All posts by grandavies

About grandavies

In 2003 I took early retirement from my life as a primary school headteacher. After retirement I undertook an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University's Writing School under the tutelage of Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage, Jeffrey Wainwright and Michael Symmons Roberts. I am currently working towards a PhD at MMU, researching the mother-daughter relationship in the poetry of Selima Hill, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop and Jackie Kay. Work toward this PhD is the main focus of my weekly blog; that and how my poetry life determinedly carries on in parallel. I am on the organising committee of the Manchester based group, Poets and Players whose mission is to bring Arts Council funded, high quality poetry and music events to audiences, free of charge, at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. I am also the co-ordinator of the Poetry Society East Manchester and Tameside Stanza that meets on the last Tuesday of every month at the Buffet Bar, Staybridge Station. We have a dedicated FaceBook page: you can link to it here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/264023166946510/ I am a published poet, my work has appeared in Obsessed With Pipework, The New Writer, Envoi, The North among other poetry magazines. In 2013 I was a winner in the Fermoy Poetry Competition and in 2014 I won the Wells Competition. I was placed third in the 2015 Manchester Cathedral Poetry Competition. My work has appeared in several anthologies, most recently in My Dear Watson (Beautiful Dragons Press 2015).

The Ugly Sisters

This week has been a fusion of poetry, health stuff and life. The life and health stuff got in the way of the poetry a bit. I’ll put that balance right this week.

In November 2013, following a particularly rigorous aerobics session at the gym, I became very stiff. Nothing unusual in that, you say? Except the stiffness didn’t go away after a couple of days. It didn’t go away after a couple of weeks; it got worse. I suspected I’d pulled a muscle and went to see my Doc to arrange physio. She opted for blood tests, which surprised me. Who orders blood tests for a pulled muscle? She suspected Polymyalgia Rheumatica, an autoimmune disease that makes your own body attack its healthy muscle tissue, causing inflammation, pain and stiffness in the shoulder and pelvic girdles. I’d never heard of it. The diagnosis relied on testing the inflammation markers in the blood. Sure enough, the inflammation markers were raised and PMR was diagnosed. The treatment is to take a daily, and slowly reducing, dose of steroids for about eighteen months. Six and a half years later I’m still taking Prednisolone and the autoimmune system is stubbornly refusing to sit down and behave itself.

Originally I took the steroids, as directed, for eighteen months. I reduced gradually from the original 20mg to 2mg. I started to get pain in my scalp, sharp and relentless pain like an invisible crow pecking my head. Paracetemol taken 6 hourly improved the pain for about an hour and a half before the crow was back. I’d read somewhere that headaches can be a cause of concern with Polymyalgia, because it might signify PMR’s ugly sister, Giant Cell Arteritis, which if left untreated can cause permanent blindness. The statistics go something like this: about 25% of the population, mostly women over 50, will contract PMR. Of those about 25% will also contract GCA; which calculates to roughly 6% of the population becoming acquainted with both ugly sisters. How lucky was I to be diagnosed with GCA? The Prednisolone dose was increased to a massive 45mg, I was referred to a rheumatologist and had to start the process of steroid reduction all over again.

In April 2018, I eventually managed to reduce the Prednisolone to 0mg. I had a small celebration as I took the last dose. Don’t get me wrong, Prednisolone had given me a quality of life that PMR/GCA was trying to deny me. But Prednisolone brings its own challenges. For instance, it gives me a very visible tremor in my hands, worse in my right hand. I’ve had to teach myself to eat soup left-handed because the right hand is just too messy! Chopsticks? Left handed. Spaghetti bolognaise? Left handed. Pred can also affect the voice, making it shaky and pitching it higher than ‘normal’. Mood swings? A by-product of Pred. So it was good to be off the steroids at last. Except it didn’t last. By the autumn of 2018 the stiffness was creeping back into the shoulder and pelvic/thigh muscles. By December 2018 I was walking like a ninety-year-old, having to be helped into taxis, finding stairs a challenge. Doctors refused to accept that the PMR was back and treated me with physio for a suspected shoulder injury. At last, on New Year’s Eve 2018, a locum at my local surgery agreed to give the steroids another trial. Within hours the stiffness and pain were improving; when I saw him again three days later, I was walking normally and was pain free. That’s what Prednisolone does. It’s a magical drug with nasty side effects. I love Prednisolone but I hate Prednisolone: ambivalence writ large.

And here I am, fourteen months later, having reduced the Prednisolone to 2mg, still taking the tablets. Except when I reduced to 2mg, the stiffness in the legs returned, notably after sitting down for any length of time. Once I’m up and moving it loosens up, and I’m fine; but it’s worrying that it manifests after sitting, for instance in the evening when I’m watching telly. So I went to see my doctor again this week. She has advised a slight increase in the Pred again, and more blood tests to see what the inflammation markers are doing. A tiny percentage of people need to be on small doses of Prednisolone for life. I’m beginning to suspect I might be among their number. Which is fine; but don’t sit at the next table if you see me trying to eat soup, is all.

Bill also had health stuff going on this week which I won’t elaborate on because it’s not my story to tell; but it involved spending best part of a day at Rochdale Infirmary, and a CT scan for which we’re awaiting results. Because I’m a terminal optimist I know it will be fine; but I might have my fingers crossed, just a bit.

