Lovely flowers, a gift from my daughter and sons
This week has been all about the viva. ‘Viva voce’ literally translates as ‘living voice’: a viva is an oral examination, an examination of the thesis in ‘the living voice’, i.e. orally. An interview. I didn’t enjoy interviews when I was working, viewed them as a necessary evil; and I wasn’t looking forward to this one. But I had an email from MMU, about the viva, seeking my permission for observers to be present. I declined: being ever so slightly interview-phobic, it’s enough to have people in the room who are required to be there. However, the email also had some useful information about the viva: there was a series of videos about a woman who had been through the viva, always ending with her being presented with her degree at the summer ceremony. I have been trying that visualisation thing this week, seeing myself walking confidently into the viva, seeing myself relaxed and answering the questions with a degree of authority; seeing myself in the bonnet and gown. So not only was the content of the videos useful, I could visualise myself as successful, receiving my degree next summer; just the viva left to negotiate. There was also a link to a set of the ’40 most commonly asked viva questions’ in the email. I clicked the link and printed off the questions. I spent a couple of days working through them. They were very open-ended: ‘What about your thesis do you consider to be its strengths?’; ‘Where is it weakest?; ‘Why did you choose this particular subject for you research?’; ‘Why do you think we should give you a PhD?’: that kind of openness. I enjoyed responding to the questions and they certainly concentrated the mind. If the actual viva had that form of open question, I felt I would be OK.
On Thursday evening, the evening before the viva, I went with Hilary to Didsbury for The Other, a reading event where you swap writing with a partner and read each other’s work to the audience. I was paired with Louise Finnegan, who is a teacher in Manchester. She’d sent me two prose pieces to choose from, extracts from novels she’s writing. I chose to read the piece about a young boy and one of those supermarket rides, a spaceship, his dad has brought home for him. It read like a short story, so it felt complete even though it was an extract. The other piece had a sexual scene in it, delicately written, but as I said at the reading, I don’t do sex in public! I sent Louise a set of seven poems: the Whittlesey Wash poem I wrote recently—I wanted to hear how it sounded in the reading—and a selection of my alternative mothers. Hilary and I travelled to Didsbury on the tram: I love Metrolink. We passed a Lebanese restaurant on the way to the Metropolitan, the venue for the reading; so we had a lovely Lebanese meal before we read. Michael Conley was the MC for the event: another MMU MA graduate. It was a good night, some interesting writing, and my poems were the last to be read, so the audience was left with them ringing in their ears at the end of the night, which was lovely. I received very positive feedback, just what I needed before the viva. And the event was just what I needed too, a diversion: it took my mind off the viva for those few hours.
On Friday I went about my normal Friday business: I always call in to the Black Ladd to cash up the tills for Amie’s business on a Friday, so we did this as usual. We, Bill and I, went in to Manchester, had a coffee and a disgustingly sweet cake in Costa. I left Bill at the Art Gallery and walked along Oxford Road to Allsaints Campus and the Righton Building, the venue for the viva. I was directed upstairs to Room 1.12. The viva was at 1.00 p.m. so I had about ten minutes to spare to catch my breath before I was called into the room by Dr Nikolai Duffy, who chaired the meeting. The viva panel was comprised of Prof Michael Symmons Roberts, internal examiner: yes Michael Symmons Roberts the wonderful poet, whom I know quite well from Poets and Players and from doing my annual reviews during the PhD process; and Dr Ursula Hurley from Salford Uni, the external examiner. I had sought her out on the internet during the week and read some of her work, an article, ‘Fail again, fail better’, about process versus product learning in higher education, which I’d found really interesting. I shook hands all round and we were underway. The first question was open: ‘why did you want to do the PhD’. It was just what I needed to settle the nerves. Other questions were more directly related to aspects of the thesis itself, questioning research decisions and findings; questioning my rationale behind choices I’d made or conclusions I’d come to; finally asking me about the creative element, which they felt was a strong set of poems: how did I come to write the poems, the process, my poetics and working methods. The viva took an hour and a half altogether, but the time seemed to fly. I think I answered some questions more lucidly than others, but I was happy that I had defended the thesis to the best of my ability. I went for a coffee while the panel discussed the viva and drew conclusions. I read through the poems while I had my coffee, to take my mind off the wait. Nikolai came to find me in the Business School café when the deliberations were over. We walked back to Room 1.12 together and he was so lovely, chatting away to dispel the nerves. He asked after Hilary, whose poetry he supervised during her MA. I took a deep breath as I walked into the room, hoping for the best, preparing for the worst. I took my seat at the table. I noticed a tray of cakes and fruit in the centre of the table that hadn’t been there during the viva. I looked at Dr Hurley. ‘Congratulations’, she said and I knew I’d passed. That one little word knocked the breath out of my lungs, I could have cried but I didn’t have the breath even to cry. Nikolai explained that the decision had been ‘Pass, but with minor revisions to the text.’ This is one of the levels of pass: typos to correct, minor revisions, rewrites of a section, rewrites of the whole thing then resubmission. So I was happy with ‘minor revisions’. Nikolai offered to read out what the revisions were, but my brain was mousse by then so I asked him not to, I’d look when my brain was more accepting. I’d passed, that was the only thought that was going to find space in my head for the next hour! They called me Dr Davies and shook my hand, congratulated me, explained the process for the revisions and it was over. I left the room.
