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The final hand-over

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I handed this beauty in to MMU for assessment this week. On Tuesday, first thing, I submitted a digital version of the thesis and signed the RDDEC form to say it was all my own work etc. Then I went into Manchester and took the long walk to the bookbinders on Higher Cambridge Street. It was hot and I was tired. I called into MMU on my way back to hand it over. I had an attack of the usual angst I feel when I’ve had to fill in an official form: for some reason official forms always make me feel like a liar. RDDEC had several tick boxes, including that no part of the thesis had previously been published; or if it had, that the published part should be included in a pocket in the thesis. I took this to mean publication in academic journals, so I ticked ‘no’. But as I was travelling into Manchester on the tram I realised that several of the poems had been published, and an article had appeared in The North that was inspired by the thesis, although was not directly part of it. So the old proforma angst pecked my head again: had I lied on the form? Should I dob myself in? I couldn’t edit the form now I’d signed it off. So I spoke to the wonderful Deborah, who deals with all the queries about Post Graduate Research degrees. I’d included all my publication history in an acknowledgements page; would my reply on the form be an issue? She assured me it would be fine and not to worry. Not to worry? I always worry about official forms. I suffer from proformaphobia. After our phone conversation, I met her in the foyer of the Righton Building and handed over two copies of the thesis. It was lovely to meet her in the real world, we’ve met in the virtual world of email so many times over the last four years. She promised to look after my baby and make sure it gets to the official rendezvous with assessors. I’ll hear from my DoS about a date for the viva in about eight to ten weeks.

 I left the MMU campus and walked into Manchester. I needed to go to the Pen Shop for cartridges for my fountain pen. When I got there, the shop was closed with notices in the window about letting queries. I am bereft! This was one of my favourite shops, a real old-style store with the most beautiful pens available. I treated myself to a Mont Blanc fountain pen when I was awarded a distinction in my Creative Writing MA: a treat to myself. I know, most people would have treated themselves to a holiday, or a day in a health spa, or a bottle of champagne. I just love stationery. My son had given me a Mont Blanc ball point for Christmas some years ago, and I promised myself when I started the MA that if I managed a distinction, I would buy myself the fountain pen to go with it. I did, and I did. My partner bought me the mechanical pencil to match, and a leather pouch to put them all in for my birthday, which was about the same time. So I used to love to go into the Pen Shop to buy my cartridges and drool over all the beautiful, and reassuringly expensive, pens they had for sale. And now it’s gone. There’s still one in the Trafford Centre as far as I know, but the one in town is closed. It’s a sad day for pen lovers. The next day I ordered eight packs of cartridges from www.penshop.co.uk  and they arrived the next day. Delivery was free. How’s that for brilliant service? Anyway, I walked from the Pen Shop to Exchange Square where I had lunch al fresco at Wahaca. I sat in the warm sunshine with a glass of wine and a quesadilla, celebrating the official hand-over of my work for assessment.

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Me, reading at the Square Chapel, Halifax on Monday this week.
(photo courtesy of Hilary Robinson)

Poetry has been big in my life this week. On Monday evening Hilary and I went to Halifax to read at Square Chapel poets, hosted by the irrepressible Keith Hutson. Strange discovery: people in Halifax don’t eat on a Monday. Or at least that’s how it seemed: every restaurant we passed was closed on Mondays; until we found a lovely little Italian restaurant, Julio’s, down a side road. We had a lovely meal and a glass of Pinot Grigio before our reading. Ian Walker, another MMU creative writing MA graduate, was also reading. It was a lovely evening. I treated the audience to some of my ‘alternative mothers’. Of course, Hilary and I both read from Tonia Bevin’s poems in Some Mothers Do…as well as reading some of our own. It was a small audience, but an appreciative one. We sold a copy of our book.

‘Life’ has been large this week, with the thesis gone. On Wednesday we went to Stamford, Lincolnshire to visit my sister. Stamford is the town they often film period dramas in for the television. It is a Georgian-style stone-built town, you’ve probably seen it in televisual adaptations of Jane Austen novels. Anyway, it was Jane’s birthday last week, so we met for lunch to wish her a belated happy birthday. I was tied up with prepping the thesis for submission around her actual birthday. We had a lovely day and a lovely lunch. On the way home I picked up a nail in my rear driver’s side tyre. I didn’t realise until I wanted to go out the next day and the tyre was pancake flat. I drove it carefully to the nearest garage and had it replaced. The mechanic, Danny, said he could have repaired it, but because I’d been driving on it flat, I had damaged the wall of the tyre and weakened it. That must have been when I was driving home from Stamford because the garage was only a couple of miles from home, and I don’t think driving that short distance would have done the damage. I hadn’t felt the flat tyre in my driving at all. Apparently that’s the way with modern tyres. I remember the first time I drove on a flat tyre, when I was a newly qualified driver a lifetime ago. The steering felt heavy, difficult to control. But it was snowing at the time and I’d blamed the snow. My husband wasn’t pleased when he knew I’d driven home on a flat. But on Wednesday I didn’t feel a thing. So, on Thursday I needed a replacement tyre. I also asked Danny to replace the front tyre that had an advisory notice at MOT, so I had to fork out for two new tyres. Not too bad, actually; less than I’d feared.

On Saturday I collected Hilary at lunchtime and we drove to Coniston for our annual Line Break writing week. We started out six years ago with four poet friends going away together. Then there were five of us. Over the years a couple of friends have moved on. Last year there were three of us. This year Polly couldn’t make it, so it’s just Hilary and me. We feel like a story line in an Agatha Christie: ‘and then there were two’. So I’m writing this from my bed in a cottage in Coniston. It’s a nice cottage, quiet location almost next door to the pub, an Indian restaurant across the road. What’s not to like? Later today we’ll be writing and planning the various writing workshops and readings we have coming up in June. We’ve brought lots of old notebooks to go through looking for poetic gems that have fallen by the wayside. A poet’s life, eh! It’s all go.

So, a poem. This is a poem I wrote in one of Carola Luther’s workshops in St. Ives in April. We were asked to think of a significant event from our lives and write about it, incorporating a repeating image. I took the image of the python to describe the road and the hedgerows snaking away, and Ann Cowling’s long legs. It is also the image of the pain of a fractured skull, a python crushing my head. This actually happened when I was nine years old. My head hit the road, I was knocked unconscious and I spent five days in hospital. What we didn’t know at the time was that it also knocked the three little bones of the inner ear out of sync, so that the hearing was impaired in my right ear. That wasn’t discovered until I was sixteen. No treatment, no use of hearing aids. Only delicate surgery would repair the damage, and as long as I can cope with sharp hearing in the left ear, it’s best left alone. Mostly it’s fine. Sometimes I mishear things, which can be amusing; like the time a friend told me about her ‘everlasting’ bra. That seemed like a good buy, so I asked her where she got it. ‘Ethel Austin,’ she said. ‘I just told you!’

Anyway, here it is, ‘Python’:

 Python

The road snakes away, a python
slithering from the village to Brownlow’s corner.
Red, or rust really, its skin
leaks molten tar on hot days.

The hedgerows are wild, untamed—
also python, their skins shedding regularly
from brown through green, white with May,
the red spots of autumn’s bounty.

Fact: Ann Cowling can run. Her legs
are python too, long and strong.
On that day I was tuned out from sound
she pushed me on the scooter until
her feet ran away with her,
her hands let go the handlebars.

I know the feeling of a scooter’s wobble,
the panic just before the fall. I know
the weird sense of being at my own front door
unsure how I got there. I know the pain of a skull
being crushed by a giant constricting snake.

Rachel Davies
April 2019

Nothing if not feisty

I did it. On Sunday I printed off a copy of the thesis, poems included. I sat in my study going through it with a nit comb, looking for typos and grammatical errors. I found a fair few. I don’t see them when I read on screen, they’re so much easier to spot on paper. I worked on it all day. Correcting errors in some of the poems led to a bit of editing; one poem that I’ve never been entirely sure about I re-drafted completely. I worked on it all day Sunday and again on Tuesday. By the end of Tuesday it was finished. I saved it on the USB drive, put it safely in my purse and felt free. And a bit sad. But mostly unbelievably released. Since Wednesday I’ve been practising life beyond PhD.

On Wednesday, I took the thesis into Manchester to the bookbinders, ready for the final submission to MMU for assessment. I’d saved it to the USB drive as a Word document. When I eventually got to the front of a very long queue—it’s the summer term, lots of students having theses/dissertations bound for assessment—the girl said I should have saved it as PDF file: Word files can reformat on different computers. She said I could check on one of the computers at the back of the room to see if the formatting had changed. If it had I would need to save it as PDF on the computer I had it stored on, my own computer. When I checked, it looked OK; except now it ended on p. 168: the contents list ended on p. 167, so somewhere it had acquired an extra page. And here goes Sisyphus again, pushing that rock. Luckily I’d had the foresight to take my MacBook with me, so I sat in the bookbinder’s waiting area, resaving the thesis on my MacBook as a PDF file. I promoted myself to the front of the queue when I’d done and the girl saved the file on the shop’s computer. I’ve ordered three copies in black buckram binding with gold lettering. They’ll be ready to collect on Tuesday coming, when I’ll take it to MMU, along with the USB stick and submit the work for assessment.

