Monthly Archives: October 2019

A great big poetry barmcake

This week ended as it began: with poetry. Poetry sprang up in the middle too. Oh, where would my life be without a poetry sandwich?

On Sunday I was still in Swindon with my ‘poetry twin’, Hilary Robinson. in the morning we went to writing workshops. Hilary had a workshop in the hotel with our poetry quiz team member, Zoe Brigley. They were looking at using letter-writing in poems. I walked over to the Richard Jeffries museum for a workshop exploring ‘play’, in the tent with the irrepressible Hilda Sheehan. Hilda is a one-off; she loves surrealism in poetry. On Sunday morning she had us making eye-contact with someone in the group and we had to move around the space without breaking eye contact with that one person. She had us dancing with someone, taking it in turns so you danced for a while then stopped in a pose while your partner danced for a while. It broke an Antarctica of ice. Next we stood in a circle; Hilda placed a random selection of items from the museum—not exhibits—on the floor in the middle. We were asked to choose an object from the collection and, without saying what the object was, we had to move like the object. I chose a hand whisk. The rest of the workshop was taken with the object becoming a persona in our writing. I called my whisk ‘Cynthia’. I wrote lines to describe Cynthia using surreal question prompts from Hilda; lastly I wrote a poem using some of the prompts and mixing it with facts about Cynthia, without ever mentioning that Cynthia was a whisk. That draft is still in my notebook, I haven’t done anything with it since I got home; but I might when I find myself at a loss…

After lunch on Sunday we all met in ‘The Tent Palace of the Delicious Air’ for a poetry reading by American poet Nuar Alsadir. Her poetry is challenging: she’s a neuroscientist in her day-job and she introduces the possibility of a fourth dimension in her work. She talks of ‘quantum entanglement’, the connection of everything to everything else in some meaningful way. She is fascinating to listen to; but it was very deep stuff for the end of a full-on weekend. After the reading, a bit of brain-ease, a different, less intense way of listening as Hilda interviewed her about her work. After a tea break there were readings by Elisabeth Bletsoe, whom I hadn’t heard of before but whose poetry was mesmerising. She writes about wild flowers and birds, plays on their Latin names, uses ancient facts about them. I didn’t completely understand all of her poetry but understanding isn’t necessary for poetry: her use of language is hypnotic. I could have listened to her all day. After Elisabeth, another wonderful reading, this time by Julia Copus. The Big Poetry Weekend is a small and intimate festival, but oh my, what huge poets they’d involved.

After our evening meal Hilary and I cracked open the Prosecco our team won in the poetry quiz. Zoe and Chaucer didn’t want any, so we did the polite thing and drank their share for them. The evening session, the last of the festival, saw the launch of Domestic Cherry 7. I have a poem in there, alongside Nuar Alsadir, Hilda Sheehan, Julia Webb, Sarah Leavesly; and Olivia Tuck, who is going to be a big name in the future of poetry: remember, you heard it here first. When I was finding out about Domestic Cherry, I discovered their blogspot: Barry and Mabel explaining it all. It has the stamp of Hilda’s surrealism all over it: Anyway, back to Sunday’s launch. Several of the poets in the journal read at the event. I read my ‘Spooning’ poem that’s in the journal, and I read ‘Code’ which isn’t. It’s the first time I’ve read this one to an audience. Hilary read a couple of poems, even though she missed the deadline for inclusion in Domestic Cherry. It was a whacky and wonderful launch: and Hilda wore her best frock.

Reading at the launch of Domestic Cherry 7, Sunday October 6th 2019

On Monday morning we packed up, checked out, had breakfast and went back to the Richard Jeffries museum for the feedback meeting and the long goodbye. It was lovely and sad in equal measure to be at the meeting giving input into the evaluation, which in turn will feed into the planning for next year. We will be back, Swindon. You are a ‘must return’.

