Monthly Archives: January 2020

On Post-PhD reading

To be honest, I’m stuck for content for the blog now the PhD is done. What do you put in a blog whose banner headline reads ‘PhD and Poetry’ when the PhD is finished, all bar the dancing, and the poetry has been slack? When I was coming to the end of the creative section of the PhD, Jean Sprackland asked me what I was going to do now, and I said I was going to spend the rest of my life reading shite! Seriously, I didn’t want to read anything again, for ever, that required me to think and analyse.

I tried it in the summer. I didn’t like it much. I read a couple of Tudor murder mysteries in which the author seemed more about impressing her readers with her knowledge of the period than with losing them in the story. I decided there was only so much shite the human brain can take and I pulled back on the pledge.

I stepped up a gear. I decided to re-read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I read it years ago, and the recent television series had tickled the reading tastebuds: I wanted to see if the TV adaptation had stayed true to the book. It had, pretty much. What a mind Atwood has; and how prophetic is that book, written in the eighties? In 21st century UK, I felt as if I was living through the foothills of the tale, with regime change in the USA and the far right on the rise across the western world. I read it on my Kindle, enjoyed it in a kind of masochistic way, so much that I wanted a copy. I ordered a hard backed version online, a book to pick up, touch, admire. When The Testaments was published in September 2019, I had to have a copy of that and read it too. How could Atwood follow up on The Handmaid’s Tale, which had left an ending that was open to a sequel? But that was thirty years ago. How would it work now? And was it just cashing in on the TV adaptation? It wasn’t, it was wonderful and surprising reading. And if you haven’t read it yet, I recommend it. Highly. And if you haven’t read the original Tale, you’ll need to read that first to really get the sequel. Hilary and I went to see Atwood ‘in conversation’ at the Lowry theatre in October. I had dreams of getting my two lovely books signed, but that was a pipedream: she wasn’t doing a signing. But I have them on my shelves to re-read whenever I feel it coming on.

I read a William Boyd novel, Waiting for Sunrise; I’ve never been disappointed by a William Boyd novel. This one came close. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t lose myself in it, it wasn’t as gripping as some of his books. Perhaps I just didn’t believe in his hero, Lysander Rief. The first few pages are an imagining of the reader watching this man walking through Vienna. Towards the end of these introductory pages Boyd has the line ‘Ah, he’s English—how uninteresting—your curiosity is waning.’ And my curiosity never really waxed again. I stuck with it to the end though, and it was, I suppose, a good story; but I wasn’t gripped.

I re-read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.  I read it at the night class where I studied for A-level English, and remembered really enjoying it. I enjoyed it again, probably on a different level, or a series of different levels. Having lived through the scientific and technological revolution of the intervening forty years, it, like Handmaid’s Tale, seems all too possible—probable even. Is it serendipity that these dystopian novels become reality; or is it inevitable? I went on to read a collection of essays Huxley wrote in the eighties, Brave New World Revisited, in which he analyses the actual world in the light of both his dystopian vision, and George Orwell’s in 1984. His essays are spot on too, and distinctly disturbing.

I read Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls Trilogy. The first in the series, The Country Girls, O’Brien claimed ‘wrote itself in three weeks.’ Lucky her; it rocked the Irish establishment, and it isn’t hard to see why. Read it with the unsophisticated eyes of the early sixties, when Lady Chatterley was on trial as pornography, and understand why a sexually and religiously conservative society like the Republic of Ireland would be shocked. I loved it.

I read Katie Hale’s debut novel, My Name is Monster. Its plot is that one woman is left on Earth after an apocalyptic event—we’re never told exactly what the event was, although it involved war and disease. (Why do I seem drawn to dystopia since completing my PhD? There must be a thing here?) When I read the first few pages I thought ‘How is Hale going to make a novel out of one woman and a shattered world?’ She does, in surprising ways. If you haven’t read it, I recommend it.

