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We all have our mountains to climb

One day this week I watched Ben Fogle, on BBC Breakfast, talking about his successful Everest attempt. Sir Edmund Hilary famously said he climbed Everest ‘because it was there’. Ben Fogle climbed it because he had wanted to do it since he was a child: it was his childhood ambition. He did it to show his own children, and anyone else who would listen, that you should always try what you want to achieve, not let anyone make you believe you aren’t that person. We all have our personal Everests, he said, and we should all try to conquer them. I decided that that is exactly what I’m doing with the PhD, conquering my own personal Everest. It’s a personal challenge: I don’t need a PhD for my career, I’m doing it because it’s there. Will I reach the summit, plant my flag, take selfies; or will I suffer altitude sickness before the summit and have to come down early? The jury’s still out on that one.

 I’ve been a bit hampered this week: I wrote so much while we were away on our Line Break I had a bad bout of writer’s cramp by the end of the last workshop. This developed into tendonitis, so I wasn’t up for writing much at the start of the week. I read instead: Jacqueline Rose’s Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty (London: Faber and Faber 2018). I downloaded it to my Kindle Paperwhite and sat in the garden in the lovely warm sunshine to read it. It’s very good; and very useful to my own research: the historical blame that mothers have suffered from society; and the personal blame mothers suffer at the hands of their own offspring. Motherhood is a loaded state. I did write up a couple of the poems from Line Break onto my MacBook, but I gave the wrist tendons a rest, and doses of ibuprofen, until mid-week.

On Monday evening I went with Hilary to MMU’s Business School for a very good poetry reading event. Kim Moore was one of three MMU Creative Writing students who read at the start of the event. The headliner was the New Zealand poet, Hera Lyndsay Bird. Her poetry is funny, edgy, very entertaining. She is a confident reader and performer. It’s so good to hear poetry and humour mixed, and mixed so well. My favourite was ‘The Da Vinci Code’, a prose poem about ‘the first day of the Italian Renaissance’. You can find it on her website, here: https://www.heralindsaybird.com/leonardo-da-vinci.html Of course, I had to buy her books after the reading: she has a full collection, Hera Lyndsay Bird(Penguin Books 2017); and a Laureate’s Choice pamphlet, Pamper Me To Hell & Back (Smith/Doorstop 2018). She signed both books; and illustrated her signings with stylized animals. She’s unusual, a breath of fresh air for poetry.

On Tuesday, the anniversary of the Arena bomb, I had to go into Manchester to meet my study support team. There were embroidered or knitted hearts strung along railings from Victoria Station to St Anne’s Square, just as there had been a year ago; the hearts came from around the country in a visible show of strength and solidarity. It was a sad day, but a joyful one too. Hilary sang in one of the choirs at the commemoration event in Albert Square in the evening, an uplifting and defiant concert. I walked from St Peter’s Square to All Saints campus on Tuesday morning. The sun was shining and it was hard to imagine the horror of a year ago. I wore my bee brooch with pride and there were I (heart) Manchester and bee tee-shirts everywhere. Manchester people are the best.

My meeting was at 11.30; I had time to return a book to the library beforehand. The meeting was very positive, which I needed. We agreed the integrated thesis I had submitted is ‘the first draft of the finished thesis’—yay! It still has a long way to go, but the team had annotated it to show where it needs development or additions. I came away feeling as if I’d taken a step forward. The end is a pinprick at the end of a very long tunnel: I’m never going to be an academic, I’ve learned that much about myself. But I left the meeting feeling as if I might just reach the summit of my personal Everest, and that’s all I hope for.

In the evening I went into Manchester again, with Bill this time. I had two tickets for an unusual reading at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation. It was one of the ‘Writers at MMU’ events featuring two Georgian poets, Salome Benidze and Diana Anphimiadi. Their work has been translated into English by Helen Mort and Jean Sprackland respectively, with the support of the Georgian poet Natalia Bukia-Peters, who is now based in Cornwall. The event was hosted by the London-based Poetry Translation Centre. We heard the poems read, first in English then in Georgian. It was a good experience; Georgian is a Kartvelian language, a language of the Caucasus. It has its own script, neither Roman nor Cyrillic, closer to Bengali or Gujarati really, which is beautiful; it looks as if it was knitted, a very looped script. It reminded me of a time before I could read, when English script must have been as undecipherable to me, black loops and swirls on a white page. I immediately wanted to start to decode it; but of course I can’t because I don’t have the language. Here’s an image of Georgian script I found via Google:

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and example of Georgian script: I’m sorry, I don’t know what it says

Again, I bought both pamphlets and had them signed. Salome signed in English; but Diana signed my pamphlet in her native Georgian Script, which was lovely.

Friday was Whit Friday, Saddleworth Band Contest day. We went into Manchester early for the bank and a bite to eat at the Café at the Cathedral—formerly Propertea—before getting home and hunkering down. You don’t want to be out too late in your car on Band Concert day in Saddleworth because roads are closed and the area is in a siege of brass band celebration. We could hear the bands playing all evening from the relative comfort of our living room. Unfortunately, the weather chose to break on Friday, bringing rain, wind and cold to Saddleworth; but I’m sure that didn’t stop the die-hard brass band fans from having a good time. There were lots of pictures on Facebook, anyway.

Saturday I had a long list of PhD jobs to do: RD9 record of the Tuesday meeting; arrange a meeting with Michael Symmons Roberts for my annual review; get together a selection of new poems to send to Jean Sprackland for my next creative support meeting; write a couple of new poems to go into the mix.

IMG_1347 my cat, Rosie Parker, not helping

I wrote two ‘couplings’, a form originated by Karen McCarthy Woolf, which entails taking a piece of prose, lineating it as if it were poetry, then using those lines alternated with lines of your own poetry, responding to those ‘prose’ lines, to make your poem. I searched out a letter from my grammar school headmaster to my parents offering condolences on the death of my brother. He got their initials wrong on the envelope, using my brother’s initials in error; and in the same week as the letter was sent, I was given a Saturday detention for not handing in my homework. So guess what my coupling is about! Roald Dahl never invented a more child-unfriendly school than my old grammar school.

I’m including my other ‘coupling’, a poem I first drafted on our Line Break last week. It has lines from Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk (London: Vintage 2014). It is a critique on Coventry Patmore’s ‘The Angel in the House’, a cringe-worthy piece about a woman’s role in life being the unassuming, obedient domestic goddess behind the man doing the real work in the world. Sack that for an idea!

 

Angel In The House

 She is conjuring trick
pulling time from her hat
a reptile
luscious, an unsucked fruit
a fallen angel, a griffon,
Madonna or whore
from the pages of an illuminated bestiary.
Halo or vulva, an enigma
something bright and distant
a red light or a candle flickering
like gold falling through water,
                        sunlight refracting. She is
a broken marionette
                        a reaction
of wings legs and light, splashed feathers
                        dashed perfection, a contamination
wearing jesses
                        her ring a choker, her dresses a prison
and the man holds them
and the man holds her
                                    and the man pulls her strings
 

 Rachel Davies
May 2018

The uplifting pause of a Line Break

I’m going to enjoy writing my blog this week.The sun shone some warmth on these old bones and I spent the week with two lovely poet friends, Hilary Robinson and Polly Atkinson, on our Line Break week. We were reading and writing poetry and generally having fun. Cayton is a small village between Scarborough and Filey, and it was here we spent the week, in a small cottage in the grounds of Killerby Old Hall.

I got up on Sunday morning and started my Couch to 5K challenge again! I wasn’t looking forward to it; I’ve been putting it off. But it was much easier this time around and I have to admit to quite enjoying it in a masochistic sort of way. I ran three times this week: Week 1 ticked off (again). I’ll be starting Week 2 later this morning. I went for a swim after my runs in Cayton, all before breakfast.

Sunday morning we had a workshop led by Polly, three-hoursof writing poetry to prepared prompts, including a list of five furniture words to get into one poem; a retelling of an Emily Dickinson poem using the cut-up words of the original; and a writing activity from one of those folded paper fortune-telling toys we made as children, like a section of an egg box that you put on your fore-fingers and thumbs then open and close to find your fortune in words, numbers and colours. We finished the workshop at 1.00 p.m. and that was when our online shopping was delivered from Tesco. After we’d stored the shopping we took a walk to Cayton Bay to see the sea. Hilary bought a kite from a beach shack, which we took to lots of places but never got to fly because we never found a long enough stretch of beach when the tide was out. It was a steep climb down to the sea front at Cayton Bay, which meant a steep climb up again after. Luckily some kind town planner had allowed a pub to be built at the top of the climb so we stopped for an al fresco pint of cider. The sun was lovely, even on that first day. I cooked us a chilli-con-Quorn for tea, with plenty for a second meal later in the week. We spent the evening reading aloud from the numerous poetry books we brought with us. I went online and bought us train tickets to York for Monday.

