Poetry, PhD and Audrey Hepburn

Some weeks just shine. This has been one of those.

I discovered poetry after I retired. Of course, that’s a disingenuous statement: I’d always known about ‘poetry’. I studied the Romantics at school; I studied Shakespeare, Eliot, Larkin. I studied R.S.Thomas and Dylan Thomas. Poetry was a male environment, it seemed. Of course, It wasn’t: but the grammar school syllabus, and my A level evening class syllabus, didn’t seem to include women poets; or they played a minor role if it did. I don’t remember any; except possibly Plath. When I retired, I discovered poetry, modern poetry, a world of poetry I didn’t know existed; readings, pamphlets, books, workshops, Poetry Society Stanzas. Poetry. My life would be poorer without it. This week has been full of it. So I’ll start with poetry.

On Monday evening, I went with Hilary to the Square Chapel in Halifax for a reading organised by Keith Hutson. I can’t see Keith without thinking of Wilson Pickett singing ‘In the midnight hour’; but that’s another story from another day. On Monday Keith had brought three wonderful poets together for an evening of readings by ‘Cape Crusaders’ as he called them. Mark Pajak recently completed an MA from MMU; his Smith Doorstop pamphlet, Spitting Distance, was as a Laureate’s Choice pamphlet in 2017; he has a full collection coming out with Cape in the near future. Mark’s poetry shows how the most obscure event, like a day working at a chicken farm, for instance, is food for a poem. Mark was followed by Michael Symmons Roberts, one of my favourite modern poets. He is also published by Cape, more collections, more awards, than I can list here. He read mostly from Mancunia, a book length sequence of poems about his home town, Manchester, reimagined. Wonderful. After a break, Andrew Macmillan read. I loved Andrew’s first collection, Physical; possibly one of the most sensual collections I own. His new collection, Playtime (Cape, obviously), was officially released on 1stAugust; so on Monday we were at the unofficial preview launch. It’s wonderful. I bought a copy, which Andrew signed. I wasn’t being favouritist: I have the other poets’ work on my bookshelves already. All three poets read beautifully, fine examples of modern poetry; of accessibility coupled with Wow! I met lots of poetry friends there too, always a bonus.

Tuesday it was our Stanza at Stalybridge Buffet Bar. Our numbers have been dwindling a bit lately, so it was good to have seven poets in attendance—one very welcome new member—with one unavoidable apology. We had eight wonderful poems to workshop; all very different in style: love poems, nature poems, poems about family, political poems. It was a good night, an evening of insightful criticism and feedback. I enjoyed it so much. Poetry is the best antidote to sleep ever: on Monday and Tuesday I was so buzzed up on poetry I couldn’t even think of sleep. So I read. Poetry!

Lastly, on the poetry front, two poet friends sent me drafts of their latest Beautiful Dragons poems. The next anthology is entitled Watch the Birdie. It’s includes about eighty birds as subjects for poems by about eighty poets, one bird each. The poems I was sent for reading and feedback were about the red-backed shrike and the red-necked grebe, both lovely birds, both terrific poems. My own bird is the fieldfare, a winter visitor. Having read the poems of friends, I thought I’d better get my skates on and write my own. I’d done the research and knew how I wanted to make my poem; it’s just committing to the writing. The deadline is the end of August, I think, but I wrote my poem ‘Feldifire’ yesterday and sent the first draft off to the two friends for feedback. Feedback was good, with one useful idea for edits. I edited it in bed last night, so I think it’s good to go. I won’t send it till nearer the deadline, though. I’ll keep reading it to make sure I’m happy with it. How many times have I sent poems out, only to realise it would be a better poem if…?

I met a fellow PhD poet/friend on Monday and we were comparing notes. It was good to hear that she has similar experiences of sometimes feeling bamboozled by the process . I told her about the time I’d sent in a twenty-page document and my DoS had said ‘I really liked that bit on page 8’; which left me thinking the other nineteen pages weren’t worth the paper. Of course, it didn’t mean that at all; but that’s the default position, that feeling of worthlessness, that thing about only taking the negative feedback from a meeting. When I got home and read the feedback on the document itself, there was more positive feedback than I’d heard in the meeting. She’s had similar meetings; and then that wonderful surprise when you have the annual review and the report from DoS is all positive and you’re on target for completing within deadline and that you’ll be OK. (I still find that last bit hard to believe; as if by believing it I’ll jinx it, so I still think in terms of might…)  Anyway, the PhD has had a fair old slice of me this week too. I’ve been chipping away at the thesis, making it the best it can be, working within my support team’s advice. I’ve done loads of fresh reading, one piece of reading leading to others via footnotes and endnotes. It’s like fighting your way along a brambled path, all this reading; then sometimes you find the fattest, juiciest blackberry and it’s all so worth it.