There have been days in the last four years when I didn’t think I’d get to this point. At times the job has seemed too big, like the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s been a long and difficult journey but I’ve reached the end; well, almost: I still have to submit it successfully; and I have the final assessment about twelve weeks from now. But the reading, writing, editing, redrafting, rewriting, revisiting, re-rewriting, re-re-re-editing is done. I am done. Bill and I went for lunch to celebrate after I’d dropped it off for binding.

In other news, my iPad cover split this week along its magnetic strip. I tried unsuccessfully to glue it back together, so while I was in Manchester on Wednesday I called in at the Apple store to buy a replacement. So now I’m £45 poorer, but I have a lovely new, bright red cover for my iPad. It’s almost like having a new iPad. Except cheaper. This is how I rationalise spending a massive £45 for the new cover: a new iPad would have cost considerably more. And it looks new. So…

Friends keep asking me what I’ll do now the PhD is nearly done. When I say ‘nothing’ they don’t believe me. ‘You’ll do something,’ they say. ‘You’ll sign up for another degree before long.’ NO. I won’t. I’ve reached the summit of my personal Everest, I have nothing left to prove. So for the rest of this week I’ve been thinking about what I will do post-PhD. And the first thing, the thing I promised myself all along, is to give the house a jolly good spring clean. Something has to go when you do a PhD; the time commitment means you can’t keep doing exactly the same stuff as you did before you started. I was determined poetry wouldn’t suffer: what would be the point of doing a PhD in poetry if poetry was going to be the thing to miss out. So the thing to go had to be some other aspect of my life. Housework was number one on the list. I’ve done some, obviously. Practically, it’s hard to see how you could do none at all for four years. In return for me doing her business paperwork, Amie pays for a cleaner to come in for a couple of hours a week. She concentrates on the lounge, kitchen, bathroom etc. And that’s wonderful, a load off… But the house hasn’t had a really deep clean for four years. This week I’ve put together a plan of attack, one room at a time. I’m going to be starting with the kitchen, cleaning out cupboards, chucking stuff that’s out of date, sending surplus plates, dishes etc. to the charity shops. I’ll start when I come back from Coniston towards the end of May. It’s been four years: I’m in no hurry to get started. This week, before I go to Coniston, I’ll finish putting together my plan of attack. It’s almost doing the work. Nearly. Planning is an important stage, after all. Isn’t it?

On Saturday I came south to Peterborough with Amie. We came to visit my son Richard and a friend, Maria. We all went to Hunstanton, a Norfolk seaside town, yesterday. The weather was lovely, clear blue skies and hardly a cloud, just one or two, low down near the horizon. We went to an amusement arcade and spent too many 2p coins on those machines that push coins and prizes off down the shoot, if you place your coin in exactly the right spot. Which of course, you rarely do. I did win a few coins—extra goes on the machine—and a tiny stick of Hunstanton rock. I also had a couple of spins on the wheel of fortune. I won 500 and then 1000 prize tokens. A little boy was watching me collect the 1000 tokens, his eyes were saucers: it did look an impressive amount of tickets spewing out of the machine. He asked his mum if he could have a go. I saw him a few minutes later. He was so excited: he’d also won 1000 tokens. I was happy for him. We changed our tokens for a magic set, including a top hat. We went to a fish and chip café for tea, and Richard entertained us with magic tricks while we waited for our meals. Were we impressed? Don’t give up your day job, son!

So I’m writing this from a hotel room in the Great Northern Hotel in Peterborough. It’s a three-star listing, same as the Britannia Hilary and I stayed in in Birmingham in February; but it’s as different from that Birmingham hotel as Christmas cake is from dry bread. I have a huge bed, a long, long desk area; there’s a sitting area near the window; there’s a bath and shower that I’m fairly confident won’t flood the rest of the hotel room. The décor is lovely. This is what a three star hotel looks like in the real world: the Britannia was definitely from an alternative universe. Richard and Maria are meeting us here for breakfast at 9.00 a.m.

In other news, we heard from Kei Miller this week, with the entry codes and titles of the winning poems for the Poets&Players annual competition. Kei was late sending the results, and has had to pull out of the celebration event for personal reasons; which is really sad, because sharing the stage to perform your work alongside a leading big-name poet is part of the prize; but it can’t be helped, these things happen. With only one week to go before the event, we didn’t see how we could find a suitable replacement in time for the event on the 18th; so we’ve been forced to cancel, with apologies to our winning poets and our regular audience. The names of the poets and their winning poems will be on our website by Saturday May 18th, so watch out for news: https://poetsandplayers.co/competition/competition-2019/We’re planning to incorporate the winning poets/poems into our next event, which will be on September 21st. I’ll post details nearer the time. In the meantime, please pass on news of the cancellation of Saturday’s event. The workshop with Keith Hutson will still be going ahead in the morning, so if you were planning to come to that, please do. I believe there are still one or two places left on the workshop if anyone else wants to come. And the P&P committee will be having a lunchtime meeting in the Whitworth café to discuss the rest of this year’s programme so if you’re coming to our workshop we might see you there.

Lastly, huge congratulations to Simon Armitage, who was revealed this week as the new Poet Laureate, taking the baton from Carol Ann Duffy. Simon was also one of my tutors when I did the MA in Creative Writing at MMU a few years back. I know he’ll be a great successor to Carol Ann, who has done a wonderful job in promoting poetry at grass roots level, making poetry an accessible art form. I know Simon will do a great job in carrying that particular baton.

I’m getting a real taste for life after PhD. In the old cliché, this is the first week of the rest of my life. So far it’s pretty satisfying.

A poem. It’s one of my ‘Alternative Mothers’: a favourite of mine from literature, Chaucer’s ‘Wife of Bath’. When I wrote this I intended to invent a feisty daughter for a feisty mother: the Wife of Bath is nothing if not feisty. But as I wrote the poem, the daughter came through as really bitter and abandoned. Robert Frost said something about if there was no surprise for the writer, there’d be no surprise for the reader. This poem was a surprise to its writer from the outset. I feel so sorry for this abandoned daughter, living out her life in a convent, cut off from society, an embarrassment and a shame to be hidden away. I love the Wife of Bath; but she’d have made a hellish and selfish alternative mother, I think.

 

Alternative Mother #3
Alysoun, Wife of Bath

I’m your secret but not your shame,
clearly. You had me in this motherhouse
when you were just a girl. Now I’m
your skeleton closeted in a catacomb

and you’re married off, no questions asked,
to some old bloke firing blanks, so no more
birthing cramps for you, no heirs to share

the takings and I’m stuck here
suffocating for your sin while you take
your choicest quoniam to the market place,
making sure your remedies for love bring
no more secrets. It’s just me then, enduring

 

Vigils,                         Lauds,                       Nones,

Vespers,                                Compline,

 

The Great Silence.


Rachel Davies
2018

 

choicest quoniam’= a woman’s sexual organs. A modern derivative might possibly be ‘quim’.

 

I might just have a cheeky beer

This week, on Tuesday, I met my support team for the last time. I caught the tram into Manchester. I was early, I had time for a coffee on the way to MMU. I called into Java near Oxford Rd. Station, read the anonymous submissions for the Stanza meeting while I drank my coffee, making notes on the poems as I read. After coffee, I walked on to the university. I was still a few minutes early so I sat in All Saints Park in the sunshine, winding the clock down. A woman came and sat beside me: her daughter was resitting an exam and she — the mum — was feeling nervous. She was having a cheeky beer while she waited. ‘I’m sixty-five,’ she said, ‘I don’t care what people think any more.’ We talked while we both waited, then just before 2.00, I left her and her tinny to go to my meeting.

We discussed my redrafted thesis, the one I’d reorganised under sub-headings. To cut a long story short, the redraft works well on the whole. We went through it together: there were still a few minor edits, but altogether it’s ready for submission. Phew! The news I was hoping for, as I only have a couple of weeks to spare and I still have to arrange to have it bound. We talked about submission, about the viva voce, about the final process. And then it was over: my last meeting with the team: sad and wonderful. I gave them both a hug as I left: I couldn’t have got through the work without them.  I’m really on the home straight now. I left there and treated myself to another coffee. I thought it might have involved cake, but I still have plenty of St. Ives fat to get rid of, so I settled for a pot of fruit instead. Oh Lord, sometimes I’m just too sensible.