So, life has truly got in the way of poetry this week; but it hasn’t entirely blocked it out. I had Tuesday free to do poetry stuff and that was my favourite day this week. I sent out my Stanza mailing, calling the group to the Buffet Bar at Stalybridge Station on Tuesday 25th for the February session. We’re having an anonymous workshop this month; members send me an early draft of a poem that they’d appreciate some feedback on. I put all the poems together in a standardised document, without any identifying markers, and send it out to all who submitted in time for the meeting. At the meeting we read and discuss the poems, offer positive and constructive feedback. At the end of the evening we have the big reveal when we find out who wrote what. So far, I’ve received six poems and one apology. So our group, which was on the endangered species list a couple of years ago, is rallying and altogether looking healthier. Which is lovely. I’m looking forward to reading the poems and meeting up on Tuesday to discuss them.

On Tuesday I also wrote up the work I drafted at the Manchester Art Gallery, at the Poetry Business Writing Day. I love this aspect of poetry: getting new stuff on the MacBook, moulding it, shaping it like clay until it forms a satisfying whole. I’ll leave them for a few weeks and come back to them with fresh eyes. Peter Sansom reminded us at the Gallery that you can work a poem too hard, until you work the life out of it. So I’ll leave them to breathe a bit, come back to them when I’ve almost forgotten them, find surprising stuff in them I can’t see at the moment, while they are too young.

The last, and very satisfying, poetry related thing I’ve done this week is book a hotel for the weekend of the Kendal Poetry Festival. Check out the festival here: https://www.kendalpoetryfestival.co.uk  I’ll be going with my poetry twin, Hilary Robinson. We’re planning to take our annual Line Break the week following the festival; but we’ll be hiring a holiday cottage for that and we can book that later. Hilary’s enjoying time with her granddaughters this week, so we’ll meet up and start planning Line Break when they’ve gone home. No rush, it’s still four months away.

Yesterday was the Poets&Players event at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. Unfortunately I had to miss it this month, but you can find links on our website to the YouTube videos when they’re prepared: https://poetsandplayers.co  A family friend in Peterborough is having a hard time at the moment and I went with Amie to offer some love and support. We met up with my elder son Richard and our friend and went for a late lunch in Peterborough City Centre. I hope she was feeling better when we left. Sometimes life is just too hard and all we can do is show some support and try to grow a few smiles. We had a lovely day. We’ve even planned a long weekend away at the end of August: Richard and said friend both work in schools, so school holidays are when we can all meet up. Family time is very precious.

I’ll leave you with a poem I wrote at Leighton Moss Bird Reserve on our Line Break last spring. Hilary and I can’t be accused of being serious bird watchers, not really. The real ‘twitchers’—is that what they’re called?—were there in their camouflage gear, binoculars around their necks, the Eye Spy Book of British Birds peeking from jacket pockets. We were there in our usual bright jackets, sunglasses, poetry journals in hand. So perhaps it’s not surprising that we didn’t see the birds the woman in the visitor centre gave us the heads-up on. They spotted us a mile off and kept their distance. The scones in the café were good though.

 

Leighton Moss

I’m scanning the sky for marsh harriers,
Nureyev and Fontaine
in an ariel pas-de-deux of feeder and fed.

But all I’m seeing is the dipping and dipping
flight of tits, swifts catching an in-flight meal,
the black capped gulls soaring and landing
spooked by the low flight of helicopter.

My ears are tuned for the call of Cetti’s warbler,
the chiff chaff of the chiff chaff,
the boom boom of the bittern
but all I’m hearing is the territorial robin,
the garden gossip of blackbird and sparrow
the low hum of a distant iron bird.

Rachel Davies
May 2019

‘…the brunt wind’

“This house has been far out at sea all night” (Ted Hughes).

Storm Dennis is raging outside my window as I write this, reminding me of the Ted Hughes poem ‘Wind’,  “…the brunt wind that dented the balls of my eyes.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O4TqgxiXsXI  and I’m thinking of friends in the flood plains along the Calder Valley, Ribbledale, Cumbria, York. They’ve not recovered from Ciara yet, and now Dennis is kicking his heels.

This week I’ve been a domestic goddess, cooking and cleaning like a 1950s housewife. Housework is usually low on my list of priorities, so when I decide to do it, I attack it like a goodun. I can bear not to do it, but I can’t bear to half do it. So most of my week has looked away from poetry and towards the domestic. The ironing’s all done, the freezer’s full of chilli, bolognaise sauce, soups. The study is immaculate. I found it all strangely relaxing.

I let my gaze fall on poetry a bit though, when I booked festival passes for Kendal Poetry Festival for Hilary Robinson and me. This festival is organised by Kim Moore and Clare Shaw: always good to have a poetry festival with rhyming Directors. Check out the wonderful line-up of poets for 2020: https://www.kendalpoetryfestival.co.uk  I’m really looking forward to this one. I know from past experience what a lovely, friendly festival it is; and it’s mostly contained in one venue, the Castle Green Hotel, so no rushing from one event to another, like some festivals we’ve been to. I’ve started to look for accommodation: Hilary, we need to meet for coffee, to confer on holiday lets. I’m not good in a tent.

On Saturday—yesterday—I went to the Poetry Business Writing Day at the Manchester Art Gallery. Peter and Ann Sansom hold monthly writing days in Sheffield and Manchester. Check out the Poetry Business here: https://poetrybusiness.co.uk/whats-on/workshops/  You’ll see from the website that the new Laureate, Simon Armitage, has said of Ann and Peter, “In my view, the UK’s most astute and effective tutors”; the Guardian considers them “The best writing tutors in the world”; and The Poetry Trust: “…incomparably experienced and inspirational tutors with a brilliant repertoire of exercises”. I can’t argue with any of this. I’ve been going to Poetry Business workshops for years and I’ve never repeated a prompt. It was lovely to meet up with other poetry friends, and to meet some new ones.

