullswater is a distinct possibility. We’re going to visit Long Meg and Her Daughters, an ancient stone circle near Keswick—we’ve both written poems about them—and a working flourmill close by. Of course, everywhere we go, our notebooks will go with us. We’ll have a productive week.

Lastly, I sent some poems out to earn their bread. I sent to the Battered Moons competition: I had a poem commended in this competition a couple of years ago, so I thought I’d give it another go. I also sent to a pamphlet competition, a set of twenty poems. This one is a highly competitive competition, so I don’t have great expectations of winning. But as the old Lottery ad used to say, ‘you gotta be in it to win it.’ I heard I was long-listed in the Cinnamon pamphlet competition, so the poems are close to getting themselves noticed. I’ll keep chipping away: one day they’ll make publication as a book.

And so, a PhD poem. I’m going to give you the first poem I ever wrote for the PhD collection, way back in 2016, when I was just starting out. It’s about making butter. I grew up on a farm in the Fens, and we sometimes used to make butter, more for our own use than for sale, I think. Looking back, it was probably still in the time of post-war rationing; I suppose I could Google this to be sure? The job for my sisters and me was to turn the handle on the churn. When our arm got tired, we passed it on to the next older sister in the line, until the cream eventually turned to butter. Mum’s job was to take the butter from the churn and knock it into shape—literally—on a cold board. I’ve posted a version of this one before I think; but this is the polished version, ready to go. I’m posting it as a celebration: the first poem to celebrate the end-game of the work.

 

Churning

See the churn, a pot-bellied pig on wood block feet
scrubbed, sterilized, the iron handle fixed to paddles.

It has the sickly smell of breast fed babies. Now,
hear the cream shushing like a tide as the handle

turns the paddles. Enthusiasm becomes effort
in the sweat and ache of cream thickening.

Pass the handle to the next sibling in line, up to Big Sis
the alchemist who churns base cream into gold.

Watch the ceremonial handing over of butter to mother
to knock into shape with wooden pats on a cold board,

see the magic of that emerging image of yellow, rolled, ridged
its wheatsheaf or thistle print, its bold statement of luxury.

Rachel Davies
2016