Goodbye to all that.

 ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ (Charles Dickens).

2019’s nearly over, time for the annual reflection and resolution.  I look back on the year with ambivalence. It was a time of celebration, the year I achieved my PhD; it was also a year of stupidity, when the country finally drank hemlock, voted for the cruellest and most oppressive Government in modern UK history for the single issue of Brexit; voted for a Government to repair the damage done by the Government they voted in ‘because we need a change’; voted for amputation to repair a grazed knee. I think you can guess how I feel about this. So I’ll just leave it there.

Let’s consider the good bits of 2019 instead, dwell on personal stuff because national stuff is too depressing. I’ll start with the PhD because that’s the biggest thing that happened to me this year. The first four months of 2019 were fraught with completing a thesis I came to see as a Midwich Cuckoo. I cared for it, but I couldn’t love it. I desperately needed it to leave home, but it kept demanding more and more of me. Editing, re-editing, adding, taking away, reorganising, checking, checking, checking. MHRA guidelines gave me nightmares: such pedantic taskmasters! But at the end of April my support team agreed it was complete and ready to submit. I had three hard-bound copies made and submitted according to University guidelines. I waited to hear from the University about the Viva. Eventually I heard that it would be early in September so I relaxed for the summer. Nothing I could do about it now. I’d sent my Cuckoo out into the world. I stilled the angst with a Big Spring Clean. The house got the sprucing up it had been missing for four years. I cleaned up and cleared out. It was a manifestation of grief.

In September I attended the Viva at All Saints Campus. Dr Ursula Hurley was the external examiner, Prof Michael Symmons Roberts the internal examiner, Dr Nicolai Duffy chaired the meeting. I was a bag of nerves, but they were all lovely. An hour of discussing the work of the last five years: it was surprisingly uplifting. I had to go in search of a coffee while they made their decision. I spent the time re-reading my thesis! Michael had called my poetry ‘a strong collection’ and I tried to read it with his eyes. Eventually Nicolai came to find me in the Business School and we walked back to the examination room together. As I sat down, Dr Hurley said ‘Congratulations’ and I knew I’d done it. I had some minor revisions before the award, but they called me Dr Davies. I went home happy and drank Champagne. The minor revisions were a hard task; not because they were particularly difficult to do, but because it was hard to re-motivate myself after five months away from it. But I knew without the revisions there’d be no PhD; so I grasped the nettle and resubmitted within the allotted eight weeks. I heard in November that the revisions were approved by the examiners and the award was certified. Dr Davies BEd (Hons), BA (Hons), MSc, MA (Dist), PhD. People ask what now? I still have no idea, but I know it won’t involve a university: I’ve scratched that particular itch, climbed the mountain, planted my flag. Perhaps I’ll write a book.

Speaking of which, the second biggest thing to happen is that a selection of the poems from the thesis were accepted for publication in 2020 by 4word Publishing. Poets were invited to submit a selection of six poems initially. My six were shortlisted and I was asked for a pamphlet sized collection of between 29 and 32 poems. I sent 31, including my favourite ‘Alternative Mothers’. I called the collection ‘Everyday I Ask Myself’, in honour of Rhona the Ratgirl. My collection was chosen as one of four they will publish next year. It will be launched in December 2020. My very own little book!

What of other things in my life in 2020? Poetry for instance? Oh my, where do I start? My poetry twin, Hilary Robinson and I attended several poetry events during the year. The first was the Verve festival in Birmingham in February: http://vervepoetryfestival.com  We heard Vahni Capildeo, Carrie Etter, Jane Yeh, and a host of excellent poets read. We attended workshops led by Vahni Capildeo and Liz Berry. Liz’s workshop was about the magic of poetry, spells and incantations. Liz gave us all a curly seashell and mine’s still in my handbag; curled up inside is a slip of paper with my own secret spell on. I’ll carry it always. I also attended a workshop run by Bernadine Evaristo, dedicated to poetic prose; not the prose poem, but a verse novel. Evaristo’s novel Girl, Woman, Other shared this year’s Booker Prize with Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. I’ve read the latter, the former is on my to-do list. I saw Atwood at the Lowry Theatre in October talking about her work. Two weeks from her eightieth birthday, she was an inspiration: feisty, intelligent, amazing. Two Booker prize winners in one year, and I attended events involving both of them. How lucky am I?

Back to the poetry. In April Hilary and I went to Saddleworth Literature Festival, about which, enough said! St Ives, and Kim Moore’s residential at Treloyhan Manor was excellent in comparison. We had a lovely week, reading and writing poetry, eating scones, drinking cider. We visited the Rattlers Cider farm while we were in Cornwall, a good day out. https://kimmoorepoet.wordpress.com/residential-poetry-courses/december-2018-poetry-carousel/ I know, the link says ‘2018’, but it has details of the carousel in December 2020. In May we went to Coniston on our annual Line Break. Usually three friends, this year Polly couldn’t make it so it was just the two of us. We hired a cottage in the centre of the village. We took old poetry journals and trawled through to find forgotten gems, reworked some old first drafts. We took boat rides on the lake; the weather was lovely and we enjoyed several al fresco beers. We prepared a new submissions spreadsheet and sent out some work while we were there. It was May, soon after I’d submitted the thesis and it was like a new beginning. In October we went to the Big Poetry Weekend in Swindon: Carrie Etter again, and Fiona Benson whose wonderful collection Vertigo and Ghost was awarded the T S Eliot prize in 2019. Swindon rocks; we’ll definitely be back next year. Here’s a link to the website, still advertising 2019’s festival, but keep your eye out for info about 2020: https://bigpoetryweekend.com  In December we went to Cumbria to another Kim Moore event, the Poetry Carousel. Four tutors, four workshops, evening readings. This year’s tutors were David Tait, Clare Shaw and Malika Booker. One for next year?