So, on the PhD front, the rest of the week has been all about doing those last minute edits suggested by the team. I decided to get on with it straight away: the sooner started, the sooner it will all be over. So on Wednesday I got down to work at about 8.30 a.m., going through the advice on the redrafted thesis, addressing the team’s suggestions. I worked till about 10.45 then stopped for a brew. When I came back to work half an hour later, MacBook had had some kind of psychotic incident. It was frozen. I rebooted it, it was fine. Except all the edits I’d done on the thesis before the break were lost. When the document was recovered, it was as it had been before the work I’d put in in the morning, proof if you need it that I am Sisyphus. I keep pushing that boulder uphill; and down it rolls again. So, after having my own minor meltdown, on I pushed, redoing all the work I’d already done once, and by lunchtime all the minor edits suggested by the team were finished. After lunch I worked on the poems, revisited a couple I was less happy with. I took out two of the poems I’d added since St. Ives: Jean felt the ink was still too wet on the page, they weren’t quite ready to earn their space; and anyway, she said, you should keep them back because you’ll need a couple of poems to work on after you submit. The creative stream might slow to a dribble; I know from doing my MA that it happens. So I took them out: it doesn’t take a genius to work out that this led to more contents page rejigging. I keep pushing that rock! By the end of Wednesday, I had only the contents to re-re-re-edit, and the footnotes to revisit. I saved the work and left it for the day. I came back to it on Saturday morning. I re-did the contents, went through the footnotes with a nit comb, checked through the whole document for those annoying little wriggly red and green lines that the grammar/spell check puts under perceived — usually American-style — errors. By lunchtime I was happy with it. Later today I’ll be printing out a full version, poems and all, and reading it through closely to check for errors the spell/grammar check didn’t spot. And then…I might just have a cheeky beer myself.

I rang the book-binding shop this week, I’ve arranged to take the thesis in this coming Wednesday to have it buckram bound, ready for submission. I’ll have it back the week after, when I’ll take it straight to MMU for the final submission. Yes, I know I said I’d be glad to see the back of it. I may have lied. It’s a huge responsibility to send your offspring out into the world to earn their living. I’m having empty-nest syndrome already, and it hasn’t even left home yet.

In other news: poetry. I sent out the anonymous poems to my stanza poets last weekend, ready for the meeting on Tuesday. There were some seriously good poems in the set this month. I hadn’t had time to read them properly until I was having my coffee in Java: the week had been dominated by preparing for the PhD meeting. But I did read them, and make notes for discussion at the meeting. There were six of us in a rather crowded Buffet Bar. I book the small room at the end of the corridor for our meeting. There were two groups of drinkers in there when I arrived. I told them we had the room booked from 7.30, that we’d be discussing poetry. A man at one of the tables said, ‘that’s OK, we won’t mind, we’ll be talking. You won’t disturb us.’ Erm! It was one of those surreal moments. They stayed: to be fair the Buffet Bar was so full I don’t think there was anywhere else for them to go; but we had to discuss our poems against a back-drop of (rather loud) conversation. He was right: we didn’t disturb his conversation. I wish I could say his conversation didn’t disturb our poems.

On Thursday I met Hilary for lunch: we were planning our Line Break week in Coniston. We go straight after the Poets&Players competition celebration event on the 18th. We’ll be planning for a couple of writing workshops we’re leading in June; doing some writing of our own; working on a commissioned poem for Lydgate Stitchers, a poem to go with a lovely mural they’re sewing to commemorate the development of Lydgate as a village. We planned meals, prepared an online shopping list, decided what we need to pack for writing and cooking while we’re away. We’re planning a visit to Leighton Moss bird reserve, a boat trip on one of the Lakes—don’t mind which one, although Ullswater is a distinct possibility. We’re going to visit Long Meg and Her Daughters, an ancient stone circle near Keswick—we’ve both written poems about them—and a working flourmill close by. Of course, everywhere we go, our notebooks will go with us. We’ll have a productive week.

Lastly, I sent some poems out to earn their bread. I sent to the Battered Moons competition: I had a poem commended in this competition a couple of years ago, so I thought I’d give it another go. I also sent to a pamphlet competition, a set of twenty poems. This one is a highly competitive competition, so I don’t have great expectations of winning. But as the old Lottery ad used to say, ‘you gotta be in it to win it.’ I heard I was long-listed in the Cinnamon pamphlet competition, so the poems are close to getting themselves noticed. I’ll keep chipping away: one day they’ll make publication as a book.

And so, a PhD poem. I’m going to give you the first poem I ever wrote for the PhD collection, way back in 2016, when I was just starting out. It’s about making butter. I grew up on a farm in the Fens, and we sometimes used to make butter, more for our own use than for sale, I think. Looking back, it was probably still in the time of post-war rationing; I suppose I could Google this to be sure? The job for my sisters and me was to turn the handle on the churn. When our arm got tired, we passed it on to the next older sister in the line, until the cream eventually turned to butter. Mum’s job was to take the butter from the churn and knock it into shape—literally—on a cold board. I’ve posted a version of this one before I think; but this is the polished version, ready to go. I’m posting it as a celebration: the first poem to celebrate the end-game of the work.

 

Churning

See the churn, a pot-bellied pig on wood block feet
scrubbed, sterilized, the iron handle fixed to paddles.

It has the sickly smell of breast fed babies. Now,
hear the cream shushing like a tide as the handle

turns the paddles. Enthusiasm becomes effort
in the sweat and ache of cream thickening.

Pass the handle to the next sibling in line, up to Big Sis
the alchemist who churns base cream into gold.

Watch the ceremonial handing over of butter to mother
to knock into shape with wooden pats on a cold board,

see the magic of that emerging image of yellow, rolled, ridged
its wheatsheaf or thistle print, its bold statement of luxury.

Rachel Davies
2016

Please make it stop!

I started this blog to reflect on ‘PhD, poetry and life’. It seemed a long three years when I started the PhD, now, suddenly, the finishing line is in sight. But I’m a bit stuck, like in one of those dreams where you know you have to run, but your feet are held in thick, black molasses and you can’t move forward. I can see the end, but I can’t seem to get there. This week, it’s been all about the finishing touches; but I’ve been ridiculously ‘trial and error’ about it. Having incorporated three of the poems I wrote in St. Ives into the collection, I edited the poetry collection’s contents page to reflect the changes. Then, yes only THEN,  I decided I needed a contents list for the whole thesis, so I wrote that. And, of course, as any sensible, rational person would have seen but I didn’t, adding that contents page shunted everything up a page, so the collection contents was out of sync with the page numbers and I had to edit that again! At least I hadn’t edited the footnote references to the collection poems; so that’s the last job I have to do. I hope. A meeting has been arranged with the support team for this Tuesday; will it be my last, or will I come away with more work to do? I’m like Sisyphus, who was punished by the gods for his hubris by being made to roll a huge stone uphill, just for it to roll down again when he reached the top. He had to keep pushing that stone uphill for eternity. Perhaps my own boulder is that contents list, those footnotes. And all because I wanted a PhD I didn’t need and have no intention of using: hubris. Later today I’ll be editing the footnotes. Let that be the end of it. Please let that be the end of it!

Thankfully, there is poetry; and there’s been a lot of poetry this week. On Tuesday, I went into Manchester with Hilary to meet up with another poet friend, Natalie Burdett. We met at Gorilla in Manchester for lunch and to workshop some poems. Hilary and I took poems we wrote recently in St. Ives, at the writing week hosted by Kim Moore and Carola Luther. Natalie is currently doing a PhD from MMU as well. Her theme is geography and place in poetry and she brought three ‘place’ poems about her hometown in the midlands. Natalie’s poems are vivid descriptions, almost filmic. It was a good meeting with useful feedback. I took poems I thought were quite weak; but their feedback made me think they might have legs after all. I’ll be revisiting them later today, when I am planning to submit some poems to competitions. I’m not sure these poems be included, but they’re not definitely excluded, so that’s a step forward.

I also sent out my stanza mailing this week. Our Poetry Society Stanza meets every last Tuesday of the month at the Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar; our next meeting is on Tuesday of this coming week. We are having an anonymous workshop this week: members email a fairly new poem to me by an agreed deadline. The poem must be one the poet would welcome feedback on: I remember one workshop where a poet brought his magnum opus to the group and got very upset when we offered constructive feedback. He thought it was perfection on a page, it had been published, he said. Well, why bring it to a workshop then? It’s not a space for polished poems. I put all the poems I receive into an anonymous document and send to all poets who submit and I’ll be sending that document out later today to give folk the chance to read and make notes before the meeting on Tuesday. It works well, because if you don’t know who wrote a poem, you’re less likely to be cagey about offering feedback, so it really is constructive. I’ve received six poems this month, which is a result, given that our group has been on the ecological red list, facing extinction in the recent past; especially as I also received two apologies from members. We are still on the endangered list, but I think we’ll survive.

Yesterday, Saturday, was Poets&Players at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. Every year we commission new poems, inviting chosen poets to write poems to a particular theme. This year our commission was ‘Reimagining the City’. We invited Mona Arshi, Degna Stone, Will Harris and Maryam Hessavi to respond to the commission, and their poems were truly remarkable; the poems are available on our website: https://poetsandplayers.co  Yesterday the poets read these poems, and other of their work, to a large audience in the Whitworth’s South Gallery, overlooking Whitworth Park. It’s a lovely venue, but the weather was awful yesterday, so the squirrels and parakeets had stayed indoors out of the rain and wind. But the poetry was lovely; Mona Arshi read for the first time from her new collection, Dear Big Gods (Pavilion Poetry, 2019), which is published on Tuesday 30thApril. This was her first reading from this fantastic collection. You can order a copy here: https://www.liverpooluniversitypress.co.uk/books/id/42309/ The ‘players’ this month were Paula Darwish and Serpil Kiliç, two musicians/composers of British-Turkish heritage. They sang Turkish/Kurdish folk songs, accompanied by a guitar and a kind of Turkish lute or bouzouki called a baglama. Their singing voices were astounding, it was a lovely accompaniment to the poetry. You can find samples of their music here: https://www.countryandeastern.net/artist/serpil-kilic/

So, that’s another good week. In between all this I’ve been fighting microbes, mostly successfully I think. I feel as if I’m winning in the lymphocyte wars anyway. I can’t afford to let the enemy in at the gates!

