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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

Kicking Arse

‘Get your arse on that office chair and do some work!’ This was me talking myself into getting back to work yesterday. I started the week with the best intentions, but my body let me down. While we were away last weekend, Hilary had given me some of her codeine tablets: yes, I know, you shouldn’t share medication. But the pain in my arms was so bad at night that it was waking me up, and desperate times call for desperate measures. The codeine helped, so on Monday I made an emergency appointment with my GP to ask for codeine of my own. At last I got the results of the shoulder scan I had at the end of October. Bursitis, fluid and calcification in the space between the joint, and a small tear in the bicipital tendon. Did I just imagine the doctor taking a sadistic pleasure in asking me to move my arm in a way he knew would hurt,  to prove to himself the scan diagnosis? Anyway, he agreed that codeine was necessary and prescribed copious amounts. I have a physiotherapy appointment on Thursday this week, but he thinks it’s possible the physio won’t want to work with the shoulder because of the tear; in which case I’ve to go back to GP for cortisone injections into the joint. Right now, I’d let an elephant walk over it if it would stop hurting. On Tuesday I was all geared up to work, but the pain was so bad I felt ill with it; I snuggled under a blanket, watched escapist rubbish on the telly and let Bill cook tea. Yes, it really was that bad!

So, that has been the backdrop to everything I’ve done this week, throbbing upper arms, weak and painful hands and the inability to ask for the help I need, even with dressing myself. It actually makes me laugh that I have to put my vest on from the feet upwards because it gets stuck under my arms otherwise and there is nothing I can do about it. I feel like a beetle caught on its back and desperately trying to right itself against all the odds. But my independence is important to me; although I do give in and ask for help getting into my coat: my arms just won’t go behind my back. I took another day off on Wednesday when Amie and I went to Peterborough to meet up with a friend who’s struggling a bit at the moment. We met with Richard and went into the City centre for a meal. It was good to have nothing else to do but sit and be looked after and spend time with family and friends.

On Sunday, our last day in the South Lakes, Hilary and I had visited Rebecca, the editor at Beautiful Dragons Press, to collect some more copies of our lovely book, Some Mothers Do…On Thursday we met over lunch to discuss incomings and outgoings and to make sure all our readings are in the diary. We settled our accounts with each other too. Hilary has booked tickets for the Verve Festival in Birmingham in February and I booked the train tickets, so we needed to make sure neither of us was out of pocket. Actually, the cost was very similar: a return train fare for eighty miles or three wonderful days of poetry readings, workshops, talks. So which is the better value, do you think? Get yourselves to Verve: we know it’s good because we were there last year. Details here: http://vervepoetryfestival.com

After a full-on week, it was Saturday before I got down to work. I’d done some reading of Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry to prepare for a short section I’m adding to the thesis, but reading one of your favourite poets hardly classifies as work, does it? I know students are supposed to prevaricate, but this week was prevarication on a monumental scale, and most of it out of my control; and when you’ve taken nearly three weeks out of work it takes some serious discipline to get back to it. It’s a daunting prospect. For one thing, my brain had forgotten what the work was that I needed to do: obviously I knew it was about redrafting and editing the thesis, but I was sure it was all beyond me and I wouldn’t know where to start. Work had become the elephant in the room: I knew it needed doing; and I knew I was the one to do it. But I felt afraid of it, as if it was a rogue elephant preparing to charge. It wasn’t. I bit the bullet and got my arse in that chair and picked up where I left off. By the end of the day I’d addressed all the advice from my Director of Studies and made notes in red of places I’d skipped over, needing more thought. I also prepared a paragraph or two on Carol Ann Duffy’s poems about the mother-daughter relationship. Mostly my work is about how daughter’s relate to their mothers, as addressed in the poetry of Pascale Petit, Selima Hill and me, daughters writing about their mothers. Carol Ann Duffy reminds us that mothers are also daughters, and daughters often become mothers: she writes from both perspectives so that’s an interesting take. All mothers have been daughters, after all. I chose her poems about the cold and snow as metaphors for being on the outside of that relationship. Her new collection, Sincerity (Picador 2018), has some wonderful examples. In my opinion it’s her best work since she became Laureate. She signed my copy during the interval of Carol Ann Duffy and Friends at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester last week. If you haven’t got a copy yet, you’d better put it in your letter to Santa. You won’t be disappointed. There’s something in there for everyone: satire, humour, sadness, joy.