On Tuesday I did the job at the Black Ladd, my daughter Amie’s restaurant, that I’d missed on Monday, so it was Wednesday before I could make a start on addressing the feedback on the ‘minor revisions’ that I received from my Director of Studies while I was away in Swindon. It looked on first glance like an amount of work, but in fact it wasn’t. As much as anything, it involved deleting irrelevances. So I tackled the feedback and then had the onerous task of checking footnotes, checking that publications mentioned in footnotes were referenced in the bibliography, checking that page numbers in the contents page matched the body of the work following the alterations. That all took me to a late lunchtime. I had some business to do with Amie in the afternoon, so I’ll be back at the revisions later today, checking secretarial bits one last time before I send it off to the examiners for, hopefully, a final read. There is a form to complete, obviously, which points the examiners to the changes without expecting them to reread the whole thing. So that’s today sorted. I hope it’s the last goodbye.

On Tuesday evening it was the double book launch of Rachel Mann’s debut collection of poetry, A Kingdom of Love (Manchester: Carcanet, 2019) and In the Bleak Midwinter: Advent and Christmas with Christina Rossetti (Canterbury Press, 2019), a collection of Rossetti’s poetry with commentary by Rachel Mann. I met Rachel when we were both enrolled for the MA in Creative Writing at MMU’s Writing School in 2007. Rachel completed her PhD last year, and A Kingdom of Love contains some of the poems she wrote for her PhD. Rachel is an Anglican priest, a Canon of the Church, and a fine poet; the launch was held in Manchester Cathedral.  Andrew Rudd, who replaced Rachel as Poet in Residence at the Cathedral a couple of years ago, introduced her to the audience: ‘Rachel Mann is so prolific she turns out about four books in the time it takes me to write one poem’. She read first from In the Bleak Midwinter; first an extract from Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ which I absolutely love, then she read the eponymous poem. Then the organist from her church accompanied one of her choristers in singing the poem as the carol we all know and love: my first carol service this year! Rachel read from her Carcanet collection next, a powerful and committed reading. Lastly she was interviewed by Michael Schmidt, editor of Carcanet Press: two great intellects meeting beneath the vaulted roof of Manchester Cathedral.

More poetry on Thursday evening: it was the first in the new series of People’s Poetry Lectures at the Principal in Manchester: Sean Borodale lecturing on Sylvia Plath. Hilary and I met up with Jean Sprackland for a celebratory drink prior to the lecture: Jean was the supervisor of the creative element of my PhD and we raised a glass of Prosecco to celebrate my successful viva result. Carol Ann Duffy, whose brainchild the People’s Poetry Lectures series is, came over to say hello and to congratulate me on the PhD as well. Evenings don’t get better than this. Sean’s lecture was interesting too: a sustained argument on the importance of bees, honey, beekeeping in Plath’s work, which he links to Otto Plath, Sylvia’s father, who was an expert on the honey/bumble bee. We all know the importance of ‘Daddy’ in Plath’s work, but it was interesting to have this new affirmation pointed out. Sean’s own first collection, Bee Journal (London: Random House, 2012), was inspired in some measure by Plath; I bought a copy and he signed it for me.

On Saturday I drove to Nantwich for a writing workshop with Mark Pajak, part of the Nantwich Words and Music Festival. I was separated from my poetry twin for the day: Hilary had an appointment she couldn’t get out of. Last time we went, a couple of years ago, I got a parking ticket for overstaying my welcome in the Asda car park. This time I found a car park that welcomed me for ten hours so I was safe. The workshop had us asking the ‘what if…’ question, conjoining two separate ideas in one poem: what if paths could ebb and flow like the sea; what if the timbers of a sunken ship could grow again into trees, that kind of thing. It was interesting. I don’t think I have any poems from it; none that I’m proud of at least; but I have a good prompt to think about, to inspire some poetry in the future. At lunchtime there was an impromptu performance of blues music on the piano while we ate lunch. There was also another poetry quiz. How many poetry quizzes can two women win in one week? Yes, Hilary had completed the quiz online as a guinea pig for Helen Kay, who organised the event; I completed the quiz in my lunch hour in Nantwich yesterday. We both got a winning score of 17.5 points, although scored on different questions: I didn’t know Hilary had done the quiz. It’s uncanny: I think we really are The Poetry Twins. We won a bottle of champagne to share. I think we’ll manage that. In the afternoon there was an open mic session; several talented amateur writers read at the event. I read a couple of poems from my PhD collection, then regretted my choice because I read a couple of ‘downers’ and I wished I’d been more upbeat. Most of my poetry is upbeat after all.