Here’s a poem: another one I wrote in St. Ives, one I took to the workshop with Hilary and Natalie on Tuesday.  The exercise was to address a group of people in the poem: I chose to address that group of people who think us oldies should just go away, not be seen. I have an allergy to the uniform of the aged: it brings me out in hives, I won’t wear it, ever. I won’t be invisible, ever. This is a tongue-in-cheek poem about that, about not being invisible; it has humour, but it carries a serious message. Rise, all you ageing women, rise and be seen; rise and be disgraceful!

Growing Old Disgracefully

 I won’t be the one you decide I should be.
I’ll wear my glitter Docs, patchwork jacket,
that pink and tangerine top over slick black tights.
I promise you mutton dressed as lamb is not how
I see myself.

I won’t wear your uniform of the silver vote,
I won’t wear magnolia paint or
barley white to blend in with your walls.

Honestly?
Invisibility isn’t a default state for women over sixty.
Keep your beige, keep your Damart; keep
your Brevit shoes and Velcro slippers,
your flesh coloured NHS frames,
your Regatta fleeces, bland windcheaters,
Pakamacs and Rainmate hats;
stuff your amorphous crimplene.

Give me Airwair, give me Red or Dead
give me colour, pattern, flair, hear me sing,
watch me dance. I want to be shocking.

Beware: one morning you’ll realise
you stacked year upon year
until it’s the uniform or be damned.
I promise you I’d rather be damned. Loudly.
And visibly. Outrageously
and with disgraceful panache.

Rachel Davies
April 2019

Regressing to Normal

It’s started. That feeling that I am allowed to do other things. That post-PhD feeling. Again. It’s not even anti-climax: it’s more excitement at being able to do mundane stuff and take my time doing it because there’s no deadline. In other words, I’m regressing to normal.

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Hard at work in St. Ives: photograph by John Foggin.

Sunday was spent travelling back from St. Ives. It was a thoroughly miserable morning as we waited for the train from St. Erth to Plymouth: cold, barely above freezing; and wet, the rain was lashing. An appropriate day to leave a wonderful week, really; like leaving summer behind and falling back into gloomy winter. Our journey was uneventful; which was more than could be said for the poets who went home on the Saturday. Most had horrendous journeys of delay, cancellation and general disruption. So we were lucky to have booked that extra night. We had a lovely picnic of disgustingly unhealthy snacks including a small flagon each of Scrumpy cider Hilary had bought at the cider farm on the last day of the holiday.

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A little light picnic for the train.

We were in Manchester by 5.00 p.m. and home by 6.00.

This week I wrote the ‘front matter’ as they call it on my Kindle, for my thesis: the pages that tell you about the body of the work. I wrote the title page and acknowledgements, put them together with the 300 word abstract, placed them at the front of the thesis. I also placed three of the poems I wrote in St. Ives into the collection. So now all I need is to edit the contents page for the poetry and the page numbers in footnotes that contain references to the poetry collection; add an overall contents page and voila! I hope it’s done. I sent the new poems to Jean Sprackland, just so she’s aware that I’ve added them since we last spoke. I’m waiting on a meeting with my team re. the redrafted thesis I sent them, but given that it has to be submitted by May 18th, I’m hoping it’s about done. I hardly dare think so, but I hope it’s done.

So, apart from that little burst of academic activity, my week overall has been mundane. I’ve started to clear up my study. It looks like an intellectual war zone: books and paper copies of the thesis on my desk, and on the sofa awaiting the shredder. I had a big shred-fest on Good Friday. I felt like an assassin shredding working copies of the thesis, but I have them all, saved at the various stages of redrafting,  stored in the iCloud. I kept one copy, the latest; and I kept the copy that my Director of Studies had annotated by hand; and I kept the page of advice I was given last time I met with the team. But all other paper was shredded and binned. I filed letters, put books back on the bookshelf: I have too many books now, need more bookshelves. It’s the scurge of a bibliophile, the continually growing need for book shelf space. Because we can keep buying and reading books in perpetuity, but we can’t bear to get rid of any. It would be like getting rid of friends. So I now have books piled in front of books on the bookshelves. I know I’m not the only one.

I’ve also been batch cooking. I bought lots of veg when I shopped this week, so I spent Saturday making vegetable and lentil curries, pasta sauces, casseroles. I even managed to get them into the freezer the same day. I am a domestic goddess. In short, I have glimpsed the future and it is domestic. At the moment, I like it; I expect to get bored with it very quickly, but for now it is a refreshing, and relaxing, respite from four years of brain work.

So that’s it, a week of winding down. A week of life-post-PhD practice. A glimpse over the parapet into a future without study. I have lots of non-academic reading on my Kindle; but I’m saving that for after the assessment. I still have to keep in touch with the academic books until after the external examination. The Handmaid’s Tale and other reading treats can wait a few more weeks.

Here’s another poem I wrote in St. Ives. For this poem we had to think of a significant incident from our lives and write about it for ten minutes; just tell the story. Then we left it alone for a while. Later we had to tell the story again without looking at the first draft. Then, referring to both drafts, we had to weave them together into a unity. I wrote my first version in the first person; the second version in the third person. So my ‘weaving’ is between viewpoints, first person in italics, third person in plain font. It’s an interesting exercise. I don’t think this is the best example of it, but it’s the only one I have.

 

Loaded Questions

Look carefully, you might see a young girl picking violets
under the hedgerow by the bus stop. You might know
Dad’s in hospital again, recurring chest infection.
You might be surprised I’m not concerned:bed rest,
antibiotics. You might be surprised: I’m picking violets
a posy for her mum, perhaps. You’ll probably hear that
recognisable grind of diesel You might hear the bump
of something solid bouncing on the flatbed. Look,
a Land Rover, pulling up behind her, are you concerned?
You should be concerned. Oh Lord, it’s Mr Battersby,
the boss, oh lord he’s going to speak. Listen to the driver
ask how’s your dad. I’ve/she’s been taught to tug a forelock,
show respect. How’s your dad, he asks again. You’ll see
she’s flustered. Well…he’s still got pneumonia. As if
the boss doesn’t know it’s only been two days. He’s still…
You’ll see she’s flustered, as if…I’m trying to defend him
from something but she doesn’t understand what it is.

Rachel Davies
April 2019

 

 

 

Poetry, cider and an excess of seagull poo

I’m in St. Ives in Cornwall. Hilary and I travelled down here by train on Sunday. We had to change trains at Birmingham New Street. The train was packed and as we were trying to get off the train, other passengers were pushing to get on. Someone helped us with our bags, but I nearly got knocked over on the platform, which was crowded with people so you couldn’t move out of the way; in fact it was only the density of people that saved me from falling. They were all wanting a place on the train I’d just left, but there wasn’t any space on the train, so they couldn’t get on until someone got off anyway. It was chaos, so we upgraded to first class for the rest of the journey. It cost us £15 each. Well, be rude not to. We arrived at the hotel on Sunday evening, in time for the evening meal.

I’ve been on a poetry writing course led by Kim Moore and Carola Luther which just got better as the week went on. I’ve had a room with a sea view. The weather has been lovely, sunny and [mostly] warm. The food has been good this year. The hotel took on a new chef team in the autumn, and the food has improved no end. It was so good I think I’ve gone up at least one dress size. And all worth it for the poetry. It’s been a wonderful week; and I have some new poems that I’m excited by.

The theme of the week was ‘Intimacy, distance and perspective’ in poems. We met as a group on Monday at four o’clock: our daily cream tea time. At 4.30 we started the first workshop, exploring what the words of the theme mean. We didn’t do any writing in that workshop, but Kim set us a task to work on in our own time: to write a ‘meandering’ poem, one that wanders around its own country lanes to get to its point. I wrote mine in bed on Tuesday morning, early, while the sun rose over the sea. I wrote it with a pencil, in my notebook. I often write straight from the keyboard, but it’s difficult to meander at the keyboard, the inner editor is too close to the surface, so I wrote with a pencil, then typed it up on the MacBook.

