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).

February, off to a good start…

This week has been about 23 days long! Last Sunday I went to a late Christmas afternoon tea at Hilary’s sister Cath’s. It seems longer than a week ago. We had a great time: loads of food, a wide selection of teas, wine and gin. I don’t drink gin, but I tasted a fair few experimental cocktail mixes which the other guests invented. Cath’s dining table was groaning under the weight of food: there were cheese sandwiches, turkey sandwiches, pigs (and devils) in blankets, stuffing balls, pizzas, vegetarian paté, falafels, sherry trifle; Hilary’s Christmas cake is legendary. My vegan quiche was edible—I think it would have been better with eggs and real cheese, personally—but the vegan cheesecake was lovely: very creamy, rich and cheesecake-like. We all sang along to Mama Mia 2 after tea and blubbed like babies. I was on such a sugar rush when I got home, I couldn’t sleep.

Tuesday the snow arrived. We had to drive to Macclesfield for a funeral. Bill’s long-time friend, Jim, died from dementia earlier in January. They’d been friends since nursery school, seventy-five years ago, so Bill was particularly upset. We drove through several snow showers; it was wet and cold and miserable, as is fitting for such funerals. It was a sad day; but we met up with a friend we’d met on a holiday in Lesbos about ten years ago and who we’d lost touch with in recent years. It was a real surprise to see her: we’d forgotten she was also a friend of Jim’s wife, Audrey. We’ve agreed to keep in touch and meet up again soon. The drive home from the wake in Alderley Edge was through relentless snow. It took about twice as long to get home as it took to get to Macclesfield in the morning; it took more than half an hour to get to our village from Oldham, normally a ten-minute drive. I was relieved to park on our drive at last, even though we had to dig our way in. It should have been our January Stanza meeting on Tuesday evening, but I emailed members to cancel; we’ll defer our planned writing activities until the February meeting. We hunkered down in front of the fire instead.

Wednesday was the start of a wonderful week of poetry. Late last year I heard from a composer, Ben Gaunt, with whom I’ve collaborated on several pieces of work in the past. I first met Ben in 2008 when we were paired to work together on the Rosamund Prize, a collaborative event between Creative Writing MA students at MMU’s Writing School and the Royal Northern College of Music. We didn’t win the Rosamund Prize, but we’ve been in touch several times since then. We’ve had one piece, ‘Sounds of the Engine House’, inspired by the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry, performed at the Bridgewater Hall. We had a collaborative concert at a church in Manchester a couple of Christmases ago when a group of my poet friends read poems to music from an ensemble of Ben’s musician friends. Then before Christmas Ben contacted me to ask if I’d be interested in another collaboration. He sent me a bassoon piece he’d written that he’d like me to write a poem to. He wanted a ‘daytime lullaby’, the piece was inspired by an owl. It is a haunting piece of music, sort of incremental steps, repeating with that lovely mournful bassoon sound. So on Wednesday I sat myself down, listened to the music again several times, tried to draw the pattern of it on paper. I researched owls, decided I wanted to write about the tawny owl, which is the one that has the famous owl hoot, at least the male does. The female responds with a ‘keewik’ sound. I found out that in some parts the tawny owl is known by the places it can be heard; as a result this became a repeating refrain in my poem: beech owl, screech owl, oak owl, hill hooter. I researched ‘lullabies’ to make sure mine had the required elements. Obviously they are sleep inducers; but also a means of passing on cultural and social behaviours. All of this went into my poem. The musical piece is just over 4 minutes long, so my poem had to fit that time scale when it’s read aloud. I wrote it in three line stanzas (tercets) then decided it was better, more lullaby-like if I combined stanzas into sestets—six liners. The refrain comes between each stanza. I had three sestets in my poem; but when I read it aloud I realised I had used only about a minute and a half of the time. I decided it would work well if I made it a specular poem: a poem that is mirror-like, reflects itself backwards in the second half. So I tried it and, with minor modifications, it worked. I crafted the poem all day, editing, redrafting, changing a word here, a line-break there. I read it to Bill. He liked the poem but didn’t like the line ‘Unseen in your sleeping bag of leaves’: he felt ‘sleeping bag’ was too mundane; I thought about it and changed it to ‘eiderdown’, which I actually like better too. By the end of the day I had a poem I was happy with; no, I had a poem I was excited by. It fitted the music, it was read aloud in 3.5 minutes, a perfect fit for the music. I sent Ben a message to say I had a poem but I hung on to it until Friday morning, read it through several times to make sure I’d finished with it. I sent it to Hilary and she liked it too; she even liked ‘sleeping bag’. On Friday morning I sent it to Ben. I had a message back later to say he thought the poem was ‘magnificent’, that ‘it’s going to work perfectly’. Yay! I love it when things work out. We’re meeting in Leeds on February 11th, a week tomorrow, to record it in a proper recording studio. I’ll know more about the fate of the collaborative piece then. I’ll keep you posted.

Friday, the first day of my least favourite month of the year, started with a trip to Oldham Royal Hospital for a dental consultation about the recurring root canal infection. Mr Boyd is a lovely man—I don’t routinely say that about dentists!—who has an interest in poetry. My appointment was at 9.15 so I expected to be out by 10.30. Silly, I know, but hope springs…I was called into the clinic at 9.30. Mr Boyd checked my teeth then sent me to the x-ray department for a full mouth scan. It was nearly 10.45 by the time I got back from there, then I had to wait to see him again about the result. He showed me the scan results, which revealed an area of chronic infection behind two neighbouring teeth. He talked about my options, the most appealing of which was to do nothing. He said whatever he did with that tooth would leave it in a weaker position than it’s in now: he actually said the tooth as it stands will probably outlive the patient, but if he does any work on it, he’ll weaken it. So he’s going to recommend to my dentist that we do nothing unless the infection gives rise to the need for antibiotics too frequently; then possibly to perform a root filling on the tooth next door, which might help. It was midday when I left the hospital.

At 5.30 I met Hilary in town. We met at Salvi’s, a small Italian restaurant on Exchange Square, where we had a lovely meal before going to the Manchester Writing Prize event at Chetham’s Library. What a splendid evening that was. We met up with lots of lovely poetry friends: the room was full of Manchester’s literati, including the poet laureate, whose original idea the Manchester Prize was. With prize money of £10,000 for each of the genres, this is one of the biggest writing prizes in the country; to be shortlisted is an event in itself. A friend of ours, Katie Hale from Cumbria, who we met through Kim Moore’s poetry courses, was on the poetry shortlist, so it was an exciting evening. Details of the shortlisted writers and their works—short stories and poetry—can be found here:https://www2.mmu.ac.uk/media/mmuacuk/content/documents/manchester-writing-competition/2018-short-listed-poems.pdf and details of the winners of the fiction and poetry prizes, Gabriel Monteros and Molly Underwood respectively, can be found here: https://www2.mmu.ac.uk/writingcompetition/news/story/?id=9405

It was a lovely, uplifting evening.

On Saturday I got down to some Poets&Players work. I processed the entries to our competition into my spreadsheet. Entries are beginning to come into my inbox at a steady rate, so if you like poetry, get writing and give me some work to do. You have until 13th March to get your entries in; and your poems will all be read by the wonderful Kei Miller. Details and competition rules are here: https://poetsandplayers.co/competition/competition-2019/

I also brought my P&P evaluations up to date, processing the questionnaires for the January 19th event. I missed it, unfortunately, but from the positive evaluations I can tell it was another good one. If you missed it you can find our recording on YouTube, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nVJ7Uqgb9xk&list=PL426OGPKVF3OfAyncsynG0CNtMI7dtAus

So that’s it, another wonderful week filled with some sadness, some tooth angst, but mostly poetry and more poetry. Anyone who knows me knows how much I hate February, that dreary end to winter, the long dark nights and short dark days. But this year, I’m being positive, finding reasons to be cheerful. Reason to be cheerful #1, 2 and 3: POETRY, POETRY AND POETRY!

I’m going to leave you with the first stanza of my new poem, ‘Tawny Owl Lullaby’. I won’t give you more than that because great things are expected of this piece of work so I’m saving it. But it is my latest poem and I love it, so you can have a taste. You might get the whole thing, including music, one day. I’ll keep it in mind.

 

Tawny Owl lullaby

The lantern moon has lit your feast
now sip the day, your sleeping draught.
There’s dawn and sunlight in the east—
here ends your raptor’s midnight feast,
your croon of darkness, silent flight.
Yawn homeward to your morning roost
          beech owl, screech owl, oak owl, hill hooter.