So, by the end of Saturday I was feeling very good about myself. I feel back on track; I’ve kicked that work into submission and I can see that the work I still have to do is doable: I’m looking forward to it. It’s all about writing an intro and a summative conclusion; and reflecting on how my reading of the three poets I discuss has influenced my own poetry. I’ve done this in several places, but I need to develop that reflection some more. So, I’ll have a good week at it this week and gradually mould it into shape. I’m confident that it’ll be ready to send back to the team in the New Year. Hilary has promised to read it before I send it off too, which will be really useful, to get a new set of eyes to assess it, to see if it makes sense to someone who’s not involved in it. Bless her heart.

On Wednesday this week I’m meeting Jean Sprackland to discuss the collection of poetry I’ve written for the creative element. It is the first time we’ve discussed it as a complete collection; normally I’ve sent a set of poems off to her for feedback, so I feel it’s a way-marker of how close I am to completion that we are discussing the full collection. We’re meeting in the Eighth Day Café on Oxford Road, so It’ll probably involve cake. In preparation for that meeting, I’m going to include a poem I wrote some time ago, early on in my PhD journey. It’s a poem that explores that feeling we all have, don’t we, as children growing up: that we’re out of step with the family. Like many children, I used to fantasise that I was adopted, that my real self was out there somewhere, waiting to be discovered. Silly really: why would anyone with a large brood want to think about adopting another one? I reflected on that and wrote this as an exploration of why I felt at odds. I was really an alien, a Midwich Cuckoo finding my way in a strange world.

 

Cuckoo

She’s looking at me as if she hasn’t a clue who I am.

Her real daughter was stolen from the maternity ward.
I’m telling you, aliens lifted her from her crib, left me,
a mysterious doppelganger that she can’t know.

Remember that school photo, the one
where I’m sitting bolt upright, smiling at the camera
but my eyes are staring at the lens like lasers?

I tell people I’m her love child with Ming the Merciless.

 

Rachel Davies
2016

Poetry and the Watch List

This week has been poetry.
I slapped poetry between two slices of buttered bread,
washed that butty down with the wine of poetry.
I bathed in poetry, poetry was the sponge and the loofah
I washed my back with.
I dived into the stream of poetry,
swam with the tide of poetry
Poetry has been my sleeping, my dreaming
my waking up.
My road has been walked to the beat of poetry’s feet.

So as you can imagine, there hasn’t been much time for anything else; and in fact, my head has been so much in poetry’s space, it’s been in the wrong place for other stuff, including PhD work. I’ve heard the expression ‘I need to give my head a wobble’: this week I understood exactly what that meant. My head will be duly wobbled now that poetry has been cut down to manageable size.

Tuesday was the Saddleworth launch of Some Mothers Do…at Amie’s pub, the Black Ladd. I went for my fortnightly haircut in the morning, but the hairdresser’s wasn’t open when I arrived—first appointment—so I popped into the clothes shop next door for a browse while I waited. I accidentally bought a gorgeous, dark green velvet dress for the poetry event in the evening. It was wrapped and in my bag before I realised what was happening! It’s the hairdresser’s fault for not being open.

We went to the Black Ladd at about 5.00 p.m. Amie closed the restaurant to the public, although the bar remained open. We met up with Hilary and her husband and son; and Angi Holden and Angela Topping, who again read for their friend, Tonia Bevins, our dragon triplet. Richard drove up with our friend, Maria, from Peterborough after work, arrived about 5.30; gradually the audience started to arrive. We were unsure how many would make it: Saddleworth is on the rural edge of Oldham, public transport is non-existent after about 6.00 p.m. so a car is a must: the pub began to fill with friends, neighbours, stanza members. It was lovely that so many people came to help us celebrate the book. We started the poetry reading at 7.15,  had readings from the book in the first half, called an interval to refill glasses about 8.00.  Amie had said she would put on ‘some nibbles’; in the event she filled a table with lovely finger buffet stuff, quiches, samosas, bhajis, macaroons and all manner of ‘nibbles’. it was a lovely surprise. The second half was given over to an open-mic; three of my Stanza members signed up, and Angi and Angela took five minutes each to read their own work. Hilary and I finished off with a couple more poems each from the book. A lovely evening, as they say, was had by all. Thank you so much to Amie for hosting the evening, and to Mo and Jill who helped her; and to all the wonderful people who gave up their time to come. I expected to be so buzzed up I wouldn’t sleep after; but in fact, the excitement of two launches in one week along with wine mixing with residual co-codamol for the shoulder thing and I was out like a light soon after we got home, slept like a baby.