I feel a bit of a bozo though. In November I asked Peter if he’d write a blurb for the jacket of my forthcoming pamphlet, Everyday I Promise Myself. Bless him, he agreed and replied to my email with a request that I let him know when the launch is so that he can come along and throw fruit. The humour is so typical of Peter that I immediately responded to that comment without reading to the end of the email. I still had twelve months to the launch so I wasn’t expecting a rapid response to my request. When I saw him yesterday he asked if I’d liked the blurb. I said I hadn’t seen it yet. He’d thought it was odd that I hadn’t thanked him for it and resent the original email. If I’d read to the bottom, I would have thanked him profusely: there was the blurb in black and white, sitting in my inbox all these months. Durrh! It’s a lovely blurb as well, but you’ll have to buy my pamphlet to read it. So thank you Peter, and forgive my bozoness, even though I doubt if you’ll read this—but I thanked him hugely yesterday after I did read his comment at last. I owe him a huge cream cake.

Anyway, back to the writing day. We met at 10.30 in Studio 1 at the Gallery. Numbers were down slightly: some poets with distances to travel had cried off in anticipation of Storm Dennis. Crossing the Pennines is always a challenge in harsh weather. But there were still a dozen poets there. We wrote from the prompt of published poems: my favourites were ‘Learning to Spell’ by Kathryn Simmonds and ‘Snow’ by Jacob Polley. I think I drafted half-decent poems from these prompts. Of course, my poems bear little relation to the originals, and that’s the point: the prompts are jumping-off places, triggers for a place to start. I’ll include the draft I wrote from the Simmonds prompt at the end of this blog.

We also had to find an artwork in the gallery and write from that as a prompt. I chose ‘A Family Seated Around A Kitchen Fire’ by the Dutch painter Quiringh van Brekelenkam, c1650. I was drawn to it by the huge parsnip the woman is peeling: it reaches from her lap almost to her shoulder. You can see a copy of the painting here: https://www.artuk.org/discover/artworks/a-family-seated-round-a-kitchen-fire-206268  Is that a cat in the chair, hiding under blankets, looking menacing? Since I finished my PhD, I’ve found it hard to sit and concentrate on poetry, so it was good to do just that yesterday; and I feel I have three or four drafts worth working on. The next Manchester Writing Day is on March 14th. I’ll be there, will you?

Here’s the poem I wrote to the Simmonds prompt. It was to write a poem about someone who taught you something. I chose to move away from school and look to life. I wrote about my old Aunt Mary, who was a fount of wise sayings. When I was a teacher I used to use some of these sayings with the children. Name-calling? My Old Aunt Mary used to say ‘Call me anything you like as long as you don’t call me late for dinner.’ Workmen in the street? My Old Aunt Mary used to say ‘I love hard work, I could watch it all day.’ She had so many sayings that the children got to know Aunt Mary almost as well as I knew her myself. So this is the poem about a woman who taught me lots, including how to knit, and how to repair your knitting when it went wrong. She used her fingertips to feel her way in the world.

My Old Aunt Mary

 At just the right moment, one of her wise sayings
pops into my head—
everyone’s willin’
            some’s willin’ to work
            and some’s willin’ to let ‘em
and I’m a child again in that huge iron bath,
Aunt Mary kneeling on the bath mat,
sponge soaped and ready.

I’m not keen to show those bits of my body
that hide discretely under liberty bodices,
in knickers, as Aunt Mary, blind since childhood,
knows.
I’ll wash up as far as possible
            and down as far as possible—
            you can wash possible yourself
she says.

Rachel Davies
February 2020

In which I learn to play an (un)musical instrument…

This week began and ended with poetry. In between were dogs and walks.

On Sunday I had to go into Manchester for a Poets&Players planning meeting at the Whitworth Art Gallery. Oh my, that was an eventful journey. On Sunday the tram network was disrupted ‘bigly’ by ‘engineering works’, so the tram I usually take to St Peter’s Square terminated at Exchange Square. I had a long walk to the Principal on Oxford Rd. to get a bus to the Whitworth; and when I did get the bus, I overshot my stop and had to walk back. The homeward journey was just as disrupted.

P&P heard recently that we have received Arts Council England funding for another twelve months, so we were able to plan our 2020-21 programme with confidence. Our high-quality events at the Whitworth continue on February  22nd with J O Morgan, and a poetry translation-collaboration between Maria Stepanova and Sasha Dugdale. The ‘player’ this month will be Phil France. You can find our developing programme on our website: https://poetsandplayers.co/future-events/

Tuesday to Friday daytimes I spent at my daughter Amie’s house, dog-sitting her two lovely Cockerpoos, Cooper and Sonny. Her sisters-in-law walked their dogs with us, so I had the confidence to let Amie’s boys off the lead for a good run. I’ve lived in Saddleworth for thirty plus years, and this week I discovered three lovely new-to-me walks. On Tuesday I walked up Lark Hill from Dobcross. It was mizzly and wet when we set out, but half way through the cloud broke up and the sun came out, revealing lovely views across Saddleworth. The dogs enjoyed it, especially Cooper, who found some fox poo to roll in. Oh my word, caked! And foul-smelling! We had to give him a good bath before I could take him indoors. In the afternoon I took them for a second walk in Delph park, behind the Chippie, through meadows beside the River Tame with its gentle waterfalls. How did I not know about this? And on Friday we walked again from Delph, this time behind the White Lion pub, through meadows and wetlands. It was messy, up-to-your-eyes wet mud, but it was a crisp, frosty morning and the panoramic views were amazing.