 

Rachel Davies
February 2019

The Fens in Veganuary

People ask me, what will you do when the PhD is over? I’m guessing most people—not everyone, obviously, but most—do a PhD for career purposes: they want to teach in a university or move on to other research projects, change the world in some small but significant way. My motivation for PhD has been entirely selfish: this has been a personal challenge. I wanted to see if I could do it. I don’t need PhD, but I do want it; in the same way I wanted to climb Snowdon by the Pyg Track before I was fifty. I managed that as well, by the way; and Helvelyn before I was sixty. It’s what I do: set a challenge and work towards it. After PhD? I’ve no idea. Perhaps I’ll challenge myself to learn a new language, or learn upholstery, or take up lace-making or tie-dye or batik; perhaps I’ll redraft all these blog posts into a novel, a work of fiction. There will be something; what it is yet I know not, but it feels good to be contemplating life after PhD. I’m still waiting to hear from the support team to discuss the latest draft I sent them, and I’m hoping that no news is good news; at least I’m hoping it means time isn’t pressing. Just a few more months, the hurdles of final edits, binding and submitting the manuscript, the Viva Voce. Then freedom, the summit of the mountain to contemplate my next move. In the meantime I’ve been reading a book that Kim Moore wrote about in her blog last week. It’s Relating Narratives: Storytelling and Selfhood by Adriana Cavarero; translated by Paul A. Kottman (London and New York: Routledge, 2000). Kim made it sound so vital a read that I downloaded it to my Kindle straight away. She wasn’t wrong: it could have me rethinking parts of my thesis. Well, not rethinking exactly, I don’t have time for that; more embellishing. It is indeed a powerful work of feminist writing.

This week has been another little taste of life after PhD. Last weekend I was in Lincolnshire with family and friends. It was cold, but bright and crisp, exhilarating. We came home on Sunday via Lincoln. We searched for a dog-friendly restaurant for lunch; were just considering getting a take-away to eat on the lawns outside the castle when we found a tiny café about half-way up Steep Hill. It served vegan food and welcomed dogs. Lunch sorted. We left Lincoln mid-afternoon to drive home to the frozen north.

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Walking on Mablethorpe Beach, 19.01.19

In the week James Draper posted a review in ‘aAh!’ of the Carol Ann Duffy and Friends event that I contributed to on January 14th. ‘aAh!’ is MMU’s official arts and culture student mag. I think its title is probably an acronym for ‘Arts and Humanities’. It was a lovely review—a few spelling mistakes, but hey! Apologies to ‘The Glass Aisle’ and to ‘Riggwelter’ for instance; but the substance of the review is written at the event, based on the journalist listening without chance to clarify. Here is a link to the review: https://aah-magazine.co.uk/2019/carol-ann-duffy-friends-the-glass-isle/

img_5799-1024x683Carol Ann Duffy and Friends, 14.01.19; photo courtesy of aAh! magazine.

On Tuesday I woke at 3 a.m. There was snow on the roofs of the cottages opposite. Thanks to the polymyalgia medication, I couldn’t get back to sleep: I often lie in bed on a Pred high, wide awake and remembering that line from Macbeth: “Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more!Macbeth shall sleep no more.’” Perhaps he was on Prednisolone as well, and Prednisolone hath murdered sleep. So, unfazed, I decided to use the time productively. I sent a selection of my ‘mother’ poems to Cinnamon Press’s pamphlet/collection competition. I sent to Fly on the Wall before Christmas; unfortunately I received a rejection in the New Year, but it was a very positive and uplifting rejection: Isabelle Kenyon, the editor, wrote ‘I very much enjoyed reading your work and it was a tough decision to turn your collection down… I encourage you to submit in future! I wish you all the best finding a suitable home for this great collection.’ I wish all rejections were so positive! So on Tuesday morning, at silly o’clock, I was in bed putting a collection of 25 poems together; I kissed them goodbye and pressed the ‘send’ button on them at 5.30 a.m.

At 8.00 I had an appointment for polymyalgia-related blood tests; so it was still dark when I went outside to scrape my car of frozen snow. I had intended to park at the garden centre and take the fifteen minute walk into Uppermill; but I thought perhaps a frozen canal path and my track record for staying upright might clash so I parked behind the museum like the coward I am. Bloods done, haircut done I went home and hunkered down in front of the fire and binge watched ‘The Long Song’. I read Andrea Levy’s wonderful novel some years ago, and the TV drama was a fine representation of the book I remembered. I loved the silent and crafty undermining of the slave owners by the slaves. But the cruelty, OMG; my colonial history makes me ashamed; and this is the history that made Britain ‘great’? This is the ‘control’ we want to ‘take back’? Well not in my name!

Wednesday I went into Uppermill again to meet up with Hilary for coffee and catch-up. I did walk in along the canal on Wednesday; it was freezing cold—minus 3*C, ice on the little brook behind the houses, but no ice on the canal; just lots of mallards with very cold bums. We discussed several readings we have coming up: including a twenty-five minute slot each at Writers in the Bath in Sheffield in June. We decided to split the timings, we’ll take ten minutes each, either side of the break. That way I can have ten minutes of ‘alternative mother’ poems, then ten minutes of other, more mixed work. Twenty-five minutes reading is a lot of voice! Hilary had booked our trains to Birmingham for the Verve Festival in February and for St. Ives for Kim Moore’s poetry week in April. We are two busy poets; long may it continue. Hilary is contemplating starting a PhD: I haven’t put her off then. I’ll be there to hold her hand when she needs it.

On Friday I met another friend, Joan; we ate at a lovely Mediterranean restaurant in Whitefield. The waiters kept us updated on Manchester United’s FA Cup match against Arsenal at the Emirates and we managed to catch the end of the match when we went back to Joan’s house for coffee. United won 1.3, Ole Gunnar’s eight-win run in charge. Go Utd, they look like a proper Reds team again!!

Later today I’m going to Hilary’s sister Cath’s for a late Christmas afternoon tea, a group of friends all bringing contributions. I committed to taking vegan food: I’m not vegan, I’m vegetarian; but someone else there is vegan, so I promised a vegan cheesecake and a vegan quiche. On Saturday I spent the day cooking. The quiche is tofu based and I must say it looks really rather good:

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My vegan broccoli and pepper quiche

The cheesecake uses soaked cashew nuts and coconut oil; I’ve made mine lime flavoured. It ‘cooks’ in the freezer, comes out to thaw out a couple of hours before eating. It also looks good, although I have no photos. I did lick the bowl though; and it does taste remarkably like cheesecake. I’ll keep you posted. I also have to take some books for a book swap; and a ‘Secret Santa’ gift. It’s so secret even I don’t know what it is yet!

That’s it then; another week, another new experience. The poem I’m leaving you with this week is a poem I wrote last year about the fens where I grew up. It seems apposite to include it after spending a week in the Lincolnshire fens; although this is about the Cambridgeshire fens, south of the Wash. I wrote it as a place poem about the Fens; but it occurred to me that place could be ‘alternative mother’ as well as folk. So I redrafted it as ‘Alternative Mother #17’. I think it works, and it’s leading me to think I could include other places that have been significant in my life. Always good to have a poem to write!

Alternative Mother #17
The Fens

 If landscape has mountains, forests,
a river forcing its course to the sea
she is no landscape.

If her horizon is fourteen miles away
your eyes will see for fourteen miles
across her sea-drained bed.

If goddesses reach down to touch her soil
there is nothing between their fingers
and her fecundity.

Her sky though, look at her sky,
high and wide as heaven!
She celebrates all the literature of skies,
their cumulonimbus poetry,
their war and peace.

Rachel Davies
2018

A foretaste of life after PhD

On Monday I read with ‘Carol Ann Duffy and Friends’ at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. I arrived at the Stage Door as requested at 6.00 p.m. and, as Bill opened the door into some dark cellar, might have become Manchester’s own phantom of the opera, forever roaming the bowels of the theatre, if the security man upstairs on CCTV vigilance hadn’t noticed and called us up the windy stairs to the first floor. We met up with Mark Pajak and John Fennelly,  the house poets. Cue the first glass of wine. I also met Daisy and Lauren, the two other MMU poets who were reading in the first half of the evening. We had sound checks, then a full run-through, in which my voice sounded, to me, weak and nervous. Thankfully, a second sauvignon blanc helped calm me down. The audience began to fill up. Hilary Robinson, my dragon sister, arrived. It was Hilary’s birthday, and I gave her my birthday present, which included Jackie Kay’s collection, Bantam (Picador 2017). I took my seat on the sofa on stage while jazz musicians played the audience in. Imagine my surprise when Jackie Kay herself walked in and sat full centre in the front row, directly in front of the lectern. And imagine the nerves, knowing the Makar, the Poet Laureate of Scotland, would be among the few audience members with whom I could make eye contact during the reading, because the theatre lights almost completely blind you to the entire audience apart from a section of the front row. Anyway, Daisy and Lauren read beautifully, confidently, hardly a sign of the nerves I know they were both feeling. Then it was my turn. I walked to the lectern. The nerves were somewhat dissipated by the wine and I felt good. I think it helped not to be able see the audience really. I read a couple of poems, the audience laughed in the right places, I relaxed, read some more; I read the last one, ‘Rhona the Rat Girl’. Applause. End of first half. I joined Hilary and Bill. I told Hilary that Jackie Kay was in the audience and could sign her copy of Bantam,so we went off in search. I know Jackie from having the pleasure, twice, of introducing her to our Poets&Players audiences, and she remembered. She hugged Hilary happy birthday and signed her book. She said how much she had enjoyed my work, especially my ‘alternative mother’ poems, and would like to buy Some Mothers Do…She asked us both to sign a copy while she went to get her purse. Oh Yes. Jackie Kay has a signed copy of our book. Let me tell you, it feels pretty damn good when one of your poetry heroes appreciates your work. I received positive comments from other audience members too.