Finally, the ‘life’ bit. I haven’t been running this week. The stiffness in my arms, signifying, I thought, the return of Polymyalgia Rheumatica, has been particularly bad in the mornings, which is a feature of PMR–it tends to improve through the day. On Wednesday I had an appointment with my GP to get the results of the Dexa bone density scan I had a few weeks back. The good news is, the Dexa was fine, keep doing what I’m  doing. He couldn’t tell me about the synacthen blood test though, as he hadn’t ordered it and wasn’t sure how to interpret the result. He advised contacting rheumatology again.  He ordered blood tests to check for a PMR flare re the stiff arms and hands: the earliest available date was 14thAugust. On Thursday morning I rang rheumatology to check if the synacthen test results were available. I spoke to a rheumatology nurse, who called me in later in the day for the blood tests I had booked with the GP surgery, so that was good. She rang me back on Friday morning with the results. All the blood tests, including the synacthen test, were in the normal range; so that was good as well, but it didn’t explain the continuing stiffness. She advised upping the paracetemol and ibuprofen: it could be a physical reaction to coming off the steroids after 4 and a half years, she thought. She’s arranging another consultation with the rheumatologist to make sure everything’s OK. So I’ve upped painkillers to two or three doses a day, and it seems to be improving. Fingers crossed. I don’t have time for being ill, it’s not on the timetable. Getting old is fine: except when it’s not.

So that’s it, another very full week; lots of PhD, poetry and life. Never a dull moment and lots accomplished. And a new poem to boot. What’s not to like?

I sent an ‘alternative mother’ poem to Stanza for feedback this week. I didn’t submit it as an alternative mother, though, because we submit the poems anonymously to allow for more authentic feedback; labelling it ‘alternative mother’ would have been a dead giveaway as one of my poems. I wrote it in a Helen Mort workshop in St Ives in April, but I’ve never been quite sure about whether it works. I sent it to Stanza to see if it deserves its place in the portfolio. I was surprised that the poets at Stanza liked it overall. It’s a sonnet, fourteen lines with a turn and everything; no rhyme scheme though. It’s about one of my silver screen heroes, Audrey Hepburn. My favourite line in a film comes in ‘Charade’, when Cary Grant is trying to get to know her in the café scene and she says, ‘Do I know you? Because I have so many friends, I can’t possibly know anyone else until someone dies.’ Brilliant.

Here’s the poem:

Alternative Mother #17
Audrey Hepburn

The elfin face, the well delivered line,
the designer clothes—these things were
the screen’s. You made Quant and Chanel
extraordinary by your childlike frame. You ate.
In films you’d be seen devouring chocolates,
cakes, knowing perhaps that some things
do indeed taste better than thin.
You used cosmetics like an artist, so
your own face was what I grew up with—
you never turned to the nip and tuck
but let your face tell the story
of things you’d seen. When I look in the glass
is it me who’s fairest of them all, Audrey,
or a version of me that Maybelline promotes?

Rachel Davies
April 2018

Soul songs and sea shanties

On Monday evening Hilary and I went to the inaugural ‘People’s Poetry Lecture’, Carol Ann Duffy’s latest brilliant project from MMU. Gillian Clarke was talking about Dylan Thomas, his life and work. Gillian, the former Welsh laureate, is a life-time lover of Thomas’s work. She bought her first collection of his poetry when she was just fifteen after her father encouraged her to listen to ‘Under Milk Wood’ on the radio as a girl. She read from his work: ‘Do Not Go Gentle’, obviously, ‘the best villanelle in the world ever’: she showed how this poem followed the traditional Welsh form in its use of sound; and she read from ‘Fern Hill’:

Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea

drawing our attention to his extraordinary use of visual imagery and musicality. She read his poetry beautifully, much better than he reads it himself: I’m not a lover of his ‘poet’s voice’, but she read it like the lover she is. I visited Thomas’s home in Laugharne a couple of years ago, where I learned that the vast majority of his poetry he drafted before he was twenty: how extraordinary is that? This was the first in a series of four planned lectures: in the autumn, Andrew MacMillan on Thom Gunn; Michael Symmons Roberts on Auden; and Helen Mort—sorry I didn’t catch who will be the subject of her lecture and I haven’t seen any publicity for it yet. Gillian Clarke set the bar high; I can’t wait to see how these other wonderful poets measure up. I’ll copy the link to other lectures when they are available. If you can make any of them, I recommend them.