So the week began and ended with poetry festivals and there was poetry in the middle, a king sized poetry barmcake. I’m going to leave you with a poem I wrote for the PhD. It takes a line from a Syliva Plath poem, so that seems apposite this week. The line ‘Love set you going like a fat gold watch’ is from ‘Morning Song’, the poem she wrote on the birth of her daughter, Freda. You can find the Plath poem here: 

I took the first line of the poem to write a plea for the celebration of girl babies: in my family, boys were definitely favoured above girls, possibly because there was only one boy in a family of seven siblings. Here’s my poem, inspired by this first line:


How To Wind A Fat Gold Watch
After Sylvia Plath

Open yourself like a rose that welcomes the ladybird.
Open yourself like a rose that the ladybird will crawl into
then fold your petals around it like a womb.

Empty the lap of your life to make a beanbag soft seat
for a story. Share with her your own story,
the stories of your grandmothers.

Share with her those gifts your mother gave you,
teach her to pass down those gifts like heirlooms
to her daughters’ daughters.

Don’t look on her and see the years creeping like slugs
but see the pace and plot of her, how her story
is just beginning, how it needs a middle, an end.

Don’t look on her and see the tadpoles missing from your beck
but see her as the clear water of the beck trickling from you,
notice her laughing stream, her eddies, her rocks and banks,

their wildflowers and willows, their soaring larks.
Listen for the skylark’s aria. Notice her. Make sure
she notices you noticing her every day.

Rachel Davies

And the winners are…

Well, what a week this has been, full cream even by my exacting standards. PhD, poetry and life: all packed into seven incredible days. Revisions, poetry, prosecco and wildlife—about which more later. Sunday and Tuesday I worked on the revisions, drafting, redrafting, editing, chip-chip-chip. By Wednesday I had the four paragraphs—which had mysteriously grown into five pages—completed; at least, if I’d had more time, I’d probably have kept them a bit longer, let them marinade before I sent them off to the team; but time had run out for the week and I wanted them gone before I came away, so I emailed my DoS, attached the revisions and hit ‘send’ before I could change my mind. That’s it, gone. I had some useful feedback from him on Friday, which I’ll deal with next week and then: final submission. I won’t celebrate until it’s done, though.

On Thursday I was up early to pack a weekend case for Swindon. I’m here with Hilary Robinson for the Big Poetry Weekend. As I said, up early to pack: last minute as usual. At about 7.15 I heard a knock at the front door. When I opened it, a neighbour was there with something swaddled in a blanket. This neighbour has an old and infirm pug, and my initial thought was that said pug was in the blanket; but no. She pulled back the blanket to reveal the face of a beautiful tawny owl, big eyes blinking and semi-alert. It had flown into her window, she said and was just lying on the ground, not moving—although clearly not dead. She’d wrapped it in the blanket and come out to see if the neighbours could help, because she had to go to work. Having looked around Old Tame hamlet, she’d noticed my light on and knocked my door. Could I get help for the owl? Well, if I’m honest, that was the last thing I needed: I was still packing and I had to meet up with Hilary later in the morning; but she—the neighbour—was stressed and upset, so I put aside that uncharitable thought and that’s how I came to be carrying a swaddled tawny owl upstairs to our lounge. It weighed nothing, moved not at all. We put it into the pet carrier, partly for its own safety from our cats, partly because I didn’t want to have to try catching it if it did manage to rouse itself and start flying around. We needn’t have bothered about the cats: on smelling raptor in the house they were straight upstairs, hiding away in the study. I rang RSPB: a recorded message lectured me for five minutes on how not to behave if I found a nestling or fledgling bird. At last, the information I’d rung for: if you find an injured bird, contact your local vet. That’s it? Well, I know from recent experience with the cats that the local vet isn’t available until 8.00 a.m. and I still had packing to finish, so I left the bird in the carrier, in the lounge with Bill, and went upstairs and got the job done. Just before 8.00 I went downstairs to see the patient. It had woken up and was trying to stretch its wings in the confines of the pet carrier. When I went up close to the wire front to get a closer look, the five stilettos of its left foot lashed out and grabbed the wire front. Its eyes were pure threat. It was obviously stressed and frightened, so I took the carrier out to the patio to see if it could fly. Avoiding the deadly talons, I carefully unhooked the wire front from the pet carrier and the owl escaped at the first opportunity, flew over the beech hedge and down the lane: beautiful in flight, death on silent wings. I hope it survives its trauma. I finished packing, brought my luggage downstairs, had a cursory breakfast and left to collect Hilary. I couldn’t find my cats to say goodbye, though: they could still smell raptor and were keeping well away.

