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

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