I worked some more on the thesis this week too: and managed to save the work I put in! I ‘Kindled’ a new purchase as well, a book I came across in footnotes to my research. The Madwoman in the Attic After Thirty Years ed Annette Federico with a foreword by Sandra M Gilbert (Colombia; University of Missouri Press 2009).It’s a—mostly—celebratory book of essays by academics, who write how Gilbert and Gubar’s iconic book of feminist lit-crit changed the way they approached their work in academe. Most of them took the book as a launch pad for developing their own ideas, moving beyond G&G’s ground-breaking work into new insights of their own. I love the original; I’m loving this one too. I’ve spent several happy hours in the garden reading it this week.

On Wednesday my son Richard came to visit. We went with Amie to the Lowry theatre to see ‘Dusty’, a musical bio-drama about Dusty Springfield’s life and work. We had good seats with a perfect view of the stage: until a woman with a huge Dusty Springfield hairstyle sat in the seats in front of us, completely obliterating the stage. Thankfully, the seats next to us were empty so we shunted along a few seats. I learned a lot I hadn’t known about the singer. For instance, I didn’t know she’d been expelled from apartheid South Africa for refusing to sing to segregated audiences. And I hadn’t realised she died from breast cancer, I’d always assumed she’d taken her own life after a downward spiral into alcohol and drugs. The drink and drugs were real, the suicide wasn’t. She had a negative relationship with her own mother too, which was interesting from a research point of view. Her mother was clearly biased towards brother Tom and disparaged Dusty for splitting with him and going solo. It was a good show, a romp through much of my own youth. We went to a vegan/vegetarian restaurant in Manchester after the performance. If you like vegetarian/vegan food I completely recommend 1847: https://www.by1847.com/manchester/?doing_wp_cron=1532844045.1078228950500488281250

On Thursday morning we all met at Amie’s for a vegan breakfast before Richard went home. It’s always good to spend time with family; it’s just a shame Mike couldn’t have been with us as well.

I’ve not been running since Monday this week. On Monday I only ran 1.8km. I wasn’t feeling centi per centi so I gave up and walked the remaining distance to my car. I’ve been having a flare up of the PMR, so feeling very stiff in my arms in the mornings. Added to that I’ve been feeling hung-over—without the drink; just not feeling my usual sprightly, full-on self. I think the ugly sister, PMR, is at the root of it all. I still haven’t had the results of the synacthen blood test I had at the beginning of July, so on Wednesday I rang my rheumatology nurse to ask if they were available. They have been passed to my rheumatologist for analysis and he will get back to me. I still haven’t heard, so I still don’t know if my adrenal glands are pulling a fast one; which I hope is a good thing: no news is good news? But it would be reassuring to know for sure. I’m fed up with feeling under par; perhaps it’s the heat? Ho hum.

That’s it then, my week in brief. I’m posting a poem this week that is a mystery to me. I wrote it at a Poetry Business workshop in Sheffield with Ann and Peter Sansom. I heard this week that Ann and Peter have been given honorary doctorates for their work in poetry: very well earned in my opinion. This poem was from prompts: a word for a line. I remember ‘silver’ being the word for the first line, for instance. I don’t remember which are the prompt words in the other lines; probably I’ve redrafted out the original prompt words anyway. It became a poem about my mother; sort of. I’m not sure what it’s about, it’s deeply unconscious stuff, but I like it. I hope you do too.

 

Pirate Copies

My hair wasn’t always silver—it was black
as a mermaid’s purse, waved like an ocean.

I wanted him to sing me sea shanties like a pirate,
feed me oysters, wanted to swim forever in the lagoon
of his arms; in a past life we hummed Fingal’s Cave

into the ears of Mendelsohn, never dreaming the sea
would bring its silver scales to hone our claws.

 

Rachel Davies
July 2018

 

 

Keep shining, brief candle!

It was my birthday week. I had a great week. It involved some work, some play and a lot of celebrating. I love my birthday: the celebrations always last for weeks/months: this one will be no different.

Let me start with the serious stuff, the work. That’s what this blog is supposed to be about after all: PhD, poetry and life. I spent time on Sunday copying and pasting the poems into the thesis. The title page has a working title: ‘Title Page’. I find it hard to give a title to a poem; giving a title to a whole collection is particularly challenging. It’ll come to me one day when I’m reading the poems, or when I’m asleep, or when I’m desperate because I’ve got to submit tomorrow. Suggestions welcome. It’s good to see the poems in some kind of order, and good to have temporary page numbers to reference them in the critical part of the thesis. I’ve referenced them in red ink, because obviously the page numbers will change as the writing grows. I need to be able to find them all as easily as possible to edit when the time comes. I stopped work at lunchtime so I could watch the Wimbledon men’s final: Djokovic v Anderson. It wasn’t one of the greats, actually. Djokovic entirely overwhelmed Anderson, who didn’t really start playing until the third and final set: Djokovic didn’t allow him to play. Sunday evening was taken up with the World Cup Final: a relatively easy win for France, although Croatia at least looked as if they were trying.