On Monday we called a cab and caught the train from Seamer Station to York. It was a planned visit: I had prepared small tasks for us to undertake while we were there. One was to record small snippets of conversation we heard while we were out. We got our notebooks out on the train. Do you know how hard it is to hear people talking on a train? Not because of the noise of the train, or because they whisper; they just spend so long on screen devices that no-one talks anymore. Mostly we spent the forty-five-minute journey noting things we saw from the train windows. We arrived in York at about 11.00, made our way via quirky boutiques to the Castle Museum area. The first job of the day was to visit the ‘Shaping the Body’ exhibition, about the impact of fashion on (particularly women’s) bodies. It was a fascinating, interactive display; but to get to it we had to pass through several other exhibitions first: York through history; the changing domestic scene; the development of the chocolate trade in York. The fashion exhibition was fascinating though; I was struck by how (particularly women) have courted death in maintaining a ‘look’: the use of arsenic, mercury and other deadly substances in fabric, the dangerously constrictive use of corseting. And all for the sake of being the woman a man imagined a woman to be, Madonna or whore. We left the Castle Museum at just after 1.00 because we had a visit to Jorvik planned at 14.40 and we needed sustenance. Luckily, just outside Jorvik is a Carluccio street shack, so we stopped for a sandwich and a Peroni: very civilised. It was easier to hear snippets of conversation here too. Bill paid for our tickets to Jorvik, bless him, because I couldn’t make up my mind on Jorvik or the ‘Shaping the Body’ display when I was planning the day out, and he thought we should do both. I’m so glad we did. We’d all been to Jorvik before but it’s such a good experience we enjoyed it all over again. Last year it was reopened, refurbished after the York city floods. We had the task of making notes of things that particularly appealed, including any language we heard. We finished our York visit with a walk around the ancient streets, and an al fresco brew before dining at Betty’s. We caught the train home about 9.00 in the evening after a lovely and very full day.

Tuesday: I started the day early by prepping writing activities based in our visit to York; then day two of running and swimming; breakfast, then my workshop on a theme of old keys. I incorporated our York visit into the writing activities. We worked for three hours with a short break then shared our writing at the end of the morning.  In the afternoon we took the bus into Scarborough. We stopped for a pint and a plate of chips while we decided what we wanted to do. Hilary knew of St Martin’s On The Hill church, which has stained glass windows by several eminent pre-Raphaelite artists. She found their website which said the church was open until 4.00 p.m. on Tuesdays so we made our way there. Believe me, it is indeed on a hill; it was a steep walk up to the church. When we got there the notice on the door announced that it closed at 2.00 p.m. So, update your website! We didn’t get to see the stained glass after all. And it would have been a lovely day to visit: the sun was shining relentlessly, it would have lit up those windows, given them life. We caught the bus back to Killerby Old Hall and Hilary cooked tartiflette, which we enjoyed with crusty bread and a crisp dry white. Lovely. In the evening we played a word game, ‘Pass the Bomb’, over another crisp, chilled white.

Wednesday it was our planned visit to Whitby; I drove us there and we found a Park and Ride. A bus was waiting so we took a short cut to the bus by shinning under a three foot fence: too high to get over easily; also too low to get under easily, apparently. I got stuck, then couldn’t get out for laughing and needed my friends to pull me out. But we made the bus with time to spare: so we could have taken the path! Hilary had planned a leaflet with things to look for while we were there. We visited another museum, in Patten Park. We had a brew in the Alice-themed  café downstairs: all playing cards, white rabbits and mad hatters, then  we visited the museum exhibitions; we used our student cards for concessions which always causes amusement among cashiers because we are all late-sixties, early seventies age. Some people just don’t know when to give up! We had to find the most unusual exhibit in the display and write something about it. I found a ‘sea bishop’ hiding among the seahorses: a sea bishop is a con that fishermen made from dead seahorses to sell to gullible tourists. I also found a small set of dentures—although they contained about ten incisors, so not good replicas of human teeth—made from walrus tusks; and a ‘hand of glory’, the mummified hand of a hanged felon that criminals kept as a charm against ending up on the gallows themselves. We fancied a chippie lunch, but the chippies all fry with beef dripping and Polly and I are vegetarian, so we settled for an un-Cornish pasty. We had the left-over chilli for tea when we got home. In the evening we read poetry and had an early night: it’s hard work enjoying yourselves.

Thursday morning, early, I picked up an e-mail from my Director of Studies. I sent him nearly 16000 words of my thesis, integrating some of the creative and the critical work into one whole, as we’d discussed. He attached a NAWE document (2018) the gist of which, he said, was that the creative and the critical elements should be ‘separate but inter-related’. After my initial reaction, which was to panic, I read the document myself and didn’t see that message in it at all. I highlighted several passages which seemed to me to be advocating integration. I went out for my run, adrenalin pumping so strongly that I actually ran an extra 50 or 60 metres in the same time as Tuesday’s run. I emailed Jean when I got back to the cottage, because Jean and I have always discussed integrating my poems into the thesis. Antony’s email nagged the back of my brain all day. After breakfast, it was Hilary’s workshop, lots more lovely writing prompts including exploring the form Karen McCarthy Woolf calls the ‘coupling’, where you take a few lines of prose text, lineate them as if they were poetry then alternate them with response lines of your own poetry. That was interesting and I have thought of several ‘couplings’ I can write for my portfolio. Hilary’s workshop concentrated a lot on forms of various kinds, which I always find quite liberating: I can often write to a tight form when I can’t think of anything in free form. We also wrote a memorial poem to someone or something. The hard part is thinking of your subject, and it took a few minutes of pencil-sucking before I settled on Lieutenant Colonel Arnaud Beltrame, the French police officer who offered himself in exchange for hostages in a terror siege at a supermarket in southern France. I was quite pleased with it, although the subject is distressing. That was our last workshop and we all had writer’s cramp by the end of it. In the afternoon we took the bus into Filey, walked around the shops, went down onto the beach, not wide enough or windy enough for Hilary’s kite, and looked for fossils—we found some in large stones—shells and sea glass. We tried to find chips, but beef dripping again, so we had to settle for a half of cider and a bag of crisps. I heard back from Jean, whose reading of the NAWE document coincided with mine, so I don’t know what DoS is getting at. I’ll find out, no doubt when I meet him on Tuesday. Polly cooked a lovely vegetable biryani for tea and we nattered till late in the evening.

Friday was our last planned visit, to Robin Hood’s Bay. We took the bus, sat in the front seat upstairs for lovely views across the North Yorks Moors. Driving down into Robin Hood’s Bay was a bit hair-raising from that viewpoint though, like a free roller coaster ride. Polly had planned activities for RHB: we sat among its quirky narrow streets and wrote: Hilary wrote a poem about how difficult it would be to conduct an illicit affair living in each other’s pockets like that. We visited the Old Lifeboat Station, a small interactive museum. I wrote a poem about Polly working the wind machine in there. We visited the mosaics on the old sea wall, a commissioned piece involving local primary school children.

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Photographs courtesy of Hilary Robinson

I would have loved to have been involved in that project. And, at last, we found a chippy that cooks in oil, so we had a box of chips sitting in their outside space, looking out over the bay, watching blackbirds feeding on dropped chips. Polly made another biryani, the first one was so good and we took our time over the meal. It was after ten o’clock when we cleared up.

Saturday we packed up and left. Roll on next year’s Line Break.

I’ve gone on long enough so I won’t post a poem: I haven’t had time to write them up yet anyway. Next week you can have a poem from Line Break. Right now, I have to go out to start Week 2 of my run.

3 brilliant poets, a rheumatologist, a thesis and a long drive

I’m away again. I can’t say much about it because there’s not much to say at the moment: it’s a small village somewhere on the east coast between Scarborough and Filey. I and two friends arrived last night, just had time to find a local Morrison’s, buy a pizza and a bottle of wine and hunker down. We’re here for a week of reading, writing and finding poetry, sight-seeing and generally having a good time. I’ll tell you more next week when we’ve had time to explore.

That’s next week. This blog is about this week because it’s been a huge week: poetry, PhD and life; lots of each. Firstly, it was Bank Holiday weekend with lovely weather and record temperatures. On Sunday I went to visit my sister in Stamford: it was her birthday on Tuesday and she has just retired so we took her out for lunch to celebrate both events. Sunday involved cake.

Monday was another lovely day; but I didn’t see too much of it because I was writing poetry, getting onto the MacBook poems I had scribbled in my journal at the two workshops I’ve attended lately, led by Karen McCarthy Woolf and Clare Shaw respectively. I like this, when you turn your scribbled thoughts into something that begins to look like, and be, a poem. I spent a morning working then went out into the garden with a cup of tea to enjoy some sunshine. Bill was gardening. I love hard work, as my Aunt Mary used to say, I could watch it all day.

Monday evening was The Group at Chapter One Books in Manchester. Hilary and I had a very sensible meal in Bundobust and then went to Group feeling very self-righteous. I took one of the poems I’d worked on in the morning. It was about The Fens, the area in East Anglia where I was born and grew up. I’ve just looked for it on my MacBook and can’t find it anywhere: even the search facility isn’t helping. I have no idea where it’s gone. I’ll have to type it up again, then, when I get home: luckily I have  the printed version. There were five of us at The Group and some jolly good writing, as ever: three poems and two short stories.  I received good feedback on my poem, useful ideas for developing it based around the draining of the sea. I’ll work on it again one day soon. That’s the good thing about being a poet, that working and reworking until you have the poem that deserves to be written.