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Hilary and I reading at the Saddleworth Launch of Some Mothers Do… at the Black Ladd

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Bill being a very attentive member of the audience

Wednesday was spent preparing to come away on Thursday. I’m writing this from my bed in Silverdale in the South Lake District, where I’m staying with Hilary and Linda, another poet friend. Hilary and I travelled up together on Thursday for yet another poetry book launch, this time for the Beautiful Dragons anthology Watch the Birdie, launched at Leighton Moss RSPB reserve. It’s an anthology with poems by 70+ poets all inspired by birds on the Watch List of endangered species. Yes there are rare-ish birds on the list: the red backed shrike, the dottrel; but more worrying, there are everyday garden birds like sparrow, song thrush, starling. A recent report by the WWF points out that the world has lost 60% of its animal populations in the last forty years! That’s a staggering and shameful figure. Human activity, modern farming practices, habitat destruction, climate change all contribute to ensuring our wildlife is critically endangered. Watch the Birdie recognises the threat and has attempted to do a small thing to redress the balance. John F Kennedy said, ‘One person can make a difference, and everyone should try.’ This anthology is poetry’s way of trying to make a difference. The book launch was at Leighton Moss RSPB reserve and the book will be sold in the gift shops at several RSPB reserves in the North West, all profits going to support the preservation work of the RSPB. The launch was another lovely evening, a gathering of about fifty poets, old dragons and new, old friends and new; about thirty read their poems. Beautiful Dragons is the brain-child of Rebecca Bilkau, the editor, and it’s lovely that so many poets sign up to the various anthologies she dreams up. Friday’s launch had a real reunion feel: good poetry, wine, wonderful cheeses and cake, and a silly folk song about humans flying in a ‘flour sack cape’ from Rebecca’s husband, Michael: that’s what I call a brilliant night. On Saturday morning we went back to the reserve for a guided walk, which was lovely. We saw a bittern, which in the world of twitchers—bird watchers—is quite a coup apparently: they wait with binoculars raised for years to see one; we just turned up and there it was!  We saw squillions of different varieties of duck; we saw a large white egret; we saw a pair of cormorants fishing for food; we learned of the bearded tit, which isn’t a tit at all really, and which changes its diet in the autumn and winter from the abundance of insect life in the spring and summer to the seeds of the reed beds, but needs to eat grit to store in its crop to use as a mill to grind the seeds to a pulp so that they can be more easily digested. Evolution, eh! Survival of the most imaginative! After the walk around the reserve, Hilary, Linda and I all joined the RSPB, making a small contribution to the wonderful conservation work they do.

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The cover of the Beautiful Dragons anthology Watch the Birdie

I’m going to include my Birdie poem this week. I chose the fieldfare to write about, because I remember it from my growing up in the Cambridgeshire fens. It’s a member of the thrush family, a winter visitor from Scandinavia. It arrives, and lives, in large flocks, returning to Scandinavia in the spring to breed. In the fens its name is pronounced ‘felfer’, and research revealed it has several dialect names, both here and in its native Scandinavia. The poem is an acrostic, a form that takes the name of the bird and uses its letters as the first letter of the lines, so that the bird—in this case FIELDFARE—is spelt down the page. I tried to disguise the acrostic by allowing the lines to run on, limiting the end stops. I hope I’ve been successful. WordPress doesn’t like the formatting of poetry: alternate lines in this poem should be tabbed in once; I’ll leave you to work it out. 😦

 

Fieldfare

Feature of the fenland fields
in winter, you arrive
in large flocks, flying overhead
to your migrant shelters.
Egregious thrush-cousin of song, mistle,
blackbird: you never joined their choir.
Large and several, you bring a little of Scandinavia
to snow-covered hills and woodlands.
Daring aeronauts, take off, soar, show us
your red capes, grey rumps, black tails.
Felfer, fallowfarer—I see a nickname
as an expression of affection
and you are indeed well-loved—
felfit, felfire, feldifire.
Remember, though, where you found succour
in this theatre of ice and snow:
eat well, entertain us with your tuneless soliloquy
then exit stage right,  pursued by the spring.