Tuesday and Wednesday Carola and Kim ran workshops that involved reading and discussing poems and then writing poems inspired by our reading. On Tuesday, I wrote a couple of drafts that might become poems in the future; by Wednesday I was warming up, drafting poems with ambition, poems I could see making something of themselves. I wrote a poem about being lost in the book, in my case Alice in Wonderland.I like that draft already, not far to go to be complete. Thursday was a bit different. We had a discussion about Frank O’hara’s ‘personism’ style of poetry, a style that requires the intimacy of writing to one other, as you would in a letter or postcard. We read a lovely O’hara poem, ‘The Day Lady Died’, to illustrate his ‘personism’. Then we were sent into St. Ives to observe and write our own poems in the personist style. Hilary and I sat in a beach bar with a Rattler Cider, observing and taking notes. A woman digging like she meant it in a huge hole she’d made on the beach turned up in several of the poems. She was extraordinary, throwing spadefuls of sand behind her like a mad thing. I wrote my poem when I woke at 4.00 on Friday; it’s a productive time of day for me, and I have a poem I love. Yup, the woman in the hole is in there. It needs a bit more work, but it’s almost done.

As well as the workshops, we have been meeting daily in small groups to discuss and offer feedback on our early drafts. This was really useful. Sometimes you are too close to a poem, you can’t see its flaws. Of course, it’s your poem and you don’t have to act on the feedback, but at least you have your eyes opened and can implement the advice or not; you can act on some of the advice, all or none of it. On Friday morning we met as a whole group. We had to bring one poem from the week to read to the group and have it discussed and critiqued by the group. I took the poem I’d written at 4.00 a.m. and the feedback I received from the group was really useful. I’m quite excited about this poem.

Apart from the writing, there were readings organised for the evenings after dinner. Kim and Carola read from their work on Tuesday evening. Very different poets, their readings were wonderful. On Wednesday, Ann Gray came to read. Ann won the Poetry Business pamphlet competition in 2018; her pamphlet’s called I Wish I Had More Mothers(Smith Doorstop Books, 2018). So I had to buy that, get it signed, didn’t I? Ann read from her two collections and the pamphlet. On Thursday, course members read two poems each of their own work that they’d brought from home. I read a couple of my ‘alternative mothers’. On Friday we read a couple of poems we’d drafted from the week. These were good evenings, such a variety of poems from fourteen poets. And interesting to see how fourteen poets can come up with fourteen distinct solutions to the same prompt. It was fascinating to try to match the poems people read to the prompts from the week. The woman in the hole in the beach was a give-away in some of the poems; others were less easy to spot.

There has been free time in the afternoons to do the ‘holiday’ bit. Hilary and I walked into St. Ives two or three times, looked in the lovely shops, spent money we didn’t intend to spend on things we didn’t need but we wanted. I’m going home with four new tops, a skirt and two pairs of earrings I didn’t bring with me. On two visits to the town centre we were pooped on by seagulls and had to come back to the hotel for a shower before dinner, and to wash clothes that were bombarded. They keep telling me it’s lucky to be pooped on by a bird; perhaps I should buy a lottery ticket?

Yesterday, most of the poets went home after breakfast, but Hilary and I stayed an extra night. We went to the Healey’s cider farm, home of the Rattler cider, between Truro and Newquay. We took the bus to Truro then a taxi out to the cider farm. Oh my, the bus. We were abused by an old man for sitting in the seats reserved for ‘older passengers and those less able to stand’: we both have our own mobility issues, not that it’s his business. As he came down the bus to sit in a similar seat across the aisle, he said we shouldn’t be sitting there, we weren’t disabled. Hilary showed him her walking stick and he said a walking stick didn’t mean anything. He kept moaning on to the man next too him about us taking up the seats reserved for old folk—I’m 72 by the way—even though the man next to him looked about sixty, didn’t even have a walking stick and appeared able bodied. After a couple of minutes I said to him ‘excuse me, would you not talk about us, you know nothing about us.’ Bloody women, he snarled, so perhaps it was gender and not invisible disability that offended him. Bloody misogynist, we might have said but didn’t. The incident didn’t spoil our day. At the cider farm, we had a ride behind a tractor around the orchards; toured the production line and museum; tasted lots of samples; and had a complimentary pint of cider with our cream teas at the end of the tour. The taxi collected us at 3.00 p.m. and we took the relatively uneventful journey back to the hotel.

It was strange in the hotel last night, all the poets had gone and just Hilary and me left of our group. We felt a bit bereft until a lovely couple from London joined us at our table. We got to talking, and by the end of the meal, we’d sold them one of our books, so that was nice. Poetry is such a rewarding way to spend your time.

I’m going to give you a poem from the week, so naturally it’s an early draft. I don’t know if it will mature, if I’ll develop it or leave it as it is. Either way I’m not planning on sending it out to earn its keep any time soon. But it was fun to write. It’s a poem that addresses your own body directly, and I guess poems don’t come more intimate than that. Here’s mine:

Oh, Body

I’ll not give up on you
now you’re no longer pert.

He said my stretch marks were beautiful,
a poem on childbirth. Body, you and I both know

that’s bullshit. Poems are art and you, Body,
are science, a physiological record of degeneration.

You started to die the minute they cut
the umbilical cord. But dying, I’m pleased to say,

is a slow process. And long may it continue.
I’m sorry I didn’t always put you first:

I broke you, cut you, squeezed your feet
into too-tight shoes, soaked you in long hot baths.

On the whole, though, I think
we’re doing alright, Body, you and me.

Rachel Davies
April 2019

*insert smiley face emoji*

Last Sunday I worked like mad to get every aspect of the thesis finished. I think I’m happy with it, even though I know there is still work to do. In the afternoon, I sent this latest draft off to my team. Which is good because I’m off to St Ives with Hilary later today for a week of poetry in workshops run by Kim Moore and Carola Luther. I’m so excited, I actually started packing on Friday, which is a first for me; I’m a last minute packer normally. I copied Jean Sprackland into the email so she can have an idea how the creative interacts with the critical. It’s gone. I can relax again for a couple of weeks, I thought as I pressed send.

Wrong. I decided to fill the days following with finding out about presenting the thesis for submission. It requires a title page, obviously; but what does that look like? And what else will I need? I checked out a few theses available online to see what they contain. One, from Goldsmith’s College, had a title page, an abstract, an acknowledgements page, a list of contents. I searched the MMU website for the establishment minimum and couldn’t find anything at all; so I emailed the woman who is designated a point of contact for queries such as this. She sent me some good advice and a copy of the Post Graduate Research Handbook. How had this passed me by? It stands to reason there had to be one, but I didn’t give it a thought. I need a title page, an abstract and acknowledgement of any published work relating to the thesis. It was really useful; and especially, being a PDF file, the links in the handbook were clickable, so I found my way to a couple of MMU thesis abstracts. Then I started stressing all over again about academic language. It scares me. Some people are more than competent at it, I’m not.  So my problem on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday was how to describe my twenty thousand words and its related creative collection in 300 comprehensible but fairly scholarly words. In the end, I did what I always do: I just wrote it, in plain English. Writing is communication, so accessibility is the key for me. I wrote 300 words and sent it off to Hilary for comment. She has read the thesis. Twice, bless her. So she is best placed to assess whether the abstract correctly reflects the thesis. She said ‘yes it does; and I understood it!’ So, I’m buying her a Rattlers cider on the beach on Monday. I sent the abstract off to the team, with a view to discussing it at our next meeting. I can go to St Ives without taking the thesis and the angst it causes, not even virtually. It’s out of my head.  Hopefully I’ll have a relaxing break, eat scones, drink cider and write some brilliant poems—not necessarily in that order. Well, three out of four ain’t bad!

Yesterday I went to read at Saddleworth Literature Festival with Hilary. It was based at Saddleworth School in Uppermill this year. Hilary and I had an early afternoon slot. We met up on Tuesday to discuss our input over coffee. We planned to read from Some Mothers Do…kicking off with a couple of Tonia Bevins’s poems from the book; unfortunately Tonia died before she had chance to see her poems in print, so we always share some of her work whenever we read from the book. Then we planned to perform a duet on one of my poems, ‘Motherhood’ and one of Hilary’s, ‘Jean, the tree in the wood’. They’re poems with two voices so it makes sense to share the reading. We agreed a fifteen-minute slot to read our own work followed by a book signing at the end of the session. I charged up our little ‘Madonna’ mic in case we needed it; and spent a couple of days practising my reading in any spare time slots. I like to be prepared.

Suffice to say, Saddleworth Literary Festival is not one of the big ones. They’re still using banners from three years ago, with A4 paper alterations over old dates etc. We arrived at 12.45 for 1.00 p.m., got the room ready as we wanted it, had a complimentary cup of tea and waited. And waited. No-one came. No audience, no member of the organising committee to see if we had all we needed, or to welcome/introduce us. We waited until 1.30 and then we left. We should have been wary after that festival three years ago, but we decided to give it another go. One year of poor organisation is beginners’ bad luck. Two is incompetence. We won’t be accepting another invitation until they get some writers on the organising committee and access funding streams. We went to the local garden centre for a bite to eat and sat out in the lovely April sunshine. At least we enjoy each other’s company. *insert smiley face emoji*.

