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

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