Monday was my birthday. A year older but not too much wiser, I hope. I’ve changed my day for working at the Black Ladd, doing the books, so that’s where I spent my birthday. In the evening we walked back there for a birthday meal. Halfway there—it’s about a mile from our house—the heavens opened. Going back was as wet as going onward, so we kept going. By the time we got there we were soaking: I had to wring my skirt out before I could go indoors. But it wasn’t cold, and the rain was welcome. Mostly. The three-week fire on Saddleworth Moor was extinguished by it; but the fire on Winter Hill continues to burn, I believe. Anyway, we had a large glass of wine, and sat at the table in the window from where you can see across Manchester and Cheshire to the Welsh Hills.  It’s spectacular. The meal was lovely too—a Portobello mushroom and beetroot burger for me, new to the menu–and Amie, bless her cotton socks, gave us a lift home, so no more dousing. Happy birthday to me.

Tuesday I was thoroughly dispirited. I came to my desk expecting to work on the next development of the thesis, only to find the work I did on Saturday around Biblical good and bad mothers hadn’t saved. Aaaargh! I’m sure I’m not the only person this has happened to, but it felt huge, a huge disappointment. We’ve had a lot of very short sharp power cuts recently, you hardly notice them happening, but the clocks start flashing so you know there’s been one. I expect the work I did was the victim of a power cut, though I don’t know how. But the wifi hub would have needed to reboot, so the cloud would have been temporarily disabled. Oh, I’m looking for excuses, because I don’t use the MacBook from the mains power source. I don’t know what happened, but suffice to say I closed the document and it didn’t save the work I did. Memo to self: keep pressing the ‘save’ icon while working. Frustrating doesn’t come close, because I was quite pleased with what I lost.  It was only a paragraph, but I didn’t relish starting again. I couldn’t even remember exactly what I wrote; just that I’d been pleased with it and a general idea that it contained Mary and Eve. So I did an internet search into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ women in the bible—written predominantly by men, remember, so a bit biased—and came across a 1913 silent movie on YouTube about Judith and Holofernes. He was an invading army commander, come to besiege and defeat Judith’s community. The elders in the community couldn’t come up with any plausible plan to break the siege and save the people; but Judith could. She made herself alluring and went out to meet Holofernes, who fell in love with her. She took him to her bed and in his happy post-coital slumbers she lopped his head, smuggled it back into her community and spiked it on the city walls. The invading army were so shocked and dismayed to see their leader leering at them in death from the city walls, they just packed up and went home. Judith saves the day! The over-acting of the silent era was there in spades: all those hand gestures and facial expressions. It was wonderful; and I was pretending it was research. I couldn’t decide after if Judith was a ‘good’ woman or a ‘bad’ one. Perhaps it’s good to do bad things in the best interests of your (patriarchal) community; but seducing your enemy and then murdering him does seem a tad naughty.

Wednesday I re-wrote the lost paragraph. I don’t know if it’s as good as the original—lost—one, but Judith gets a mention, and it is academically referenced so that’s as good as it gets, I guess. At the end, though, I felt as if I’d been on a treadmill, working like stink and getting nowhere forward. Sometimes work is just a slog. After the paragraph was replaced—and saved—I spent a happy hour researching the fieldfare, a bird of the thrush family. I have an upcoming deadline for a poem inspired by said bird for the next Beautiful Dragons anthology Watch the Birdie with about eighty birds represented by about eighty poets. The fieldfare used to be known as the fellfer in the Fens and I researched dialect names for it. I didn’t find ‘fellfer’, but I found lots of similar dialect names. I’m thinking a poem around these different names for the same bird.

On Saturday I was back at my desk working on the thesis. I did lots of research into the way a woman in mid-twentieth century could lose her self in marriage and motherhood: the way she was usually called ‘Mum’ or ‘such-a-body’s wife’ and often had to put her other desires on hold for housewifery and maternity. I found out that the Anglican Church only recommended dropping ‘obey’ from a bride’s marriage vows under Rowan Williams’ Archbishopric early in the twenty-first century. Isn’t that astounding? And I found an article on time.com about Meghan Markle NOT vowing to obey Prince Harry. In May 2018. I should hope not too: how archaic an idea is that; and still a thing, apparently. So, the thesis moves on apace.