The second half of the event was given over to a performance of ‘The Glass Aisle’, a collaboration between the Welsh poet, Paul Henry and singer-songwriter Brian Briggs. I loved the mix of poetry reading, then hearing the poetry set to music, sung to guitars. The poetry was lilting, nostalgic; and doubly beautiful when it was sung, what a lovely way to present poetry. After the event Hilary, her husband David, Bill and I went to the bar to meet up with MMU Writing School friends for a wind down. It was nearly 11.00 p.m. when we got up to leave. Brian Briggs saw us leaving and ran over to say how much he’d enjoyed my poems too, and did we have a book he could buy? How nice is that? Well, we did, so, with the door to the bar held open for our exit we waited for him to find the £8.99 in his pocket. In the end we said ‘just give us what you have.’ I actually have no idea how much he paid: it included a fiver, a one pound coin and a lot of small change, bless him. A perfect ending to the evening.

Hilary had brought Fiona Benson’s collection Vertigo and Ghost (Jonathan Cape 2019) to the Exchange. She’d been bowled over by this Forward Prize shortlisted collection and brought it to lend to me. So, being too high on poetry and Prednisolone to sleep after the Exchange, I was reading it in bed at 3.00 a.m. on Tuesday. It is indeed a fantastic collection. Buy it. Read it. I couldn’t put it down, read it through in one go; and will re-read it before I give it back to its rightful owner. I’ll probably buy a copy too. Trust me, it takes poetry to a whole new plane: startling and brilliant.

The rest of the week passed in refreshing mundane ordinariness. The thesis is with my DoS and support team, so I can’t do anything more to it until I’ve met with them. On Wednesday my daughter rang. She’s had an ear infection this week, so she was feeling ropey. She asked if we’d go into Oldham to collect her contact lenses: she’d just had an email to say they were in. So off we went to Specsavers to collect said lenses. Having searched through four drawers and the entire Specsavers online catalogue, the assistant couldn’t find a record anywhere. So I rang Amie—thank goodness for the mobile phone—and we were in the wrong shop! Her contact lenses were in Vision Express! So we went for a coffee before going to the right store to collect them. I took them to her house in the afternoon. She had that glassy look that she used to have when she had tonsillitis as a child. We had a brew together then I left and she went back to bed. When I rang the next day she was feeling better, still with earache, but her temperature was coming down. She took the rest of the week off work.

On Friday we came away to the Lincolnshire fens. Amie had hired a wooden cabin in the woods near Woodall Spa. I always thought Woodall Spa was somewhere in the west midlands, but no, it’s just a mile up the road from where we’re staying in Lincs. Amie is feeling much better, still dosing regularly on antibiotics and paracetemol, but improving every day. Yesterday we went to Mablethorpe to give the Cockerpoos a run on the long, sandy beach there. The wind was cold, but it was bright and dry. Apparently there has been some significant snow in the North West, so we’ve dodged that. It’s been lovely in Lincs. Later today we are going to visit Lincoln on our way home. Lincoln is one of my favourite cities: I did my first degree, BEd (Hons), from Bishop Grossteste College there in the eighties. I wanted to include a couple of photos of me relaxing on our weekend away, but the wifi here is almost non-existent; I don’t think it’ll cope with photos. Next week, perhaps?

So, I know now what life will be like post-PhD. I feel relaxed and happy. The stress for now is on the back burner, until I hear from the team with a meeting date. I’m beginning to look into book binding, preparing for the hard copy that must be submitted alongside the electronic submission, with a copy for myself, obviously. I can’t do anything about it until the team agrees that the work is done; and that might not be yet. But I’m preparing. The end is nigh, as the famous evangelical sandwich board says.

A poem: I’m going to give you a poem I read on Monday, an alternative mother poem from the book, one that was popular on the night. I first-drafted this at a Mark Pajak workshop in Nantwich a couple of years ago, and it’s one of my personal favourites. I love a three toed sloth, that total disregard for action. A bit like me post-PhD; perhaps I inherited the attitude after all.

 

Alternative Mother #7
A three-toed sloth

 see yourself as someone who relinquishes
digits to evolution then patents
what you save in your own slow show

see yourself as acrobat
so your ceiling rose is hearth rug
the laminate floor your roof

see yourself as worshipper of inertia
so downtime is your vocation
daydreaming your life’s career

see yourself as passive philosopher
examining the energy of predator
and arriving at the ergo of leaves

see yourself as someone who could be
a human sin but can’t even be arsed
to crack a smile at the irony of it.

 

Rachel Davies
2018

Poetry as public health hazard

Monday was a big day in my week this week. It started with a visit to Doc to check out the blood results. Inflammation markers were raised – about three times normal, but given that they have been ten times normal in the past, this hasn’t been a trigger for concern. However, coupled with the huge beneficial effect of the Prednisolone, we agreed on a diagnosis of ‘return of the Polymyalgia’ – even Doc was surprised by the positive change in my mobility. So I’m now on a reduction plan for the steroids with more blood tests next week to measure the effect. Monday ended with an open mic session at Puzzle Poets in Sowerby Bridge. I went with Hilary – it took us 20 minutes to get to Sowerby Bridge and another 40 minutes to find the Navigation pub, where the event was held, so we were a few minutes late arriving, which was bad form; but Tom Weir, the headline reader, said he’d had problems finding the venue too so we felt a bit better then. I enjoyed Tom’s poetry very much, based in autobiography but very creative, sensitive, full of surprising images. I’ve put his name forward as a reader for Poets&Players. Hilary and I read a couple of poems each in the first half open mic session. After I read, I returned to my seat. The young man beside me said, ‘I’m going to tell you something about your poetry that I bet you’ve never heard before.’ ‘OK,’ I said. ‘I applauded so hard, I dislocated my shoulder,’ he said. I thought he was joking, but the left hand holding the right shoulder and the look of pain in his eye said otherwise. He’d been out into the car park to ‘pop it back in’! I asked if it happened often; he said it had never happened before. I offered him cocodamol, but he’d had beer, so he declined. So there you have it, my poetry carries a health warning. By the way, he was right, I had never heard that one before; but it’s now integral to my author biography. If you ever hear me read, you know what you have to do…

On Tuesday I was wide awake from 3.00 a.m. I’m not big on sleep at the best of times, but a Pred high is definitely not helping. So I did some last minute work on the thesis. Yes, I know I said last week that I would be sending it off on Sunday; but circumstances that I won’t go into scuppered that plan. So, at silly o’clock on Tuesday I went to my study, brought the MHRA style guide back to bed and did some last minute checks on style protocols. I particularly wanted to check where, in the format of the thesis, an appendix fits in. I’d prepared a spreadsheet of my quantitative analysis of women’s inclusion in poetry anthologies since the sixteenth century and I realised I didn’t actually know where it fitted – before the bibliography or after. I found the information in the style guide: it comes before the bibliography, so I placed it and made reference to it in the relevant footnote. Then I sent it off to my DoS. Oh yes I did. I screwed my courage to the sticking place and I pressed send. I’m waiting to hear from them about a meeting. It isn’t all done: I know there are still issues for instance around the spelling of ‘…ise/…ize’ words: familiarise, feminize etc; but I can manage them. It’s the big meaty stuff that’s the challenge. Is that all done? We’ll see.

On Tuesday morning I went to the Whitworth Art Gallery to meet up with the Poets&Players committee. We were planning the year’s events based in the knowledge that we have funding for another twelve months. We have an exciting year coming up: you can find details on the P&P website: https://poetsandplayers.co It all kicks off this Saturday, with Collette Bryce, Kit Fan and Martin Kratz, the poets, and The Kell Wind Trio, the ‘players’. It’ll be a wonderful, uplifting afternoon. This is just the aperitif for a wonderful year’s programme of events. We are fully planned until October now. The meeting ended with a bowl of the Whitworth’s spicy dahl soup: lovely!

On Wednesday I met up with Hilary again to plan some poetry events for the year. We’re off to a small cottage in Coniston for our Line Break week in May. We go every year, a week of immersing ourselves in poetry: workshops, readings, finding time and stimuli to write. So that’s planned– we’ll be leaving Manchester after the P&P Competition Celebration event on Saturday 18th. The competition is open now, I’ve already received a few entries; so if you write poetry, why not give it a go. The closing date is 13thMarch, midnight. You’ll find all the information you need here: https://poetsandplayers.co/competition/competition-2019/  Kei Miller and the competition winners will be reading at the event on the 18th. and that’s definitely one not to miss. Hilary and I have also applied to the Didsbury Arts Festival for a slot for an afternoon workshop and an evening reading from our joint collection, Some Mothers Do…I think I may have mentioned our book before?

