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On Entering Poetry Competitions

I’ve been administering the online entries for the Poets&Players competition for five years this year. The first year I did it, Paul Muldoon was our judge and I well remember having to spend almost £100 posting a ream and a half of poems to his apartment in New York where he was teaching at a University at the time. In these five years I’ve met some wonderful poets who have acted as our judges: Pascale Petit, Jackie Kay, Kei Miller, Michael Symmons Roberts. And I’ve met some wonderful poets who put their work out there to scrutiny and were rewarded with a win. I feel in a very privileged position in this role, and it is a wonderful thing to be able to introduce our judges, and our winners, to our P&P audience at the celebration event in the South Gallery of the Whitworth Art Gallery in the early summer when, out in the park, the trees are growing leaves and young children are chasing amorous pigeons.

Some poets feel that poetry shouldn’t be a competitive sport; others feel that a poetry competition is a route to that rare commodity for poets, a small income. I’m not going to judge one way or another. It’s a personal choice, no-one will force you to enter your poems into the competitive market of the poetry prize; equally no-one will judge you for wanting to do that—except the competition judge, obviously. I’ve entered competitions myself; I’ve even won a couple. But in five years of administering P&P’s ‘fabulously organised competition’—as Paul Muldoon described it—I’ve learned something of entering poetry competitions. I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned. I make no apology for teaching granny to suck lemons: if you know these things already, put your computer away and do the ironing. Remember, these are things I’ve learned on the administration job. So here are some observations I offer about upping your chances in competition with other poets:

1: Read contemporary poetry
Read contemporary poetry. Read more contemporary poetry. Then read even more  contemporary poetry. Subscribe to quality poetry journals, buy collections and pamphlets of poetry. Better still, join a library and borrow these books for free; or browse charity shops and buy them for pennies. Also read ‘traditional’ poetry, get to know a variety of forms; but don’t try to emulate Keats or Wordsworth. Adding thee and thou to your poems, and using archaic forms and inversions to force end rhymes won’t necessarily make them noticeable in a good way; unless you’re using them ironically, as Wendy Cope does in parodying the traditional sonnet, for instance (find Cope’s ‘Strugnell’s Sonnets’: Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis [London: Faber and Faber, 1986] and read them—you won’t regret it). If you use a traditional form, make it new; make it now, surprise the judges. Better yet, invent a new form of your own. Use accessible language, metaphor, imagery; use the natural rhythms and music of everyday speech to build your poems; make words extend themselves with internal rhyme and surprising juxtapositions. Find new ways to say it and avoid cliché like the plague—see what I did there? Stand on the shoulders of giants to see further what’s possible in this wonderful world of poetry.

2: Join a community of poets
Attend writing groups and workshops. Get to know other poets and writers. Build poetry friendships. Offer your poetry to the scrutiny of other poets in a safe space: get feedback on your work and listen to that feedback. Really listen; act on it only if it feels right for your poem. If face-to-face feedback is daunting for you, join online poetry groups; but in my experience, the community of poets is a considerate and supportive community and a wonderful thing. Poets love poetry: why wouldn’t they want to help you make your poems be the best poems they can be?

3: Trust your poems
Surprise the judges; but do this with your use of language. If your poem is worth the reading, you won’t need upper case letters or large fonts. Don’t make the judge feel s/he is being shouted at from the page. Don’t use fonts that are difficult to read because you feel they ‘look nice’; they probably won’t add to the poem and some fonts are quite tricky to read. Consider the judge, whose job is to read around a thousand poems before making their decision. Make it easier for her/him by choosing a plain font like Times New Roman or Calibri, size 12, black ink.  Most competitions ask for single spacing: check your computer settings to make sure your poems are single-spaced. Illustrations? A big fat no-no! Don’t give your poems flowery borders or coloured fonts; don’t add a photo of the Trevi Fountain to your poem about Rome. Trust your poem to build that picture for itself.

4: Read the guidance and the competition rules
Rules vary from competition to competition. Make sure you’re observing the rules for the competition you’re entering now. Read the rules; read them again. Prepare your entry according to the rules then read them again to check. Before you press send on your email, make sure you’ve attached your poems and a completed application form if this is what’s required by the rules (it isn’t always). Don’t include an author biography—unless the rules require it, in which case include an author biography. Check; double check. Then check again. The people who administer the competition genuinely want you to win. Make it easy for them by following the rules. 40 lines maximum means that; not 41 or 42; not 60 or 100. A line of poetry is a line of writing on the page; it isn’t necessarily a sentence, although it might be. If it takes up the entire line of the page, that is your line. If your sentence takes up three lines on the page, that is three lines. I make this point only because I’ve had entries in the past that are three pages long, because the poet hoped I might not notice that his/her ‘lines of poetry’ actually extended across three lines on the page. I noticed. If your poem exceeds, by a line or two, the 40-line limit, reconsider your line breaks to make it fit the rules. Poems longer than the specified maximum will be disqualified. A simple email from the administrator can rectify the unattached application form (although the administrator is not duty bound to offer you this lifeline) but alterations to your actual poems won’t be allowed, so make sure your poem doesn’t need altering by getting it right, by fitting it to the rules, the first time.

5: Get to know your judge
I refer you to point 1 above. Read the poet who is judging the competition to get a feel for their own work. Check out other competitions they may have judged and read the winning entries they chose to see what grabbed them. Of course, there may be no discernible themes to any of this; judges, like all poets, love variety; we love surprise; we love poetry made new and exciting. But at least you’ll be reading contemporary poetry; and that’s the main thing.

I’m really enjoying administering the online entries to our competition again this year. I don’t have time to read all the entries; but just sometimes a word or phrase catches my eye, surprises me, makes me want to read on. That’s what the judge wants of your poem. Surprise her/him; make the judge notice your poem among the thousand or so poems s/he’ll be reading. Make your poems fill their lungs with air, make them rise to the top like bubbles in champagne; make them a gnat that irritates but refuses to be ignored.

Send me your online entries; send Viv your postal entries: details—and a link to the rules—are on our website https://poetsandplayers.co But please, do enter. Give us lots of work to do; give our judge, Sinead Morrisey, a difficult job to do, make her earn her fee.

Lastly good luck—but who was it who said ‘the harder I work, the luckier I become’?

I’m going to leave you this week with the poem that I entered into the Wells Competition two or three years ago. It’s reproduced in my shared DragonSpawn pamphlet Some Mothers Do… (Beautiful Dragons Press, 2018). The judge for the Wells competition was Andrew Motion. The poem fulfils a lot of what I’ve written about in this blog: I wrote it as a response to a Kim Moore Poetry School online workshop. The prompt was from a poem by David Constantine: ‘Bad Dream’ in Elder (Bloodaxe, 2014). The italicised line in my poem is actually a line from Constantine’s poem. I appreciate the community of poets who offered feedback on the initial drafts of this poem. I understand the angst of entering competitions. I know the importance of having your work read by a poet of national/international renown. I have experienced the unbridled joy of winning: this poem won first prize.

San Martino di Griante

 Imagine seeing that chapel from the Lake, clinging to the edge
of the mountain like a goat, how precarious it looks but it’s held
its nerve for centuries, since the Virgin ordained that this would be
the site of Her chapel; how the ancients were confident in the soul-kiss
of faith to take on that job; how all those centuries ago builders sang
as they hauled stones up that track on the backs of mules, laid them
one by one to build the chapel, how they made the mule-track into
a Via Crucis lined with shrines to the life of Christ; how one August day
I’ll decide to walk that track, visit San Martino of the Dizzying Heights;
how I’ll climb the steep path through olive grove and deer sanctuary,
past chapels, sun-bleached icons, the drying hay of wreaths until I reach
the last hundred yards; how the chapel will beckon me across a ledge
as narrow as a woman, a sheer fall right, a sheer wall left; how I’ll sit
trying to nail my courage, in the end turning my cowardice back
down the Via Crucis, where each of its shrines is an admonition;
how I’ll hear the derision of builders echoing down the centuries;
how your voice will be in their laughter; how I’ll come back tomorrow
determined to do it; how I’ll buy a peach as big as Venus as a reward
for touching the stones of San Martino of the Derisive Sneer; how I’ll sit
for aeons at the start of that ledge, talking myself into taking those steps,
how the chapel will tell me I can do it, how I’ll want to believe it; how
that peach will call out to me but I won’t break my promise not to taste
until I reach San Martino of the Forbidden Fruit; how relieved I’ll be
when two strangers will climb that mule-track, see me there dejected,
how they won’t mock but they’ll help me cross the ledge, take my hand,
stand one in front, one behind, walk me one step at a time till I reach
San Martino of the Blessed Achievement; how elated I’ll feel as I touch
its walls, admire its frescos, gaze at the lake below; how I’ll pick out
the trattoria in Bellagio where last night I dined at a table for one;
how Bellagio will shimmer in the midday heat; how at last I’ll answer
that peach, its juice sweeter than the fruit of Paradise; how one day
you’ll just be a sentence in my story, a peach stone I’ll throw away.