On Friday evening I went into Manchester with Hilary. It was the gala celebration event for the Manchester writing prizes, established by Carol Ann Duffy as an aspect of her Laureateship. The event was held in Chetham’s Library, an historic and atmospheric venue next door to Manchester Cathedral. We arrived in time for a celebratory glass of wine before the finalists read their work. It was a diverse and wonderful shortlist and audience. Hilary and I sat behind some visitors from Cincinnati who were there to support a finalist friend.  One of them had brought a bag of kazoos. Of course, Hilary and I cadged a kazoo each to augment our applause; and we learned to play it, which is more than some of our neighbours managed. Hilary’s was in her favourite shade of orange, mine a confident pink:

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My beautiful new Kazoo

Samples of all the finalists’ works were read out; if the writer couldn’t attend, one of the judges read for them. There was some seriously exciting work; as you’d expect from a competition with a prize of £10,000 each for the winning poetry and fiction writers, a liberating sum designed to give the winner the financial security, time and space to be able to develop their writing. The winner of the poetry prize was Momtaza Mehri, an exciting new voice whom I’d heard read at Verve Festival in Birmingham last year. The winner of the fiction prize was artist/writer Tim Etchells, who is Professor of Performance at Lancaster University. This is a competition that attracts and showcases the most original and exciting of contemporary writing. Congratulations to all the finalists: being on the shortlist of such an amazing competition is a prize and an achievement in itself. Hilary and I had a lovely evening, met up with some poet friends, heard the best of modern poetry and fiction writing, and had complimentary wine. Afterwards we went into Mamucium for coffee and cheese scones—which were cleverly masquerading as cheese and onion pakora. Also, the tram journey was uneventful, which is a bonus. All round, a perfect evening.

On Saturday I had a family day: my sons Richard and Michael visited; Amie cooked lunch, a lovely vegan moussaka with Greek salad, and White chocolate and raspberry ‘brownies’ with ice cream for dessert. Michael came to collect the Grundig radiogram Amie was giving away: he’s a devout vinyl collector. Richard came just because. It was a lovely day, a perfect evening. As I parked my car when I arrived, I found the Ugg mitten I’d thought was lost forever: it was on Amie’s neighbour’s wall, wet but wholesome. Which was especially nice, because, also thinking I’d lost it, Amie bought me some pink Ugg gloves to say ‘thank you for Cockerpoo Sitting’. I have a plethora of Ugg gloves. I am truly blessed.

I won’t leave you with one of my poems this week. Instead you can read the Manchester Prize shortlisted poems here:

https://www2.mmu.ac.uk/media/mmuacuk/content/documents/manchester-writing-competition/2019-Manchester-Poetry-Prize-short-lists.pdf

and the Manchester Prize shortlisted fiction here:

https://www2.mmu.ac.uk/media/mmuacuk/content/documents/manchester-writing-competition/2019-Manchester-Fiction-Prize-short-lists.pdf

I hope you will check them out; they are well worth the read.

There’s always poetry

It’s February. My least favourite month. T S Eliot wrote ‘April is the cruellest month’; I disagree. For me it’s February, coming at the end of a long winter of grey skies, grey light, grey, grey days, long, long nights. February. Its only redeeming feature is that it’s also the shortest month; although this year of course, it’s a bit longer. Twenty nine days to process. And to make it worse: B****t. It’s happened. We’re no longer part of the European Community. As if February wasn’t bad enough already without taking away that fundamental aspect of my sense of self. Truly, roll on Spring. If February’s here, can Spring be far behind?

Thankfully, I have poetry in my life and that lightens the greyest days. This week I’ve had loads of competition entries to process. The closing date was January 22nd, but various diary commitments at the end of last week meant I had to put off processing the last of the entries until early this week. We had a record number of entries this year, which is wonderful: thank you and good luck if you sent us your work. I eventually got them all processed by Tuesday. On Wednesday I wrapped a thousand poems, took them to Oldham Post Office to send them on their way to Sinéad Morrissey, our judge. So if you sent us your poems, thank you and good luck. They’re now with Sinéad and she’ll start the long process of reading and sifting until she comes up with our winners by mid-March. We’ll inform our winners; but we won’t make the decision public until our celebration event on April 4th. Be at the Whiworth on that afternoon to be one of the first to know. Keep up to date on our website, https://poetsandplayers.co/

Tuesday evening was our monthly Stanza meeting. We meet on the last Tuesday of each month, 7.30 to 9.30 at the Buffet Bar, Stalybridge Station.