On Saturday I put together my set of poems for the reading at Carol Ann Duffy and Friends at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester on Monday evening this coming week. I have a ten minute slot, which is about five poems, depending on how much introduction I plan to give for each. I think I’ll keep intros to a minimum as I’m reading mostly from my ‘alternative mother’ sequence, so a blanket intro at the beginning might suffice. I’m breaking with tradition a bit too, in that I’ll be reading from Some Mothers Do…obviously, and I’m planning to start with a poem each from Hilary and Tonia Bevins, my dragon triplets. Sadly, Tonia died before she saw her poems published in the book, so we’re pledged to read for her in her absence whenever we can; and I couldn’t read one of Tonia’s without reading one of Hilary’s; and anyway, it’s Hilary’s birthday on Monday so it’ll be a small gift from me. Later today I’ll be making my final selection from the ‘alternative mother’ sequence. I’m pretty sure I know which ones I want to read, but I need to time them exactly to ten minutes: it’s not professional to over-run on timings. I’m looking forward to it; I’ll be nervous, I’m always nervous when I read. But as long as shoulders are disjointed in the spontaneous bursts of applause, I’ll be happy.

So, a poem; well, actually I’m going to give you two linked poems that I wrote on the poetry carousel in December. They are inspired by two things that happened at my grammar school. The reference to Shirley Valentine? That school scene in the play/film where the head-teacher asks what is mankind’s greatest invention and girls are saying things like ‘the television’ or ‘the washing machine’ and Shirley is pushing her hand in the air, desperate to be noticed – ‘ooh, miss, please miss…’ At last, when all other options are used up, the head-teacher reluctantly asks Shirley and Shirley says, ‘the wheel, Miss’ and the head-teacher says ‘How did you know that? Someone must have told you,’ and Shirley says ‘of course somebody told me else how would I have known it?’ The disparate logic of head-teachers and their least favourite students. This was my experience of grammar school. However hard I tried, I couldn’t get it right, because the Demon Headmaster had already determined I’d be wrong. So these two poems try to address that negative attitude. I hated grammar school; I hated the Demon Headmaster; I’ve spent my life proving him wrong. By the way, I have no evidence that Gillian Hopper, the favourite of my poems – her name is changed – went on to become a high-class call-girl like her counterpart in Shirley Valentine. But I kind of hope she did.

Shirley Valentine Bakes For The Queen Mum.

Cakes, crustless sandwiches, scones.
Entourage at window
him obsequious, her grin glued on.

Door. First table. Me.
My iced fairies.
His scowl. Mrs Wilby’s apologetic shrug.

Gillian Hopper spitting venom,
her eyes
painting my back green.

HRH drooling.
Me blushing, she
just having time to say

they look… him passing her on
to Gillian Hopper, being the safer bet.

 

Shirley Valentine leaves school at last.

His secretary-wife sits at her desk, smiling.
You walk past her, stand in front of his door,
wait.

You raise a fist, knock the door. No response.
You rap again, harder. Louder.
You know he’s in there,

doing that throat clearing thing he does.
You knock again. Come he spits
and as usual he is god and you

are an unholy sinner.
You play his game, turn the knob slowly,
wait for the click of the latch, push the door.

After five years of put downs
you feel on the front foot, come to tell him
about your nursing placement,

say a last goodbye.

Your mouth wants to speak
but he steals your thunder.
You hear secondary modern, you hear boy,

you hear gutter, the whiplash word
he’s directing at you.
You see his hand raised, a barrier

to whatever foul air you’re carrying.
You hear that’s all, send Gillian Hopper in
on your way out.

You leave, wondering how in hell
that just happened.

 

Rachel Davies
December 2018

 

Coddiwompling towards PhD

Happy New Year. May 2019 bring you everything you wish for yourself, but particularly peace, health and happiness. And success.
Oh yes, please may it bring success.

I learned two new things this week. The first is a new word: coddiwomple.

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It’s a verb. My nephew Gareth posted this photo on Facebook early in the week. I recognised coddiwompling as the thing I’m doing with PhD: I’m coddiwompling towards my PhD’s ‘as-yet-unkown destination’. I’ve been coddiwompling for about four years now. The route is becoming clearer, but the destination remains a mystery until after the final assessment.

I’ve been coddiwompling like mad this week. Hilary Robinson, bless her cotton socks, sent me annotated feedback on the thesis she’s been reading. It was good, positive feedback; but the other new thing I learned came in her feedback. Am I the only one who didn’t know that the em dash has its own protocol in the MHRA style guide? I’d used the em dash as parentheses in several places—without a gap either side, like this. Hilary pointed out that MHRA insists on a gap either side of the em dash — like this. I’ve been using the style guide for referencing; but I didn’t check my em dashes. Now I suppose I ought to go through the style guide to see if there are any more hidden gems. It’s sad to think you can write a fantastic thesis but fail your final assessment because you miss a comma from a footnote; or get one book out of alphabetical order in your bibliography; or deny your em dashes their rightful space. This is how you need friends, to point you in the right direction. Thank you Hilary, my lovely friend.

I think I’ve finished the latest redraft and edit of the thesis. I promised my Director of Studies he’d have it in the New Year; and he will. But I need to big up my courage to press ‘send’. I always want one more check. I think I’ll be sending it off later today; after a final check of the MHRA style guide to make sure there are no more surprises. I have to say, I’m quietly pleased with the piece of work now. I’ve rearranged it, tidied it up, given it an introduction and a conclusion, put the poems together with it at the end of the critical work. It’s the closest it’s been to ready. I read it in bed last night and I think…yup, it’s going off later today. I still have four months before deadline, four months until I have to submit, so there’s still time to do some last minute edits after I’ve met with DoS.

I made a major change to my life on New Year’s Eve. The pain and stiffness that has been plaguing me since the summer was unbearable when I got out of bed on Monday; I walked downstairs like a ninety-three-year-old. Fed up, I made an emergency appointment to see my GP. He ordered blood tests for evidence of a return of the Polymyalgia Rheumatica that I thought I’d beaten when I took my last cortico-steroid in April, after taking them for four and a half years. He prescribed Prednisolone in the interim, pending results of the bloods. Prednisolone isn’t just the treatment for PMR, it’s the most reliable diagnositic. Independent of the results of the blood tests, if Prednisolone works, the problem is PMR; if it doesn’t, it’s something else. I took the first dose when I got home, and I can report that after just one dose, the next day, the first of 2019, I was feeling unbelievably improved. I felt as if I’d been oiled. Yup, Polly is back. This is a strange disease. It affects about 20% of the population. The cause is unknown. It usually clears up after eighteen months to two years. Of the 20% of people — mainly elder women — who suffer, 20% will also get Giant Cell Arteritis, characterised by pain in the temple region of the head. Untreated, GCA can lead to permanent loss of sight. I was one of the lucky 4% who get GCA. And now it seems I’m possibly one of the very small percentage who have to live with PMR for life. I had a message from my GP to make an appointment following the results of my blood tests, so I’m seeing Doc again tomorrow. I hate Prednisolone; but I love Prednisolone. We have an ambivalent relationship. I think I need to get used to the fact that I could be on low dose Pred for the rest of my life. I must learn to live in harmony with it. BTW, being such a lucky girl, do you suppose I should buy a lottery ticket?

I haven’t made any New Year resolutions this year. My thoughts are all on finishing coddiwompling and attaining a positive destination: PhD. 2019 is starting well, though. Poets&Players has a funding stream, so I’ll be meeting with the team on Tuesday of this week to plan our full programme for 2019-20. And I heard from Mark Pajak who, with John Fennelly, organises the Carol Ann Duffy and Friends events at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. I’m reading at the event on 14thJanuary, so later today, I’ll be preparing my ten minute set of poems. I’m planning to read some of my ‘alternative mother’ poems: some that are included in Some Mothers Do…;and I’ll try some new ones on the audience. Nothing says Happy New Year like a shot of poetry.

That’s it then, I’m starting 2019 on a high despite having to be best friends with Prednisolone. I hope you all have the best year possible.

A poem: this one came from the Carousel in December: Greta Stoddart’s workshop about line breaks. She gave us the task of writing a nine line poem, gave us the nine words that should form the end word of each line. This is the poem I came up with within those pararmeters. I can’t testify to the fact that the end words are all exactly the same as the ones she gave us, but mostly they really are. I may have changed one or two in the best interests of the poem. It’s earning its place within one sequence in the PhD collection, so rules, like lines, must be broken.

 

Breaking the Line

The blood red sky
sheds tears. Fresh milk
curdles. Now I know

my heartbroken father
left the house with
chisel, mallet—after dark

he’s out there hammering
like a minor god. Grief begins
to surface from the cold stone.