Rachel Davies
2016ish

Goodbye to all that.

 ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ (Charles Dickens).

2019’s nearly over, time for the annual reflection and resolution.  I look back on the year with ambivalence. It was a time of celebration, the year I achieved my PhD; it was also a year of stupidity, when the country finally drank hemlock, voted for the cruellest and most oppressive Government in modern UK history for the single issue of Brexit; voted for a Government to repair the damage done by the Government they voted in ‘because we need a change’; voted for amputation to repair a grazed knee. I think you can guess how I feel about this. So I’ll just leave it there.

Let’s consider the good bits of 2019 instead, dwell on personal stuff because national stuff is too depressing. I’ll start with the PhD because that’s the biggest thing that happened to me this year. The first four months of 2019 were fraught with completing a thesis I came to see as a Midwich Cuckoo. I cared for it, but I couldn’t love it. I desperately needed it to leave home, but it kept demanding more and more of me. Editing, re-editing, adding, taking away, reorganising, checking, checking, checking. MHRA guidelines gave me nightmares: such pedantic taskmasters! But at the end of April my support team agreed it was complete and ready to submit. I had three hard-bound copies made and submitted according to University guidelines. I waited to hear from the University about the Viva. Eventually I heard that it would be early in September so I relaxed for the summer. Nothing I could do about it now. I’d sent my Cuckoo out into the world. I stilled the angst with a Big Spring Clean. The house got the sprucing up it had been missing for four years. I cleaned up and cleared out. It was a manifestation of grief.

In September I attended the Viva at All Saints Campus. Dr Ursula Hurley was the external examiner, Prof Michael Symmons Roberts the internal examiner, Dr Nicolai Duffy chaired the meeting. I was a bag of nerves, but they were all lovely. An hour of discussing the work of the last five years: it was surprisingly uplifting. I had to go in search of a coffee while they made their decision. I spent the time re-reading my thesis! Michael had called my poetry ‘a strong collection’ and I tried to read it with his eyes. Eventually Nicolai came to find me in the Business School and we walked back to the examination room together. As I sat down, Dr Hurley said ‘Congratulations’ and I knew I’d done it. I had some minor revisions before the award, but they called me Dr Davies. I went home happy and drank Champagne. The minor revisions were a hard task; not because they were particularly difficult to do, but because it was hard to re-motivate myself after five months away from it. But I knew without the revisions there’d be no PhD; so I grasped the nettle and resubmitted within the allotted eight weeks. I heard in November that the revisions were approved by the examiners and the award was certified. Dr Davies BEd (Hons), BA (Hons), MSc, MA (Dist), PhD. People ask what now? I still have no idea, but I know it won’t involve a university: I’ve scratched that particular itch, climbed the mountain, planted my flag. Perhaps I’ll write a book.

Speaking of which, the second biggest thing to happen is that a selection of the poems from the thesis were accepted for publication in 2020 by 4word Publishing. Poets were invited to submit a selection of six poems initially. My six were shortlisted and I was asked for a pamphlet sized collection of between 29 and 32 poems. I sent 31, including my favourite ‘Alternative Mothers’. I called the collection ‘Everyday I Ask Myself’, in honour of Rhona the Ratgirl. My collection was chosen as one of four they will publish next year. It will be launched in December 2020. My very own little book!

What of other things in my life in 2020? Poetry for instance? Oh my, where do I start? My poetry twin, Hilary Robinson and I attended several poetry events during the year. The first was the Verve festival in Birmingham in February: http://vervepoetryfestival.com  We heard Vahni Capildeo, Carrie Etter, Jane Yeh, and a host of excellent poets read. We attended workshops led by Vahni Capildeo and Liz Berry. Liz’s workshop was about the magic of poetry, spells and incantations. Liz gave us all a curly seashell and mine’s still in my handbag; curled up inside is a slip of paper with my own secret spell on. I’ll carry it always. I also attended a workshop run by Bernadine Evaristo, dedicated to poetic prose; not the prose poem, but a verse novel. Evaristo’s novel Girl, Woman, Other shared this year’s Booker Prize with Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. I’ve read the latter, the former is on my to-do list. I saw Atwood at the Lowry Theatre in October talking about her work. Two weeks from her eightieth birthday, she was an inspiration: feisty, intelligent, amazing. Two Booker prize winners in one year, and I attended events involving both of them. How lucky am I?

Back to the poetry. In April Hilary and I went to Saddleworth Literature Festival, about which, enough said! St Ives, and Kim Moore’s residential at Treloyhan Manor was excellent in comparison. We had a lovely week, reading and writing poetry, eating scones, drinking cider. We visited the Rattlers Cider farm while we were in Cornwall, a good day out. https://kimmoorepoet.wordpress.com/residential-poetry-courses/december-2018-poetry-carousel/ I know, the link says ‘2018’, but it has details of the carousel in December 2020. In May we went to Coniston on our annual Line Break. Usually three friends, this year Polly couldn’t make it so it was just the two of us. We hired a cottage in the centre of the village. We took old poetry journals and trawled through to find forgotten gems, reworked some old first drafts. We took boat rides on the lake; the weather was lovely and we enjoyed several al fresco beers. We prepared a new submissions spreadsheet and sent out some work while we were there. It was May, soon after I’d submitted the thesis and it was like a new beginning. In October we went to the Big Poetry Weekend in Swindon: Carrie Etter again, and Fiona Benson whose wonderful collection Vertigo and Ghost was awarded the T S Eliot prize in 2019. Swindon rocks; we’ll definitely be back next year. Here’s a link to the website, still advertising 2019’s festival, but keep your eye out for info about 2020: https://bigpoetryweekend.com  In December we went to Cumbria to another Kim Moore event, the Poetry Carousel. Four tutors, four workshops, evening readings. This year’s tutors were David Tait, Clare Shaw and Malika Booker. One for next year?

We read at several events, promoting our shared collection Some Mothers Do…(Beautiful Dragons Press 2018). I read at Carol Ann Duffy and Friends at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester in January and was star struck to see the lovely Jackie Kay in the front row of the audience. Jackie bought a copy of our book, which she asked us to sign. How cool is that? We read in Sowerby Bridge at Puzzle Poets, where one poor member of the audience dislocated a shoulder applauding my set. I’ve put that into my author biography: it’s not a claim many people can make! We read in Huddersfield, Sheffield, Didsbury; we read at the launch of the second Dragon Spawn collection, featuring our poetry friend Barbara Hickson.

We attended readings by some of our favourite poets: highlights included Simon Armitage in Leeds in April; and then again in Manchester in conversation with Guy Garvey in October; Kate Fox at the Portico Library in Manchester in March; Liz Berry in York, also in March. We attended the Carol Ann Duffy and Friends series at the Royal Exchange (the next season is available now: https://www.royalexchange.co.uk/whats-on-and-tickets/carol-ann-duffy-friends-spring-summer-2020) and the wonderful series of People’s Poetry Lectures at the Principal in Manchester: Michael Symmons Roberts on W H Auden; Andrew MacMillan on Thom Gunn; Sean Borodale on Sylvia Plath; Jean Sprackland on Elizabeth Bishop; Moira Egan on Marianne Moore, all wonderful and engaging. Jean was the mentor for the creative section of my PhD, and we met before the Sean Borodale lecture to raise a glass of Prosecco to my achievement. Carol Ann Duffy came over to congratulate me: it’s the little things… And as if all this wasn’t enough, we’ve attended workshops at Manchester Art Gallery run by the irrepressible Peter Sansom of the Poetry Business; and at the Whitworth Art Gallery run by Poets & Players. P&P continues to organise high quality reading and music events, the next one is on January 25th featuring Jo Shapcott and Kim Moore, with music by Chris Davies; and our competition is currently open for entries until January 21st. What are you waiting for? https://poetsandplayers.co/future-events/

Early in the year I worked in collaboration with the composer Ben Gaunt on a piece entitled ‘Tawny Owl Lullaby’; in March we met in a studio in Leeds to record it. I heard recently that Ben is planning to release the recording as an EP; about which more details when I have them.