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Reading Simon Armitage at the Buffet Bar, Stalybridge

This session was dedicated to the poetry of our new Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage. We read and discussed his work. There were five of us at the meeting; and a plethora of Simon Armitage collections. He’s such a prolific writer; and we were impressed by the variety of his work. Poetry, prose, humour, sadness, philosophy, translation: it’s all here. We had collections from his residency at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, culminating in the publication of The Twilight Readings (Yorkshire Sculpture Park; 2008), a beautifully produced book of his writings with pictures from the park. I was given a copy of the book when I researched poetry residencies during my MA: Simon’s residency was one I concentrated on. I was able to get it signed eventually. One of his latest collections is Flit (Yorkshire Sculpture Park; 2018) in which he reimagines the Park as the European republic of Ysp.  We read from these books, and from books honouring war veterans; international events like the 9/11 terrorist attacks; close readings and translations of literary classics: Sir Gawain, Death of the King, Homer: all these published by Faber and Faber, I think. And although we didn’t read from them, we discussed the prose and poetry accounts of his troubadour walks along the Pennine Way and the south-west coastal path. He is indeed a prolific writer and a worthy Laureate. Also, I found out I actually have Armitage collections on my shelves that haven’t been signed yet: not sure how that’s happened, but I’ll be putting it to bed as soon as the opportunity present itself, hopefully later this year.

On Wednesday evening I went with Hilary Robinson to an open mic reading, Bad Language in Gulliver’s Bar in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, with irrepressible hosts, Fat Roland and Joe Daly. Ian Humphries was the headline poet—another Manchester Writing School MA Creative Writing graduate: we are a large community! Ian gave a masterful reading from his collection Zebra (Nine Arches Press; 2019). If you haven’t read it yet, get it, read it. It’s good poetry. The poem that provides the title, ‘Zebra on East 55th and 3rd’ imagines a zebra in New York City, unnoticed by folk absorbed in their mobile phones: ‘Unfazed, he grazes on popcorn and nachos/from a Keep New York City Clean litter bin…’ Hilary and I both had reading slots in the second half of the evening. I was last to read. I took three of the poems I wrote after my daughter was diagnosed with malignant melanoma four and a half years ago. If I’d known I was going to read last, I might have chosen something less intense, a bit more cheerful, but I didn’t.

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open-mic reading at Bad Language, 29.01.2020

However, they proved a good end to a fantastic night celebrating established and emerging writers. As we were leaving the pub a member of the audience, outside enjoying a fag, shook my hand and thanked me. It’s the little things; and I suppose cancer affects us all in some way. I’m very pleased to tell you that Amie is recovering well; she’s still being monitored, but we expect her to be discharged from the Christie’s outpatient care later this year. I had a message from my son, Richard, while I was at Bad Language: he’d fallen while out running, damaged his shoulder, bruised his face and leg. He was in A&E with a sling on his arm. Nothing broken, thankfully, just badly bruised. Fitness eh? It’s bad for you. When I feel like getting fit, I sit down with a brew until the feeling passes. Here’s a list of upcoming Bad Language nights at Gulliver’s: https://badlanguagemcr.com/events/

Poetry weeks are the best. Even B****t can’t cloud that. I still say ‘bollocks to B****t’: I’ve got the badge; I wore it on Friday when we left the Union. I hung my little European flag in my front window and played Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. However insular we become as a country, I’ll always see myself as a citizen of the world. So yes, bollocks to B****t; and hooray for Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’. There’s not much in the world that poetry can’t make better.

I’ll leave you with one of the poems I read at Bad Language on Wednesday: it addresses the biopsy of the mutant mole Amie had on her shin, early in the diagnostic process. I used to think melanoma was just a rogue mole; you had it removed and you were cured. I’ve learned a lot since that early naivety, and if you are concerned about a mole anywhere on your body I urge you to get it checked out, the sooner the better. Melanoma is not someone you want to mess with. Here’s the poem: it’s included in my 4Word pamphlet, to be published later this year.

 

Biopsy

 A tiny room a doctor two nurses
you me a trolley a bed gloves masks
gowns a small jar a scalpel.

At last we’ll see it cut down to size,
a raisin in a raspberry jus, tamed
evil in a plastic jar. The nurse

slaps a label on, puts it in a bag
for the lab—a foreign body,
a pernicious collection of cells

turning back on themselves,
mutating, rolling time into an avalanche.
Look, it has ambitions to rule the world,

a tiny Brain of Morbius breathing.
I can feel its little pulse, hear it
croaking malice to other samples

in other jars in white coated labs, massing.
As we sip our coffees it’s multiplying,
rallying under the stare of the microscope.

We’ll see.      We will.         We
wait.               Wait.        Just wait.

Rachel Davies
2015

 

 

In Which Poetry Restores My Sense of Self

I feel more like my real self this week: it’s been a week full of poetry, a week that began with a walk alongside a frozen canal with Amie and the Cockerpoos. I’ll be doing this again later today.

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a walk alongside the canal, Uppermill to Diggle

As for poetry, the Poets & Players competition closed at midnight on Tuesday. I had a steady stream of entries to my inbox all day. By midnight I had about 250 new entries to process; and an unreliable internet. I did what I could in the short windows it gave me, so I’m now down to the last 50 or so. By the end of this week, they will all be winging their way through time and space to Sinead Morrisey, our judge. Then the wait for the results: watch this space. It seems to have been a record entry this year, so a big P&P thank you all who entered; and good luck.