I’ve read other stuff too: I am a prolific reader. I could read before I went to school. And because I could read already, the infant teacher put me out in a cold corridor with a book while she taught the ‘normal’ pre-literate children how to do it. I was miserable, cold, lonely—all emotions I came to relate to reading. I didn’t pick up another book for enjoyment until I was a young adult. Oh my, what had I missed? I haven’t stopped since. On Thursday I met up with Hilary for coffee—our first catch up since the carousel week in December. We swapped Christmas presents. She gave me The Craft, edited by Rishi Dastidar (Nine Arches Press; 2019)—‘a guide to making poetry happen in the 21st Century’. It contains essays by some of my favourite poets: Liz Berry, Carrie Etter, Karen McCarthy Woolf to name just a few. There’s a section of writing prompts at the end, which I’m looking forward to trying out. I can’t wait to read it. It’s on top of my ‘to-read’ list.

To bring us full-circle, Hilary also gave me a second book, from a mutual friend, Jo. When we all went to see Simon Armitage in Conversation with Guy Garvey in November, Jo asked me what I’m going to do now the PhD is over—this is a common conversational ice-breaker. I repeated my pledge about reading shite, but explained that I’d tried it and didn’t like it much, but I needed to read stuff that wasn’t too taxing, give my poor old brain a rest. She said she had just the book. Hilary brought that book with her on Thursday. M. C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death (Constable and Robinson:1992). Jo put an inscription on the title page: ‘To Rachel. Read it and weep (a lot!)’ I’m a part-time insomniac and I woke at 3.00 on Saturday morning this week, so I decided to read it to stop the brain racing. Thanks Jo, it hits the spot perfectly: frothy, inconsequential, insubstantial ‘shite’. I love it.

Before I go, a reminder about the Poets&Players competition, judged by Sinead Morrisey. The closing date is midnight on Tuesday 21st January; which gives you just under ten days to get your poems to me via the online route or to Viv in the post. Details and rules are on our website:

I’ll leave you with another poem that did well in a competition. It was placed third in the Manchester Cathedral Competition in 2015. The competition asks for entries ‘of a spiritual nature’; being an atheist this is easy: everything under the sun is spiritual, so I entered this, written after a visit to Tate Liverpool and being gripped by a huge and totally wonderful painting by Leonora Carrington.


Ix Chel and the Madonna
The Magical World of the Mayas Leonora Carrington
Tate Liverpool May 2015

One eye a telescope the other a microscope
you see it all, how the land is a woman
reclining—sleeping or dying—her breasts pert

her belly taut while Mayan temples
and Catholic symbols spring like Cain and Abel
from between her knees and each tries to win

her best breast. You see it all, how the earth
blurs the binaries of night and day, truth and lie,
old and new, gods and God until they all seem

the same somehow, indistinct, not to be trusted.
You see it all, how a thousand crucifixes can pierce
her left breast, pierce her heart and still Ix Chel

breathes through her death throes, how the wood
of Calvary grows on her abdominal plain even
as the Ceiba tree withers, its branches bleached,

leafless, its roots in the realm of the dead atrophied
to stumps that can no longer suck the waters
of faith. You see it all, how Madonna and Child

process across her skin and her skin rends open
exposing the powerless jaguar god of the underworld
where the Monkey Twins hide themselves behind human

death masks, learn to live out eternity in the dark.
You see it all, how Kukulkan still slithers across
an angry sky crying I’m here, I’m here and none hears

but the dying few, how Chaak the thunder god
weeps tears plump as pears at Ix Chel’s passing
and the Popl Vuh hands down its myths to anyone
who will listen and you listen and you see it all.

Rachel Davies

(First published in Manchester Cathedral Competition Winners Pamphlet 2015)


On Entering Poetry Competitions

I’ve been administering the online entries for the Poets&Players competition for five years this year. The first year I did it, Paul Muldoon was our judge and I well remember having to spend almost £100 posting a ream and a half of poems to his apartment in New York where he was teaching at a University at the time. In these five years I’ve met some wonderful poets who have acted as our judges: Pascale Petit, Jackie Kay, Kei Miller, Michael Symmons Roberts. And I’ve met some wonderful poets who put their work out there to scrutiny and were rewarded with a win. I feel in a very privileged position in this role, and it is a wonderful thing to be able to introduce our judges, and our winners, to our P&P audience at the celebration event in the South Gallery of the Whitworth Art Gallery in the early summer when, out in the park, the trees are growing leaves and young children are chasing amorous pigeons.