So all was good on the poetry front in 2019. What of ‘life’; what can I say? It’s been a brilliant year. I’ve visited the Leornardo drawings in Manchester and Birmingham Art Galleries; I would have visited them while I was in Leeds, except the gallery was closed that day. I’ve had lovely away breaks with the family, in Lincolnshire, Kidderminster, Somerset. I took a post-PhD holiday on Corfu and visited Albania on my birthday. I’ve been to London to see Sir Ian McKellen’s gob-smackingly brilliant King Lear; and again to see his eightieth birthday tour. What an icon; what an octogenarian; what an inspiration. In other theatres I’ve seen Macbeth (it was alright), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (it was brilliant), The Motown Story (also brilliant). I’ve had one or two health issues: the autoimmune condition, polymyalgia rheumatic, that I thought I’d defeated, had other ideas; it came back with a vengeance and I was back on steroids on New Year’s Eve 2018. I’m still on them and there’s a chance I’ll be on a low dose for life. A scan revealed that my autoimmune system has also attacked my thyroid gland: in the poetry of my GP, it’s ‘shrivelled’. I hate the idea of a prune of a thyroid hanging around in my neck; but I keep taking the tablets. You can’t keep a good woman down. Microbes have tried to get the better of me in the year, bigged up by the faulty autoimmune system, but I’ve fought them all off eventually and here I am, surviving; and surviving with vitality and determination. On the whole it’s been a good year. I’m a terminal optimist: all my years are brilliant.

So what of next year? I’m not setting any resolutions. I’m going to drift like a piece of seaweed on the tide and just see where I wash up. I’ve had pressure for five years. It’s time to release the valve, put the pressure behind me and just enjoy life. It will involve poetry and family. And cake. And wine, obviously.

So, I think I’ve rabbited on enough. It just remains to wish you all a creative, healthy and happy 2020. May all your dreams come true. I’ll leave you with a very small poem, a haiku in fact. I found it among my old notebooks in Coniston. It refers to the ward sister in Casualty—what’s now called A&E—when I was a student nurse, more than half a century ago. Sister Swift struck fear into the bravest breast; you didn’t want to upset Sister Swift.

 

Sister Swift

calls me honey in
a way that lets me know she
prefers marmalade.

Rachel Davies

‘…the strong life of the inert’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

images
picture of Santa Claus from Wiki-images

 

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

The Patience of Persephone
After ‘A Game of Patience’ by Meredith Frampling

She waits for six months in a year
then waits again for six.
She can’t have what she most desires,
that lost part of herself. Listen!
That’s her rummaging upstairs,
another fruitless search in the loft.

I sense the black king’s impatient
for his alabaster maiden, his ice queen.
From reaping to sowing he thinks he can thaw me
with his red hot pomegranate flesh,
his spiked wine.
He blows on my neck but I don’t melt.
So he waits all over again, from sowing to reaping.

I know it’s time to decide:
the corn’s threshed, the straw’s stacked
but I’ll finish my game.
This card says go — you owe him.
That card says stay — you owe her.
It’s all one to me — it seems like
nothing’s owed to me.

But, sod it,
my patience wears thin!

Rachel Davies
2018

Sorry, not sorry!

My week started in Cumbria, at Rydal Hall, day three of the Poetry Carousel. After breakfast I went to Kim Moore’s workshop. It addressed the ‘between us’ in poetry: who is talking to whom. It was fascinating and I wrote three fairly workable poems, so a productive day. After lunch Hilary and I wrote our poems onto our MacBooks. I began editing straight away. We went for a walk to the coffee shop without the stroll around the grounds as a precursor. The weather was foul: even wetter and windier than yesterday. After a coffee, we went back to our room and carried on with some work.

At dinner we sat with several poetry friends, including Kim, her husband and baby Ally. I got to talking to Kim about the PhD: she was asking me serious questions about my main argument. I explained in broad terms about ‘the potential toxicity of the mother-daughter relationship’ and she asked if she could read my thesis. I remembered how important it was for me to read other theses when I was struggling with the language for writing- up so I promised to email it to her later in the evening. After dinner we went to a wonderful reading by David Tait and Clare Shaw: different styles, but both engaging writers. Afterwards one of the course participants, Caroline, gave an impromptu ‘concert’ in the foyer, singing to guitar a song she’d written herself in praise of the older woman. It was funny and entertaining. Being full of a head-cold, which was threatening to sink to my chest—I was developing a nasty rasping cough—I took myself to bed afterwards. Unfortunately I forgot to email the thesis to Kim. But it was OK because at 3.00 a.m. I woke up with two things on my mind: I emailed the thesis to Kim and I had an idea for developing one of the poems I’d written in her workshop, writing the conversation in a modern vernacular. I was quite pleased with it when I’d done.

At breakfast I asked Kim if she’d received my email and she said yes, she’d already read the abstract and commented how ‘grown up’ it sounded. ‘It’s in real academic language,’ she said, which made me laugh, because if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you’ll know how hard I found it to write in acadamese. I read several books about writing academic papers, struggled for a long time. It was nice that Kim wanted to read it, in prep for writing her own PhD thesis. After breakfast we went to a workshop run by Clare Shaw, our last ride on the carousel. Clare’s workshop addressed ‘love’ in poetry, and she took an interesting route to writing love poetry through landscape as metaphor. We also wrote love poems to an animal, each of us given a random animal by another course member. I was given a zebra to address in my poem. One writer was given an echidna, and had to have it explained to him before he could start. If you don’t know, it’s a kind of ‘weird Australian hedgehog’ with a long nose. He wrote a stonking poem in the end. Clare had a unique method of getting course members to read out their work. We read like a Mexican wave, taking it in turns around the table without stopping for comment and feedback; so it was like being part of writing a very long poem and it took out the angst some poets feel that their work is being scrutinised: we had no time to scrutinise and feedback, just to enjoy.

We had lunch in the coffee shop: plenty of it because the organisation went a bit awry, and because some people had trains to catch and couldn’t stay for lunch. So we had soup, a sandwich, as many chocolate mousses and/or alcoholic jellies as we could eat. Hilary and I went into Grasmere before we drove home, to buy Grasmere Gingerbread and to look in the lovely little bookshop there. It was about 5.00 p.m. by the time we got home to Saddleworth.

On Tuesday morning I was itching to get some poetry done.  I spent the morning in my study writing up carousel poems to the MacBook and revisiting poems I’d already written up. I looked for submission opportunities as well. A lot of publications are closed for submissions until after Christmas, most have windows that aren’t open at the moment. The North is an exception: its submission window is open until New Year’s Day, so I thought ‘why not?’ It’s been a long-held ambition of mine to get a poem into The North. I’ve had a couple of articles published in there, and been shortlisted with poems in the past, but I’ve never made the final cut. I prepared five poems to send off and on Thursday I put them in the post. Fingers crossed.

On Wednesday Hilary, her husband David, Bill and I went for our annual Christmas lunch at Greens, Simon Rimmer’s restaurant in East Didsbury. ‘Greens, terrifying carnivores since 1990: http://www.greensdidsbury.co.uk  Oh my, how good is this vegetarian restaurant? We had a lovely lunch, and the best thing is, we got there on the tram without any changes, arrived in Didsbury—Burton Rd stop—within a two-minute walk to the restaurant. I always think of the poetry carousel as the starter to Christmas, but our annual Christmas lunch at Greens feels like Christmas is well and truly up and running.

That lovely celebratory feeling was well and truly dashed on Thursday. We went shopping, I posted my sub to The North. We called at Tesco for the weekly food shop. On the way into Tesco I made a donation to the homeless man who sits outside: it was freezing cold and he was well wrapped in sleeping bag and blanket. On my way out of Tesco I gave him a box of mince pies and I thought, ‘from tomorrow, life will get better for you, when we get a compassionate Labour Government committed to ending austere hardship.’ Because how could anyone vote for another Tory Government with so much homelessness and suffering, a direct result of their uncaring conservatism? I’d put my cross in the box and sat up to watch the results come in. The first blow came with the exit polls, predicting a large Conservative majority. What? That must be wrong, mustn’t it? As the night rolled on it became apparent that the exit polls were spot on. Great swathes of ‘Labour heartland’ constituencies had defected to the conservative vote, heeding the Tory mantra of ‘Get Brexit Done’. Oh my, how harsh is this: a Conservative majority of nearly eighty seats, carte blanche to do what they like in—and with—Government. The very people most affected by austerity, areas of deprivation in the north and midlands, had voted Conservative; ex-mining communities, destroyed by Thatcher in the eighties, had voted Conservative. We have another five years of Conservative Government under the least trust-worthy Prime Minister ever, because his campaign team, because Dominic Cummings, recognised the importance of that simple mantra ‘Get Brexit Done’; and with that mantra they’d swept up all the disaffected ‘leave’ voters in historically Labour areas, who saw our failure to secure Brexit as the cause of their misery. Well, now we ‘take back control’ of the UK from Europe; but we hand control to a self-serving Conservative Government, the meanest and most brutal in history, who have been the real cause of their deprivation. I thought I felt bad after the EU referendum in 2016, but Friday morning saw a whole new depth of low. It looks as if I’ll be giving to the homeless for a few years to come yet. I’d better keep my charity pocket well topped up with cash. I’d like to apologise to everyone—the homeless, the sick, the disabled, those forced to apply to foodbanks in order to feed their families, those in inferior housing—who will suffer under this uncaring regime, and tell them it wasn’t me, I didn’t do it. But anger won’t cut it will it? it is what it is. Desperate people voted for what they perceive is a way to make their lives better. I feel that leaving the EU under a Conservative Government will make their lives immeasurably worse. Of course, I could be wrong but I remain to be convinced.