Lastly, the upfullness of a poem. I wrote this a couple of weeks ago at the Poets&Players workshop run by Mark Pajak. We talked a lot about how poems resemble jokes, in that poems, like jokes, have a ‘set-up’ and a ‘punchline’. The only writing activity on the day was the last activity before lunch. Mark gave us a list of poetry ‘punchlines’ and asked us to write a poem towards one of them. I chose the first punchline on the list, it spoke to me straight away. As a child I had this headful of truly unruly curls—I still do. Not smooth, Shirley Temple curls, more like an explosion in a wire wool factory. It’s why I keep my hair very short now: I have to show it who’s boss around here. Anyway, you’ll understand how much I hated my hair when I tell you I always wanted to have long, straight, blonde hair, kink-free and Swedish looking, the very opposite of my own mane. At grammar school there was a boy in my class, Peter, I really fancied him. I got my mum to let me go for a shampoo and set, as it was called then: your hair pulled tight onto rollers to tame it and shape it. I felt like the bee’s knees when I came out, my hair was constrained! In school on Monday morning, Peter Brock—yes I’ll name and shame him—asked me if the crows had left the nest.  I was mortified! Anyway, the first punchline on the list was ‘I tried it on, of course/but no.’ I don’t know the original source of the quote, but it was a give away for this true story. Here’s the poem:

 

Hair

Mine
an explosion of black
Afro unruly
filling the house like a mattress
butting jokes about crows and nests
untameable
making school photos manic.

Kathleen Kilsby’s
blonde
smooth as snow on the piste
silver silk
spinning down her back
weaving me jealous.

Years later
Westgate House Department Store
hair pieces, extensions
toupés and full wigs, then
the complete blonde Kilsby,
the hair she crushed me behind the door for
when hair was given out.

I felt it, smelt it, drooled over it,
tried it on, of course,

but
no.

Rachel Davies
March 2019

Running a marathon tied to a tree

It’s  been one of those weeks when everything I’ve done has led to several other things to do. So I’m glad to have got to Sunday having achieved anything at all. And yet, looking back through my journal, I’ve achieved a lot.

I’ve had a week of poetry and PhD. Some life in there somewhere, but it’s difficult to find when you’re working towards a tight deadline and every job throws up another three jobs. First, let me tell you about PhD. A friend who has completed a PhD sent me this photo a year ago:

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And I kind-of got it when she sent it; but this week it has been on my mind a lot. Stamina. PhD is definitely a marathon; but with your feet tied at the ankle and stuck in thick black treacle; at midnight without a moon; and a thick elastic band around you waist and tied to an oak tree. That’s how it has felt this week.

I’ve been reading through the thesis now that I’ve altered the order of it, to make sure the footnotes all comply; checked the footnotes and bibliography for complicity with the style guide. On Wednesday I concentrated on the creative side of the work, making sure I addressed all the issues in Jean Sprackland’s latest feedback. I re-wrote a poem I’d written as a coupling: that’s a poem that takes a text that you haven’t written and intersperses it with related response lines of your own poetry. It’s a form Karen McCarthy Woolf invented and perfected in her collection Seasonal Disturbances (Carcanet Press, 2017). This form works perfectly in Woolf’s collection; less well in the attempt I’d made around a letter my parents received from my school on the death of my brother: about which more later. So I revisited it, ditched the coupling and rewrote it as a direct response to the letter. Much better pleased with it now, less forced, less trying to be something it’s not. So that was a good job done.

I also decided to completely reorder the collection. Jean had suggested I retitle the collection Alternative Mothersas this sequence of poems is the backbone of the collection. So it made sense to intersperse them throughout the collection rather than keep them all together as a mini-series. But of course, that was one of those jobs that brings in its wake several other related jobs: because I’d reordered the poems, the contents page had to be reordered as well. And then the footnotes in the thesis relating to the collection had to be edited, both with the title of the collection and the revised page number in the list of contents.

Yesterday I re-read the whole thing with a view to sending it back to my support team for feedback. Hilary had taken it away with her to Prague, where it had become the bedtime reading on her city break. How lucky am I to have a good friend prepared to do that for me? Every morning she sent me feedback following her reading, so yesterday I addressed that really useful feedback as well; some of her issues I’d already addressed in my own re-reading of the thing, but not all. For instance, silly things like where I’d written ‘an imbalance’, then later inserted ‘wide’ without changing the ‘an’ to ‘a’; and I’d written 190 instead of 1990 in one of the footnotes. I’d missed these silly errors in all my re-readings. Having done all that I thought it must be ready now to go back to the team. But I checked the advice I’d had from them at our last meeting and realised I still had one job to do, which required a minimal amount of writing. But of course, that minimal amount of writing added up to a nudge of the page numbers, so the knock-on is that page numbers in the contents for the collection don’t apply  any more, they’ve all moved up one. I corrected that and thought it must be ready to go off to the team now before the recognition dawned that all references to the collection in the footnotes would also all have the wrong page numbers again. Aaagh! That’s what it’s like at this end of the marathon. You have to keep returning to the last Km marker and running that bit again. I’ve saved that job for later today. My agreed deadline was early April, which for my own convenience I’ve brought forward to the end of March as the coming week is going to be a hard one to fit work into. I’ll meet my deadline later today, and then a week or two when I don’t have to worry about it for a while.

So, if you’re thinking of doing a PhD, or you’ve just started out, prepare yourself for this end marathon, tied to a tree on a road with a treacle spillage. On a moonless night. You’ll come to it; so enjoy the relative freedom of the early reading and research, the wonderful acts of creativity that it will entail, whatever your area of interest. It’s all good preparation for the stamina you’ll need at the end. And no, you won’t be insane, you’ll just suspect you might be.

How have I managed to fit anything else in this week? Dunno, but I have. On Tuesday it was our monthly Stanza meeting at Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar. We were reading Fiona Benson’s extraordinary new collection, Vertigo and Ghost (Cape, 2019). I had several unavoidable last-minute apologies from members so I wasn’t sure how many would be at the buffet bar when I arrived. In the event it was just me and fellow poet, Linda Goulden. Yup, only two of us. We read poems from the collection, discussed some of them; but mostly we just read them out loud and were gobsmacked. It really is a brilliant collection, just crying out for prestigious awards this year. Watch this space.

I also finished printing and parcelling up all the entries to the Poets&Players 2019 competition. Two reams of paper, parcelled up in a Doc Martens boot box, taken to the PO on Tuesday afternoon. Parcel tracking told me they arrived with Kei Miller on Wednesday morning. Our PO service is wonderful: that huge parcel, imagine it, two reams of paper, quite some weight, cost less than £20 to send special delivery, to arrive, signed for, the next day. If you entered our competition, good luck with your entry. I can’t wait to hear of our prize winners now. Details of our prize winning celebration event can be found on the P&P website, along with other upcoming events: https://poetsandplayers.co/competition/competition-2019/

So that’s it really. I’ve had a productive week. I’m looking forward to a less productive but thoroughly enjoyable and relaxing week with family and friends this week, the thesis a receding memory. For a while at least.

Returning to the poem formally known as a coupling: when my mother died and we were clearing her effects, I came across a letter from my school, offering condolences on the death of her son, my brother. I’ve told you before about the demon headmaster, who cared nothing for those of his pupils whose parents weren’t wealthy enough to cough up into the school fund. Hardworking people like my parents and the parents of my friends in the ‘B’ stream. Well, this said ‘letter’ was typed on a school compliments slip, complete with corrected typos — in the days before word processors when your typos were just over-typed. Shoddy. And if that wasn’t enough, the school had addressed the letter to my brother ‘Mr. H. E. Rudkin’, not my father, ‘Mr. A. E. Rudkin’. How insensitive was that? But it was also written in the week of my brother’s death, the same week I was given a Saturday morning detention for not handing in my homework. My poem addresses this token act of ‘condolence’, and gives me a vent for my own anger. He really was a Roald-Dahlesque headmaster.

Here’s the redraft; I hope WordPress copes with the unusual formatting: I have it in two columns on the page: the letter and my response. Fingers crossed. No, no kindness to my formatting, but you’ll get the drift:

 A Young Girl’s Grief…

 19th June 1962

Dear Mr.and Mrs._____,

I am very sorry indeed at your terrible (olss) loss.

Nothing one can say can be of much comfort to you. Only those who have had to bear such things can fully understand. Those of us who have children can try to — no more, I suppose, than that. Try as we do, we simply cannot fully understand, I am sure.

However, we feel for you and yours very deeply indeed, and are sorry you should have to undergo such harrowing experience. May you be given (strngth) strength to see over this affliction.

Yours sincerely,

Headmaster

 

 

…is hardly grief at all

19th June 1992

Dear Headmaster,

Your note, written on a school compliments slip, complete with typing errors and crossings out, was in my mother’s effects when she died. She kept it for thirty years, because you addressed the envelope to the son she’d lost  (you couldn’t even get that right) and it brought him back to her for a while.

She didn’t know how you delegated this writing chore to your deputy on the same week you shut me in the library on Saturday morning to do the homework I hadn’t handed  in. I didn’t tell her about the detention, her head was too full of death.

Did you have a thesaurus of platitudes about loss? Well, chew this over: I was one of ‘you and yours’. I didn’t feel you feeling very deeply for me. Because a young girl’s grief is hardly grief at all, is it?