Rachel Davies
November 2018
[Watch the Birdie;Beautiful Dragons Press 2018]

Dragon Sisters

This has been a good week. To coin one of Trump’s favourite hyperboles, this has been the best week in the history of weeks!

On Sunday I was working on my thesis. I have cut and pasted a lot, which is painful but necessary. I’ve put all the cuts into an out-takes file for future use if I need them. I put some into a rather long footnote about the historical male domination of poetry publication. I’m showing how difficult it was for women to be anything but domestic slaves. No wonder post-natal depression happened, when women could completely lose their personhood in wifedom and motherhood. Anyway, I’m chipping away at the thesis again, like a word sculptor, giving it the correct shape, honing it. And re-reading Carol Ann Duffy for the poems I’ll add into the mix. She writes so well on having/being a mother.

On Monday my daughter asked if I’d like to go to Peterborough on Tuesday to visit a friend who’s having a hard time at the moment. Of course I would, so that took one of my working days, but it was worth it. I made up the slacking by working Monday evening, sorting out my reading sets for Wednesday’s launch of Some Mothers Do…I settled on a mix of poems from the book and poems that fit the theme of the book. On Tuesday, I was awake at 3.00 a.m. I had a poem going through my head, a message to insert into the ‘thank you’ card for Rebecca Bilkau, editor at Beautiful Dragons Press. I lay in bed trying to form it into a cinquaine, a five-line syllabic form; that’s the kind of creative insomniac I am. Eventually, I sat up and wrote that poem down. By then it was too late to go back to sleep. I emailed it to Hilary Robinson for feedback, then I got up and got ready for Peterborough. Amie was collecting me just after mid-day, so I had the morning to practise my two reading sets for Wednesday. I had two ten-minute slots, so that’s about five poems in each half. I like to stick to timing as closely as I can, it’s the professional thing to do. Poets shouldn’t need to ask, ‘how much longer have I got?’ or ‘do I have time for another one?’ If you prepared properly, you should know the answers to those questions. So I practised the readings to a stop watch. The timings include any introductions you want to give for the poems, so I drafted a few notes to keep intros to a concise minimum. Both sets were just about ten minutes each. My voice was fading by the end, a sign of the nerves I always experience before readings. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s easy to stand up in front of a room full of people and read poetry, it isn’t. It’s painfully self-revealing and full of ‘what-ifs’: what if they don’t like this poem, what if they question why they came in the first place, what if they have tomatoes and cabbages hidden about their persons and they start throwing? But a poet friend, Clare Shaw once told me, if you don’t believe in your poems how can you expect the audience to believe in them? So that’s why I practise so conscientiously: I need to read them like they’re the best poems in the history of poems—sorry, it’s becoming a habit—while making eye contact with the audience to keep them engaged.

We got to Peterborough about 3.30 p.m. in time for our friend coming home from work. We sat in her house amongst boxes of belongings—she’s moving at the weekend—and ate Chinese take-away out of the containers because she only has one plate that isn’t packed, and we chatted a lot. I hope we helped to cheer her up a little. Relationship breakdown is a hard thing to survive; and I know from personal experience that it helps to have the love and support of friends. It was nearly midnight when we got home.