A little light in the darkness: on Thursday my PhD certificate arrived in the post. It proves I can afford a PhD course so austerity and deprivation shouldn’t bother me should it? I’m alright Jack, pull up the ladder, after all, that’s the zeitgeist of the age we live in.

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final proof of my PhD

Later today I’m going to Peterborough with Amie to have lunch with Richard and friends. It’ll help heal the desperation I’ve felt since the election. It’ll be a moving on. But I’ll make sure I have cash in my right hand pocket, to give to the many homeless people we’re going to pass walking through the City Centre. What cruel times we live in.

I’ll sign off with a very small poem I wrote in Kim’s workshop. I’ve tried to remember the prompt poem but I can’t: it had to do with names, with interaction between named people in a poem. So I wrote this, about that annoying habit of Starbucks baristas of asking for your name when you order a coffee. Some clever marketing course has decided it’s a way of sounding friendly and welcoming. It isn’t, it’s deeply annoying and patronising. If you want to be friendly, Starbucks, start paying some of the tax you owe in order to make life better for people who will never be able to afford your coffee in the self-serving climate of conservatism the western world is stuck in at the moment. If you voted conservative on Thursday, and my little rant has offended you: sorry, not sorry. Here’s my poem, which sounds remarkably affable after my rant:

 

Have a nice day

Anglo Saxons believed to hold a name
was to hold power over the named person

so when the barista in Starbucks asks my name
to write on the side of my tall decaf cappuccino

I tell her Millie or Sue; Hetty, Simone, Hildegarde
any name but my own because Starbucks

has power over half the known universe already.

 

Rachel Davies
December 2019

Bureaucratic Barriers and Chiggy Pigs

I get that we live in an evidence based society and systems are in place to stop criminals laundering money. I understand that; I do. But lighten up! On Monday this week, I took my hard-won PhD letter of authority from MMU to the Manchester branch of the Halifax to change the title on my account. I know, it’s a frivolous reason to gain a PhD, but what else is a 72 year-old going to do with a PhD except get herself addressed, correctly, as ‘Doctor”? I completed the relevant form, my letter was photocopied and accepted as evidence by the branch manager. My accounts and relevant cards etc. would be changed accordingly. On Tuesday I had a phone call from the Halifax, addressing me as Dr Davies, pointing out that Head Office won’t accept my letter of authority, they need to see the actual certificate: that certificate I don’t have. As far as I knew on Tuesday, the letter WAS my authorisation; I heard later that day that the certificate will be sent to my home. So why, I ask you—and them—is a letter congratulating me on the award of Doctor of Philosophy, on MMU headed paper complete with the university crest, signed by the head of the faculty, not sufficient evidence for a change of title? It’s not as if I was depositing a huge amount of dirty money simultaneously with the change of title request. I just wanted to change ‘Mrs’ into ‘Dr’. Sometimes I think bureaucracy has overreached itself. A couple of decades ago, I moved in with my partner, Bill. I went into the Halifax to change the address on my accounts. I was told I couldn’t change the address without the evidence of the new address on a utility bill with my name on. Seems sensible, doesn’t it? Except I was moving in with Bill and all utility bills were in his name. I pointed this out, and that there would never be a utility bill at this address with my name on. I was told to ask Bill to write and sign a letter to say I was living with him, and bring that letter with said utility bill with HIS name on. Now, I’ve banked with the Halifax for more than thirty years; they didn’t know Bill from Adam, but it was acceptable to take his word over mine for my new address? Can’t rules be a little bit bendy in some specific situations? So now I await the arrival of the certificate, which I’ll take into the Halifax to change the title on my accounts. At least I’ll get to have lunch at Mowgli in the Manchester Exchange again, so upsides…

Last weekend, I was in Somerset visiting my younger son. It was his birthday on Monday so I stayed over an extra night to wish him happy birthday. We went out for lunch on Monday and I drove home on Monday afternoon. This week I’m writing from a hotel room in Cumbria: Rydal Hall between Ambleside and Grasmere. I’m on Kim Moore’s Poetry Carousel. The carousel is a novel idea: there are four tutors: Kim Moore herself, joined this year by David Tait, Malika Booker and Clare Shaw. The course participants are put into groups of seven or eight and take turns to progress around the carousel, visiting each tutor in turn and completing four workshops over the course of the weekend. It’s a lovely way to spend a few days with friends. We arrived on Friday afternoon. When Hilary and I arrived, several of the course participants were here already, waiting in the foyer to be allocated their room keys. I know about three quarters of the participants from other Kim Moore courses I’ve attended. When we walked in through the hotel doors, Kim was sitting just inside the door with her baby Ally, her husband Chris and other poetry friends. I took a bow when they all clapped as I walked in, a congratulatory welcome for my PhD. It’s the little things…

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Starstruck at my welcome in Rydal Hall

After the welcome meeting we went to our first workshop. Hilary and I were with David Tait. David is originally from Lancaster, but is currently teaching in China. He did an MA Creative Writing from MMU at roughly the same time as Kim and me, so it was lovely to see him again. The workshop addressed ‘The Personable Political’ and gave us permission to write political poetry without being overt about it. It was ‘political’ with an upper or lower case ‘p’: carte blanche to rant if we wanted or to interpret the brief in any personally political way we chose. David always brings interesting and lesser known poetry prompts to his workshops. We spent a lovely two hours reading and writing poetry. Lovely jubbly. I don’t think I’ve anything worthwhile yet, but some of the stuff I wrote in that workshop is worth keeping to develop at my leisure; and although they are interesting political times we’re living through, I didn’t write anything time specific, so I can come back to it when I get home.

On Friday evening, after dinner, we had readings by two of the tutors: Kim and Malika read their poetry. Kim is doing a PhD from MMU at the moment, examining casual sexism in society and her reading was from the collection she’s writing for the creative element of her PhD. She is putting together a collection of poems about all the men she never married and they’re wonderful: funny and poignant and often discomfiting. Malika is working on a sequence adapting bible stories to the culture of her Jamaican heritage. It was a lovely evening, and a privilege to hear two wonderful poets share their work. After the readings Hilary and I gave up on the day: Hilary is recovering from a nasty cold virus; and Friday was my first day with it, so we took our snotty noses and chesty coughs to bed with a good greasing of Vicks Vapour Rub.

Yesterday, Saturday, day 2 of the carousel, Hilary and I attended the workshop run by Malika Booker. It addressed poetry performance, which she interpreted broadly to include all kinds of reading/performing to an audience. We’d been asked to take two poems to the workshop: one we’re happy to perform, that we’ve performed/read in public several times and one we are less comfortable to perform in public, that might be better considered a ‘page poem’. The workshop was fascinating. We spent time treating the first poem, the one we thought we were comfortable reading to an audience, as a performance script, making notes on words that were important but might get lost in the flow of speech at a reading. Mostly I found that for me, those were words that don’t carry huge meaning: ‘your’, ‘of’, ‘be’ etc. They don’t carry meaning for themselves but they add meaning to the words around them and shouldn’t get lost in the reading. We also considered who we were speaking to in reading the poem: a friend, a colleague, a parent? This affects the voice of the reader: you’ll read in a different voice if you are talking friend-to-friend than if you’re David Attenborough addressing an anonymous television audience. We considered where pauses occur for maximum effect: not just line breaks, but small pauses within the lines. Lastly we considered ‘physical metaphors’: how we can accentuate some lines of the poems with small actions of our hands/heads etc. When we read the poems to a partner after preparing the script, it was a different—and more effective—reading from the one we are used to giving. It’ll be interesting to apply these criteria to the second poem we took along, the one we avoid reading because it’s a challenge to perform. It was an interesting workshop, and made a change from writing. Lots to take away to think about and develop.