Do you remember Deidre Harrington, who died about the same time as him? She’s buried in the same Churchyard, just at his feet. Deidre’s parents were on the PTA.

I’ll lay a bet they got the full headed notepaper, no typos.

Yours in anger

 

Optimism: my default state

When I was a headteacher, my staff used to say I was ‘terminally optimistic’. I could always see a way forward, however hard and negative the outside world tried to make me feel. PhD has tested that optimism to its limits. I have hit all-time lows in pessimism and negativity during my time on the PhD; there have been times I’ve come close to jacking it in and getting my life back. But, ultimately, ‘jacking it in’ isn’t can option because I know how bad I’d feel if I did. I set myself this personal challenge and I must see it through to the end, whatever that end is. I think, reading back over last week’s blog post, I’ve been feeling a bit negative recently, a bit down about it all? This week, I’m back in fighting mode, and I feel better for it.

I’ve been working on the secretarial stuff that’s necessary to a successful outcome. So on Sunday I printed off the bibliography and read the thesis through again to make sure my footnotes were all in the right order after all the cut-and-pasting I’ve done recently. There are prescribed ways of referencing: Manchester Metropolitan University uses the MHRA style of referencing, and footnotes and bibliography need to adhere to the MHRA style guide: first reference a full inclusion of the publishing history of a book, subsequent footnotes an abbreviated form. I ticked off the items on the bibliography as I first referenced them so that I could correct anomalies raised by reordering the work. There were even one or two publications I had omitted from the bibliography that I had to include; and one or two items I had in the bibliography that no longer had a mention in the body of the work. They had to go. So that was all relatively easy to sort out. Less easy was knowing if some items had a slot in the bibliography at all. For instance, I’ve referenced the NHS website over an issue in the thesis: I checked out the implications for albinism, following a reference in one of Pascale Petit’s poems. Does the web address for the NHS site then get a reference in the bibliography as well as a footnote in the body of the work? It doesn’t have a named author, but it is an authority I’ve accessed. The MHRA style guide seems silent on this. I opted for including the NHS web-address in the bibliography as well.

When that initial job was done, I went back through the footnotes with a nit comb. I printed off the relevant advice from the MHRA style guide that advised on the format of footnotes and checked through to make sure all my footnotes were written in the preferred style. I’m trying to be more positive this week, so I’m not going to dwell on the pedantic nature of style guides; but really! Most footnotes, for instance, have a full stop at the end of them:

Selima Hill, Violet (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1997).

But if you reference a web page, and you include square brackets with an ‘accessed date’, no full stop:

Sharon L. R. Kardia and Tevah Platt‘In your grandmother’s womb: The egg that made you’, at <https://genedoe.wordpress.com/2010/09/29/in-your-grandmothers-womb-the-egg-that-made-you/> [accessed 30thNovember 2018]

And those < and > signs you need to include at the ends of web addresses bring their own kind of angst, because they make the web-address that little bit longer, so it won’t any longer fit on the line it was happy to be on before you put them in, and it swings down onto the next line, sometimes without its < sign! So just this secretarial job is demanding of time and scrutiny. I was glad of the uplifting touch of poetry to keep me sane.

I’ve worked on the referencing in most of my available time slots this week, but on Tuesday afternoon, tired of the pedantic nature of footnotes, I took time out for some creative work and wrote up a poem from Vahni Capildeo’s workshop at Verve in February. It’s a poem about ‘the Beast from the East’, that awful weather event last year. I looked over the poems Jean Sprackland had given me editorial advice on and I printed off one of those poems, ‘Lillingstone Dayrell Churchyard’, a poem in three parts. I took the Beast, and the three-part poem to a workshop with two poet friends, Hilary Robinson and Natalie Burdett, on Tuesday evening. This is the second time we’ve met for this purpose, at a café in Oldham. We had food first and poetry after. We all take poems for feedback. Natalie’s also doing a PhD from MMU, so she’s always good for support, bless her. And, like all good friends, Hilary’s always there when I need a sympathetic ear. The three-part poem is now a four-part poem: following discussion on Tuesday evening, I split the final section, placing the first stanza of that section right at the beginning of the poem, and altering the ‘you’ of the section to ‘they’ and ‘she’. I think it works better for it. The community of poets eh? Such a positive force!

On Thursday Hilary and I went to York. We caught a lunchtime train and were in York before 2.00 p.m. We went to Betty’s for a late lunch. We shared a bottle of Gerwürztraminer, so lunch took us about three hours. While we were there, a woman caught the little vase of flowers on our table with her handbag, and I caught the little vase of flowers in my lap; so I spent the rest of the day with a big wet patch on my dress. Luckily it was to the side: I’m reaching that age when large wet patches on your dress can be embarrassing. She was so apologetic, bless her, but these things happen; quite often to me, it has to be said! We were in York for a Litfest event: ‘Writing the Maternal’, a reading and discussion group featuring Liz Berry, Jessie Greengrass and Rachel Bower. It was a lovely event, complete with the visual aid of Jessie’s baby, Poppy, who entertained us with her refusal to take the event seriously. All three writers have addressed the issue of giving birth, and the impact of that on their writing. I have Liz Berry’s signed pamphlet ‘The Republic of Motherhood’, an astounding, powerhouse of a pamphlet. Liz read my favourite poem from the pamphlet, ‘Horse Heart’. It’s one of those ‘goosebump’ poems. You can access the poem here: https://www.thecompassmagazine.co.uk/liz-b/I bought, and got signed, Rachel Bower’s collection ‘Moon Milk’, which I look forward to reading soon. It was a lovely event, a little oasis of poetry in a manic week.

On Friday, mania reached a new height. I took my car for its first MOT on Thursday, but as I was in York on Thursday afternoon, I arranged to collect it on Friday morning. Unfortunately, the difficulty of communicating with the garage while I was out drinking wine and enjoying poetry meant I was late authorising the work that needed doing: a new front tyre. So it was Friday morning before I authorised them to replace the tyre. They promised to have my car back with me by the end of play on Friday. I got the phonecall at 4.00 p.m. to say the tyre they’d ordered hadn’t arrived, so it would be Saturday morning before I could collect my car. I was due to visit my friend Joan on Friday evening. We’ve been meeting up most months since we met on holiday in Italy in 1995: Friday was my turn to go to hers in Crumpsall. I rang and asked if she could come up to Saddleworth instead, so at 7.30 p.m. on Saturday we were driving down the very narrow lane from my house to go out to eat. Unfortunately, a car was driving up said very narrow lane at the same time and Joan had to reverse for some way to find a suitable passing place. Long story short, she burnt the clutch out in the effort, so we were stuck on a stranger’s drive with a car that wasn’t going anywhere. I used my AA membership to get help: help came in the shape of Chris, who sorted us out. He towed the car to a garage in Bury, Joan and I walked back up to my house at the top of the lane, we had a take-away and Joan stayed over.

On Saturday it was Poets & Players at the Whitworth. Bill took me to collect my car from its MOT hospital at 8.00 a.m. then drove on to take Joan home. I took my car to the tramstop where I met Hilary and we caught the tram to Manchester. We called at the Whitworth café for an impromptu breakfast before a workshop with Mark Pajak. Well, how good was that? We looked at the set-up and punchlines of jokes and applied those to poetry. I’ve never been to a poetry workshop before where the first job was to tell and analyse jokes. By the end of the workshop I had written a poem about hair, that I think might find space in the PhD collection. After lunch in the café, it was the Poets&Players event in the South Gallery. Rachael Gladwin was the ‘player’ this time. Rachael is a harpist and singer, so that was a wonderfully calming aspect of the event. Contrast that with Amy McCauley, our first poet. Amy is nothing if not entertaining. A poet and performer, she always comes up with something different. Yesterday she addressed Brexit in her own inimitable way: it involved Union Jack bunting and a good deal of political rhetoric. It was brilliant. This on the day of the big ‘People’s Vote’ march in London. I’m not going to get political; suffice to say if I hadn’t been at Poets&Players, I would have been in London. Manchester sent several coaches of supporters to the event. Amy’s performance was a form of support. Phoebe Power and Jacob Polley also read; I need to go back to read Jack Selfall over again after hearing Jacob’s hypnotising reading yesterday. As usual, this was a brilliant event with wonderful music and engaging poetry. The next event is on April 27th, featuring Mona Arshi, Will Harris, Degna Stone and Maryam Hessavi. These poets will be presenting their poems to our commission ‘Reimagining the City’; with music by Paula Darwish and Serpil Kılıç. It promises to be a good afternoon. Perhaps I’ll see you there? More details here:https://poetsandplayers.co

And as if all this wasn’t enough, I’ve been finalising the administration of the Poets&Players competition, printing off entries to send to Kei Miller on Monday. I met with my colleague at P&P, Viv Finney, to collect the postal entries and tomorrow afternoon they’ll be speeding towards Kei and the judging process. If you entered, thank you so much for your support, and good luck with your entry. The celebration event is on May 18that the Whitworth, details also on our website.