I’ve been reading the book of essays Hilary Robinson gave me for Christmas: Rishi Dastidar’s The Craft (Nine Arches Press, 2019). It’s a good read. Favourite essays so far have been ‘I Will Put Chaos into Fourteen Lines and Keep Him There: On the Sonnet’ by Jacqueline Saphra and ‘Writing Poems Can Be Real Cool: On the Golden Shovel’ by Peter Kahn. There’s an interesting exercise at the back by Saphra to go with her chapter: she suggests fourteen rhyming words to use at the end of each line of a sonnet, to be written in iambic pentameter, with the traditional abba cddc efgefg rhyme scheme of the Petratchan sonnet. No prompt at the back from Kahn, but his chapter asks us to always be alert to lines of poetry—or prose—that will provide Golden Shovel, so my notebook is at the ready

Yesterday, Saturday was the best poetry day of all: it was the Poets&Players event at the Whitworth Art Gallery on Oxford Road, Manchester. The day began with a workshop run by Jo Shapcott. There were only two exercises in the workshop, but they were engaging. First, as a warm up, we were asked to write down a favourite word and a type of weather that says something about us. I wrote down ‘longing’: the first word that popped into my head; and ‘sunshine’ because it’s been a grey, grey week for weather and I’m a summer person. Then we had to write a ‘very short poem’, a haiku for instance, including those two words and a catastrophic event to finish it with. All this in fourteen syllables? I’ll write my attempt at the end of the blog. The second activity was more involved. We read ‘Kintsugi’ by Rebecca Perry (from Beauty/Beauty, Bloodaxe 2015). Kintsugi is a Japanese word, it describes that Japanese craft of mending broken pottery with gold, to make the mend—and the piece of pottery—more beautiful as a result of the break. The poem is about a broken relationship, and the mending of self by the narrator. It’s a beautiful poem. Next we lucky-dipped two ‘fortune cookies’ with foreign words and their meanings. I dipped ‘Eomchina’—which I read as ‘ee-om-chee-nah’, a Korean word meaning ‘Mum’s friend’s son’ in the negative sense of mothers being competitive and comparing their own sons to their friends’ sons, usually in a derogarory way to encourage them to do better. The second word was the Swedish word ‘Gökotta’ meaning to wake up early in order to go outdoors and listen to the first birdsong of the day. We had to put these words into a poem; or at least the sentiment behind them becasue we couldn’t use the word itself. I’ll maybe include a stanza of my effort at the end too.

The afternoon event was wonderful. Chris Davies, musician and fellow founder of Poets&Players, provided the ‘Player’ element yesterday. His first contribution was a flute piece evocative of the natural world, haunting and exotic, sounding of rainforests and birdsong. There were words too, spiritual spoken words. A second, supporting performer, Bisakha Sarker, interpreted the words and music in Indian dance. It was beautiful, graceful movement, as you’d expect from Indian dancing, Bisakha’s whole body to the tips of her fingers expressing the dance. What a wonderful start to the afternoon.

IMG_1705
Bisakha Sarker dancing to the music of Chris Davies

Our poets were Jennifer Lee Tsai, Kim Moore and Jo Shapcott. Jennifer read from her pamphlet Kismet (Ignition Press), poems that address the conflict between her Chinese and English heritages. ‘River Mersey’ is ‘a geography of otherness’, a dedication to her grandfather who arrived as an immigrant into Liverpool. ‘Self Portrait at Four Years Old’ describes her sense of that same ‘otherness’ growing up as the only Chinese child in her primary school, where her uniform was ‘grey like an English sky’. It’s a sad poem of loneliness and difference: ‘I am learning how to be silent,’ she read. She explained how her father was concerned about her love of books because ‘the Cantonese word for book sounds like the word for to lose’. That seems wholly appropriate to me, as a book is a thing to get lost in.

Next reader was Kim Moore. Kim is a superwoman, juggling the disparate roles of poet, poetry teacher, PhD research student and new mother. There’s a photo that illustrates her super-human power on her website: https://kimmoorepoet.wordpress.com Baby Ally came to the reading and not a peep; perhaps she’s a poet in the growing? Kim read from her collection The Art of Falling (Seren 2015), and from her PhD portfolio, which will become her second collection All the Men I Never Married. Personal favourites are ‘The Trumpet Teacher’s Curse’: ‘a curse on the boy who threw up in his baritone/as if it was his own personal bucket.’ Every cursed thing in the poem actually happened in her years as a peripatetic music teacher in Cumbria. She read from a section of the book which addresses domestic violence, poems it’s difficult to hear: ‘And in that year I gave up on all the things/I was promised and left myself to sadness.’ The new work is different, still retaining Kim’s sense of humour, but addressing casual sexism and female desire. So far she has written about forty of the men she never married. Her PhD is coming to an end early this year, so will there be more? I look forward to buying the book.

After a short comfort break we had a second input of music from Chris Davies, this time incorporating a poem, ‘Frisco’, by the late Linda Chase, co-founder of Poets&Players. It was good to hear Linda’s lovely voice again; she’s still sadly missed by everyone who knew her. Poets&Players wouldn’t even be a thing without Linda’s creative genius. There’s a recording of ‘Frisco’ on our website: https://poetsandplayers.co/linda-chase/
Chris used an instrument called a hangpan, a kind of steel drum, but held on the knee and played with the hands. It’s sound was sometimes like a harp, sounding plucked, sometimes a harder sound more reminiscent of a steel drum. He told me hangpans are made in Switzerland and you have to go to the factory/workshop to buy one, to find the one that best suits you.