After lunch we decided to go out for a walk around the hotel grounds to get some fresh air and blow away a few cobwebs. The weather was wet: persistent rain and low cloud increasingly stealing the horizon. We walked around the garden and arrived at a shed called ‘The Grotto’. The door was unlocked. We went inside. Oh. My. Word. We weren’t expecting that! A large picture window in the furthest wall of the grotto revealed a magnificent waterfall that you wouldn’t have seen but for the grotto. The force in that tumbling water…! We considered diving into the pool for a wild swim, but to be fair, the thought lasted seconds. We sat on the window seat for some time, just watching the huge torrent and being amazed: you could feel the force through the structure of the Grotto. We walked back to the hotel by a different route, passing a lovely little coffee shop where we enjoyed a cappuccino before coming back to our room to do some work.

After dinner last night we had a guest reader. Roy McFarlane, a Jamaican-heritage poet from the midlands came to share his poetry with us. I first heard Roy read in Swindon in October and I knew we were in for a treat. He didn’t disappoint. He has a collection addressing the issue of deaths in custody. Each poem is titled with the name of a person who died in the custody of the police, the prison service, the mental health system. They are powerful and thought provoking: ‘personably political’ to use David Tait’s phrase. He lightened the mood somewhat by reading from a sequence about the city of a hundred languages, Birmingham, in which a Rastaman is in conversation with a writer. These poems are energetic and funny and entertaining. He closed with poems about his mother; moving poems: he was himself visibly moved in the reading of them. But for me, his best work is in his political ‘deaths in custody’ poems and his wonderful Rastaman sequence.

So, I’m having a creative time: poetry and the company of poets: what’s not to like. More of the same today and tomorrow before we go back to our real lives. As Malika Booker is one of the tutors, I’m going to sign off with a poem I wrote a couple of years ago, which I submitted it to the Battered Moons poetry competition when Malika was the judge. She awarded it a ‘commendation’ in the competition and it earned me £25.00. The poem is called ‘Chiggypig’, a west country dialect word for the woodlouse. It considers all the things a woodlouse could aspire to be. We always called woodlice ‘piggies’ when I was a child, hence the last line of the poem, so I was grateful to Rosie Garland for giving me this gift of a title.

 

Chiggy Pig

nippy little armoured shuttle
tiny pellet for pocket pistol
milligram of medication
miniature isopod crustacean
tiny roll-top for tiny letter
curled up little grime diviner
micro-pebble from micro-gravel
miniscule ball-bearing marble
newly discovered little planet
dinky dust devouring gannet
Lilliputian city gent
mini-camper in sturdy tent
innocent mine-sweeping feeler
micro-robotic skirting creeper
armadillo impersonator
tiny fourteen jointed porker

 

Rachel Davies
2017

Knitted Surrealism

It’s official: on Thursday I had a letter attached to an email from MMU, addressed to Dr Rachel Davies, congratulating me on my achievement. I’ve been awarded the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. A hard copy of the letter is in the post. There, it’s in writing, it’s done; just the award ceremony to look forward to next July. I feel as if I want to show everyone the letter. I’ll definitely frame a copy for my study. Thursday was also the day I collected my personal copy of the completed thesis from the printers, published in black buckram, gold lettering, the MMU logo heading the cover. Thursday was a good day, a day of tying up loose ends.

Tuesday it was Stanza at the Buffet Bar, Stalybridge. I met Linda Boyles from Tameside before the meeting to discuss the group’s needs. She’s doing a research project into the development needs of arts groups in Tameside. I said we need some new members, otherwise we were doing quite well. She’s put me in touch with Jonathan King, who deals with Stalybridge and Mossley groups and will be my contact. Apparently, there are funding streams to be tapped. It would be good to have funds to invite visiting speakers, poets to run workshops etc; but public funds mean treasurers and committees and then it all gets a bit serious. I’ve been invited to ‘network’ with other groups in the area, so we’ll see what comes of that. We might get more members out of it. Anyway, Lin stayed to the group, joined in and had such a good time, she said she’ll come to our next meeting as a member in January. So already the express aim of increasing membership has been fulfilled.

We had a lovely meeting; and there were six of us there, with two apologies. We had a writing session this month. Three members had prepared writing prompts and we wrote to those prompts. My poetry twin, Hilary, had prepared one of the prompts; but she had also sent apologies, she has this nasty chesty virus that’s doing the rounds at the mo. I called at her house on the way to Stalybridge to collect her writing prompt to put to the group. She whispered her way through the instructions, no productive voice at all.

So, the writing prompts, if you want to give them a go:

Pat had brought lots of small samples of Fairisle knitting. She’s been working out the patterns for a jumper she wants to knit. So she’d attached these knitted pieces to paper, three or four in each sample. We had to use the samples to write: it could be about the samples themselves, about something the samples brought to mind, about knitting, the colours, the rhythm of knit one purl one. I had four small squares of patterns in various colours and I imagined them being tabards for tiny medieval knights. It’s a bit surreal, but I think I can work on it. I can’t tell you how nice it is to write something that doesn’t involve mothers and daughters.

Fokkina brought an activity that concentrated on the long poem. She’d recently been for a week at the Garsdale Retreat in the Yorkshire Dales where Andrew McMIllan had used a long poem of Louise Gluck’s to inspire writing. This was the activity that Fokkina brought to Stanza: you cut a short section from a long poem, then cut a second section from the poem a bit further along. The sections each only need to be three or four lines long. Then write the gap between the two sections into a poem of your own making. It’s better not to read the entire original poem, I’m guessing, because you are not trying to reconstruct the published poem, but to use the pieces to inspire a longer poem of your own. It was hard, but worthwhile. We all produced work that was worth a read. I’ll definitely try the activity again on my own. How about a long poem of the romantic era, for instance The Ballad of the Ancient Mariner or The Lady of Shalott? Choose a poem you don’t know well, though, because remember you’re not trying to rewrite the original but to use it to inspire work of your own.

The third activity was Hilary’s, which I presented to the group. Hilary had cut up an old Codeword book, the puzzles completed. We took two puzzles each and wrote down four words from each grid onto pieces of paper. These lists included easyish words like ‘simple’ or ‘apple’. But there were more challenging words like ‘sasquatch’ or ‘bivouac’. The lists were folded up and placed in the bag. Then a pack of picture cards: pick a card, any card. We dipped into the bag for two sets of words to work with, and these formed an eight-line poem inspired by the picture card. Each line must contain one of the words. It was very random, and made for surprising, surreal poems. I’m including my attempt at this activity at the end of the blog: only because I wrote it up the next day to thank Hilary for the activity, to tell her how much we enjoyed it, and to cheer her up in her laryngitis.

On Friday I drove to Somerset to see my younger son, Michael. It’s his birthday on Monday, so Amie, Angus, the Cockerpoos, Richard, Bill and I all came to celebrate his birthday with him. I’ve never visited his home in Somerset, and I have this anxiety thing where I need to be able to visualise my children in their homes. They feel closer that way. If all I can manage is picturing them ‘somewhere out there’ it doesn’t quite feel real. So now I can picture him ‘somewhere real’ when he’s in Somerset and I’m in Saddleworth. It took about six hours to drive here: it’s a four-and-a-quarter hour journey according to Google maps; but that doesn’t allow for the M6-M5 intersection; and we did stop for about forty-five minutes for lunch en route. I think Amie and Richard are going home today, but I might stay for another night so I can spend some of his birthday with him. The December night he was born was thick, thick Fenland fog. I think it’ll be a bit brighter but considerably colder this year.

Anyway, here’s my ‘poem’ from Hilary’s surreal activity. I think it might be nominated for some prestigious poetry prize in 2020, what do you think? Best individual poem at the Forwards? Anyway, this is the photo card I picked at random from the pack:

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The two lists of words I picked from the bag contained  ‘oxen, amok, identical, bivouac, adieu, yelps, retch and toupee’. Here’s my eight-line poem using the picture and words as stimuli:

Puppet

I was formed from the horns of oxen.
The carpenter ran amok with the sander,
each limb identical to its mirror. This velvet chair
is my bivouac. Alopecia is a burden.
I’ve watched the barber retch to shampoo
the toupee that slips from my cranial dome.
And so I cry adieu cruel world, my voice
a prairie dog’s yelps.