Tuesday was a huge day for work. I’d given myself this one last day to work on the thesis before sending it off to my Director of Studies. I reread the whole thing, re-ordered some of it—again—and added some more poems and reflection on those poems. By the end of the day I had almost 16000 words to send off. I hesitated for a long time before pressing ‘send’; but I did, and it’s now with the team. I’ve asked for some positive feedback this time before the inevitable criticism and need for development: my time’s running out and I don’t want to come back from another DoS meeting, at this late stage, feeling unworthy. I always concentrate on the negatives so I’ve asked for some positives to think on. I heard back from my Director of Studies almost immediately. We are meeting on Tuesday 22nd, the week I get home. Angelica also sent me details of a new book she’s been reading, Jacqueline Rose’s Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty, which sounds just up my street so I have that on my list of books to read when I get home. She also sent me a link to Rose’s London Review of Books review of six books on motherhood: https://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n12/jacqueline-rose/mothersI’ve brought that away with me to read. I don’t think all of it will be relevant, but it will be interesting and some might be useful to the research and lead me to other reading. So it’s done, sent and waiting to be read and discussed. Think of me next Tuesday.

Wednesday was an unusual day. I had an appointment to see the rheumatologist, Dr Klimiuk, about my ‘ugly sisters’, polymyalgia rheumatica (PMR) and giant cell arteritis (GCA). I’ve mentioned these two auto-immune diseases on here before. I was diagnosed with the former in December 2013: I woke up the morning after the gym with pains in my thigh muscles. I thought at first it was just post-exercise stiffness and ignored it for a day or two. When it didn’t go away after a fortnight I thought I might have pulled a muscle and so I went to the doc thinking I might need some physio or something. She ordered blood tests, which surprised me: blood tests for a pulled muscle? The results showed high levels on anti-inflammatory markers in the blood samples. Diagnosis: PMR. The treatment, Prednisolone, is also a diagnostic: if it works within three days it is PMR; if it doesn’t work it’s something else. After three days I felt as if I’d been oiled: the pain was gone. This weird complaint that I’d never heard of until I got it affects about 25% of people, mostly but not exclusively, over 50; mostly but not exclusively women. Eighteen months later I developed GCA, PMR’s ugly sister that affects about 20% of PMR sufferers: how lucky am I? The dosage of Prednisolone was increased dramatically and I’ve been reducing it gradually ever since, desperate not to need it any more. It’s a wonder drug for sure, but it has its drawbacks as all medication does. For me it was the tremor in the hands: you don’t want to be sitting beside me when I’m eating soup! I’ve taught myself to eat soup with my left hand since PMR. But the last Sunday in April I took my last Prednisolone tablet, I hope. On Wednesday I saw the rheumatologist for a progress report. Apart from a bit of stiffness in the arms first thing in the morning, which only lasts about an hour, I’ve been fine without the Pred. Apparently the adrenal glands, which produce the body’s own anti-inflammatory steroid, cortisol, stop working while you’re on Pred, they shut down. Because I’ve been on it for nearly 4.5 years—the usual treatment is for twelve to eighteen months—my adrenals might have permanently given up trying to wake up and work independently. So I have to have tests now to see how idle the adrenals are. Imagine them, pulling a sicky every morning then lying back on the sofa of my kidneys with a tinny and a bag of crisps and Sky films on the telly. If they don’t get back to work soon, it could be small doses of Pred ad infinitum. (insert miserable faced emoji).

Thursday we went into Oldham for the live screening of National Theatre’s Macbeth. Starring Rory Kinnear and Anne Marie Duff, it was set in some post-apocalyptic modern state where the rule of law had broken down. It was brilliant, I loved it. The witches were particularly spellbinding, if you’ll pardon the pun. The set was dark, post conflict destruction. The witches were ethereal, one minute you could see them, next minute hear them but they’d disappeared. It was really well done, very spooky and convincing. It’s one of my favourite Shakespeare plays anyway, but this production was brilliant. I don’t think everyone agreed with me: the couple next to us left after ten minutes, the people in front gave up at the interval. They all missed a treat in my opinion. I love the creative ways directors make Shakespeare new and relevant to modern day stories.

Friday, Hilary and I went to Leeds to see Simon Armitage reading. We caught the train, ate totally unsensibly in the Leeds Bundobust, and took the twenty-five-minute-slightly-uphill-all-the-way-walk to the venue at the Workhouse Theatre on Leeds University campus. You know Simon Armitage is going to be brilliant, and we weren’t disappointed on Friday. He read some old favourites; and also from his new collection, Flit, about his work in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, where he imagines YSP as ‘Ysp’, a small, central European country that he lived in for a year. The poems are funny and clever. The book is beautiful: hard-backed, containing his poems alongside artwork. Of course, I had to buy it, and another beautiful hard-back-with-artwork collection called Cemetery. He signed them both at the end of the evening. It was lovely that he remembered me from the days when he was one of my tutors on the MA in Creative Writing at MMU.

Saturday was another day full of poetry and life. The afternoon was taken up with the Poets & Players competition celebration event. Arian Sadr gave a virtuoso performance on the Persian drums: how can he do that with only ten fingers? I suspect he has two extra hands hidden up his sleeves. He was mesmerising. Pascale Petit, our judge, presented the prizes; the prize-winners and commended poets read their poems and then Pascale gave a wonderful reading from Mama Amazonica to end the afternoon. I bought a new copy to replace the copy she signed for me in Birmingham, that I have read to death in my PhD work. So now I have a pristine copy that I can keep in perfect order. I also got your copy signed, Emma. After the event, I drove Hilary and Polly to this cottage in the damp east of the country, about which I can say nothing at the moment because we only arrived about 7.30 last night. We have an exciting week full of poetry to look forward to. I’ll tell you all about it next week, no doubt. Meanwhile, here is one of the poems I wrote up on Monday. It’s the poem I wrote for the Karen McCarthy Woolf workshop for Poets & Players in April; it features the ‘Ghost Tree’ sculpture by Anya Gallacio. I mentioned the sculpture in my blog on 22.04.18 and included a photo in that blog post. Here’s the poem I wrote at the workshop:

 

Ghost Tree

after the sculpture by Anya Gallicio, Whitworth Park

 I like you best in winter when your stark form
is practised by other trees in the park.

Did you know
your stripped bark channels
the rainwater you don’t need, to refresh
snake fritillaries growing at your feet?

You are the sun’s fierce heat,
the birds who won’t find shade here.

Your branches reach upward and outward
screeching a symphony of tree-speech:
a silent prayer, your gift of mimicry.

You are the mirror we hold up to ourselves.
We kid ourselves we are also worshippers,

want to protect those sylvan sprites who ride
your slides. There’s no way in though,
no home in you. Rough-sleeping tree spirits,
move on, move on.

You’re just a decoy, a false promise.
You never dress in summer green.

 

Rachel Davies

April 2018

Superwomen and a Greenpeace fundraiser

I’ve had notification of the annual review process this week. This will be my last review. Three years seems a long time when you start out on this journey, but oh my, it rushes past you like a train. I’ve transferred to part-time for this last year to give me a bit more time, but still the sand is running out rapidly. I think I’ll get it done, I’m not worried about that. But will it achieve a PhD? That’s for next May; this year I need to just knock on and get it done.

And I have been knocking on this week. I’m quite pleased with my little self; which is not necessarily a good thing. The old proverb ‘pride come before a fall’ is a true one in my experience. I meet my team in a few weeks for feedback on the work I’ve been doing, so I won’t get too pleased with myself until then. I meant to work on the thesis last Sunday, but a nagging headache when I got up didn’t go away with a couple of paracetemol so I decided to leave brain work and do my ironing instead. Later in the day, headache a distant memory, I watched the Manchester Utd match against Arsenal, Arsene’s last visit to the Theatre of Dreams. I’m proud of the warm welcome Utd fans gave him as he came out onto the field: he has been a long-time committed and hard-working manager of Arsenal. Utd fans are the best.

I did get down to some work on Monday morning though. I had two laptops running: the Black Ladd laptop was installing a latest version of the Sage software the accountant had sent me. I was a bit worried about this process: the accountant said it didn’t need pass codes etc to install, but I remember what a pain the original installation was, so I was sceptical. But it went without a hitch. It’s a long job waiting for a programme to install, so I had my thesis laptop on my knee, working on it at the same time: this woman’s a Superwoman! I was mostly changing the position of work I’d already done: I woke up just knowing some of the poems I’d included needed to be in an earlier position, for instance. I was right. I moved them to the place I’d thought of and the whole thing read better for it. So that was the kind of job I was doing to the thesis on Monday: cut and pasting pieces, removing some quotes into footnotes because I felt they broke the flow.  I didn’t add work, but I was pleased with the work I’d redrafted. When the Sage software installed at last, I had to work out how to install the back up of my accounts that the accountant had sent after going through them for the quarterly VAT. Again, Superwoman! I worked it out: it took a couple of unsuccessful attempts, but I did it in the end. Sage all up to date and running well and the thesis improved: I call that a good morning’s work.