The afternoon ended with a wonderful reading by Jo Shapcott, our headline poet: https://www.joshapcott.com She read about Emily Wilding Davison. She’s most famous for being the suffragette who threw herself under the King’s horse; but Jo reminded us that Davison was a fearless campaigner for women’s suffrage, and her poem describes Davison hiding in a cupboard in the Houses of Parliament on the night of the 1911 census, so she could record her home address as the Houses of Parliament. No matter how frustrating the political situation gets, we should never waste our vote, because it was hard-won.  Jo also read a couple of poems about having to visit Guy’s hospital in London, the hospital where John Keats had been a surgeon. Her poems are imaginings of Keats being her surgeon there: ‘…let me feel your pulse for axioms’. Well, that line went into my notebook straightaway: what a good line for one of Kahn’s ‘golden shovels’! I’ll definitely be trying that on for size.

I love weeks like this, when my life fills to the brim with poems. Our next event at the Whitworth is on February 22nd: https://poetsandplayers.co/future-events/ with the poets J O Morgan and Maria Stepanova, with Sasha Dugdale as translator, music from Phil France. It promises to be another good event. Will I see you there?

Here are the pieces—very early drafts, draft 0—I produced in Jo Shapcott’s workshop yesterday morning.

SAD
This veiled sunshine is
longing for eggs frying on
pavements, melting wings.

And next is one stanza of the poem from the second activity: I think it was inspired by the news this week that a long-lost painting of Lowry’s has sold for in excess of £2,000,000. How noble is that for a ‘hobby’? I recently watched the film ‘Mrs Lowry and Son’, and she spent her life ruing the day her husband scuppered her middle-class aspirations through his mounting debt, forcing their move to a shabby mill district of Salford. She reminded me of Bill’s mum. Bill was an architect in his working life, an unlikely profession for a man from working class Manchester. His mum couldn’t appreciate what it took to achieve this and she used to say ‘He should have been a car mechanic, he was always good with his hands.’

 E-om-chee-nah
L S Lowry’s mother said
he should stop wasting his time
on useless hobbies,
leave his easel, get a proper job.
Knocking doors for rent arrears
is more noble than painting
teeming millworkers,
common as warehouse rats.

Rachel Davies
January 2020 

…say nothing

For the first time since I started my blogspot in 2015, I am lost for words. Now the PhD is done, I have noting to say; and my old Aunt Mary used to say, ‘if you have nothing to say, say nothing.’ I’m in a wonderful and unusual state of having nothing extraordinary to write about. I’ve had a most boring week of not much happening; although I’ve responded to several poetry opportunities, so I know it’s just a short dearth. I did go walking with Amie and the Cockerpoos a couple of times along the canal from Uppermill to Diggle for coffee and doggy sausages at Grandpa Greene’s: we managed to avoid the worst excesses of Storm Brendan, although the towpath was very muddy after all the recent rain. 

And then on Friday I went into Manchester with my poetry twin, Hilary Robinson. It was Hilary’s birthday on Tuesday so we took one of our legendary CCP days–cider, cake and Paperchase–to celebrate; although we had wine instead of cider, and churros instead of cake. We had a long, leisurely lunch in Wahaca in Exchange Square. We did do the Paperchase bit though, where I bought some new notebooks in the sale (as if I haven’t got a cupboard full already) and started my Christmas shopping for next Christmas. In the Doc Marten shop I resisted the urge to buy some new DMs, but it was a fight. They were gorgeous but a bit tight over the instep. I’ll keep looking.

The rest of the week has been mostly about processing online entries to the Poets&Players competition, which closes at midnight on Tuesday so you still have time to get your entries in: https://poetsandplayers.co On past experience, it’ll be about all I’ll be doing this week, because entries come in thick and fast in the last couple of days; and I have to have them off to our judge, Sinead Morrisey by the beginning of February. It’s an exciting time, but not as exciting as waiting to discover our winners. I’ll keep you posted. While I’m on the subject of P&P I’ll throw in a reminder about our upcoming events. We heard recently that our Arts Council bid has been successful, so we can keep organising our wonderful, free-to-our-audinece events for at least another twelve months. We’ve got some terrific events planned, so check them out here: https://poetsandplayers.co/future-events/ and come along to the Whitworth Gallery on Oxford Road for as many as you can. Where else do you get this quality for no outlay? Our 2020 kicks off next Saturday with a Jo Shapcott workshop in the morning, followed by readings in the afternoon by Jo Shapcott, Kim Moore and Jennifer Lee Tsai, with music by Chris Davies.  I’ll be introducing Kim Moore, the easiest job I’ll have all year. I’m really looking forward to it; and hopefully to writing something worthwhile in the morning workshop; and to having something to write about next week!

Because that’s it for this week. I’m off for another walk to Grandpa Greene’s this morning, then I’ll be processing more entries. Keep ’em coming and have a good week.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Australia these last few weeks, with the awful fires raging around the south east of the country. Bill and I followed the cricket there in 2007 and again in 2011. So my Facebook ‘memories’ are mostly about Australia at the moment–we were there in January into February both times. My poem this week is a reminder of our first visit and why we went there in the first place. We were lucky enough to be in the Sydney Cricket Ground when Glenn McGrath bowled his last ball for Australia, an amazing and memorable moment. This poem recalls that moment; and was shortlisted in the Ilkley Poetry Festival competition a few years ago.

 

Stumps
McGrath’s Last Ball for Australia
Sydney Cricket Ground 02.02.07

In these dying moments of the match
as you bend to a setsquare buffing the ball,
does your brain replay your international career:

the thousand or so leg befores,
catches behind, in the slips, in the deep,
all those middle pegs somersaulting to Gilchrist,
the dogged run chases wagging the tail?