It took us about five hours with two coffee stops to get to Swindon: a seven mile section of the car park that is the M6 at Stafford took forty minutes to negotiate. We arrived at the hotel at about five o’clock, unpacked and went in search of wine. We bumped into Hilda Sheehan, one of the organisers of the Big Poetry Weekend, and she took us across the dual carriageway to the Richard Jeffries Museum, where most of the weekend’s action would take place. We had wine and supper then settled into the marquee, Hilda’s ‘Tent Palace of the Delicious Air’, the space where it all happens. Thursday evening involved readings by Michelle Diaz and Jinny Fisher, then an open mic: Hilary and I each read a poem; I read ‘Pope Joan’.

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Hilary and I reading at the Big Poetry Weekend open-mic
(photo courtesy of Mark Farley)

Friday morning we had a leisurely breakfast: we’d bought instant porridge and a punnet of strawberries at M&S food on the way back to the hotel on Thursday. We thought we’d do breakfast in our room, which is so not geared for it. The porridge was OK, just add boiling water. But have you ever tried hulling strawberries with a teaspoon? Exactly, but needs must.  After breakfast we walked to the bar for a proper coffee and spent an hour reading the papers. We walked over to the Richard Jeffries museum in time for lunch and the afternoon events. Kathy Gee was reading from her pamphlet Checkout (V press, 2019) and had asked Hilary and me if we’d read two of the customers’ poems. Kathy read the 100 word narrations by the check-out girl, Nona, and four of us assumed the personae of customers. It’s a good pamphlet, and fun to hear the parts read in different voices. Another open mic followed. Hilary and I read, another ‘alternative mother’: the three toed sloth from me. Next, a reading by American poet Jennifer Militello, whom I’d not heard of before but whose poetry was so powerful I had to buy the book and get it signed. Her reading was followed by a question and answer session about her work, which was interesting. After the evening meal there were readings by Richard Scott—absolutely wonderful—and Roy McFarlane—also wonderful. I’d be happy to get either to Poets & Players; I’ll certainly be putting their names forward. We bought a bottle of Chablis from M&S Food and shared it in our room at the hotel. Hilary had brought a bottle opener away with her but not a corkscrew, unfortunately (why didn’t we think to check before we bought it?) so she went off to sweet-talk the bar man into opening it for us.

On Saturday morning we settled for breakfast in the hotel, then we had a workshop with the wonderful Fiona Benson. The workshop addressed voice in poems, writing in the persona and voice of someone else. We wrote a poetic dialogue with someone we knew; we wore masks and wrote in the persona of the mask. It was a really good workshop and I think I’ve got a couple of poems to work on. After lunch, Fiona did a reading from her wonderful collection Vertigo and Ghost (London: Faber 2019). A question and answer session followed, hosted by the ebullient Carrie Etter.
Carrie Etter (R) in conversation with Fiona Benson
The Big Poetry Weekend 2019

Vertigo and Ghost is shortlisted for the 2019 Forward Prize for best collection, and it’s up there among my favourite collections of all time. Hilary and I both have copies at home and regretted not bringing them for signing; so we bought another copy each and did get them signed. Sometimes, you just have to…