On Tuesday I got down to the thesis with renewed vigour. I was at my desk for 8.00 a.m. I’m really enjoying this integrated approach to the writing. I’ve been thinking some theory, analysing some of Hill’s or Petit’s poetry to back-up the theory then including some of my own poems to illustrate what I’ve written about their work. It’s not perfect, but I keep working on it and polishing it up a bit. By lunchtime I had increased the word count to 14000 words. I told my Director of Studies I’d send him 16000 words in the summer. It’s summer already. My plan is to work on it for two more days, then send off whatever I have next week prior to going to Scarborough for a writing week. That way I won’t have to drag it along to work on in the early hours. I can concentrate on adding to the creative aspect while I’m away.

Wednesday was all taken up with my little job at the Black Ladd. It went well, but there was a lot to do, catching up with work I didn’t get done while I was in St. Ives. I’m determined to be up to date before I go to Scarborough, so I worked until late afternoon. That’s the problem with the new tax year: so much added work setting up the year’s standing orders etc. By the time I left work everything—even the filing—was up to date. Next week should be easier for it. On Thursday life got in the way again. I had a dental appointment at 8.00 then we took Bill’s car for its MOT and annual service. I met Hilary in Uppermill for coffee afterwards, to plan our route to Eccles for the Greenpeace reading on Friday. Yes, OK, it was an excuse. We took our coffee al fresco: it was a lovely morning. After lunch Bill had the bad news from the garage. He knew he needed work on the brake pads; but the salted roads in winter had taken their toll on the undercarriage and springs and the bill for potential work would be £2400. Ouch! He has a service plan with Pentagon though, which comes with discounts on any work that needs doing, so the discounts reduced that by half, which was heart-warming. Thatcher used to do that, didn’t she? Give you a huge figure for costs, then when it only came to a big, not a huge, figure, you’d think you’d got off lightly as taxpayers. Well that’s how Bill felt on Thursday. The work’s being done next week.

Friday was the best day of the week. It involved poetry, which is always a good day. Hilary and I went to Eccles, where Ann Heathcote had organised a poetry event to raise funds for Greenpeace. She was angry and desperate after watching David Attenborough’s Blue Planet earlier in the year; we all were, but she did something about it. She enlisted Clare Shaw and Kim Moore to donate their time to the evening. Clare ran a poetry workshop in the early evening: Hilary and I both went. It was good stuff; I think I may have some poems. In the evening Clare and Kim both read; it goes without saying, they were brilliant. There were musicians: the thirteen year old violinist was an inspiration and the woman who sang Portuguese songs: what a voice! I’m sorry I can’t remember their names and the publicity can’t be accessed, but they were brilliant. There was an open mic as well: Hilary and I both read. We took copies of the hand-stitched pamphlet we’d made of our poetry and sold them on the night; all proceeds to Greenpeace. Our pamphlets added £33 to the pot. There was a tombola with signed poetry books that Clare had cadged from her poet friends; there was a raffle with wonderful prizes that Ann had begged: poetry books, stationery, afternoon tea, Waterstones tokens, bottles of booze. It was such a good night. And all the money taken went into the pot. The Eccles Masonic Hall venue was donated too; and they offered to top the fund by 5%. Altogether the event raised £1317.47: what a brilliant result and a brilliant evening. Thank you Ann for organising it. You are a Superwoman too. Your hard work really paid off. It was well after midnight when we got home, too buzzed up with poetry to even think of sleeping.

So, Bank Holiday weekend: they’re all bank holidays when you’re retired. Saturday I was back at my desk; another really good day on the thesis. I also checked all my footnotes to make sure they made sense. When you take a ‘cut and paste’ approach it can mess with your referencing so I checked them thoroughly. I think they are OK now; and I used the Style Guide so I think they are all present and correct and in the house style. I will have a substantial piece of work to send to the team next week. Which will be in very good time for the annual review. That will be my next big job: preparing the documentation for that. Well, what else have I got to do?

Later today I’m off to Stamford to see my sister. It’s her birthday on Tuesday. She retired last Tuesday, so we’re taking her out to lunch to celebrate both events. I hope she enjoys retirement as much as I do. It really has been the best time of my life: just a shame you have to be an old bugger before you get to indulge. So, I don’t have a poem this week. I have lots of drafts of poems from workshops I’ve been on lately, but nothing I want to share yet. Sorry. I promise to try harder next week, but Bill has just got up, so I think it’s time to get moving. I won’t get to Stamford if I sit in bed redrafting poems all day!

 

Have a good week.

Boiled eggs and Christ the homeless

I love retirement, it’s the best job I’ve ever had. I hear some people say they feel worthless, they’re bored, lonely, ‘finished’ now they’re retired. I feel sorry for them: my retirement revolves around poetry, friends and study. Everyday is a new experience and I love it. Poetry, PhD and friends: this week has been full of all three.

On Sunday I worked on the thesis. Every time I work on it, I see alternative—better—ways of presenting it. I must be an action worker, because I have had so many plans but when I put them into action I see alternatives; and yet I don’t see them until I start working on the plan. Does that make me a bad student; or a creative one; or a ‘fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants’ one? I am bringing the parts of thesis writing I have done over the last couple of years and putting them together in a cut and paste exercise. Obviously, this requires much writing to tie them all together in a fairly seamless whole. I’m enjoying it. The rub will come when I send it to the team for feedback. I’m running out of time now, only a year left to complete. My plan is to have a first draft final attempt ready to send to my supervisors before 12thMay, when I go to Scarborough for a poetry week with two friends. That way, I can concentrate on poetry and not have the thesis nagging me in the background while I’m away.

Monday afternoon I went into Manchester with Hilary Robinson to meet up with Polly Atkinson, the two friends I’m off to Scarborough with mid-May. We had a planning meeting, with Indian street-food at Bundobust. We went from there to Chapter One Books to The Group, the Monday evening writing group. This was Polly’s first Group; I hope it won’t be her last. There were five of us there this week. Four of us took poetry; Melissa took one of her quirky short stories. I took the ‘alternative mother’ poem I wrote about St Ives. I knew it wasn’t working. The feedback I got from Group was useful. I altered it in the week, made it about Basil Fawlty instead, cut the last stanza. It’s still not my best, but it works better than before. When I got home, I prepared all the anonymous poems into one standardised document and sent them out to Stanza poets ready for Tuesday’s meeting.

Tuesday, back to my desk for more PhD thesis. I was really pleased with the morning’s work; but immediately saw an alternative way of presenting it: not scrapping what I’d written by any means, but changing the order of the work, leading with a different sub-topic. Does anyone else work like this—constantly rethinking while you’re working? Thank goodness for the word processor, what a boon. When I did my first degree, everything was written by hand. How did we cope? Now, I just cut then paste the cut text at the end of the thesis, change it’s colour so I know I don’t want it there, but need to deal with it at a later date. It works for me, anyway. The hard bit is remembering not to delete anything: save it somewhere as something, you may need it sometime. In the afternoon I printed off and read the poems for Stanza. There were only four poems to read, but they were good ones. I took a poem about boiling eggs, with an underlying different message. It’s another poem from St Ives workshops: I’ll post it at the end of the blog this week. We went to the Buffet Bar for 7.30. Unfortunately one of the poets had sent late apologies, so we had four poems, but only three poets to discuss them this week. But it was good, deep discussion. They really were good poems and good poets talking about them. We are a small Stanza, but a good one. We are open to new membership if you fancy coming along. Our next meeting is on Tuesday 29thMay. Details will be here early in May: https://www.facebook.com/groups/264023166946510/
We’ll be having a writing workshop at that session, so if you fancy coming, remember to bring pens/pencils and paper.

On Wednesday, after a fairly standard day at Amie’s pub/restaurant doing the books, Bill and I went into Manchester with Hilary and her husband, David. We went to the Royal Exchange for the Carol Ann Duffy and Friends event. Wow, what a great night that was. Carol Ann’s daughter, Ella, kicked off the action with a piece of drama, acting CAD’s poems from The World’s Wife. That was so good: it included improvised pieces of her own among her mother’s poems. Her presentation was brilliant: apparently she took it to Edinburgh Fringe last year. She has a first in drama from Cambridge, so she’s no slouch in the acting stakes. I think it was one of the best things I’ve seen at one of these events; and they’re always good. The second half was taken up with readings by Laureate’s Choice pamphlet poets: Natalie Burdett, John Fennelly and Keith Hutson. Natalie’s and John’s poetry was superb; and Keith is the ultimate performer, entertaining and funny. He has written for some of the best comedians in the business so he knows how to hold an audience. I bought a copy of The World’s Wife and got Carol Ann to sign it for a friend.