We read at several events, promoting our shared collection Some Mothers Do…(Beautiful Dragons Press 2018). I read at Carol Ann Duffy and Friends at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester in January and was star struck to see the lovely Jackie Kay in the front row of the audience. Jackie bought a copy of our book, which she asked us to sign. How cool is that? We read in Sowerby Bridge at Puzzle Poets, where one poor member of the audience dislocated a shoulder applauding my set. I’ve put that into my author biography: it’s not a claim many people can make! We read in Huddersfield, Sheffield, Didsbury; we read at the launch of the second Dragon Spawn collection, featuring our poetry friend Barbara Hickson.

We attended readings by some of our favourite poets: highlights included Simon Armitage in Leeds in April; and then again in Manchester in conversation with Guy Garvey in October; Kate Fox at the Portico Library in Manchester in March; Liz Berry in York, also in March. We attended the Carol Ann Duffy and Friends series at the Royal Exchange (the next season is available now: https://www.royalexchange.co.uk/whats-on-and-tickets/carol-ann-duffy-friends-spring-summer-2020) and the wonderful series of People’s Poetry Lectures at the Principal in Manchester: Michael Symmons Roberts on W H Auden; Andrew MacMillan on Thom Gunn; Sean Borodale on Sylvia Plath; Jean Sprackland on Elizabeth Bishop; Moira Egan on Marianne Moore, all wonderful and engaging. Jean was the mentor for the creative section of my PhD, and we met before the Sean Borodale lecture to raise a glass of Prosecco to my achievement. Carol Ann Duffy came over to congratulate me: it’s the little things… And as if all this wasn’t enough, we’ve attended workshops at Manchester Art Gallery run by the irrepressible Peter Sansom of the Poetry Business; and at the Whitworth Art Gallery run by Poets & Players. P&P continues to organise high quality reading and music events, the next one is on January 25th featuring Jo Shapcott and Kim Moore, with music by Chris Davies; and our competition is currently open for entries until January 21st. What are you waiting for? https://poetsandplayers.co/future-events/

Early in the year I worked in collaboration with the composer Ben Gaunt on a piece entitled ‘Tawny Owl Lullaby’; in March we met in a studio in Leeds to record it. I heard recently that Ben is planning to release the recording as an EP; about which more details when I have them.

So all was good on the poetry front in 2019. What of ‘life’; what can I say? It’s been a brilliant year. I’ve visited the Leornardo drawings in Manchester and Birmingham Art Galleries; I would have visited them while I was in Leeds, except the gallery was closed that day. I’ve had lovely away breaks with the family, in Lincolnshire, Kidderminster, Somerset. I took a post-PhD holiday on Corfu and visited Albania on my birthday. I’ve been to London to see Sir Ian McKellen’s gob-smackingly brilliant King Lear; and again to see his eightieth birthday tour. What an icon; what an octogenarian; what an inspiration. In other theatres I’ve seen Macbeth (it was alright), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (it was brilliant), The Motown Story (also brilliant). I’ve had one or two health issues: the autoimmune condition, polymyalgia rheumatic, that I thought I’d defeated, had other ideas; it came back with a vengeance and I was back on steroids on New Year’s Eve 2018. I’m still on them and there’s a chance I’ll be on a low dose for life. A scan revealed that my autoimmune system has also attacked my thyroid gland: in the poetry of my GP, it’s ‘shrivelled’. I hate the idea of a prune of a thyroid hanging around in my neck; but I keep taking the tablets. You can’t keep a good woman down. Microbes have tried to get the better of me in the year, bigged up by the faulty autoimmune system, but I’ve fought them all off eventually and here I am, surviving; and surviving with vitality and determination. On the whole it’s been a good year. I’m a terminal optimist: all my years are brilliant.

So what of next year? I’m not setting any resolutions. I’m going to drift like a piece of seaweed on the tide and just see where I wash up. I’ve had pressure for five years. It’s time to release the valve, put the pressure behind me and just enjoy life. It will involve poetry and family. And cake. And wine, obviously.

So, I think I’ve rabbited on enough. It just remains to wish you all a creative, healthy and happy 2020. May all your dreams come true. I’ll leave you with a very small poem, a haiku in fact. I found it among my old notebooks in Coniston. It refers to the ward sister in Casualty—what’s now called A&E—when I was a student nurse, more than half a century ago. Sister Swift struck fear into the bravest breast; you didn’t want to upset Sister Swift.

 

Sister Swift

calls me honey in
a way that lets me know she
prefers marmalade.

Rachel Davies

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