Other stuff this week: I’ve kept up the running, increasing time and distance, three times a week. I’m quite proud of myself that I can now run more than 3k—I know the app was Couch to 5k, and I will get there; just need a bit more practice. The final aim of the app was actually to run for 30 mins and I’m now running for 35. I’m not bothered too much about distance, just about improving slowly. Three months ago I could barely run at all, so any progress from zero is good work as far as I’m concerned.

On Friday Bill and I went to York for the day. We caught the train from Stalybridge. The train was delayed by about seven minutes, which could have put the connection at Huddersfield at risk, except that train was also delayed, so no problem. The railway is run on delayed trains at the moment: starting times seem to be a rough guesstimate. We had a butty in the sunshine in York then went to the pop-up Rose Theatre that’s in the Castle Car Park for the summer. We went to the afternoon performance of Richard III. The theatre looks like a good replica of an Elizabethan theatre, if you ignore the metal scaffolding in place of the wooden structure of the real thing. The seats, although plastic covered and minimally padded, are authentically uncomfortable though. The play was good, a bit am-dram and over-acted but we enjoyed it. I’m so glad we went, because it’s a bit of history—sort of—a pop-up theatre in York. They are showing performances of Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth as well as Richard III, so why not catch one of them. I think you’ll enjoy it.

Well, that’s it, a lovely week, a lot done and a year older. I’m including a poem that I might well have posted last year, about turning seventy. But I’m posting it again: how time flies. It seems only last week I was celebrating my seventieth and here we are a year on. Tattoos and glittery boots still intact, and I’m still here, still learning, still living life to the full, still loving it.

Significant

Seventy has arrived.
It knocked on the door, then barged in
uninvited, as if it had been expected.

Seventy has arrived
and taken over the lounge
with its greetings cards, its balloons and bunting,
its ‘seventy years young’ badges,
its ‘you don’t look a day over…’
its fire hazard of a birthday cake.

Seventy has arrived
and you, hot on its heels,
kicking its arse with those Doc Marten’s
salted and peppered with glitter
that settles on the ground like moon dust
wherever they walk.

Seventy has arrived
and the bee tattoo is its music.
Play it again.

Rachel Davies
2017

a little Noble Dissent

A few months ago, a poem of mine, ‘Candidate’, was included in the Beautiful Dragons Noble Dissent anthology. The anthology was a reaction to right wing bias in international politics: the false rhetoric attached to the referendum, the rise of the Right in Europe, the election of Trump to the most powerful political position in the world. My poem was inspired by the ‘do and say anything to win an election’ mentality, and is a pastiche of Jamaica Kincaid’s ‘Girl’, which you can check out here: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1978/06/26/girl
‘Candidate’ is a similar prose-poem sort of rant.

On Thursday Donald Trump arrived in the UK on an official tour, making it clear in his interview with The Sun that he is not going to be a post-Brexit soft touch for a trade deal, which seems to have been the main reason for inviting him in the first place. A Trump Baby blimp and hundreds of thousands of protestors around the country let him know exactly how welcome he is here. I was one of them. A tee shirt at the Manchester rally had the legend  “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.” (Albert Einstein). Einstein knew what he was talking about, having lived through the Nazi era. Britain has a history of appeasing fascism in the thirties, and look where that got us. So on Friday, Hilary and I went to the rally in Albert Square in Manchester.

IMG_1391
Hilary Robinson and I heading for the rally in Manchester’s Albert Square 

My daughter bought us the silly outfits, and they caused a lot of amusement in the crowd; but the rally had a serious message: that Trump’s racist, mysoginist, alt-right policies are not welcome here; that it isn’t OK to cage children separated from their asylum-seeking parents; that white is definitely not supreme. Dissent is a small act, but a noble one; and hundreds of thousands of voices add up to a very big voice. I’m glad we went: It was worth the soaking we got from a very sharp shower just as the rally closed.