On Friday morning, early, I put together the poems I’ve worked on since our editorial meeting with Rebecca Bilkau a couple of weeks ago; and sent them off to her for our Dragon Spawn pamphlet. Later, Bill and I went into Manchester again; some business at the bank then lunch at ProperTea. I wanted to see the new sculpture of Christ so we walked to St Anne’s Square after lunch. The sculpture depicts a homeless man sleeping rough on a bench: the marks of the nails in his feet the only clue that this is Christ, although if you look closely you can make out a face in the folds of his blanket. A plaque by the artwork quotes the Bible: “Jesus said, I was hungry and you gave me food.”The work is by Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz and is one of several in major cities around the world. Apparently Westminster City Council refused planning permission for a similar sculpture close to the Houses of Parliament. Too near the knuckle for ministers to see the effects of their cruel policies, I guess; turn a blind eye. You can read all about it here https://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/homeless-jesus-manchester-city-centre-14569297  and see it in St Anne’s Square, Manchester. Here is a photo I found in the MEN article:

Jesus-The-Homeless

Saturday I was back at my desk working on the thesis, so it’s been a very productive week. I now have about 12000 words. As Eric Morcambe very famously said, they’re not necessarily in the right order; but they’re there waiting to be drafted and redrafted until I’ve crafted something that will pay off all the hard work. Fingers crossed. What I need is some positive feedback from my support team and I’ll be a very happy PhD student indeed.

There you have it then; the typical week of a retired head teacher become poet become relentless student. Now, kettle on, I’ve earned a cup of tea.

Here’s the poem I took to Stanza for feedback. I wrote it to one of the prompts from Kim Moore and Helen Mort in St Ives. The prompt was to write about something mundane that really tells a different, deeper story. Here is my attempt. I hope you get its deeper meaning. But really, it’s about boiling eggs, isn’t it? Of course it is.

 

Boiling Eggs

Saucepan’s on the heat, water
covering two brown eggs begins
to boil. Set the timer to
three minutes. His egg must be soft.

Lift his egg into the Superman
eggcup. Set the timer
for a minute more.
Carry his egg to his place at table.

Lift your egg, test its doneness
by a short breath on the shell,
watch the drying patch
spread like fear.

Put your egg into the Fresian cow,
the eggcup he doesn’t like.
Watch him take a knife to
his egg, slice its head, watch yolk

and white over-run down the sides.
Tap your egg with the bowl of a spoon,
pick at shell fragments. Wait for his knife.
He has no patience with peelers.

Rachel Davies
April 2018

Ghost Trees and Arctic Wastes

What a busy week again! When I retired from my job as a primary headteacher one little boy said to me, ‘You’ll be able to go home and put your feet up now.’ I have to report, it hasn’t happened yet!

Sunday was all about travelling home from St Ives after a wonderful week of poetry with Kim Moore, Helen Mort and lots of lovely poets on the course. The same taxi driver who brought us to the hotel when we arrived collected us after breakfast and took us to St Erth station. He asked us what we’d been writing all week. When we told him poetry he asked if we had published any books. We told him about the Dragon Spawn book we have coming out later this year: he gave us his card and said he wanted to buy a copy. What a lovely man!

Did you know you have to pay for wifi on Cross Country Trains, even for the first hour? I’ve never had to pay for wifi on any train I’ve been on. So we were at Plymouth before I could post my blog last week: I’m too tight to pay a company which is too tight to allow wifi access for free. We upgraded to first class on the Cross Country train from Plymouth to Manchester for a very small payment: by the time we’d accessed the free first-class wifi for the five hour journey, had drinks and snacks on demand, it had paid for itself. And the extra space and relaxed atmosphere meant I got some work done on the way home, writing a new ‘alternative mother’ and revisiting Dragon Spawn poems in the light of my editorial chat with Rebecca Bilkau.

On Monday I went to yoga with my daughter Amie. I found muscles I didn’t know I had; but it was very gentle and I felt good after it. The rest of Monday was taken up with food shopping, unpacking and laundry. Tuesday was the day I got down to serious work. I worked on the thesis. I read previous writings I had done and cut and pasted bits I wanted to use in this new integrated approach. By lunch time I had achieved a rewrite of five and a half thousand words, using the pasted parts and writing them into the work I’d done already. And I redrafted most of the autobiographical excesses. I’ve written notes to myself in green or red to tell myself what I want to change or add or revise the order of. I was feeling very good about it when I stopped work for the day. I also looked for a book I borrowed from MMU library a couple of months ago. I thought it was on my desk, so it seemed a good excuse to return all the books on my desk to the bookshelves: I’m an untidy worker, but I usually know where to put my hands on things. I didn’t find the book anywhere on my desk. I thought my cat, Rosie Parker, might have knocked it on the floor behind the desk: she does that. I looked: no book. I even looked in the bedroom thinking it might have fallen off the chest beside my bed. I looked: no book. Just when I thought I might have to replace it from my own pocket, I decided to look along my PhD bookshelf. There was the book, put away in the most sensible place: that’s why I couldn’t find it then. I spent an hour skim-reading it and couldn’t even remember why I wanted to borrow it in the first place! There is a lesson there about organisation, I guess.

Wednesday was my day at Amie’s pub/restaurant, doing the books. I had a meeting with the brewery rep first thing, something about possible mismatch between delivery notes and invoices. It was fine. While I was setting up the laptop, it offered to upgrade. I asked it to wait an hour, the only option I was given. I didn’t want it to upgrade because I knew from past experience that Sage won’t open when it upgrades itself. I caught it trying a couple of times and delayed it, but I took my eye off the screen while I was talking to the rep and when I went back to my desk it was happily upgrading itself: 3% done, do not switch off etc. So I had to wait while it took all morning to upgrade thinking I would then have to downgrade it again to access Sage. But, although it did take a couple of hours to complete, Sage did indeed open, by which time I’d lost two hours of valuable work time, doing jobs I pretended were necessary to fill the time. I had to leave work at 3.00 because Bill and I had tickets to see an adaptation of Schiller’s Mary Stuart at the Lowry theatre in the evening. We had a plan to get there on Manchester’s wonderful Metrolink and eat before the performance. The play was interesting. Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams toss a coin at the start of the performance to see who will play Mary and who Elizabeth. Stevenson played Elizabeth on Wednesday. It is a very wordy play, not much action. The  very formal ‘dialogue’ felt like a lecture as characters gave us background information in a way that normal speech wouldn’t have done. But the minimal set was stark and perfect for the play. Act 5, I felt, should have been shorter; if Schiller had brought the play to my Stanza group, I would have said he needed to finish it with the death of Mary. The bit after that was excessive in my opinion, detracted from the drama of the moment. But I stayed awake throughout, and at the moment that is a bonus because I’ve been very tired, recovering from the microbe attack. So staying awake says a lot about how I was gripped. I love that period of history; and it has a strong link to my home town. Mary was originally buried in Peterborough Cathedral following her beheading in Fotheringhay Castle, until her son James I/VI moved her remains to Westminster.

Thursday I had to go back to the Black Ladd to finish the work I didn’t get done on Wednesday. Even so, I brought work home to do. I also took my car for its annual service on Thursday. Don’t you love it when they tell you you’ll get an emailed evaluation to complete and they ask you to score them 9 or 10 because anything lower than that will be a failure! Ha. On Friday evening I went out for dinner with my friend Joan, which I’m only telling you about because she loves a mention.

Saturday was the hightlight of a busy week. It was the Poets & Players workshop on Saturday morning, run this month by Karen McCarthy Woolf. It was a wonderful workshop about trees: lots of reading, discussing and writing. As a finale, we went out into Whitworth Park to look at, and write about, the Anya Gallacio ‘Ghost Tree’ sculpture, a stainless steel ‘tree’ that replaced a dead London Plane tree. I have mixed feelings about it. I love it in winter when all the trees are leafless skeletons. But in the summer it looks incongruous in its starkness:

Anya-Gallaccio-Untitled-2016-The-Whitworth-10-683x1024
Ghost Tree by Anya Gallicio; Whitworth Park and Art Gallery

In the afternoon we had music from Adam Fairhall and poetry readings from Nick Makoha, Karen McCarthy Woolf (I had the pleasure of introducing her) and the wonderful Imtiaz Dharker: I could listen to her poetry, read in her wonderfully calm voice, for months. What a fantastic line-up of poets that was. Our next event is the Competition celebration on May 12th, with Pascale Petit and our prize winners. There will be a workshop in the morning, led by lovely Jo Bell: details will be posted on our website: https://poetsandplayers.co
Mike, if you want me to get Mama Amazonica signed for you, get it to me before May 12th.

To finish, I’m going to post a poem I wrote last week on the course. It is a recollection of an event at school when I was 11 years old. It is told from the point of view of the art teacher, who suffered a nervous breakdown in the middle of a lesson and walked out of school never to be seen again. Of course we didn’t know the background when we were eleven, it just seemed extraordinary, and something to talk about at breaks for several days after. But as a grown up woman, I can see she must have been in emotional pain: perhaps the stress of work; or problems in her marriage? Anyway, this is the poem; I hope it shows something of the confusion of an eleven year old, mixed with the more understanding knowledge of an adult.

 

First day of term

another new class,
thirty cuckoos wanting food,
sixty eyes sizing me up, sucking me dry.