 

Rachel Davies
December 2018

Review and Preview 2018

It’s the time of year for taking stock, for reviewing and previewing. I took a look at last year’s review of the year to find a measuring stick to gauge my successes; by those, and by any standards, it’s been a good year, even after making allowances for my terminal optimism.

I saw that last year I had three New Year resolutions:

  • to complete the PhD in 2018
  • to take on and complete the Couch to 5K challenge
  • To give the house a big autumn clean

So, how did I do on the resolution front, given that the first of these is pretty major? Well, I didn’t complete my PhD: it’s ongoing. In the summer my Director of Studies gave me the option of transferring to the part-time route to give me more time to complete, and I took the opportunity. My new deadline is towards the end of May 2019, and it is a finishing line that is in sight. My annual review in the summer was very positive and uplifting. I have a draft thesis that DoS and I are both quite pleased with. I’m still working on it, but the tasks become shorter and more manageable every time I meet my team. I’ll be sending off the latest version at the start of the year. I’m hoping the thesis will pass muster with very little extra work. On the creative aspect, I met with Jean Sprackland in November to discuss the complete collection. She liked it and declared it a ‘sufficient body of work for PhD’. She gave me some advice on one or two of the poems, but overall it was a very positive meeting. It’s good to know I can consider it complete; although it’s poetry, it keeps coming. I have added five more poems since I spoke to her, with several workshops on the horizon before my submission date in May, so there will be more poems. Overall, I feel in a much more relaxed place about the PhD now than I did a year ago. I have started to say—although very quietly—‘when’ rather than ‘if’. I was enthusiastic when I started this journey over three years ago. I have come close to giving up on one or two occasions, but mostly I have faced the angst and upped the determination to succeed. It has been a tough ride, peaks and troughs; but I’ve reached some kind of plains, like the fens of my personal origin. I feel on flat ground and the chequered flag is in sight.

I did complete the Couch to 5K. It took me two starts. I kicked off on January 1stwith the enthusiasm of all New Year Resolutions. It was hard, but I stuck at it until, by February, a couple of microbe attacks and various other life events got in the way and C-2-5K fell by the wayside. I started again in May, when I was away with friends in a cottage near Scarborough. I kept it up that time and completed it on my birthday in July. I never actually ran 5K, but I did fulfil the running times and I was running about 3K, three times a week. In September the old body let me down again, when an old shoulder injury forced me to rest up: a torn tendon doesn’t too much like being jogged up and down in a 3K run. It’s been a painful few months; I’m still having physio, which I think is working, until I think it isn’t and the pain flares again. But I can now put my coat on myself, so that’s progress. Perhaps, as my doctor assured me, I’ll be back to running next year.

Finally, the big autumn house clean. Well, that was dependent on my finishing the PhD, so of course it hasn’t been done yet. I’m still on emergency rations of housework until the thesis with its collection is submitted. Perhaps it will be a big Spring Clean; and after all, that’s much more traditional and appropriate, isn’t it? Isn’t it?

Enough of lapsed 2018 resolutions; what other good things did the year bring? Well, I’ve been on several poetry residentials. In February Hilary and I went to the Verve Poetry Festival in Birmingham for a long weekend fix of poetry. We went to workshops run by Liz Berry, Pascale Petit, Karen McCarthy Woolfe; we heard them all read, along with lots of other wonderful readers too numerous to mention. We enjoyed it so much, we’re going again in February 2019. You should consider it if you like poetry: it’s one of the good ones. Details here: http://vervepoetryfestival.com 

In April we went to St. Ives in Cornwall for a week of poetry led by Kim Moore and Helen Mort. What a good week that was, despite the norovirus that had plagued me the week before and continued to poke and prod through the week away. We invented a new fitness routine, ‘extreme benching’: it involved tackling the long haul uphill to the hotel from the beach by taking regular rests on the benches along the way. My energy levels were low, but my enthusiasm for poetry was as high as ever. We’re going to St. Ives again in April 2019, Kim has invited Amanda Dalton to be her second presenter this year, so that’s one to look forward to. Here’s a link to that event, in case it isn’t already fully booked up: https://kimmoorepoet.wordpress.com/residential-poetry-courses/st-ives-residential-poetry-course/ 

In May I went with two friends, Hilary and Polly, to our own poetry ‘Line Break’ in a cottage near Scarborough. That was a good week, lots of poetry—reading and writing—, lots of touring. We went to York, Whitby, Robin Hood’s Bay. It was there I restarted the C-2-5K challenge. The weather was gorgeous, as it was for most of the summer; but that week was the start of it. And in December we went to a Kim Moore Poetry Carousel in Grange over Sands. Kim, Andrew McMillan, Sean O’Brien and Greta Stoddart were the tutors: what a fantastic line-up. I found some new poems for my PhD collection while I was there. And yes, I’ll be repeating both of these events next year too.

I’ve been lucky enough to see some truly world-class poets this year. My favourites were Michael Simmons Roberts, Andrew McMillan and Simon Armitage. Jean Sprackland’s inaugural professorial lecture in the spring, and the launch of her book Green Noise (Jonathan Cape 2018) were highlights of the year. A series of People’s Poetry Lectures was launched by Carol Ann Duffy from MMU’s Writing School. Gillian Clarke’s lecture/reading on the work of Dylan Thomas was pretty damn special too. Michael Simmons Roberts will lecture on the work of Auden, and Andrew McMillan on Thom Gunn, both events in the spring. You can find details here: http://www.manchesterwritingschool.co.uk/events/the-peoples-poetry-lectures-michael-symmons-roberts-on-w.-h.-audenI’ll be going to both; can’t wait!

Poets&Players continues its wonderful series of top-class events; and we heard just before Christmas that our ACE funding has been agreed for next year, a lovely Christmas present for the organising committee and the hard work our Chairperson, Janet Rogerson put in. Our January event will involve Collette Bryce; with Lavinia Greenlaw and Daljit Nagra reading for us in February. Come along to the Whitworth, you know you want to: https://poetsandplayers.co/future-events/We meet next week to knock on with planning the full year’s events thank to the Arts Council. And the wonderful Kei Miller is to judge our competition in 2019, which is open from New Year, so get those pens scratching and send us your best work. Lastly, Carol Ann Duffy and Friends has continued to bring wonderful poets to Manchester for more than ten years. There have been several outstanding events in 2018; and on January 14th2019, I will be reading there, sharing performance space with Carol Ann, Paul Henry, Brian Briggs and other Writing School students/alumni.

I’ve been fortunate to be published several times during the year. I had an article about the poetry of Pascale Petit—a by-product of my PhD research—published in the North; I had a poem published in the Atrium online magazine; I had poems included in two Beautiful Dragons anthologies, Noble Dissentand Watch the Birdie, the former launched at York Litfest in the Spring and the latter launched at Leighton Moss Bird Reserve in November. But the icing on the publication cake was Some Mothers Do…The Dragon Spawn series is for poets who have been published in Beautiful Dragons anthologies but don’t have a full collection of their own. In March this year, Hilary and I were both approached by the editor, Rebecca Bilkau, and asked if we would be interested. It took us all of five seconds to agree, and in November our lovely joint collection was launched at the Portico library in Manchester. It’s great to be Hilary’s dragon sister; but sad that our third dragon spawnie, Tonya Bevins, died in the early summer, before we had chance to meet her. We re-launched the book on a wonderful evening at the Black Ladd, my daughter’s pub/restaurant in Saddleworth. By ‘eck, that was a good night!

And as if all this wasn’t work enough for one old lady in one year, I’ve had a fair old slice of life too. Family, friends, holidays. Holidays! I hired a cottage in West Wales in September so that I could take my work away and do a couple of hours every day before breakfast. On the middle weekend my three lovely children came to stay with their partners. We had a lovely time together; but they said next year they’re choosing the venue; my cottage was far too remote and difficult to get to. They’re still ribbing me about it, even now. But at least they are talking about a next time; so it wasn’t totally off-putting.

And I think that’s it! It’s been a long blog this week: it’s been a full-on year. I’m not making New Year Resolutions this year; except to say I will finish the PhD, I will take a long holiday in the sun and I will read lots of rubbish without the need to take notes and analyse! Bring on 2019! Happy New Year everyone; may 2019 bring you happiness, peace and everything you wish for yourselves.

Here’s a poem I wrote in Greta Stoddart’s workshop on the carousel. It was from a piece of free writing to kick the workshop off. I’d just been out to the car to load my suitcases and when I walked back toward the hotel the sky was on fire with the dawn.

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Greta’s prompt  allowed me to put that sunrise into words. Here they are:

 

Sunrise

 this morning
the sky caught fire.

Small birds were flambéed in its heat.
Seagulls put out to sea.

Cockles buried their shells
in the cool sands of the bay.

The coastguard, roused from sleep,
speared bread onto a toasting fork.

The heavenly choir sang
peace on earth, goodwill.

Someone, somewhere
lit a touch-paper, retired.