So, I’m going to give you the final two stanzas of the poem I took to discuss with Hilary and Natalie on Tuesday. It remembers that sad time when my only brother died of appendicitis when I was fourteen, he was seventeen. It is actually formatted with lots of line indents to give a sense of panic, but as usual, WordPress has messed with the formatting.  Sorry! I’m so comfortable with the changes in it I sent it straight back to Jean Sprackland when I’d edited it. I have some lovely friends, and they’ve been instrumental in returning me to my default state of optimism this week. Above and beyond the call, Hilary has promised to read my thesis again now I’ve altered it; and this despite a city break in Prague starting tomorrow. She’s taking it to read on the plane if I get it to her today. Thank you Hilary, and thank you all.

Lillingstone Dayrell Churchyard (final section)

[…]

that sense of what the fuck
knowing God isn’t
they clung together
dumbstruck              heart shattered
for years
did they even shed tears?
I don’t remember tears
they never asked how we grieved
if we grieved
we got by together
facedafter this together

how often did she wish it was one of her
ten-a-penny girls
not her boy in the ground
not her only boy      lonely in his earthy bed
not her prince                       so strong
so beautiful      so young
so dead

Rachel Davies
March 2019

 

 

Frau Frankenstein and the Midwich Cuckoo

I’ve been working on the thesis. Again. I feel like a grotesque Frau Frankenstein, reassembling in a different order the parts of a body I took apart myself. Or a Hammer House plastic surgeon, promising a client I’ll make it beautiful—mwah ha ha ha—when actually, I’ve put way too much collagen in its lips, lifted its face until the skin’s taut and the eyes can barely blink; and the breast implants don’t match, one an ‘A’ cup, the other ‘Double D’! Alright, over the top, but you get the drift.

I think what I’m saying is: you can work on a piece of writing until you feel as if you’ve worked the life out of it, one redraft too far. That’s how I’m feeling about the thesis. I feel as if it isn’t my writing any more, that I’m working on it for someone else. It leers at me from the MacBook screen and from the surface of my desk, it’s in my head all the time so that I wake up in the morning, or ride the tram into Manchester, or prepare dinner with yet another idea for an edit forcing itself to the front of my consciousness. It’s like a modern day torture. I just want it to be over, but I’ll be back at my desk working on it again today, because that’s what my days are at the moment. I feel like a mother neglecting her child if I do anything else. Except this child is a Midwich Cuckoo, a child that’s mine but not mine. And, like a Midwich Cuckoo, it enjoys a special brand of vindictive.

Deep breath, and…relax! I think I need a holiday. I can see one just over the horizon that is the end of May. But even then I’ll have to be reading to prepare for the final assessment. I think by my birthday in July it might be over, for good or ill. Either way I don’t care any more, it’ll be over.

So, what have I done this week to make me feel like this? Well obviously, a lot of editing of the thesis. I’ve been working to my support team’s advice, and that is the problem and the solution in total. They gave me good advice; but I’ve had to modify the advice. I found it hard to make my subheadings the names of my focus poets, because where would the theoretical stuff go? With which poet’s section? Because the theory is necessary before I apply the theory to the analyses, isn’t it? So I’ve subbed the theory under its own heading, and now there seems to be a deal of theory before you get to the engaging stuff in the analyses of the poets’ work. I feel as if I should put in an illustration or a cartoon to break up the flow of text: alright, I’m joking! But I want to engage my assessors early on in the reading and I don’t feel as if it does that at the moment. But is that because I’ve read it through so many times there are no surprises for me any more? You see, heartily sick of it! And this is how I keep beating myself up.

Thankfully, although it’s hard to believe, thesis redrafting isn’t all I’ve done this week. It’s been an engaging week of poetry too. Thank goodness for the restorative nature of poetry. The closing date for the Poets&Players annual competition was Wednesday at midnight. I managed to keep the spreadsheet up to date this year by updating it in bed every night with the entries that arrived in the inbox that day. The last three days of the competition is always a bit manic as people beat the deadline. I took a day off the thesis on Sunday to print off entries, because the numbers were mounting up. It took me all day, with a break for lunch. Within an hour, the inbox was filling up again.

On Monday I heard back from Jean Sprackland about the poems I sent her. Jean is always spot on with advice and I find work on the creative aspect of the PhD an uplifting balm. Two poems she was less happy with I’d used in the thesis as examples of aspects of the theory. So on Tuesday, I took another look and decided one of them I could eliminate altogether. I deleted it from the collection, and rubbed it out of the thesis as if it had never been a thing. I didn’t mind, I wasn’t entirely happy with it myself. The second one I was less sure about getting rid of. 1) I quite like it; 2) it illustrates a particular aspect of the theory that no other of my poems could do. I decided to retain that one. She also suggested ‘Alternative Mothers’ as a title for the collection, as she feels, and I agree with her, that this sequence is at the heart—actually and metaphorically—of the whole piece. I’m happy with that. So I spent a lovely hour looking for a picture of a three-toed sloth to illustrate the cover. I found a photograph of one, hanging upside down in a tree, doing things my ‘alternative mother’ sloth does; and the good news is, it carried permission for general use, so no copyright issues. I wish all my days could be as rewarding as this one, working on the creative aspect: after all, I’m a poet, not an academic—oh, not even a little bit an academic!

Wednesday I was back to working on the critical thesis. I’d printed off the latest redraft to read through for error, cut and paste failures, flow of text. I read it on paper, edited it on screen. It took all day. As I was reading, I was making a list of jobs I still need to do to it before I send it off to the team at the beginning of April—although I’ve revised my own deadline: I’ll be sending it at the end of March. The beginning of April is becoming a full diary and it’ll be good to have the thesis out of the mix. One job on the list is to check for ‘topic sentences’, a phrase I came across in my research into ‘accessible academic writing’. A topic sentence is the first sentence of a paragraph that sets the reader up to know what’s coming. Another, huge and vitally important job, is to check footnotes now that I’ve moved the text around. That’s going to be a biggy.

On Thursday evening, Hilary and I went to see Kate Fox at the Portico Library in Manchester. She does a (nearly) one woman show called ‘Where There’s Muck There’s Bras’, about notable northern women who’ve been lost to history. Bras feature quite creatively in the show: they double as hats, nuns’ wimples, handbags; I don’t recall that they ever played themselves, except when they were hanging on the washing line. She has help from a video installation, with a wonderful actor, Joanna Holden, doing a half-decent impression of Hylda Baker; and Kate and Joanna form a Manchester group: ‘Oasister’. Brilliant. If you visit the website: https://www.hulltruck.co.uk/whats-on/talks-poetry/kate-fox-news-where-theres-muck-theres-bras/you can watch the videos yourself. It was a lovely evening: fun, informative, entertaining; and with some good poetry too. If it tours a town near you, do go and see it, even if you’re not a ‘poetry person’ you’ll love it, I’m sure. Kate calls herself a ‘stand-up poet’ and that sums her up nicely.

I also heard from Ben Gaunt about the recording of my poem ‘Tawny Owl Lulllaby’, and his wonderful music that inspired it. He sent me the completed recordings. I think you can download a copy of each piece here. Let me know if it works. If not, I’ll try something else.

https://wetransfer.com/downloads/4cd20f59757b92e01e31524f27c3012a20190313091356/ac3126594d678a3dc5b865980f4a26b820190313091356/a58a97?utm_campaign=WT_email_tracking&utm_content=general&utm_medium=download_button&utm_source=notify_recipient_email&fbclid=IwAR05d2lfyh783rLhBuc8r8E308Ivwy9H95TaA6P8zn6p8tlfP4uJSI6cvKY

Saturday, back to the thesis, carrying out the ‘topic sentence’ job. I think I’ve got it covered. But I’ve read it through so many times, I feel as if I’m not really reading any more, just looking at little anonymous black words on white paper. I worked on it all morning, ticking jobs off the ‘to do’ list. By lunchtime my head was screaming to make it stop, so I printed off some competition poems instead, to give the aching brain a rest—we’ve had some cracking entries: if you sent poems, thank you. And good luck. They’re nearly ready to send to Kei Miller; only about fifty more poems to print now, a couple of hour’s work. I contacted Viv Finney, the colleague at Poets&Players who deals with postal entries. We’re meeting for coffee in Manchester on Wednesday to put them all together, then I’ll be sending them all on their final journey, always a good feeling.

A poem: I’ll give you the poem Jean wasn’t so sure about. I’d be really grateful for your feedback; I’m only half convinced of its place. It’s a reflection on my relationship with my own mother. Quite an emotionally distant sort of mother, she had nine children–eight of them girls–and I suppose when it isn’t what you dream for yourself, it’s hard maintaining emotional closeness with such a large family. I was happy enough in my own world anyway. Most of the time.

The Bat And Not The Ball

what if being loveless was protection
a carapace a breastplate a firewall

not disappointment at a missing member
not a statement about lack of love at all

for years it hurt to see you couldn’t see me
like the worn out pushchair waiting in the hall

I sulked because you tried hard not to know me
while you were as strange to me as Senegal

and what if I didn’t notice all you wanted
was for once to be the bat and not the ball

and consider this    what if chopping onions
turns out more rewarding than a smile

Rachel Davies
2017