Rachel Davies
November 2019

Everyday I Promise Myself

By far the best thing to happen to me this week: I heard on Monday that 4word Publishing have chosen my pamphlet Everyday I Promise Myself from their shortlist as one of the four they will publish next year. My lovely book will be published on 1st December 2020. It seems a long time to wait, but the pamphlets are beautiful and take time to put together. I have to write a preface for the book to give a context for the poems. I have to prepare an acknowledgements page to highlight any previous publication history for the poems. I have to prepare a dedication page: I will be dedicating my pamphlet to my poetry twin, Hilary Robinson, who has given me valuable feedback on the poems when they were included in my PhD thesis, when they were first drafts in the various writing workshops we’ve attended together. I have to get two or three endorsements for the poems from professional poets for the back cover of the book. I have to write an author biography with photograph. I’ll leave the photo until after I collect my lovely new specs on Tuesday this week. Alongside all this is the process of working with the editors, Stella Wulf and Lesley Quayle to finalise the manuscript and cover. I’m learning that the publication of a book is a long-term project, and 4word’s pamphlets are works of art. You can see for yourself here: http://www.4word.org/titles/

I had to reregister at MMU this week. I’d assumed registration was a thing of the past now the PhD is finally submitted, but no, I need to register so they can keep me informed of graduation ceremonies etc. The good news is, my tuition is free for this year, as it should be every year in my opinion. The fact I won’t be receiving any tuition is almost irrelevant, I’m registered for free university education. I paid a bill of £0.00. I am having free-to-me university education for the first time since my employers, Tameside, paid for my MSc in Education Management in the 1990s.

This has been a week of Poets&Players activity. On Sunday we had a committee meeting at the Whitworth Art Gallery to discuss planning for next year, roles and responsibilities within the group and other organisational issues. We met over lunch in the Whitworth café. Janet, out group co-ordinator, is in the process of putting together the Arts Council bid again for next year’s funding: this is always a tense time of year. We rely on the funding to make our high-quality events at the Whitworth free to our audiences. We supplement our income by organising morning workshops on the day of our events, usually led by our headline poets. You can see our upcoming events here: https://poetsandplayers.co where you’ll also find details of our next competition, which opened this week. Our judge this time is Sinead Morrisey, so what are you waiting for? Get your pens and notebooks out, get writing!

Yesterday was our last Poets & Players event of 2019, in the wonderful Whitworth South Gallery, overlooking Whitworth Park, where green parakeets skitter among the trees and squirrels were busy squirreling food for the winter. Music was provided by Ask My Bull, an ‘instrumental flamboyant jazz punk band’, as they describe themselves. They are not wrong. Our poets yesterday were Lauren Garland, an MMU Creative Writing MA student who won second place in last year’s P&P competition; Joe Dunthorne, who was absolutely wonderful and exciting; so exciting that I bought his latest collection, O Positive, even though I promised myself I wouldn’t buy any more poetry books until I’d cleared the reading pile on my desk. Mimi Kalvati was our headline poet at this event. She read from her new collection Afterwardness,which addresses her leaving her native Iran for the UK at the age of six. This is a collection of Petrarchan sonnets, with hauntingly subtle rhymes. It was a good reading; and a wonderful event. It was a collaboration with Manchester based publishers Carcanet Press, to celebrate their 50th birthday. The workshop in the morning was run by Michael Schmidt, founder-editor of Carcanet. I wasn’t lucky enough to get a place on the workshop this time, but Hilary did and I expect to hear all about it from her in due course. Feedback about the workshop from poets at lunch in the Whitworth café was all very positive. Our next workshop is with Jo Shapcott on January 25th, Burns Night; details on our website, https://poetsandplayers.co

I’m going to leave you with my poem ‘Rhona the Ratgirl’ this week. I wrote it on Kim Moore’s carousel last December, and I’ll be going to this year’s carousel in a couple of weeks. I can’t remember the prompt for the poem, but I remember reading it to the group. I explained that Rhona was side-show at the fair. I went with my children. We wandered into the tent where Rhona sat stirring up some half dazed rats with a long bone. Kim and other course members said I was making it up, so I asked on Facebook if anyone had heard of Rhona the Ratgirl. I had one response, from my daughter Amie. It seemed we were the only people in the world who remember Rhona; except for one other Facebook friend who said ‘I think I dated her once’, but I assumed he was joking. However, when I googled ‘Rhona the Ratgirl’ I found reference to her in this link, proof that she was real:https://www.edp24.co.uk/news/what-are-your-memories-of-norwich-s-easter-fair-1-4475476

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my surprise at finding definitive proof of Rhona!

So, here’s Rhona. I wanted to name my pamphlet after Rhona but Hilary said the advice from her MA tutor had been to be wary of naming a collection after one poem, because that poem has a huge weight of responsibility. She suggested taking one line from the poem as my title, and suggested the last line ‘Everyday I promise myself’ as a possibility. So that’s where my pamphlet title comes from; and it recognises the historic and cultural importance of Rhona, who may well have been forgotten forever if it wasn’t for this memorial poem. She deserves to be remembered, she is one of my personal favourite ‘alternative mothers’. ‘That kid…’ in the poem is Amie: how we learn stuff about our children only after they’re grown ups!

 

Alternative Mother #10
Rhona the Ratgirl

and is your entire world
this pen in this tent
this animal skin
this thigh bone
these rats?
So where do I fit in?

You recline on a bale of straw
draped in that mangy leopard skin
in a distant approximation to sexy,
while the public comes in to oggle.

You stir the somnambulant rats
with a Brontosaurus thigh bone—
like everything about you, it’s fake.

Of course the rats are too
out of it on benzodiazepines
to move around much.

When that kid tittered at your tits
all you said was You’re supposed to be
looking at me rats.
Well, what did you expect—an Oscar?

The ambition it must have taken for you
to become the Ratgirl, Rhona.

Every day I promise myself…

Rachel Davies
December 2018

 

Tick boxes and paper nautiluses

On Sunday, November 10th 2019 I resubmitted my ‘signed off’ thesis to the University. The ETHoS form proved problematic: the tick-boxes on the form wouldn’t accept ticks electronically. I printed it off, ticked it, signed it, took a photo on my iPad and submitted it with the exit form and the thesis. I also had to submit a copy of the title page and abstract separately, which took time to prepare in line with the University’s preferred style and saved in PDF. Done. My certificate will be with me in weeks. I’d thought to share the morning with some of the final paperwork from the Black Ladd, but it took me all morning to submit the thesis and it’s extras, so the paperwork went on the back burner until Monday. After all, I have all the time in the world now.

On Monday evening I went into Manchester with Hilary Robinson for the latest—the sixth—in the series of People’s Poetry Lectures at the Principal. Moira Egan’s lecture on Marianne Moore was as good as the rest: interesting and engaging. Egan, an American poet who went to the same college as Moore had attended, drew parallels between her life and Moore’s. The lecture was entitled ‘Marianne Moore: not so timorous wee beasties’. Ex-laureate Carol Ann Duffy introduced the evening and she admitted that she had read Moore several times, but never quite understood her; so I felt better then. I don’t know Moore’s work well but she is difficult to get a handle on; except one poem that I love and which Egan included in her lecture: ‘The Paper Nautilus’, which is a wonderful description of a type of octopus and its beautiful egg case . You can find a copy of the poem here:

https://poets.org/poem/paper-nautilus

and here’s a photo I found on wiki-images of the shell, the egg case, of the nautilus:

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the paper nautilus, egg case.
The human hand is an indicator of size

It was a lovely evening, although the weather was foul: heavy rain and flooding across the Pennines had kept several people away; and being a Monday evening, perhaps, it wasn’t as well attended as some of the previous lectures. But we met up with several poetry friends, and I’m glad I went. I have the complete set of lecture notes for the series; and CAD announced another proposed series in the near future, so that’s good. I’ll keep you posted when I hear anything definite.

The best thing that happened on Tuesday was that Rosie Parker was discharged from the vets after her recent dental treatment—hurray! She has to go back every four months to make sure her teeth continue to resist the autoimmune attack. ‘Would Rosie let you brush her teeth?’ the dental nurse asked me. Ha! There are days Rosie is disdainful even of a loving stroke! The chances of me getting close to the inside of her mouth with a toothbrush are slim-to-none. So I’m to keep giving her the dental formula biscuits and we’ll keep a close watch on developments.

On Wednesday I heard from Deborah at MMU that the photographed ETHoS form wasn’t acceptable, could I resubmit online? And the title page and abstract needed to be in two separate documents, not the one I’d prepared and submitted. Aaargh! Is there on end to it? But at 3.00 a.m. on Thursday I had an idea of how I could insert ticks into the tick-boxes on the ETHoS form; so I got my MacBook out there and then and tried. Behold! It worked. Actually, it worked better than I expected. My idea was to delete the tick-box wingding and insert an asterisk to denote my tick. But when I deleted the tick-box, an asterisk appeared automatically. So I spent some time making two discrete docs of the title page and abstract and sent it all off again before breakfast. My certificate could be with me by the end of November, I’ve been told.