 

Rachel Davies
December 2018

 

Poetry and People…

…my week in three words. I meant to work on Sunday last, redrafting the poems I first-drafted on the poetry carousel a couple of weeks ago. But I was invited to a family party for my son-in-law Angus: Sunday was his birthday, so work of any kind was put on hold; and put on hold again on two of my regular working days, Tuesday and Wednesday, when I drove south to Lincolnshire to visit sister and friends. I stayed over at my friend Jo’s house, drove home on Wednesday. All this was lovely, to spend time with family and friends, relax for Christmas and just enjoy doing nothing much.

But doing nothing much won’t get me the PhD. So I rearranged what I normally do on Thursday: food shopping, mostly, and did some work then to make up for slacking. I did the redrafting I meant to do on Sunday, so I was kind of back on track, despite taking three days out of schedule. I redrafted ‘Rhona the Ratgirl’ as an alternative mother, and I think it works. I am pleased to say that four of the carousel poems have fitted well into the collection. That’s the nature of writing poetry: you go to a workshop and the prompt is to write about x; but your mind is all on the theme of your PhD: daughterhood in my case. So you mould that prompt to fit what you need to write. The best writing prompts allow you that much room. As a writer you can make any prompt fit that need. So, I have four new poems added to my collection. I’m already pleased with them, but they are marked red on my collection contents page so that I am reminded that I may need to revisit them. I meant to work for longer, give some attention to the one remaining poem Jean Sprackland gave me some feedback on; but driving to Lincs and back this week took its toll on my gammy shoulders, and my arms were hurting on Thursday. So I did what I needed to do and took time out to give them some rest on Thursday afternoon. But at least PhD had its small ounce of flesh in the morning.

Friday I spent doing what I should have been doing on Thursday: boring supermarket shopping. I hate it at any time of the year, but at Christmas? Ugh, all those enormous chocolate bars, yards of curly-wurlies, BOGOF offers on biscuits, mince pies, booze, turkeys the size of ostriches, leg-of-lamb joints the size of brontosaurus thighs. Gluttony on a grand scale, and people with trollies piled high with stuff their bodies can well do without. I feel I should add a ‘bah humbug’ here because I’m sounding like Scrooge. I’m not a bit like Scrooge: I love Christmas, I just hate the vile over-indulgence it has come to represent. I’m not religious, but where in the New Testament does it say we should binge like pigs while people are dying of hunger on our streets? Christmas, surely, is the one time of the year we should make sure we think of others less fortunate than ourselves? I have taken to making up a rucksack for the homeless in lieu of giving Christmas presents: I give a packed rucksack to the Welllspring Project at Stockport instead:

https://www.thewellspring.co.uk/events/the-rucksack-project-2018/

A deal of my packed shopping trolley went into the food bank collection box. I’m not saying I won’t be having treats in the house this Christmas week, of course I will; but I hope I’ll have it in proportion. There, I’ve said my piece. Have a very Merry Christmas; but please remember there are people out there who deserve a kind thought too.

On Saturday I was back at my desk. I worked on the collection, refining the order, revisiting poems that I feel still need some work. I also put together a collection of poems for Fly on the Wall Poetry’s chapbook submission window: https://www.flyonthewallpoetry.co.uk/manuscript-submissions

I included some of my mother-daughter poems, interspersed with ‘Alternative Mother’ poems. I sent them off, thirty-three of them, to see if they are grown up enough to go out into the world and earn their living. Fly On The Wall Poetry’s editor, Isabelle Kenyon, likes to publish poems ‘with a sprinkle of social consciousness’; last year a poem of mine found its way into one of her anthologies, Please Hear What I’m Not Saying, which addressed mental health issues. I think some of my alternative mother poems are sprinkled with social consciousness, with a dash of humour and a shake of serious intent. So I sent them to her, and I wish them well.

This week I’ll give you a poem from the carousel, which I’ve included in the PhD collection. It’s a modern sonnet. It tells the story of me breaking my arm as a six-year-old: I still remember thinking my arm had come off completely because I couldn’t feel it at all: my doll’s arms fell off all the time, after all! I broke my arm four or five years ago, and that same feeling of disconnection. That’s how I knew it was broken, because it didn’t particularly hurt at first; the pain came later. So, a poem written to one of Kim Moore’s prompts about something that happened that didn’t seem significant at the time, but came to have meaning later. I broke my arm and I blamed the new sister; and I blamed my mother; and I blamed my older siblings for being more gymnastic than me. Really, I should have blamed myself for being so bloody clumsy!


Still life with a broken arm.

I didn’t think about my foot
catching in the gate
throwing me to the flagstones
snapping my arm.

I just wanted to be in their gang,
it’s tedious still being kid sister,
the hanger-on even
when another one arrives.
I rushed at that gate to grow up

and wham!
I blamed you and I blamed her—
that bawling baby. You only put
the gate there to keep her safe.
But what about me?

Rachel Davies
December 2018

It could be worse: I could be Rhona.

Sometimes, people ask me how I fit so much into seven days. I don’t know; my life is full and I’m happy; because it’s full of stuff that matters to me. This week: poetry, PhD and life in big forkfuls.

The Poetry Carousel continued on Sunday and Monday. On Sunday morning I was in a workshop run by Kim Moore. The workshop addressed different ways of seeing in a poem; taking different viewpoints. Kim’s workshops are always thought provoking and this one was no disappointment. I wrote two poems that might make it into the creative element of the PhD, which is always a good thing. One of my poems was about ‘Rhona the Ratgirl’, a sideshow at the fair; no-one had heard of her, so it fell on barren soil when I read it out. Rhona was a woman who sat in a pen, inside a tent, with a few drugged-up rats. I remember her dressed in a leopard skin, Tarzan-like; but my daughter insists she was naked, because when she and her brothers laughed, Rhona said—in a broad Liverpool accent—‘You’re supposed to be looking at me rats!’. Anyway, she had this enormous thigh bone—it looked like a diplodocus thigh!—that she stirred the sleepy rats with. That’s it, that was the act. But no-one in the workshop knew her. Kim suggested I turn her into an ‘alternative mother’, and that’s what I’ll be trying later today.

We had the afternoon free. Hilary and I took a walk to Kent’s Bank railway station: there’s a small art gallery/gift shop there. When I say ‘short walk’, it took us all of five minutes to get there. The sun was shining, it was cold: one of those winter days that make winter nearly bearable. When we got back to the hotel, I did some more reading—Carolyn Jess-Cooke—before dinner. After our evening meal, Sean O’Brien and Kim both read, followed by ‘Tada’—Sarah, a course member, and her friend singing country, their husbands on guitars. Sarah has a rich country voice; it was a good after-dinner event. To end the evening, a friend from my Poetry Society Stanza and two other course members performed ‘The Lion and Albert’: voice and ukuleles. I was so tired I just wanted to go to bed but I stayed for the performance because it was Pat, who only got her ukulele last week, apparently, but she has taught herself to play. It was a bit incongruous to hear Nicholas, urbane, cravated, ‘received pronunciation’, reading in Stanley Holloway’s voice. Altogether it was a lovely evening.

On Monday I was up early to pack my case, load up the car and check out of my room before breakfast. This is the last year the carousel will be held at Abbot Hall: the hotel was sold earlier this year and will be upgraded to five-star early next year. Next December’s carousel will be held at a different venue. I’ve always asked for the same room when we’ve been to Abbot Hall, so I was quite sad to say goodbye to it. Hilary and I are determined to call in next year en route to the new venue, to see what they’ve done with it. Anyway, after breakfast it was the last workshop, with Greta Stoddart, one of my favourite contemporary poets. This workshop was my favourite of the weekend: looking at the importance of the line break, and experimenting with different places to break the line. It was full-on for two hours. I’m pretty sure I have some portfolio poems from that one too. Then after lunch we headed home.

At six o’clock we were out again: Carol Ann Duffy and Friends at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. Carol Ann read from her new collection, Sincerity;Manchester Met Writing School members read before the break: I was particularly struck by Ian Walker, whose wonderful poetry addresses the sex-life of invertebrates. If you haven’t listened to poetry about the sex life of the Californian Sea Hare, a giant sea slug, you haven’t lived! Aplysia Californica can grow up to 75cm long and weigh up to 7kg! Imagine that big boy among your bedding plants! Zafar Kunial was the headliner after the break: Zafar started a PhD with me in 2015, so should have been submitting about now. Unfortunately I didn’t get to ask how it was going. His reading was good: he’s much more relaxed as a presenter of his work than when I first heard him in Ilkley about four years  ago. I’m reading—with headliners Paul Henry and Brian Briggs—at the next CAD and Friends, 14thJanuary, Royal Exchange Theatre. It’s a sell-out already: they must have heard I’m coming!