I have nothing to give.
I won’t cry, I won’t.         I cry.
Paint Inuit, I say.

Paint igloos, paint vast arctic wastes.
They swallow this worm,
thirty holes in snow,

thirty angling Inuit, occasionally a catch.
What next, they cuckoo.
Paint another, I say, paint

polar bears, arctic foxes, a desert of ice.
They swallow this worm,
thirty polar bears.

What next, they cuckoo.
Paint Inuit, I say.
Miss, we’re sick of snow, they cuckoo.

I see their beaks opening
closing. Icebergs are the only food I have.
I walk out.

It’s over.
There’s no going back.

 

Rachel Davies
April 2018

Poetry and ‘Not’ Poetry

IMG_1173
The view from my hotel bedroom, across Carbis Bay

I’ve been in St Ives for a week with some lovely people, the community of poets: old poetry friends: Hilary Robinson, John Foggin, Bernice Reynolds; and lovely new friends: Liz, Sally, Harriet. There’s no literary merit in a list of names, so I’ll just say everyone on the course was talented and kind, it was a fantastic week of poets, poems, reading, writing, discussing. It’s been terrific. Hilary and I left Manchester Piccadilly at 9.30 a.m. on Sunday and arrived at the hotel just before 6.00 p.m. Sunday evening was our own time, the poetry course started on Monday afternoon. We decided on an early night: I still wasn’t entirely over the tummy bug that had laid me low last week.

On Monday morning we walked into St Ives for a look around. We went to Tate Modern for a guided talk about the Virginia Woolf exhibition; although in truth it was a misguided tour: the tour guide talked about Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘A Room of Your Own’; and talked of Freud’s theory of the subconscious. Anyone who knows Woolf recognises the mistaken ‘Your’ in that title; and Freud talked of the Unconscious, not the subconscious. But still, it was interesting to listen to someone who appeared to know about the artwork. The Laura Knight landscapes were extraordinary, they could’ve been painted last week, and her portraits are legendary. So altogether it was a morning well spent. We bought a combined ticket to visit the Tate and the Barbara Hepworth museum within the week, so we still had the Hepworth to look forward to. We had a look around the shops in St Ives; I bought two long sleeve tee shirts from Seasalt, because I’d only brought warm clothing away with me and it was summer in St Ives.

The poetry course started at 4.00 p.m. with a joint workshop from Kim Moore and Helen Mort. Oh my, what two terrific poets to work with. The workshop focused on silence, white space, line breaks. It was only an hour long, to get us in the mood, but I got a decent, very short poem from the writing exercise. We were given one-liners from published poems and had to use that as a first line or the title of a poem. I got ‘a large silence’, and I wrote two pages of words before a very short poem—only thirteen words—formed itself.

After the evening meal, we all read a favourite poem by a published poet. I chose Simon Armitage’s specular poem from his collection ‘Out of the Blue’ (London: Enitharmon 2008). It is a series he wrote as a Channel 5 commission to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the 9:11 attacks on the World Trade Centre. A specular poem is a poem that repeats itself backwards, as if in a mirror. The extraordinary thing about this particular one is that it’s a prose poem, a big block of print. You don’t realise it’s a specular poem for some time past the turn. The crafting in it is impeccable. After we’d all read our favourite poems—and there were some cracking poems people had chosen—we all dispersed to our beds.

After breakfast on Tuesday we had a workshop led by Helen Mort on ‘Saying the Unsayable’ in poetry. The best part for me was writing a ‘not’ poem, describing a difficult event as if it hadn’t happened. I’ll post the poem that came from this activity at the end of the blog. We had a free afternoon; I spent it drafting the morning’s poems onto my laptop. After dinner Kim and Helen gave us readings of their poetry, a master-class in presenting poetry to an audience.

Wednesday, a workshop led by Kim: ‘Who are you talking to?” looking at point of view and imagined audience. It was really about subverting the focus, ‘lying’ in poems, telling others’ stories as if they are your own. There were some really good poets on the course and the standard of work participants were prepared to share was very high. I wrote an eighteenth ‘alternative mother’ from this workshop, based on Alice in Wonderland. Hilary and I walked into St Ives for lunch after the workshop then we visited the Barbara Hepworth Museum. If you’re ever in St Ives, this is well worth a visit. The sculptures in the garden are particularly gorgeous. They cry out to be touched, and most of them you are allowed to touch: they are so smooth and curvily tactile.

Local based poet Katrina Naomi joined us for dinner and gave a reading in the evening. I wanted to stay and talk to Katrina after her reading: I really enjoyed her PhD thesis last year and I wanted to tell her so. But I still wasn’t entirely over the tummy bug from last week: and I just had to go to bed, I felt so tired. I fell asleep before I remembered I hadn’t even spoken to my partner, Bill.

After breakfast on Thursday we had a workshop—‘Leave it out’—with input from both Kim and Helen. It was about subverting the truth in a poem, how we write unpleasant experiences, find a way to address difficult subjects. I wrote about an art teacher I had when I was in the first year of grammar school. She had a nervous breakdown while she was teaching us, although we didn’t know that at eleven. She kept asking us to paint arctic scenes then just upped and left the classroom mid-lesson and never returned. I embellished the story to make it ‘tellable’.

We walked into St Ives in the afternoon because Hilary wanted to get some fabric she’d seen the day before; but we had to be back at 3.00 p.m. because we had individual tutorials with Helen Mort. We’d given her three poems earlier in the week and we met to get feedback on them, one-to-one. I’d given Helen a couple of my ‘alternative mother’ poems and I had some really useful feedback. The good news is, she really liked them; and it’s a good feeling when a poet as good as Helen Mort says positive things about your work. I had my first Cornish Cream Tea after the tutorial; it’s a mark of how much better I was feeling on Thursday. I hadn’t fancied a cream scone all week.

On Thursday evening we had a sort of poetry quiz. We’d been asked to submit a poem of our own, anonymously, and these were distributed among the group. We each read the poem we’d been dealt and then we had to try to decide which of us had written it. Obviously, we all got at least one right, because our own poems were in the mix; and Bernice, who is from South Wales originally, had submitted a poem with the huge clue of a Welsh cake in it, so most people—although not everyone—got that one right. At the end of the evening, these were the only two I’d guessed correctly, but Hilary won the prize for having five correct guesses. She won a Weetabix purloined from the breakfast buffet with some after-dinner mints left on the dinner table when the evening meal was done.

Friday we had a critiquing workshop. We all took one poem, either brought from home or one we’d written in the week, and received feedback from group members. I took the ‘Alice poem’ I wrote earlier in the week and I had lovely, positive feedback. Mostly they wanted more of it, so I’m committed to developing it. The standard of poetry we discussed was incredibly high. In the evening, course members held a reading. Each of us read two poems to the group. I chose to read two of my ‘alternative mother’ poems, including ‘Pope Joan’, which I’d been working on during the day; and one of the poems I’d taken to the tutorial with Helen on Thursday. I’d worked on it as a result of her feedback and it’s a stronger poem for the redrafting. It was a good night: everyone read some cracking poems, lots of different styles. It highlighted what a talented bunch of poets I’ve been working with all week.

After breakfast on Saturday, most people started to wend their ways home. Hilary and I had booked an extra night at the hotel because we’re in Cornwall and it seems wrong not to see something of the area while we’re here. We planned to go to Healey’s Farm, between Truro and Newquay, where they make Rattler Cyder, a favourite tipple of ours while we’re here. We were going to do some serious tasting. But it takes about three weeks to get there on public transport so we decided to give it a miss and visit Penzance instead. We had a good look around the shops: I bought a brand new maxi-dress in a charity shop, still with the original tickets on; and a ‘vintage’ knee length black velvet jacket which had been revamped with gold printed cog wheel patterns. It’s lovely, and dirt cheap.

This evening there were just us and two other poets who have also booked extra nights at the hotel. We all had dinner together and shared a bottle of wine and it was a good end to the evening. You’ll notice I am writing this on Saturday evening, that’s because tomorrow will be a bit rushed. We’re all packed and ready to leave after breakfast. I won’t be able to post my blog until later, probably from the train home, because my MacBook stopped talking to the hotel wi-fi for some reason. Ho hum.

So, here’s the ‘no’ poem, where you write about an event by saying it didn’t happen. I think it makes it more interesting than just narrating the event. I don’t think you could get away with it too often; but it was an interesting exercise to do it once.

Remember, it’s very early draft:

 

How it didn’t happen

Moon wasn’t
a football rolling along Mossley hill.
It wasn’t raining and
the March wind didn’t howl.
She wasn’t surprised by his car
not standing in the drive.
Night wasn’t washed
with India ink, windows
weren’t black squares in pebbledash.
House wasn’t silent as death.
Note wasn’t propped on mantle,
wouldn’t tell her
in that unfamiliar hand
what she didn’t know already:
that she wasn’t just dust
scattered by the closing door.

Rachel Davies
April 2018

 

 

 

 

 

Spawn of the Dragon

 

I’ll have to do a short post this week; although it’s been a week as full as any other. I’ll stick with the highest and lowest points.