Wednesday was up there among the best days of my life. I was awake early again, couldn’t sleep for the excitement—like a child at Christmas. I made a little nest for the hatching dragon I found in Wales, a gift for Rebecca. I heard back from Hilary about my cinquaine: she liked it, so I wrote it into a thank-you note and put it into the dragon’s nest with the egg. I practised my reading sets again, edited the intros to make them even more concise. I took some pampering time getting ready for the launch, changed shoes about six times before making a decision, then went out to meet Hilary and her family. Hilary was carrying a big, flat bag she’d made to transport the cake she’d baked for the launch: photo later. We went to Bunderbust to eat, which was lovely because it was Diwali, so a lovely party atmosphere. After the meal we went to the Portico library for the launch. Oh my, what a lovely room, full of old books and knowledge, an awe-inspiring room. My friend Joan, an avid Manchester United fan, had chosen the launch over the match against Juventus—greater love hath no woman! My ex-Reception teacher, Shirley Johnson was there with her lovely husband, which was a wonderful surprise: so many friends and poets in the audience, and all there for we dragon triplets. I gave Rebecca my dragon egg gift, which she loved; and when she read my little poem there were tears in her eyes. The readings went well; Hilary and I opened the event with a joint reading of one of my poems, a ‘coupling’ which takes some factual lines on a subject and intersperses them with poetic responses. Hilary read the factual bits, I read the poetry bits. It was a good opening. I read my first set, followed by Hilary; then Angi Holden and Angela Topping read on behalf of our dragon triplet and their friend, Tonia Bevins who sadly died in the summer before she could see this project completed. Her friends did her proud.

We took a break to replenish glasses and finally eat the lovely cake Hilary had brought. After the interval we had a second round of readings; Hilary and I signed books then some of us retired to the pub downstairs for a celebratory drink. Such lovely people, poets; so supportive as a community. While we were in the pub, Mark Pajak, the poet who organises the Royal Exchange series of Carol Ann Duffy and Friends poetry events, asked me if I’d like to read at the January 14thevent, to promote the book. He can only accommodate one reader in the timeframe, and Hilary read there quite recently. Well, we thought that over for a full two seconds before agreeing. The only barrier was, we were booked to read in Halifax on the same night. Hilary got in touch with the organiser of that event to request a rethink and he’s agreed to find us an alternative date. So, CAD & Friends it is then. Bring it on. I’ll read some poems from all three dragon siblings at the event. Details of the excellent CAD & F series here: https://www.royalexchange.co.uk/whats-on-and-tickets/carol-ann-duffy-friends-2018

Here are a few photos of the launch at the Portico Library:

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Some Mothers Do…

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Rebecca Bilkau, editor at Beautiful Dragons Press, and our Dragon Mother.

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Still life with Hilary and Cake.

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Me, looking much more serious than I felt on the night.

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Angi Holden (R) and Angela Topping reading on behalf of Tonia Bevins.

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Manchester United fan, Joan, missing the Juventus match to be at the launch.

On Saturday, Hilary came to my house and we worked out how to use the headphone mic and small blue-tooth amplifier Amie bought us for the Saddleworth launch on Tuesday: 7.00 p.m. 13thNovember at the Black Ladd on Buckstones Road—OL1 4ST if you feel like setting your satnavs and joining us for the evening. The bar will be open, there’ll be nibbles, and a roaring fire in the grate; so come along and help to make it a good night. We worked out how the mic works. We set up the amp on a shelf in the lounge and sent Bill downstairs to the garage with the mic and we heard him clear as a bell, even at that distance. Fantastic. Having sorted that out, we signed some books for people who have requested copies but couldn’t make the launch. We feel like real poets, with book signings and everything! We went for coffee and a bite at Albion Farm in Delph, which is getting ready for its Christmas Festival. Yup, the Christmas market is open in Manchester and Albion Farm is getting festive. Deck the halls…

Finally, here’s the poem I wrote for Rebecca. it’s a cinquaine: a syllabic five-line poem, 2, 4, 6, 8, 2 syllables respectively. Our book is the first in a planned series of DragonSpawn pamphlets for poets who have written for Beautiful Dragons anthologies but haven’t yet had a full publication of their own. It’s Rebecca’s way of giving new poets a leg-up in the publication race. This poem recognises our appreciation and awe at being the first-spawn of the Dragon Mother. I told Hilary that Rebecca had tears in her eyes when she read the poem and Hilary said, ‘why? It wasn’t that bad, was it?’ And that’s why I love my dragon sister so much.

DragonSpawn

Breathe, and
from that fluent
glittery stream draw steam,
fireball choir of hatchling firstspawn
dragons.

 

‘…fluent, glittery stream…’ of poetry, from Carol Ann Duffy’s
‘Invisible Ink’ (The BeesPicador 2011)

Rachel Davies
November 2018