Tuesday and Saturday were dedicated entirely to the PhD. I was doing the nitty-gritty reference checks, making sure they were in the right order, and in the MHRA in-house style. The colons, commas, brackets are all important in writing the footnotes: a missed comma could be the difference between pass and fail, I’ve been told. So I printed off my bibliography and checked off the books as I referenced them in the work. The trouble with cutting and pasting is, it messes with your footnotes. The first reference for a book is a full copyright reference, with subsequent references in an abbreviated style. But when you cut and paste passages, the footnote moves with the cut and paste, so you can end up with subsequent—abbreviated—references coming before the full reference. I checked them through thoroughly and systematically and I’m happy that they’re all in the right order now—as long as I’ve done with cutting and pasting! It took two full days of minute secretarial work to get it to a place where I’m happy with it, but it’s done. I’d hate to fail the PhD because my footnotes didn’t come up to scratch. So that means today I can concentrate on the creative aspect, getting the poems I drafted last weekend written up and polished for the portfolio. I’m really looking forward to that.

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Christmas officially began this week. On Wednesday Bill and I went to lunch with Hilary and her husband, David. We went to Green’s vegetarian restaurant in Didsbury: their Christmas menu was wonderful, we ate so much I probably didn’t need to eat again all week. Except, I put up my Christmas tree on Thursday in time for the visit of my friend Joan. It’s pretty minimalist: I have two cats! In the evening we went to Amie’s Black Ladd for the Christmas menu–ate so much again I didn’t need to eat until New Year. Except, Joan stayed over and we went out for breakfast at Albion Farm on Friday morning. And I’d just like to say to the person who scraped my car on their way out of the car park: I hope you got four punctures on the way home. And head lice. And toothache. But apart from that I’m fine with it.

Jean Sprackland got in touch in the week. One of her Creative Writing MA students is thinking about doing a PhD and she asked if I’d be willing to talk to him about some concerns he has. Of course I will: as anyone who has read this blog for any length of time knows, this hasn’t always been a smooth ride for me: in fact, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I’ve come close to giving up on a couple of occasions: thankfully that negativity didn’t last long, I’m no quitter. But it’s important to go into this huge commitment with your eyes open: I think I was blinkered, rose coloured specs and all that. I breezed through both my Masters degrees without too much angst and I assumed a PhD would be more of the same. It isn’t. It’s a whole different ball game. It asks a level of expertise in your subject that I still don’t feel I have; and a commitment of work that is crushing sometimes. Bill said this week, ‘I really miss you when you’re working.’ PhD’s like that: it takes you away from your real life, you have to immerse yourself in it completely. You need to know that from the start. Knowing it wouldn’t have made any difference, I would still have done it: it’s a personal challenge, like Everest, it’s there and I’m driven to conquer it. The difficulty of the challenge is a lot easier to live with now I’m approaching the finishing line; but knowing the depth of challenge, and that everyone experiences the angst and it’s not just you, might have saved my self-esteem at the start. Jean knows all this, and she still asked me to talk to him. I’ll be up-front and tell it as I experienced it. I’m still standing, after all.

Here’s the first draft of my ‘Rhona the Ratgirl’ poem. Well, technically it’s the second draft, but it is as I wrote it in my notebook on Sunday last. I’ll be reworking it later today into an ‘alternative mother’ poem; but in the meantime, you can have it as it came out of my pencil end:

Rhona the Ratgirl Reveals All But Her Ambition

I imagine her world is
this stall in this tent
this animal skin
this thigh bone
these rats.

She reclines on a bale of straw
draped in an animal skin
in a distant approximation to sexy.

She pokes the somnambulant rats
with a three-foot-long thigh bone.
They’re too high on chemicals to notice.

Imagine the ambition it took to become Rhona
then just ask yourself…

Rachel Davies
December 2018

The howl of poetry…

I’m writing this from the deep dark of Kent’s Bank near Grange over Sands, where I’m enjoying a weekend of poetry on Kim Moore’s Poetry Carousel. We have four high-class poets here running workshops for us. So far I’ve had workshops with Andrew McMillan—putting the ‘queer’ back into poetry; and Sean O’Brien— reflecting on the surprise in those moments of ‘nothing much’ that confront us. Today I have a workshop run by Greta Stoddart, and tomorrow with Kim Moore. When did I get to be so lucky? It’s 5.00, it’s cold, it’s quiet and the world’s asleep: a perfect scene for writing.

As usual, I’ve had a busy—and productive—week. Having worked on the introduction to the thesis on Saturday last, I gave it a rest on Sunday—my son Michael’s birthday—and worked on the creative element instead. I completed the necessary RD9 for my meeting with Jean Sprackland, then spent a lovely morning working on some of the edits she’d suggested at the meeting. It’s my favourite part of the PhD, the drafting, redrafting and editing of poems. Creativity is such a balm for the soul. Everyone should have some creative aspect to their lives. I’m not suggesting everyone takes up poetry, that’s not the point. Creativity comes in many guises. My daughter, Amie, is currently teaching herself to knit. My friend Pauline ‘does’ crafts: lacemaking, spinning, greetings cards. Another friend, Hilary, is a wonderful baker and makes her own clothes as well as being a fine poet.  We have to find our own creative space. Mine is poetry. It’s a big space. Having worked on the creative element on Sunday, I now have to completely redo the contents page of the collection, because I moved one of the poems to a different position, and now the contents numbering is awry. Ho hum, worse problems to have!

On Tuesday I played hooky and went with Hilary to Cheshire Oaks Designer Outlet, where I bought a gorgeous pair of flowery Doc Martens; a pair of ridiculously cheap embroidered Next jeans; and a Radley handbag, some of the proceeds of which go to the British Heart Foundation. Yes, I am the owner of a Radley bag! I carry the Scottie dog with pride. It was so good to take time out, ‘do lunch’ and spend time with my friend. This will become my life, post-PhD!

One day off piste is enough for anyone though, so on Wednesday I was back on it, working on the conclusion to the thesis. I started a separate document, making notes for my conclusion and realised that what I was actually doing was writing my conclusion. So I cut and pasted it into the thesis. I’m not sure I’ve been ‘summative’ enough: I don’t seem to reach any ‘conclusions’, those original contributions to knowledge that the PhD is all about. But it is an ending of sorts. By the end of Wednesday I really could see the finishing line in the middle distance. I had too many words again, so I had to cut and paste some of the body of the work into longish footnotes: footnotes are excluded from the word count. I asked Hilary to read it through for me: she’s been dropping hints for weeks about wanting to, so I knew it wasn’t an imposition. I sent her the thesis and the collection of poems. She’s brought them away to Kent’s Bank to read in those free afternoons. I’m excited for her feedback.

Thursday I thought I’d better do some ironing, so I wouldn’t have to embarrass myself by walking around Abbots Hall hotel in my vest and pants. Ironing still hurts my back, so I took some hot water bottle therapy afterwards. I left packing my case until Friday morning. On Friday I picked Hilary up at 10.30 and drove us up the M6 to Grange. The weather was mostly foul, but with the occasional short, sharp burst of sunlight that produced some wonderful rainbows en route. We had lunch in the Hazelmere café in Grange, the two course Christmas menu; took a quick look around the shops before driving to the hotel about 2.30.

After unpacking and settling in to our rooms, we met other carousel-riding poets, many of whom are poet-friends, and the four workshop-leading poets, in the hall at 3.30. Our first workshop was at 4.00: no time wasted here! Andrew McMillan’s workshop was thought-provoking, about trying to see your poems through frosted glass so you don’t make everything explicit, leaving room for the reader to look for their own answers. I didn’t write a great deal to brag about, but I came away with new ways of looking; new ideas to try out. A three-course dinner, a shared bottle of wine—on top of lunch—and I was feeling quite sleepy. On Friday evening, Andrew McMillan and Greta Stoddart, two of my favourite poets, read from their various prize-winning collections. I was in bed soon after they’d finished. I hadn’t slept well on Thursday night—bloody shoulder—so I could feel the rhythms of the evening poetry readings lulling me to sleep. I didn’t fall asleep before I climbed into bed though, but it was a close run thing.

Saturday morning. The hot water at the hotel wasn’t working, so no showers, except in Kim’s chalet in the grounds. She offered us all the use of her shower, and I had visions of forty poets, all with sponge bags and towels in hand, queuing outside her front door for their turn. Presumably everyone else had a similar vision, because I don’t think anyone else took her up on it either. So, no showers; but we’re all in the same boat, all equally skanky, so it didn’t matter. The hot water was back on by the afternoon, so showers were on the agenda before the evening meal. After breakfast on Saturday we had the second ‘ride’ on the carousel. Sean O’Brien’s workshop asked us to consider those quiet moments when nothing much happens—Sunday afternoons, for instance; or the early hours—and imaging something from nothing happening. He handed out poems to illustrate his point: we read ‘Pointed Boots’ by Christopher Middleton, about the quietness of a railway station at 3.00 a.m.; and ‘The Apprehenders’ by Kit Wright, about a do-nothing Sunday afternoon with a crime novel. Sean gave us forty minutes to write a poem about our own quiet, do-nothing times, and the poem I’ll close with is about this. A lifetime ago I was a nurse, and I loved the low-keyness of night-duty, the strangeness of working when everyone else was sleeping. The community of night-duty workers took delight in adding fun to the necessary stress of nursing. My poem is about this; and about how I once scared myself witless by reading The Hound of the Baskervilles’in the pool of light from the lamp at my ward desk.