High point number one: my son Richard came to visit on Wednesday. He’s a teacher, so mostly we get to meet up in the school holidays. He drove up from Peterborough on Wednesday morning and we met at Amie’s house. We took Amie’s dogs for a walk along the canal from Diggle to Grandpa Green’s for coffee and doggy sausages,  then walked back via Woolyknits café for a light lunch and more doggy sausages. Back to Amie’s house after lunch for coffee. I had an appointment Uppermill in the late afternoon and when I got back from there we all watched the film ‘Wonder’, about a young boy with a genetic facial disfigurement. Oh my, Kleenex shares went up that day. Richard stayed the night with us, so I got to have breakfast with him before he drove back to Peterborough to do what all teachers do in the holidays: work.

Low point number one: on Thursday afternoon I got back from sorting the books at Amie’s Black Ladd restaurant to find a letter from Manchester City Council with a photo of my car driving along a bus lane on Oxford Road, fine £60.00; halved if I paid within a fortnight. This was the culmination of a week of stress I won’t go into but it felt like the right time to go out and buy a gun and shoot up the Town Hall. Have you tried to drive Oxford Road lately? And it was a Saturday mid-morning, hardly rush hour traffic: mine was the only vehicle in sight! You don’t know you can’t turn into Oxford Road until you’re in a side road ready to turn into Oxford Road and it’s too late to turn round a go a different route anyway. Grrr! My stomach was clenched tight with this last straw of stress.

Low point number two: it wasn’t stress clenching my stomach. It was a tummy bug.  I spent Thursday evening being sick and Friday all day sleeping back to some kind of recovery by Saturday. Enough said on that.

High point number two: the eponymous high point. On Saturday, feeling feeble and well rung out, I collected Hilary and drove us to Arnside to the English home of Rebecca Bilkau, editor of Beautiful Dragons Press. We are working with her to produce the first in a series of Dragon Spawn Pamphlets. We, Hilary and I, will be the Dragon’s first-borns. We are to be one third each of the first Dragon Spawn, title Some Mothers…and my third will feature versions of my portfolio poems. It was this we went to Arnside to discuss. Dragon Spawn is a series of pamphlets, each by three Beautiful Dragon poets, approached by Rebecca, who don’t have previously published pamphlets or collections, a sort of half-way house to a pamphlet of our own. Yes, and I get to share it with my conjoined twin, Hilary Robinson. How exciting is this? Rebecca made us a gorgeous lunch, which I did my best to honour despite food still being a bit alien to my body; we got to meet Xabi, her beautiful Airedale Terrier; and we had a lovely afternoon discussing the poems we’d submitted. The deadlines are tight: Rebecca lives in Germany most of the year and she is returning in a week. We have until the beginning of May to confirm the poems for the pamphlet, and until early Autumn to see the dragon crack its shell. There might well be more exciting news regarding the official Dragon Spawn launch, but for now my lips are sealed on this one.

Low point number three: closely related to low point number two, because I was poorly Thursday evening into Friday, I didn’t do all the stuff I needed to do on Friday in order to keep on top of a busy week. Mostly this involved doing some ironing and packing my case for St. Ives. Also, I had to miss a haircut, so by the time I come back from St Ives I’ll be looking very ‘Age of Aquarius’–you have to have lived some years. So when I got back from Arnside on Saturday, tired and feeling pale, I had to pack my case for a week away with Kim Moore and Helen Mort on a writing week in St Ives. It was the last thing I wanted to do–the packing, not the week away. Bill, bless him, cooked pie and chips—no he didn’t make the pie!—while I made a start on packing. I filled my case with un-ironed clothing and packed my travel iron as well. I’ll have to iron stuff as I need to wear it this week.

High point number three: Hilary’s husband is collecting me to go Piccadilly station at 8.15, so I’d better get my skates on. No poem this week, I’m afraid, but I expect to have a surfeit of them by next weekend, so I’ll make sure I fit one in the next blog. Meanwhile, have a picture of a dragon hatching from its egg. That’s me, that is!

Dragon spawn

Easter weekend and no April Fools

Happy Easter, everyone. Have a lovely weekend.

This week has been all about poetry and PhD. Life has had a big slice of me, but I can’t say too much about that, because it affects other lives as well; so I’ll stick with the poetry and the PhD.

Pascale Petit got back to us with the results of the Poets & Players competition last weekend. Clearly I can’t say too much about that, but our winners have been informed with instructions to say nothing until the celebration event in May: https://poetsandplayers.co/future-events/   So if you heard from us this week, big congratulations. If you didn’t, we’re sorry and sincerely thankful for your support for our competition and the good work that P&P does for poetry. My advice: the poems you sent to us, send them out to some other competition or publication. It’s a thin, thin line between being a winner and not, very often. If you felt your poem was worth entering, it is worth resubmitting to somewhere else. I spent Sunday and Monday mornings sorting through my spreadsheet to find the names of winners; and trawling through emails to copy poems and email addresses to send to Janet, our committee chair. That doesn’t sound much, but it’s a time-consuming job, especially when e-addresses don’t match names. But we really do appreciate everyone who sent work in. Thank you.

Monday I settled to reading again: Robin Nelson’s Practice as Research. This book was recommended by a poet friend, Angi Holden; and it has been useful in seeing research, and research outcomes in a positive light. It is helping me get my thoughts about the thesis in order. I meant to carry on with the reading on Tuesday but life intervened and stole my Tuesday for other stuff. Sometimes life happens and there’s just nothing you can do but muck in.

On Tuesday evening it was the East Manchester and Tameside Stanza meeting at the Stalybridge Buffet Bar. When we got there, our booked room was full of folk drinking ale: the buffet bar is a famous ‘real ale’ watering hole. I announced that we had booked the room for a poetry event. It’s strange how the word ‘poetry’ brings that reaction where eyes blank over, expressions become bored. I told them they were welcome to stay and join in but they all declined. Poetry? I don’t think so. They picked up their glasses as one and left the room. Shame; they don’t know what they missed. Poetry, as all poetry people know, is wonderful. And Tuesday was proof of that. There were only three of us at the meeting, but we had a wonderful time discussing the poetry of Ocean Vuong. Ocean recently won the T S Eliot prize for his wonderful collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds and this is what we were concentrating on. To make it an even better evening, the buffet bar has wifi, so we hooked up to his YouTube channel and he read for us. We listened and discussed. You can find his YouTube readings, lots of them, here: https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=ocean+vuong
Check it out, he has such a soothing reading style. Imagine, Ocean Vuong reading at our Stanza!

Wednesday I went to the Black Ladd as usual and worked until lunchtime. At lunchtime Amie and I went to the Christie for her twice-yearly scan. I’ve posted my poem, ‘The Worst Cocktail Bar in Manchester’ on here before so I won’t do that today. But the drink she has to take prior to a scan doesn’t get any easier to swallow: literally. So it’s done now, and that’s it for another six months. She should have the results in a couple of weeks.

On Thursday my lovely grand-daughter, Corinna, graduated from Wolverhampton University. She did her nursing degree there, and now works on the critical care ward in the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital. She looked gorgeous in her cap and gown. I’m so proud of her, she worked hard to get there.

On Friday I went into Black Ladd again, to get done what couldn’t get done on Wednesday. I meant to stay a couple of hours, but the laptop was using its autonomy to update itself, so I had to wait ages while it did that then wait ages again while I undid the update, because when it updates Windows 10, my Sage software won’t work. This has only been a problem for me for the last couple of weeks. I don’t know how to stop automatic updates: I need to speak to Richard or Michael, who are far more computer savvy than me. I don’t want it to stop all updates, just updates to Windows 10 operating system. So, it was very late afternoon when I got home from there on Friday. Amie, bless her lovely heart, sent me home with two nut roasts, roast potatoes and veg, and a bottle of house white so I didn’t have to do more than put dinner in the oven and wait thirty minutes. It felt good not to have to think about cooking. The nut roast was delicious; the chardonnay wasn’t bad either.

Saturday I settled to work on the thesis again. It seems a long time since I did anything to it, but I’ve been leaving it alone while I did some reading. It was good to come back to it with new eyes. I’ve decided to draft it to my liking—I’ll temper the overtly autobiographical writing in it—and send it to my team for discussion sometime in late June. I enjoyed being back on the case. Starting, and restarting are always difficult times.

So, another week on the long journey to PhD. A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, Chairman Mao said. PhD is a long series of single steps, a few even go in the right direction. I’m hanging in there, putting one foot in front of the other. And NaPoWriMo starts today: national poem writing month, a commitment to write a poem a day through April. I’m in Carrie Etter’s NaPoWriMo facebook group. She very generously puts thirty prompts on there in April to kick start members fulfilling the ‘poem a day’ commitment. I worked it last year, I managed something every day. It would be over-egging it to call them all poems but I did get about five decent poems out of the month. And I learned an awful lot about forms of poetry I wasn’t familiar with before. My plan is to divert the prompts into portfolio poems as much as possible. I’m looking forward to it: I’ll keep you posted. If you’re interested in being involved, check it out here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/138265096847041/permalink/158254941514723/?comment_id=158575121482705&notif_id=1522531659476671&notif_t=group_comment_reply&ref=notif and ask if you can join the group.