There, that’s my rant done. Apart from protesting Trump, it has been a very productive week in other ways. I have continued to work on the PhD thesis, researching the cult of the mother in Western patriarchies: lots of reading about fairy tales, bible stories and evidence in history. I wrote up my response in the week, finishing it on Saturday morning. I’m quite pleased with it, it fits well into the writing I’d already done. I moved on to the next task; but there is only so much a brain can take, so having decided where I need to go next, I left it for next week and worked instead on the creative aspect. I finished revisiting the poems, printed off the latest version and thought about the order I want them to be in the finished collection. I spent an hour in the conservatory—the only place the cats can be excluded from—setting them out in themes across the floor. I’ve started with ‘motherhood in general’; moved on to poems inspired by my own mother, arranged in themes. So there are ‘thingy  poems’ as Jean Sprackland calls them: poems inspired by objects that bring my mother to mind; poems about roles and relationships; poems about grandmothers, real or imagined. I’ve concluded the collection with the two sequences I’ve been working on: my alternative mother poems and the poems depicting the death of my brother and how that affected my relationship with my mother. It was good to see the poems spread out and to affect an order, because they were written fairly randomly. Today I will work on copy/pasting them into the thesis in order, a full collection at the end of the critical work. I look forward to that; to seeing the whole thing in first draft. I feel as if the end is in sight now the two aspects are coming together; and, after all, ten months is a very short time in the life of a PhD.

I graduated this week. Oh, no! Not my PhD; my running! I completed the ‘Couch to 5K’ challenge with a fastest ever pace: I got PBs for the 1K and the 1mile as well; and a cup: I got a cup from the app to celebrate completion. I haven’t run 5K yet; but I have run 3K so that’ll do for starters. 3K is almost 2miles in old currency. Can you imagine? I ran for nearly two miles! I’ll keep up the running, even though the challenge is complete. I’ve got to get to 5K at least. I’ll keep you posted on progress.

A little light relief mid-week: Bill and I went to the Palace Theatre in Manchester to see ‘Mamma Mia’. It was a good, energetic romp through the Abba songs, plenty of eighties memories—unfortunately, not all of them good! Abba became a bit samey toward the end of their career; but I still think ‘Waterloo’ is the best Eurovision winner ever.

Last, but by no means least, it is my birthday tomorrow. I’ve changed my Facebook profile pic to a photograph of me when I was five to celebrate; and to prove I was young once! My lovely children have sent me 2 tickets to see Sir Ian McKellen in ‘King Lear’ at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London on September 29th; with first class rail tickets to get us there. The theatre tickets are in the Royal Circle; I don’t think a tiara is required but I’ll feel like a queen: I have the best children ever. Fact.

I’m going to finish with a poem I’ve been working on; actually it’s two versions of a poem. I’ve retained them both as parts 1 and 2; but I don’t know if it works like that. I’m reluctant to get rid of either but not sure I need both. I’ll leave it for now; a bit of space will provide the answer I need. The poem is inspired by my mother making soup on Monday from Sunday roast left-overs. I didn’t know when I was a child that it was a money-saver, a means of making ends meet. I loved it; I still like a bowl of heart-warming soup, full of goodness, easy and cheap. Here’s the poem.

Stone Soup

1
When I used to read that story to your grandchildren,
the way the trickster gets the poor woman
to make soup from a stone,
I think of you
cooking soup from Sunday left-overs.
Like in the story, your soup begins with water in a pan.
You drop into it, like a stone, the carcass
of Sunday’s lunch, picked clean;
an Oxo cube or two, some onion, carrot,
pearl barley, sage, potato, turnips, salt and pepper.

With my mouth watering, I listen as it simmers away
slowly,
smell the flavours mixing, impatient
for you to serve it up, my spoon
fisted in anticipation.

You make loaves of soda bread
we break into rafts to float in our soup lakes.

I don’t understand about making ends meet,
to me your soup is a feast.

Once, aged six, bridging the loneliness
between school and home,
I tell Miss Bacon—wishing out loud—
that we’re having soup for tea.
All afternoon the lie lays in my stomach
like a stone.

But as I walk from the school bus,
up the path towards the kitchen door,
the scent of your soup welcomes me home,
a nose full of tummy rumbling goodness
rubbing out the lie.

2
Start with this boulder, throw it
into the water bubbling in the pan, she says,
the way a storm might brag before it erupts
with the force that a practiced trickster
proves herself to be. She takes
the skeleton of yesterday’s roast, the flesh
picked clean and in it goes—poor protein,
but with onion, carrot, potato, a woman
can perform a Sermon on the Mount miracle
to satisfy a hungry pack, eking it out
with soda bread floats. The soup is as easy
as the enthusiasm it takes to move from
growling bellies to full ones. A magician she is;
she can produce soup from a stone.

Rachel Davies
July 2018

A week off-piste

Some weeks, life just takes over. This has been one such; although I have carried my Kindle through everything that tried to get in the way, so I wasn’t entirely work-free.