I rang Bill at the Gallery, I rang Amie at the Black Ladd, I rang Hilary; but I knew I wasn’t being particularly coherent. ‘I did it!’ was about all I could manage. I rang Jean Sprackland, supervisor of the creative element, and left a message on her answerphone. I got the bus along Oxford St. to the Art Gallery to find Bill. I’d meant to walk, but I had all three copies of the thesis in my bag, complete with the panel’s evaluation notes, so I took the bus. We, Bill and I, went to Don Giovanni for a late lunch, early evening meal: it was about 4.30 by now. I ordered a bucket full of the coldest, driest white wine in the house. I’d earned it! Jean rang me back while we were in the restaurant and it was good to speak to her; particularly satisfying to be able to tell her they thought the poems were strong. Her support has been fundamental to the creative aspect. We agreed to meet up soon for coffee and cake.
We called in at the Black Ladd on the way home. Amie gave me a great big hug, which was lovely; she also gave me a beautiful bouquet of flowers, the bouquet in the photo at the top of this blog post, from her and my two sons. She’d ordered them before the viva, because she said she knew I’d do it. Bless her, she’s a diamond. She also gave me a bottle of Chablis to celebrate with Bill when we got home. We did celebrate. And we celebrated again on Saturday when we went out for a lovely meal which we accompanied with a bottle of Moët. ‘Doctors always drink Moët,’ I joked, ‘it’s the law.’
So that’s it, the culmination of five years of hard work. There were times I didn’t think I’d do it, times I came close to giving up. I remember after the very first induction meeting when I began the PhD, how it felt as if a huge chasm had opened up in front of me and I had no idea how I would negotiate a path to the other side. The PhD was a destination and I had to find the map. Of course, as I started the work I realised it wasn’t a destination at all, it was a journey. It was hard, the hardest thing I’ve ever done. There were times I genuinely questioned whether I’d bitten off more than I could chew. I remember saying to a poet friend who is also doing the PhD at MMU that I really didn’t know if I’d get a PhD at the end of it, but I was enjoying the work. ‘Don’t worry about it Rachel,’ she’d said, ‘if they don’t give you a PhD they’ll give you an MPhil or something. They won’t let you leave empty-handed.’ That made me smile, seeing MPhil as a substitute, an academic wooden spoon; because somewhere students are beavering away to achieve just that. But MPhil just wouldn’t have cut it for me, it would have felt like failure. PhD or nothing was where I was at. And now I have a PhD. I rewrote my writer’s biographical statement yesterday, in preparation for the Dragon Spawn reading next Wednesday. For the first time, I’ll be introduced as Dr Rachel Davies. What a perfect prize is that!
I suppose I’ll have to think of a different tag line for the blog now; well soon, anyway. I still have the ‘minor revisions’ to tackle: I’ll be checking them out later today. I have four months to complete them, although I hope it won’t take that long. And there is always the degree ceremony and its attendant celebration; and that delightful Tudor bonnet and fur edged gown. Bring it on!
I’m going to leave you with a poem from the thesis collection; this is one Dr Hurley commented that she particularly liked, so this is for her. I wrote it at a Poets&Players workshop, I can’t remember if it was the one run by Ian Duhig or Steve Ely, but the essence of the workshop was a Meredith Frampling painting, ‘A Game of Patience’. This is the poem I wrote from the painting.
The Patience of Persephone
After ‘A Game of Patience’ by Meredith Frampling
She waits for six months in a year
then waits again for six.
She can’t have what she most desires,
that lost part of herself. Listen!
That’s her rummaging upstairs,
another fruitless search in the loft.
I sense the black king’s impatient
for his alabaster maiden, his ice queen.
From reaping to sowing he thinks he can thaw me
with his red hot pomegranate flesh,
his spiked wine.
He blows on my neck but I don’t melt.
So he waits all over again, from sowing to reaping.
I know it’s time to decide:
the corn’s threshed, the straw’s stacked
but I’ll finish my game.
This card says go — you owe him.
That card says stay — you owe her.
It’s all one to me — it seems like
nothing’s owed to me.
But, sod it,
my patience wears thin!