Some poets feel that poetry shouldn’t be a competitive sport; others feel that a poetry competition is a route to that rare commodity for poets, a small income. I’m not going to judge one way or another. It’s a personal choice, no-one will force you to enter your poems into the competitive market of the poetry prize; equally no-one will judge you for wanting to do that—except the competition judge, obviously. I’ve entered competitions myself; I’ve even won a couple. But in five years of administering P&P’s ‘fabulously organised competition’—as Paul Muldoon described it—I’ve learned something of entering poetry competitions. I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned. I make no apology for teaching granny to suck lemons: if you know these things already, put your computer away and do the ironing. Remember, these are things I’ve learned on the administration job. So here are some observations I offer about upping your chances in competition with other poets:

1: Read contemporary poetry
Read contemporary poetry. Read more contemporary poetry. Then read even more  contemporary poetry. Subscribe to quality poetry journals, buy collections and pamphlets of poetry. Better still, join a library and borrow these books for free; or browse charity shops and buy them for pennies. Also read ‘traditional’ poetry, get to know a variety of forms; but don’t try to emulate Keats or Wordsworth. Adding thee and thou to your poems, and using archaic forms and inversions to force end rhymes won’t necessarily make them noticeable in a good way; unless you’re using them ironically, as Wendy Cope does in parodying the traditional sonnet, for instance (find Cope’s ‘Strugnell’s Sonnets’: Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis [London: Faber and Faber, 1986] and read them—you won’t regret it). If you use a traditional form, make it new; make it now, surprise the judges. Better yet, invent a new form of your own. Use accessible language, metaphor, imagery; use the natural rhythms and music of everyday speech to build your poems; make words extend themselves with internal rhyme and surprising juxtapositions. Find new ways to say it and avoid cliché like the plague—see what I did there? Stand on the shoulders of giants to see further what’s possible in this wonderful world of poetry.

2: Join a community of poets
Attend writing groups and workshops. Get to know other poets and writers. Build poetry friendships. Offer your poetry to the scrutiny of other poets in a safe space: get feedback on your work and listen to that feedback. Really listen; act on it only if it feels right for your poem. If face-to-face feedback is daunting for you, join online poetry groups; but in my experience, the community of poets is a considerate and supportive community and a wonderful thing. Poets love poetry: why wouldn’t they want to help you make your poems be the best poems they can be?

3: Trust your poems
Surprise the judges; but do this with your use of language. If your poem is worth the reading, you won’t need upper case letters or large fonts. Don’t make the judge feel s/he is being shouted at from the page. Don’t use fonts that are difficult to read because you feel they ‘look nice’; they probably won’t add to the poem and some fonts are quite tricky to read. Consider the judge, whose job is to read around a thousand poems before making their decision. Make it easier for her/him by choosing a plain font like Times New Roman or Calibri, size 12, black ink.  Most competitions ask for single spacing: check your computer settings to make sure your poems are single-spaced. Illustrations? A big fat no-no! Don’t give your poems flowery borders or coloured fonts; don’t add a photo of the Trevi Fountain to your poem about Rome. Trust your poem to build that picture for itself.

4: Read the guidance and the competition rules
Rules vary from competition to competition. Make sure you’re observing the rules for the competition you’re entering now. Read the rules; read them again. Prepare your entry according to the rules then read them again to check. Before you press send on your email, make sure you’ve attached your poems and a completed application form if this is what’s required by the rules (it isn’t always). Don’t include an author biography—unless the rules require it, in which case include an author biography. Check; double check. Then check again. The people who administer the competition genuinely want you to win. Make it easy for them by following the rules. 40 lines maximum means that; not 41 or 42; not 60 or 100. A line of poetry is a line of writing on the page; it isn’t necessarily a sentence, although it might be. If it takes up the entire line of the page, that is your line. If your sentence takes up three lines on the page, that is three lines. I make this point only because I’ve had entries in the past that are three pages long, because the poet hoped I might not notice that his/her ‘lines of poetry’ actually extended across three lines on the page. I noticed. If your poem exceeds, by a line or two, the 40-line limit, reconsider your line breaks to make it fit the rules. Poems longer than the specified maximum will be disqualified. A simple email from the administrator can rectify the unattached application form (although the administrator is not duty bound to offer you this lifeline) but alterations to your actual poems won’t be allowed, so make sure your poem doesn’t need altering by getting it right, by fitting it to the rules, the first time.