In the afternoon there was a talk by two publishers about their work, a question & answer session chaired by the festival director, Carrie Etter. The poets/publishers Claire Crowther, deputy editor of Long Poem Magazine, and Sarah Leavesley of V press gave us insights into submissions and how to get your work noticed by publishing houses. That was interesting. Empathy was the buzzword: be empathetic with the publisher and consider the workload, for instance in reading 300 poems of at least 75 lines each to make decisions about the eighteen that are going to make it into the mag. Read and attend to the submission guidelines which are available on publishers websites. I can sympathise with this as administrator of the online entries for the P&P competition each year. After a brew break, they both read their own work. Clare Crowther introduced us to a new (to us, it’s actually mediaeval French) poetry form, the fatras, which involves eleven lines with a couplet of the first and last lines to begin the poem. Now I want to give it a go.

We went for a walk to nearby Coate lake before dinner, to clear our heads of poetry. It’s a full-on weekend and you reach saturation. After the evening meal it was the celebration event for the Battered Moons poetry competition, which was judged this year by the American-based poet Zoe Brigley. The commended and winning poems were read and then Zoe gave us a reading of her own work. This was followed by a poetry quiz, devised and hosted by Carrie Etter. Hilary and I were joined by Zoe Brigley and Chaucer Cameron to make up the team we called ‘Carrie Etter’s Groupies’. The quiz was in three sections: easier, harder and impossible, twenty-five questions altogether. Zoe had the American questions more or less covered and between us we managed 21.5 points to win first prize by half a point: yay! We won a bottle of Prosecco and a copy each of Jericho Brown’s collection The Tradition (London: Picador 2019). I look forward to reading this one. We danced to disco lights and music and left for our hotel at about 10.30 while hardier poets were still dancing the night away. This is a wonderful poetry festival, it’ll be on our annual calendar of events from now on. Still two days to go, but I’ll save them for next week.

Prizes, and the winning score
Poetry Quiz at the Big Poetry Weekend 2019

In the light of events this week, I just have to leave you with my ‘Tawny Owl Lullaby’ poem. I wrote it for a commission from the composer Ben Gaunt earlier this year. It was set to music by Ben and recorded in Leeds in May. I hope our own tawny owl gets to sing his lullaby again following his ‘stunning’ night out.

Tawny Owl lullaby

A rising moon lit your hunting fest
now sip the day, your sleeping draught.
There’s dawn and sunlight in the east—
here ends your raptor’s midnight feast,
your croon of darkness, silent flight.
Yawn homeward to your morning roost

          beech owl, screech owl, oak owl, hill hooter.

You ghost, your call foreshadows death
huhoo keewik keewik hoowoo,
your eerie song, your love duet.
Listen, the morning chorus sings.
The daylight blunts your hunting skill
so cloak your song in silent wings

          beech owl, screech owl, oak owl, hill hooter.

Close down your sights, hide claws in sheathes,
the world must woo you to your sleep
unseen in your eiderdown of leaves.
The night’s your sweet the day turns sour.
Silence your haunting love duet,
re-hone your blades for the hunting hour

          beech owl, screech owl, oak owl, hill hooter.

Re-hone your blades for the hunting hour,
silence your haunting love duet.
The night’s your sweet the day turns sour.
Unseen in your eiderdown of leaves
the world must woo you to your sleep.
Close down your sights, hide claws in sheathes

           beech owl, screech owl, oak owl, hill hooter.

Cloak yourself in your silent wings,
the daylight blunts your hunting skill—
listen, the morning chorus sings.
With your eerie song, your love duet
huhoo keewik keewik hoowoo
you ghost, your call foreshadows death

          beech owl, screech owl, oak owl, hill hooter.

Yawn homeward to your morning roost
your croon of darkness, silent flight—
day ends your raptor’s midnight feast.
There’s dawn and sunlight in the east
so sip the day, your sleeping draught,
a fading moon dims your hunting fest

          beech owl, screech owl, oak owl, hill hooter.

Rachel Davies