Yesterday, Saturday, I met Hilary at the Metrolink tramstop at Derker in Oldham and we went into Manchester for the Poetry Business Writing Day at the Manchester Art Gallery. I love these writing days with Peter Sansom, he’s such a lovely man, and possibly ‘the best teacher of creative writing in the country’ according to Sian Hughes in the Gaurdian. He’s certainly one of them: engaging, and well prepared, in a chaotic sort of way. He brings excellent poems as prompts, and he brings biscuits: lots of biscuits! We wrote to prompts in a room disrupted by repairs to the fabric of the building, so we competed with loud drilling and hammering noise; and we were sent out into the gallery to find poems among the works of art. That’s my favourite part of these writing days, which has surprised me, because I’ve always shied away from ekphrasis as a stimulation for poems; but I have several poems in my thesis collection that came from works of art, and I wrote another one yesterday, which I’m quite excited about. I came home with about four poems that might make something of themselves eventually.

I’m cutting it a bit short this week because I have to go into Manchester again later this morning for a meeting of the Poets & Players organising committee at the Whitworth Art Gallery, so I’d better get a schlepp on, as my friend Joan would say. I’ll leave you with an alternative mother poem, I think. She’s one of four ‘alternative mothers’ included this month in the online journal, Writers’ Café: Masks edition. You can read them all, and other poems obviously, here: https://thewriterscafemagazine.wordpress.com/2019/11/09/the-writers-cafe-magazine-issue-17-masks/

The world, meet Cynthia:

Alternative Mother #7
Cynthia

 There are days she doesn’t even leave her bed
except to go to the bathroom.

Last week she binge-watched all eleven series
of Vampire Diaries until she could taste blood.
She looked at me like I was a roast beef dinner
cooked rare.

If she does make it downstairs
she lounges in her D&G leopard-skin onesie
in the Barker and Stonehouse leather recliner
paid for by the sugar daddy. She’s never worked,

thinks she’s Kim Kardashian, the world comes to her.
And the world wouldn’t want to offend her:
she wears a grudge like a body-con.

I don’t remember her ever actually using
the Bugatti touch-sense kettle or the electric Aga
in the kitchen. We mostly eat Domino’s,
McDonalds, take-out from The Great Wall.
She flirts outrageously with the Deliveroo man
who pretends he can’t speak English.

My friends never visit.                    I don’t invite them.

Rachel Davies
2018

A Metaphor For Endings

Later today, I’ll be making the final submission of my thesis to the University, with all the attendant proformas completed. So I can truly say, using that old cliché, that tomorrow will be the first day of the rest of my life. It’s strange how that has simultaneously become the situation in another area of my life too: Amie successfully sold her business at the Black Ladd this week, in order to buy a fish and chip shop in partnership with her sister-in-law. So the volunteering job I’ve had for more than twelve years, doing her books for her, is now redundant. What will I do with all my extra free time?

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            contemplating future goals

Really, this week has been taken over by the hand-over of the business to the new proprietors. I’ve been passing on my (very limited) knowledge of ‘doing the books’; seeking out invoices and other relevant information to help them get started with suppliers; handing over the several Excel spreadsheets I’ve designed to help me with VAT, casual wages etc.; passing on complements slips, gift vouchers etc. that are only relevant to the Black Ladd business. I’ll be sad, but strangely relieved, not to be needing these things again. It’s been a hugely successful business, started just before the turmoil of the 2008 financial crash. When restaurants and pubs were forced to the wall in their droves, Amie’s vision of good home cooking and simple hospitality ensured her survival. She’s also survived the personal trauma of serious illness thanks to the wonderfully supportive team she’d built up and so now the time is right to take on a business which will, hopefully be less demanding, with a partner who’s also a close friend. Obviously, I wish them huge good luck and continuing good health. Yesterday, Bill and I spent the day at the Black Ladd, clearing Amie out of the office to make room for the new regime. We had four shredders on the go, dispatching old invoices etc. A shredder is a metaphor for endings; but also, I think, for new beginnings.

In other news, this week I finished reading Katie Hale’s debut novel My name is Monster (Canongate, 2019). I met Katie a few years ago at one of Kim Moore’s writing weekends in Cumbria, and know her as a very good young poet: last year she was shortlisted in the  prestigious Manchester Poetry Prize. So when I heard she’d published a novel I was hooked and wanted to read it. I won’t give any spoiler alerts, but I will say it’s a dystopian novel about the last human survivor of Armageddon: there has been nuclear war and ‘the sickness’, which is hinted at as the result of bacterial warfare that has killed the world’s population. The book begins with one woman, christened Monster by her father, as the sole survivor. Her given name brings to mind Frankenstein’s ‘creature’ in Mary Shelley’s astounding and wonderful book, that part where he’s wandering the world to escape from Frankenstein who wants to destroy him. I must admit, when I began reading Katie Hale’s novel I did wonder how she would make a whole novel of one woman’s survival, but she does and it’s a really good read. In terms of the plot, there are probably huge loopholes and ambiguities for a scientist reading it; but I’m not a scientist. I read for entertainment; and I was entertained. And having recently finished Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, I was enthralled and disturbed by a different version of a frightening dystopia. I need to find something a little less frightening, a little more uplifting to read I think. I’ve started to read a William Boyd novel now, Waiting for Sunrise (Bloomsbury Press, 2012). I’ve never been disappointed by William Boyd, so I have high hopes for this one, set in Vienna at the start of the First World War. I’ll keep you posted.

Knowing there will be official forms to complete, I’ve been keeping a close eye on my MMU emails this week for news of the system for resubmission of the thesis. On Tuesday I logged in only to be told I needed to change my password. This is an annual event but this year it seemed spurious as I’m so close to the end of my need for the password. None-the-less, I didn’t want to be locked out of my account at this crucial stage, so I obliged. I stayed with the Apple generated password as I knew I wouldn’t need it for long and my MacBook would remember it for me. Unfortunately, when I tried to log on again with my new password, MMU wasn’t having any of it. I couldn’t get in! I clicked on the ‘forgotten your password’ link hoping to be able to change the password to something I would remember for myself; but on clicking the link I was advised to contact the student hub. Aaaagh! computers and digital technology are wonderful when they work for you, but when it all goes pear-shaped… On Thursday I was going into Manchester anyway, so I decided to go earlier than planned so that I could visit the student hub at All Saints campus, Geoffrey Manton building. I successfully changed my password with the hub staff’s help, and now have a password I can remember without any help from my petulant MacBook. The email about re-submission eventually came through on Friday, with me wondering how I was ever going to find time to resubmit amidst all the turmoil of the business handover. I decided I need to concentrate on the pressing nature of the handover. I did take time to read through the thesis to make sure there aren’t any typos etc—I found a couple—and it’s good to go later this morning.

I was really in Manchester on Thursday for the People’s Poetry Lecture. I met up with my poetry twin, Hilary Robinson, in the Refuge Bar at the Principal. The lectures are in an upstairs room. This is a brilliant series of lectures to appeal to poets and non-poets alike; and they have been really high quality events, contemporary poets presenting poets who have inspired them on personal and professional levels. On Thursday the lecture was presented by Jean Sprackland; her subject was Elizabeth Bishop, a favourite poet of mine as well. The theme of Jean’s lecture was Bishop’s feeling of ‘unbelonging’ following a traumatic childhood in which her father died, her mother was incarcerated in a mental hospital where she subsequently died, all happening when Bishop was a young girl.  She never saw her mother again after the incarceration and as a result Bishop was uprooted from a home and family where she felt loved and secure to relocate with her father’s family, where she wasn’t happy. Jean gave a convincing account of how this traumatic phase of her life gave rise to the feeling of not belonging anywhere, a recurring theme in Bishop’s poetry and personal letters. It was another excellent lecture; and it was good to see Jean and lots of other poetry friends there. Hilary and I shared the lift with Carol Ann Duffy, who joked she was sharing the lift with ‘the PhD people’. I pointed out that she was sharing the lift with ex-PhD people and she called me Dr Davies. It’s the little things…There’s another ‘people’s lecture’ tomorrow evening, if you want to give it a go; Moira Egan on Marianne Moore: http://www.manchesterwritingschool.co.uk/events/the-peoples-poetry-lectures-moira-egan-on-marianne-moore

I can’t wait.