5: Get to know your judge
I refer you to point 1 above. Read the poet who is judging the competition to get a feel for their own work. Check out other competitions they may have judged and read the winning entries they chose to see what grabbed them. Of course, there may be no discernible themes to any of this; judges, like all poets, love variety; we love surprise; we love poetry made new and exciting. But at least you’ll be reading contemporary poetry; and that’s the main thing.

I’m really enjoying administering the online entries to our competition again this year. I don’t have time to read all the entries; but just sometimes a word or phrase catches my eye, surprises me, makes me want to read on. That’s what the judge wants of your poem. Surprise her/him; make the judge notice your poem among the thousand or so poems s/he’ll be reading. Make your poems fill their lungs with air, make them rise to the top like bubbles in champagne; make them a gnat that irritates but refuses to be ignored.

Send me your online entries; send Viv your postal entries: details—and a link to the rules—are on our website But please, do enter. Give us lots of work to do; give our judge, Sinead Morrisey, a difficult job to do, make her earn her fee.

Lastly good luck—but who was it who said ‘the harder I work, the luckier I become’?

I’m going to leave you this week with the poem that I entered into the Wells Competition two or three years ago. It’s reproduced in my shared DragonSpawn pamphlet Some Mothers Do… (Beautiful Dragons Press, 2018). The judge for the Wells competition was Andrew Motion. The poem fulfils a lot of what I’ve written about in this blog: I wrote it as a response to a Kim Moore Poetry School online workshop. The prompt was from a poem by David Constantine: ‘Bad Dream’ in Elder (Bloodaxe, 2014). The italicised line in my poem is actually a line from Constantine’s poem. I appreciate the community of poets who offered feedback on the initial drafts of this poem. I understand the angst of entering competitions. I know the importance of having your work read by a poet of national/international renown. I have experienced the unbridled joy of winning: this poem won first prize.

San Martino di Griante

 Imagine seeing that chapel from the Lake, clinging to the edge
of the mountain like a goat, how precarious it looks but it’s held
its nerve for centuries, since the Virgin ordained that this would be
the site of Her chapel; how the ancients were confident in the soul-kiss
of faith to take on that job; how all those centuries ago builders sang
as they hauled stones up that track on the backs of mules, laid them
one by one to build the chapel, how they made the mule-track into
a Via Crucis lined with shrines to the life of Christ; how one August day
I’ll decide to walk that track, visit San Martino of the Dizzying Heights;
how I’ll climb the steep path through olive grove and deer sanctuary,
past chapels, sun-bleached icons, the drying hay of wreaths until I reach
the last hundred yards; how the chapel will beckon me across a ledge
as narrow as a woman, a sheer fall right, a sheer wall left; how I’ll sit
trying to nail my courage, in the end turning my cowardice back
down the Via Crucis, where each of its shrines is an admonition;
how I’ll hear the derision of builders echoing down the centuries;
how your voice will be in their laughter; how I’ll come back tomorrow
determined to do it; how I’ll buy a peach as big as Venus as a reward
for touching the stones of San Martino of the Derisive Sneer; how I’ll sit
for aeons at the start of that ledge, talking myself into taking those steps,
how the chapel will tell me I can do it, how I’ll want to believe it; how
that peach will call out to me but I won’t break my promise not to taste
until I reach San Martino of the Forbidden Fruit; how relieved I’ll be
when two strangers will climb that mule-track, see me there dejected,
how they won’t mock but they’ll help me cross the ledge, take my hand,
stand one in front, one behind, walk me one step at a time till I reach
San Martino of the Blessed Achievement; how elated I’ll feel as I touch
its walls, admire its frescos, gaze at the lake below; how I’ll pick out
the trattoria in Bellagio where last night I dined at a table for one;
how Bellagio will shimmer in the midday heat; how at last I’ll answer
that peach, its juice sweeter than the fruit of Paradise; how one day
you’ll just be a sentence in my story, a peach stone I’ll throw away.

Rachel Davies