On Monday Hilary and I went into Manchester for the launch of Amy McCauley’s collection Oedipa (Guillemot Press, 2018), a feminist retelling of the Oedipus myth, imagining all the characters as women. It was an entertaining evening, starting with music: two ex-RNCM students with zither-like instruments and a clarinet. Kate Davis, whom I first met when we were both MA students in creative writing at MMU, shared the launch, introducing her new collection The Girl Who Forgets How To Walk (Penned in the Margins 2018). Kate was recently awarded an Arts Council grant to develop her performance skills, and she performed some of the poems, themed around a child living with polio. It was an interesting part of the evening; I took one of her books to read the full collection. Next Amy performed from Oedipa. As usual, Amy’s presentation was interesting, different parts of the room being given to different voices in the collection. The evening ended with two poets having a poetry fight on stage, which was a fun—if slightly belligerent—way to end a poetry launch.

On Tuesday I did manage some work on the thesis, systematically developing arguments. It is a slow process, but a worthwhile one. I worked in the study, but it is in the roof space, and gets very hot in this summer weather, so I took plenty of tea-breaks in the garden with my beloved Kindle for company. This week I finished reading Ariel Leve’s An Abbreviated Life (HarperCollins 2016), the extraordinary account of her relationship with her mother; Moyra Davey’s Mother Reader: Essential Writings on Motherhood (Seven Stories Press 2001); and almost finished Tillie Olsen’s Silences(The Feminist Press, 2003), showing how, historically, women have found the road to publication to be an impenetrable path. Actually, seeing all my reading written down, that’s quite a lot of work, isn’t it, for someone who thought she’d been off-piste for a week?

Wednesday I had to go to Oldham’s Integrated Care Centre for an unusual blood test that lasted about two hours: I had my Kindle with me. Several syringe-fulls of blood were taken, and I thought of Tony Hancock at the blood donation clinic complaining he’d have an empty arm. I should know in a week or two if the adrenal glands have woken up after being laid off by four and a half years of Prednisolone medication. Apparently they can forget how to produce the body’s own cortisol after a sustained period on corticosteroids. I hope they are rumbled as lead-swingers and forced back to work soon, because the alternative is low-dose Prednisolone for life, and I really don’t want that. I took my empty arm to the Costa and filled it up with a cappuccino and a cheese scone. Stress is always released with a cheese scone.

On Thursday it was Rosie Parker’s annual check up and injections at the vet. She’s a very canny lady, and as soon as she smells the pet carrier she finds somewhere to hide. On Thursday her hiding places included behind the sofa and under the side tables in the lounge and under the trolley in the kitchen. This latter was by far the most effective space as she was tucked away under work surfaces and refused all cajoling to come out. I had to pull out the trolley to spook her into running for it, and she resumed her former position behind the sofa and under the side tables. It took us a good fifteen minutes to eventually catch her and get her into the cat carrier and secure the lid; we only had a very few scratch marks. The good news is, she is healthy and has even lost a little weight since last year; the bad news is she has a slight gum problem around her lower incisors so we need to get her to the vet’s again in 5 months time for a further check. I look forward to that, then. She returned to her cat carrier in the surgery as if it was her favourite place in the world! A bag of her favourite dental health biscuits and the consultation saw off nearly £90. It’s a good job I love her.

The new fast fibre hub arrived on Friday. That is to say, BT delivered it to the wrong address, despite my spending half an hour on the phone on Thursday to tell them they had the wrong address on the invoice. It was delivered to a house further down the lane. Luckily, I used the package tracking facility and found out it had been left at Delph PO, because the folk at the house down the lane were out when it was delivered and it was there that Royal Mail left the collection card. But I had the text message and the parcel tracking info, so the lovely lady at Delph PO let me take the package. I set it up immediately—the fast fibre contract starts on Monday—and immediately I could smell burning. I checked the plugs and the hub and all seemed well, but I could definitely smell burning. It was only then I remembered I’d put two eggs to boil on the hob before we went to the PO. One had exploded all over the hob, and the saucepan was burned. OOOPS!

I’ve kept up the Couch to 5K challenge, running on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Normally I run at about 7.00 a.m. but on Wednesday I had to run in the afternoon because of the timing of the blood test. Oh my, it was hot for running; but I did it. I ran for 28 minutes at a time and completed the penultimate week of the challenge. This week I have three thirty minute runs to look forward to and the challenge is complete. The running won’t be, though; I still have to work up to the full 5K: by the end of next week I’ll be running about 3K, but that’s a long way on from the 7×1 minute runs I started out on. And without Laura on my case, urging me to ‘keep running until the end’ I can please myself, run at my own pace, build stamina, speed and distance. Hilary and I have challenged ourselves to a 10K next year. Watch this space!