That’s it then; another week worked. And this morning is Easter Sunday. I’m not doing anything special, a day at home with a bag of mini-eggs and a bottle of dry white this evening. It’s my great-grandson’s third birthday today; and tomorrow my lovely grandson Richey isn’t a teenager any more. Oh my, time does flow quickly.

My poem this week is the one I wrote for Hannah Silva’s workshop last week. It’s barely learning to walk it’s so new to the page. But it could well become another ‘alternative mother’ poem when I have time to work on it some more.

The stimulus was to imagine a neighbour watching your life then answer six or seven questions Hannah put to us about that scenario. Here it is:

 

Neighbour

Every day
she opens the curtains at dawn.
The bedroom lights
don’t go out till midnight
but she’s always up with the sun.
I like to think she sleeps
in winceyette—I heard her say
she’s sick of winter, the long
grey coldness of it, said
she was born to the sun’s heat.
She wears those boots—
all bovver and sparkle
like she’s a glam rock refugee.
She’s a poet though,
they never quite grow up.
I wonder how
she packs in so much life
on five hours sleep max.
I’m sure she’s on steroids.

Rachel Davies
March 2018

Happy British Summer Time, World

A bit late today: I lost an hour’s sleep last night, and every hour is precious to a part-time insomniac.

Life and poetry this week: PhD has been a side-show, only a slim opening in some of the poems I’ve written. On Sunday I tried to do the homework I brought home from Amie’s restaurant. I had three bank statements to reconcile with the accounts. But I couldn’t do it because the laptop had upgraded itself again to a later version of Windows and Sage wouldn’t open. Again. So I had to do a system restore—again— before I could do the work. By which time it was so cold in the office with the snow falling outside and drifting over the study windows, I decided to park myself by the fire in the lounge until the weather improved; even if that wasn’t until May.

On Monday it was Amie’s routine check-up at the Christie. Oh my, it was cold when she came to collect me at 9.00. I waited for her on the top road, and I had to sit in my car, parked up there in the snow. The wind was making me cry and it was cold enough, I felt, to freeze the tears. I’m pleased to report that the consultation went very well and she has been moved to twelve monthly check-ups now, with an oncology clinic at the six-months point to keep her under surveillance. This is good progress. A scan has been arranged: this is also for surveillance, to make sure this good progress is sustained.

Monday afternoon I met with two friends in Manchester Central Library to plan our week away in Scarborough in May. We are planning writing workshops in the mornings on three days, each of us leading on one of the days. There will be visits to York, Whitby and Robin Hood’s Bay on the other three days; each of us will set writing activities for one of the days we are out. I’m really excited about this, it will be a good week.

On Tuesday I went into Oldham Library for one of the free Poetry Society workshops launched by Prince William to commemorate 100 years since the end of WW1. The workshop was led by Ian Duhig and had the title ‘A Poem for Remembrance’; but it wasn’t a workshop about the war, it was about personal trauma and recovery. I met up with some poet friends who also took the opportunity for a quality free event. Ian asked us to write poems addressing our own traumas from different angles, not looking at them full-on as it were. Of course, our traumas weren’t as awful as war injuries, they were personal traumas we had felt in our everyday lives: love and loss, bereavement, separation trauma, bullying. I chose to write about something which I felt was too trivial to call trauma, but it has lived with me all my life. It was the bullying headteacher at my grammar school and his parting words to me when I left school at sixteen. I’ve spent a lifetime with his words, proving them wrong; he is a big part of the reason I embarked on the PhD in the first place. I’ll post the poem, very early draft, at the end of this blog. I should say a big thank you to the Poetry Society for offering these workshops free of charge: this one really was interesting.

I took my car to be cleaned on the way home. Oh my, it was filthy; it looked like a farm vehicle, the driver’s side covered in sprayed salt and muck from the Oldham Road, where it had been parked since Saturday because of the snow. By Tuesday afternoon I was able to park it on the drive again: only the most determined snow was still lying by the side of the lane and in the lee of the wind. At 4.00 my friend Joan came and we walked to a nearby pub, The Printers Arms, for an early evening meal. We’ve been meeting up for monthly meals since we met in 1995 at a hotel on the shores of Lake Como. Twenty three years, Joan; it seems like only last week. We’ve laughed a lot in that time. How tempus does fugit.

On Wednesday I was up early; really early. I was determined to reconcile the bank statements before going into the Black Ladd, even if it killed me trying. I hate having outstanding jobs hanging like Damocles’ sword. Luckily I’d left the Sage software open, and Windows hadn’t upgraded again. It took me an hour, but eventually I had a zero in the ‘outstanding’ box. So it’s done and I was a happy book-keeper when I went into work for the day. I was less than happy when I came home from work because the Sage programme, while working OK on the books was sticking when I asked for a VAT report. I tried a couple of times, closed the programme and tried again. I was concerned because I hadn’t done a back-up of the day’s work yet and was worried I was going to lose everything I’d entered. I’m happy to report that I eventually affected a back-up but still can’t manage a VAT report. I’ll need the accountant to see if she can sort it when she comes for the quarterly VAT meeting: she’ll need to run a VAT report then. How computers are wonderful things until they get arsey and won’t do what you ask them!

On Thursday I heard from Andy Nicholson that the podcast of my poems, recorded a few weeks back, is up and running on his website. I’m recorded reading five of my poems: check it out here: https://spokenlabel.bandcamp.com/album/rachel-davies-spoken-label-march-2018

Thursday evening we went into Oldham to see the live screening of the National Theatre’s ‘Julius Caesar’. David Morrisey was earthy as Mark Anthony; and Ben Wishaw absolutely stole the show, in my opinion, as Brutus. I loved it. The setting was modern: it began with a rock concert victory rally. The screening was from The Bridge theatre in London, beside Tower Bridge. The theatre is like a modern Globe, with space for ‘groundlings’ in the audience. The groundlings became the Roman crowd. It was so well done that now I want to go there to see a live performance. They are live-screening ‘Macbeth’ from there on May 10th: if you get chance to see it, you just must cancel anything else you have planned for that evening and get yourself to a cinema near you. You won’t be disappointed. I bought my tickets as soon as we got home.

Saturday was another day dedicated to poetry. It was the Poets & Players event at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. The day began with a Hannah Silva workshop. How good was that? Not like any workshop I’ve ever done before. We had lots of practical activities around sound making, use of voice and performance: good fun with a serious application. There was only one writing task: to think of our lives being watched by a neighbour and to write a poem based in a series of six or seven questions she asked us. This might well become another ‘alternative mother’ poem. When we read our work at the end of the workshop, Hannah cleared a performance space at the front of the room. We read our poems to the group; then she asked us to read them again in a particular style: as a barrister summing up his case; or in anger; or shout out every fourth word etc. It was useful for seeing your poetry in a different light for performance.

After a lovely lunch in the Whitworth café, the performance event in the afternoon was another jewel. Kathryn Mason and Alice Roberts, students from the Royal Northern College of Music, gave us harp duets to start both sessions of the event. In the first half, Hannah Silva performed her poetry in line with stuff she’d talked about in the morning workshop. She didn’t read; she had no paper or books. She performed from memory with the aid of a wonderful little pedal device on which she recorded appropriate voice sounds at the start of a poem, then played them as background to her words. I don’t know what the pedal device was called, but I’d love to have a play with one. It was fascinating, and her poetry is powerful. One of the poems, ‘Pain’, from her collection based in the novel 50 Shades of Grey, took every reference to pain from the novel and put them all together to make the poem. Another was a pastiche of lines from other poets containing the word ‘air’. This was exciting poetry: I loved it. In the second session Anthony Rudolf read from his collected works: he has been writing and translating poetry for more than fifty years, so it’s a big collection. His approach to performance was much more traditional than Hannah’s but it was interesting to hear a long-established poet present his work. The next P&P event is on April 21st, with Imtiaz Dharker and Karen Macarthy Woolf. Karen will run the morning workshop: find out more here: https://poetsandplayers.co/future-events/

So. This is my poem, written at Ian Duhig’s workshop. It’s a poem about bullying; about the abuse of power; about making someone feel less than they are. He was a horrible man.

Remember, this is very early draft:

Grammar School B Stream

 Your handkerchief is how we know you
You rely on it in lessons:
when we answer your questions
you gob your derision, an unset yolk
in an albumen of phlegm, into the cotton square,
crumple it into your trouser pocket.

You have a thousand words for worthless
and in five years I’ve caught them all.

So. The last day. I come, excited,
to shake your hand and leave.
I assume you’ll let me go without wounds.
I have my dream job. I am proud of myself.
But pride comes before a fall
and I’ve underestimated you.

Your handkerchief, a neatly folded triangle
in your breast pocket,
is handy to catch your venom.
You fire your words
like pellets from a spud-gun,
each one hitting the bull’s eye.
The sharpest I hear is gutter, the place
I’ll end up, you say,
for talking to a boy from
the secondary modern school.
Your words still sting
as you wave me away.

Rachel Davies
March 2018