Or do sixty thousand feet tracing your paces
on grandstand floors, hands drumming your beat
on chair-backs, voices rising in a tsunami of sound,
flush all thought before it?
A deafening noise, a roar of Thor

covers the ground, darkens the sky, places
a thunderbolt in your hand, lightning in your stride so,
as if in glorious slo-mo, you run up, plant your feet,
deliver the ball—it is, after all, just a ball.
It bounces short of a length.

Nixon thinks he’ll steal your thunder,
lofts it high over extra cover
where it seems to hover.
English voices join the noise

but on the boundary, buoyed by the tide,
Hodge stretches, hand open
and Nixon c Hodge b McGrath.

Rachel Davies
(more years ago than I care to recall!)

 

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: https://poetsandplayers.co

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
2015

(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 https://poetsandplayers.co 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
2016ish

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

‘…the strong life of the inert’

My header this week is a line from Jean Sprackland’s poem ‘Crystallography’, in Green Noise (London: Jonathan Cape, 2018). I love this phrase from Jean’s poem, how inanimate objects have a life whose sole purpose is to confound: about which, more later.

I’ve had a lovely week visiting friends and family this week, so work of most kinds has been on the back burner. On Sunday we had our first snow of the winter—thankfully not too much—when I went to Peterborough with my daughter, Amie to visit my son, Richard. We went out for our Christmas meal together, with another friend. We don’t spend money on gifts anymore, things no-one really wants or needs; instead, we spend time together. Time: it’s the best Christmas present ever. On Monday I met a former colleague and friend for tea in the Newbank Nursery in Dobcross. We had the biggest chocolate muffins on the planet. They were enormous, with chunks of chocolate and stuffed full with double cream. On Wednesday I travelled south again to visit my sister in Stamford, Lincs. We swapped presents and had lunch together, then I drove on to Bourne, Lincs to stay overnight with my lovely friends, Jo and Bernard: we worked together in a primary school in Peterborough more years ago than I care to remember. It’s a lot of travelling, but I love this time of year, a time when we commit to visiting friends we don’t see nearly enough throughout the year.

On the domestic front, we’ve been waiting to have our chimney pot replaced since we had the chimney swept back in September. The roofer recommended by the chimney sweep was so busy we had to wait a couple of months for him to fit us in. He was due to come on Tuesday but didn’t make it. We tried to contact him but he didn’t get back to us; not a word. I was angry, Bill was more understanding: he’s a busy man, we’re in a queue etc. I was all up for telling Mr Roofer to stick his chimney pot up his ‘to do’ list and find someone else for the job. What are the chances of that in Christmas week? Anyway, yesterday Bill went out to do some boring B&Q shopping etc and I thought I’d make myself a mocha and watch some escapist rubbish on Netflix. I just settled to my task when a loud noise up the chimney spooked the cats and spooked me. The cats shot upstairs and hid under the futon. That seemed extreme action for a septuagenarian so I listened for a while and it became apparent that someone was on the roof. I went outside to investigate. Three men were removing the chimney pot and replacing it with a jackdaw-proof pot. It’s a long time since a man made my heart skip a beat; yesterday three men managed it remotely from the roof while I was indoors! We didn’t know they were coming, but they had the job done within an hour. We can light the fire now and be warm through the winter. The job’s done; I hope it’s a goodun. The jackdaws were massing like a scene from a Hitchcock movie to check out the new chimney pot. For now they’re confounded. Spring nesting will reveal all.

On the PhD front—sort of—I tried to buy A4 photo frames this week. I wanted two: one for my beautiful PhD certificate and its twin for the graduation photo when it’s taken next July. I found a lovely one in Paperchase; the problem was: only one. The sales assistant checked out the stockroom and no, this was the only one. So I left it. I looked in M&S, W H Smith, Next: no A4 frames at all. I eventually found a pair in Tesco when I did the weekly shop. Why is it so difficult to find an A4 frame—and even more difficult to find a pair?

Poetry: I’m well into processing entries for the Poets & Players Competition 2020. The closing date is 21st January and our judge this year is Sinead Morrisey. You’ll find details here: https://poetsandplayers.co so get your creative muscle toned and send me some work to do. You have four weeks left. Four days after the deadline, on 25th January, we have Jo Shapcott and Kim Moore reading for us at the Whitworth Art Gallery on Oxford Road, Manchester. So come along to that: it’s FREE and it’s wonderful. You can find details of up-coming events at our website, via the link above.

Back to ‘the strong life of the inert’: I woke up at 4.45 this morning, pretty normal for me, and got ready to write my blog. My MacBook had updates to install, so I clicked ‘install now’ thinking it would be a process of a few minutes. Ha! It took an hour to update and another three quarters to install. Nearly two hours is a long time to be twiddling thumbs.

Anyway, that’s it for this week: a slack week for ‘PhD and poetry’, but a very rich one for ‘Life’. I hope you all have a lovely Christmas week, whatever your cultural and religious beliefs. The Christmas message of ‘Peace on Earth, goodwill to all’ seems to have got lost somewhat in the crazy political temperature of the modern world; but perhaps we can all do a little to reinstate it within our own lives: microcosms can build macrocosms. Merry Christmas, and a peaceful and productive New Year to you all.

images
picture of Santa Claus from Wiki-images

 

I’ll leave you with a poem I wrote at a Poets & Players workshop with Steve Ely. Yesterday was the Winter Solstice, the shortest day. It’s a downhill roll toward spring now, isn’t it? So it seems appropriate to leave you with a poem about the Greek myth of Persephone and the seasons.

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!

Rachel Davies
2018