So that’s it, another week with lots going on. We’ve had fireworks night this week, which this year feels like a metaphor for the state of the political climate. One week into an election campaign marked by lies, damn lies and (misinterpreted) statistics; scurrilous misinformation; cruel and insensitive posturing; and already I’m wondering when Guido Fawkes is going to resurrect himself and come back to save the day? So I’m going to leave you with a ‘remember, remember’ poem about the only fireworks party we were ever allowed in my childhood. I think I was about nine on this particular November 5th:

 

All The Excuse You Needed

You tell us horror stories from your life as a nurse
but we grind you down slowly until at last you give in.
We go with dad to Ken Harker’s, choose our legal bombs.
We waited years for the velvety darkness of this Fenland night.

Excited, we tie Guy Fawkes to the stake then
light the bonfire we’ve been building for weeks,
chuck scrubbed potatoes into the flames, hold mugs
of piping hot soup in gloved hands. Our eyes soar

into a universe reformed by a super-cluster of new galaxies
from that first rocket. But of course, dad knows better
than the Fireworks Code,  spurns the tight lidded biscuit tin,
cuts the safe distance from the blaze, lights blue touch-papers

without retiring. Do you actually see that fire imp jump
the short arc from blaze to fireworks box?  Our fireworks all
go up together, the spectacular display a symphony
of terrifying booms and whistles and we miss it all,

that constellation of colour, its spinning wheels, its horizontal
rockets, its jumping jacks because we turn our backs,
run for our lives. From this day forward, we’ll wonder
what those fireworks might have looked like  because

this is all the excuse you needed.

 

Rachel Davies
2016

A Puck of a week…

The best news first: on Friday I heard from Dr Hurley that my revisions have been accepted and the thesis has been signed off. I am officially Dr Davies, fully and without the reservation of the revisions, and the award will be backdated to the date of the viva: 6th September. I have to resubmit the revised thesis as soon as the examiners have informed MMU of the decision, then my certificate will arrive. The graduation next July is an opportunity for the university to congratulate me. Woo hoo! PhD is behind me, a thing of the past, an ex-worry! Bill and I shared bubbles to celebrate.

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In other news, last Sunday I went with Hilary and friends to see Margaret Atwood at the Lowry theatre. She was ‘in conversation’ with the Turkish writer, Elif Shafak. It was a splendid event: Atwood is days away from her 80th birthday, with a mind as sharp as pins; she has lost none of her political fight. The first half of the event involved her talking about the relevance of The Handmaid’s Tale and Testaments to modern society. Shafak talked of how women writers are repressed in her native Turkey, and so the books resonated with her. You only have to keep up to date with right-wing news in the USA or the UK to see how close we live to Gilead. I read of an American woman charged with manslaughter because she was shot in the stomach and her unborn baby died. She should have taken steps to protect the child. Her attacker wasn’t charged: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-48789836

Or ‘pro-life’ politicians who make spurious claims about rape and abortion: https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/02/idaho-lawmaker-still-thinks-rape-cant-result-pregnancy-and-its-2016/

The right-wing in the UK is not better; Gilead, Atwood’s dystopia, is just around the next corner. After an interval there was a question and answer session with tweeted questions from the audience. The most memorable response in this session was Atwood’s claim that people get complacent as they get older, that the elderly sit back and leave protesting to the young. We mustn’t; if we disagree with something, we should speak out, she said: if we feel something’s wrong we shouldn’t just ignore it, put up with it. I’m sharing even more anti-Brexit stuff on social media now; and doing my best to challenge right-wing propaganda wherever I find it in the lead-up to the December election. We live in a frightening world: who knows where we’re heading?

A final word about the theatre event: why do audiences not know how to behave any more? People were coming and going during the two sessions, talking among themselves, rustling huge bags of sweets and popcorn. Phones were switched off, but vibrations for texts were answered so that screens lit up, detracting attention from the stage. Why can’t folk just sit down and shut up for the hour or so of a performance?

On Tuesday it was Stanza at the Buffet Bar, Stalybridge. We had an anonymous workshop this month: members send me poems they would appreciate feedback on; I put them all into one document, standard font and format, and send them out prior to the meeting for people to read and comment. We had six members in attendance, including one new member, and three apologies, so I think we’re off the endangered list. It was a very good meeting with some cracking poems. I took a poem I wrote at Peter Sansom’s workshop in Manchester Art Gallery a couple of Saturdays ago. I received good feedback, they liked the poem. I’ve since turned it into an alternative mother. One poem addressed the 39 Vietnamese migrants who died in the refrigerated container lorry. It was a very good treatment of the subject, from the angle of ‘hidden things’. We advised her to send it to the Morning Star for consideration. They publish political poetry. I wonder if she will?

On Wednesday I spent the morning putting a pamphlet together of some of my PhD poems. I heard at the end of the previous week that Hilary and I have both been shortlisted in the 4word pamphlet call-out. We had to send six poems initially; the email informing us of the shortlist requested 29-32 poems, so quite a substantial pamphlet. I decided which poems to include: 12 alternative mothers and twenty others. I printed them all out and spread them across the study floor to arrange and rearrange their order in the collection. I took out a couple and replaced them with other poems that seemed to fit better. It’s a long and precise process: if you want your pamphlet to be one of the ones that gets noticed you have to try your best to make it stand-out. I put them all together in a binder, and in a document on the MacBook, and left them for a day, then emailed the pamphlet file to Hilary. We’d agreed to meet on Friday in Caffé Abaco in Uppermill to feedback to each other on our pamphlets. Of course, we know each other’s poems fairly well from all the readings we do together; but it was interesting to see the poems as a collection, it raised issues that aren’t issues when they are individual poems: phrases repeated  across a couple of poems, for instance, are not an issue while they’re individual poems but are noticeable when the poems are relatively close to each other in a collection. It was a useful session. On Saturday, after watching the Rugby World Cup Final, I came up to my study and revisited the poems in line with Hilary’s feedback and then I pressed ‘send’ on the email. They’ve gone now for better or worse. I really hope they demand the editors’ attention. Good luck to us both.

On Wednesday evening Bill and I went to the Printworks in Manchester for the live screening of National Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Nicholas Hytner. Oh. My. Word. How brilliant was that? I love the play anyway, but this production was the stand-out one for me. The play was broadcast from the Bridge Theatre in London. It was performed in the round, but more than that, it was immersive theatre, so the audience was an integral part of the show, drawn-in in all sorts of ways. Puck in particular had a good rapport with the audience. The actor who played Puck, David Moorst, was brilliant. The fairies in the play ‘flew’ on fabric trapezes. They were all acrobats as well as actors, and the effect was stunning. Puck was a contortionist I think, getting himself into all kinds of surprising shapes in his trapeze. I loved it. Hytner had transposed aspects of the roles of Titania (Gwendoline Christie) and Oberon (Oliver Chris) in his play, so that it was Oberon, king of the fairies who received the love potion from Titania the fairy queen; so that proud Oberon fell in love with Bottom the weaver, transformed into a donkey. The gender reversal in Macbeth a couple of weeks ago really didn’t work for me, but here it was brilliant; it brought a new dimension to the play, added to the comedy, and brought proud Oberon, and his human counterpart, Duke Theseus, down a peg or two. Oh my, it was a wonderful way to spend an evening. I just wish I could go to London to see the play in the theatre now; but a live screening is definitely the next best thing.

And there you have it: my week in words: a wonderful and rewarding week overall. I can stop stressing now about PhD, thesis, revisions and just put it all behind me. Of course, I intend to keep celebrating for as long as it takes, but that’s the good part. The stress and angst are things of the past. I’ll leave you with the poem I took to Stanza. I don’t see me sending it out to journals as an individual poem, and submission to pamphlets allows for previously published poems, so I can post it here. I think it’s self-evident who it’s about and it deals with the way women have been hidden by their history in a world belonging to men. Enjoy.

Alternative Mother #1
Naamah, daughter of Lamech

you trim the timbers       soak them
bend them over boulders
dry them       in the sun
hammer and hammer       a row boat
a racing yacht       an ocean going ship

he says you need to       says why don’t you
says if you did it like this       says it’ll never
says more tar more tar       says what’s for tea

You keep trimming       shaping       planing
sanding       hammering       tarring       trimming
on and on

he says it won’t      says that zoo can’t
says the big cats will eat the
says but the elephants       says the rhinos might
says what if the snakes

You build steps       a ramp       channel your inner
farmhand       herd the animals       in pairs

he puts the finishing touches to the paintwork
paints on his own trademark in letters two cubits high

and we all forget your name

Rachel Davies
October 2019