Saturday afternoon I came to my room and read Carolyn Jess-Cooke’s Writing Motherhood: A Creative Anthology (Seren 2017), with prose pieces, poems and interviews with women writers who have fitted motherhood into their lives as writers. I’m loving it; and loving seeing poets I know included in the anthology; and loving that I am finding places where I can enrich my thesis with something from the book. Is there no end to a writing task? After our evening meal last night, Rishi Distidar came to read for us. He’s a young Indian-heritage poet, funny, overtly political, engaging. A Q&A session followed; a good evening all round.

So that’s where we’re up to so far. More lovely poetry today, so I’d better knock on. Here’s the poem I wrote for Sean O’Brien’s workshop yesterday morning. Be kind to it: it’s less than twenty-four hours old, and it’s due a feed!

 

Night Duty

Three in the morning and the air
is ripped by Mr Goodfellow’s flatulence, bed 3.
The anglepoise’s pool of light over the desk
slowly seeps to black. A rustle of paper
now the meds are done, the pupils checked,
the TPR lifesigns marked on charts.
Mr Bagley snores up a storm in bed 10,
from bed 1 Mr Chattergee is talking in his sleep,
pleading with his surgeon or his god—
it’s not for me to discriminate—
to send him home.
Now, here’s Fran, the knowall first year
collecting a dozen fallopian tubes
for Staff Nurse Goose, who she’s pissed off.
She comes every night on such a Goose chase:
a long weight, a pair of threeceps,
an emergency admission for Mr Hare
with myxomatosis.
I send her on her way to pathology
and the air settles into an approximation of sleep.
Somewhere within the anglepoise’s pool of light
Mr Holmes is startled by a howling dog.

Rachel Davies
December 2018

…a small pinprick of light

Completion of PhD is getting so close I can feel it; I can see it, a small pinprick of light at the end of a shortening tunnel. Six months left, and I’ll be using every one of them, but this week I took a significant step toward completion.

On Wednesday I met with Jean Sprackland, my creative support, to discuss the poetry collection. In the past I’ve sent sets of six or seven poems to her for feedback. This is the first time I’d sent her the complete body of work to read and comment on. We met in the Eighth Day café on Oxford Road and it was with some trepidation that I walked along Oxford Road in the rain, with the wind almost strong enough to blow me off my feet. We had tea and cake and talked poetry. I had three major questions:
Q1: is it a sufficient body of work to fulfil the requirements of PhD?
A: yes it is!
Q2: is my organisation of the collection appropriate?
A: yes it is!
The third question she answered without my asking: she enjoyed reading the poems, the mix of humour and pathos, the mix of forms, lengths, styles and emotions, the creative arc. She loved my crown of sonnets, a colloquial dialogue between a mother and her daughter, the first sonnet crown I’ve attempted. She had some small suggestions about four or five—out of eighty two—of the poems, mostly about sustaining metaphor, or strengthening verbs; one of the poems needs a bit of an overhaul. But apart from that, it’s almost ready to submit. Yay! A huge load off my mind; especially as I still have six months and several writing workshops booked before the deadline, so I can add to it if I write anything appropriate; and all the poems I write seem to be about motherhood at the moment, it’s a bender I’m on. I came away from that meeting full of joie de vivre—and chocolate and date cake—and went to meet up with Hilary in the MMU library.

We went to Principal on Oxford Road for bar snacks and coffee—actually I had a cider to celebrate—before going to the launch of Jean’s new collection, Green Noise (Jonathan Cape 2018) at No. 70, across the road. We met with lots of lovely poetry friends there, all alumni of the MMU Writing School, where Jean is Professor of Poetry. The event was introduced by Andrew McMillan, another poet-tutor at the Writing School. I heard Jean read some of this collection at her inaugural professorial lecture earlier in the year, I even asked her permission to use a line of  one of her poems—‘Crystallography’—as a quote in my thesis: ‘the strong life of the inert’, which she uses to describe the growing crystals, but which seemed just the phrase to describe the ‘things’ we remember people by, in my case, the tools my mother used in her day to day work as wife and mother. The reading on Wednesday was lovely, such a good collection, a minute look at nature, well read; followed by a Q&A session. I bought the book and Jean signed it ‘With love and admiration’: how good is that, to be admired by one of the country’s top poets? I was all poetried-out when we went home; and too poetried-up to sleep.

In other PhD news, I’ve been working on the thesis again; yes, I’m back into it, tackling it with renewed vigour after my meeting with Jean. I can see the finishing line, and I’m running hard to get there. On Sunday last, I printed off what I’ve written and redrafted already. I followed my Director of Study’s advice and began to read it through, taking notes of each paragraph to give me a framework for the introduction and conclusion. It was good to read it, a near-complete piece: I always find it more satisfying to read from paper than from the screen, I pick up on more issues. I found a major one: a couple of the pages near the end would fit much better within a section I’d written in the middle! So I did a cut and paste job; and then worried about saving it in case I didn’t like it where I’d put it. So I saved both versions: how many saved copies do you accrue before the final version is submitted? I have files within files, Mk 2, Mk 3, the final version, the final-final version, the post-October meeting with A&A version, the post-October experimental version—etc. I have to find ways of remembering which version I’m currently running with! But when I read through it again—from the screen this time—I liked the change, it made sense, it worked. By the end of the week I was putting together my introduction, about 1000 words telling the reader what the thesis covers. It seems like an easy job; but it comes with its own angst: I think it’s too long, I think it needs cutting down; but at least I know where I can lop some without spoiling the overall. Chip, chip, chip. I feel like Michaelangelo, who said he knew there was a perfect figure in that block of stone, his job was to keep chipping away until he found it. I keep chipping away until I find the perfect thesis hidden in all these words.

On Tuesday it was our Poetry Society Stanza at the Buffet Bar, Stalybridge. This session was an anonymous workshop: poets submit poems to me, which I put into one document, standardise the font then send out to all the poets who submitted to read and prepare for discussion and feedback at the meeting. There were six poems this time, six members at the meeting. It was a good session. We couldn’t have our normal room, it was booked by the Stalybridge Clairvoyant Society—I didn’t see that coming, Boom Boom!—so we met in the conservatory instead. It was noisy at first, several groups sat drinking at tables; but eventually they left and we closed the door to inhibit all-comers and had the room to ourselves. Our meetings were at critical attendance levels about a year ago, so it was good to have six members, with two apologies. Our conservation work is taking effect: we’re off the red list!

Finally, life: it was the first session of physio for the damaged shoulder on Thursday this week. We were a few minutes late, because just as we were leaving the house, our car was blocked in by the dustbin lorry. Is the physiotherapist always that curt, or was it because we were late? Your bedside manner needs some work, lady! And did I just imagine her sadistic delight at causing me pain in the examination of the shoulder? But she gave me some simple exercises to do at home, and I’ll see her again in January. That is to say, the exercises seem simple, sliding my arms up a wall, or sliding them outwards from the waist at a table, elbows at right-angles. But my goodness, I can feel the effects the next day. No pain, no gain, I keep telling myself; and I keep popping the codeine, which brings its own problems, but I do like liquorice!

I’m going to include the first sonnet in my crown of sonnets this week, in celebration of my very positive meeting with Jean. I wrote this following a visit in 2016 to Manchester Art Gallery to see the ‘Strange and Familiar’ photographic exhibition. I was particularly struck by the grotesque photographs of Bruce Gilden, especially one of an elderly woman, her bloated face a ‘street map of veins’, her hair in rollers. You can see a reproduction of the photograph here: https://www.google.com/search?q=Bruce+Gilden+photographs&client=safari&rls=en&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjeqejMrfTeAhVC3qQKHQzBBuMQ_AUIDigB&biw=1191&bih=750#imgrc=_

If you click on the ‘images’ tab you will find her—eventually—about 25 rows down. You can’t miss her. I was struck by her because she was displayed next to a board of photos of young girls in the 1960s, all mini-skirts, Sassoon haircuts and self-confidence, and it occurred to me that she would have been one of those young girls once. That was the inspiration for my sonnet crown, a dialogue between her and a fictional daughter I gave her. The italicised line introduces the daughter’s contribution to the dialogue. All fiction, but fun to write. Here’s the first sonnet of the crown; as usual, WordPress has messed with the formatting:

 

Mirror Images

I’m looking in the mirror
at a lardy old woman; but here
in the photo, Hyde Park ’68, I was thin
as an elf, confident, full of myself:
Quant make-up, leather jacket,
geometric hair, first generation mini-skirt,
burned bra.
See the photo of me then
and my mirror self now: blood-flushed
face a street map of veins,
wattle chin, whiskers like thorns, tits
slapping my knees.
I get that life’s a burlesque but

you landed the role of grotesque.

 

 Rachel Davies
2017