Saturday was as far off piste as you can get. I went with Hilary to a henna workshop at Chapter One in Manchester. There were six of us on the workshop, run by the lovely Neeka Tank. You can find out more on her FaceBook page, here: https://www.facebook.com/Designsbynn/photos/pcb.1053432338147663/1053432174814346/?type=3&theaterWe got to practise on paper first, designing patterns with pencil and then using the henna cones, learning how to control the flow of henna paste, learning tricks for making unshaky lines, learning the traditional meaning behind some aspects of henna design. Later we got to practise on each other’s hands. There are photographs on the FaceBook link above, of the six of us working and showing off our hennaed hands. It was a lovely and very different afternoon. We came away with a goody bag which included tee lights, henna cones and a small bag of Skittles. I spent some time in the evening eating Skittles and making a henna design on my foot. The henna cones can be re-frozen and used again any number of times within six months, so get used to me being hennaed in the coming weeks.

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The henna design Hilary Robinson made on my hand

In my poem this week I have viewed the Cambridgehsire fens as a woman, an alternative mother: this is, after all,  the land of my birth. Very different from the Saddleworth landscape I live in now, it has its own beauty, and fenland skyscapes are legendary. I wrote this at a workshop recently, I think it was on our Line Break week in Scarborough in May. I definitely took it to The Group and have revisited it in line with feedback.

Alternative Mother # 19
The Fens

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

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

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

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

Rachel Davies
June 2018

Motherhood and/as creativity

We all need some form of creativity in our lives. I believe it is when we stop being creative that we go into decline. Some people find creativity in their work, if they are lucky. When I was in education, teaching—and head-teaching—were creative activities. It still is, I guess, for the imaginative teacher, but it becomes harder under government interference in the classroom. Some find creativity in giving birth and rearing children. My friend Pauline finds her creativity in a variety of craft forms: spinning, lace-making, making celebration cards. My daughter is creative with food—we went to hers for dinner on Tuesday and she’d made lovely spanakopita, a taste of Greece in this Mediterranean weather. And then I have POETRY! My week has been full of it.

I worked on the portfolio of ‘mother’ poems in the first part of this week. I revisited them all, weeded out the ones I really can’t live with, worked on the weaker ones and finished up with just over seventy poems I think I’m almost happy with. My next job is to put them into some kind of order: I just need to find a time when the cats are doing something else so that I can spread them across the floor and arrange them by themes or similarities/contrasts. Rosie Parker will want to help, and she’s not as much of a help as she thinks she is. She’s much better at shredding, usually as stuff is coming out of the printer.

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Rosie Parker, my PA

On Tuesday I got Bill to help me take the conservatory table out into the garden and decided to work in the sunshine for the day. I got well creamed up, got my books together, my MacBook, my iPad and settled in the garden. I wrote in my diary that ‘I worked in the garden’ but it was book-work, not earth-work. I read; loads. I revisited reading I’d done earlier in my research, my MacBook at the ready for note-taking. But it’s difficult using a screen in sunshine, so I gave up on paper books and went to my Kindle Paperwhite. After an hour in the sunshine I moved into the shade: it was too hot to work. I finished reading ‘Mother Reader: Essential Writings on Motherhood’ edited by Moyra Davey (Seven Stories Press; 2001). This is a collection of essays by various women authors/poets about being a mother and a writer, and how compatible are the two states. It was relatively easy reading, but very interesting, the different ways that women have fitted writing careers into their alternative life as mothers; or more correctly, fitted being mothers into their successful careers as writers. The book ends with short stories by some of the contributors about being a writing mother: comedy, pathos, anger, all motherhood life is here. I came across Ariel Leve’s book ‘An Abbreviated Life’ (Harper Collins 2016) through my reading and I downloaded it to my Kindle. By this time I moved into the relative cool of the conservatory: I was frying. I’m reading Leve at the moment. It is an autobiographical account of her very difficult childhood with her mother, the poet and author Sandra Hochman, whom I hadn’t heard of but who was much celebrated as a writer and poet; she moved in the same circles as Philip Roth and Robert Lowell. Hochman’s only redeeming feature for her daughter was her writing, so I must check her out as a poet. She was a monster as a mother. The book is well worth a read, I recommend it.

Tuesday evening it was our monthly Stanza at Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar. We read and discussed the poetry of Hera Lyndsay Bird this month. It was a good session. HLB is a modern New Zealand poet; I heard her read at MMU’s Business school a few weeks back and she was good. You can find her work here: https://www.heralindsaybird.com/poetry.htmlClick on a picture to get a poem. Her work is funny and surreal and entertaining. You’ll love it as much as we did on Tuesday.

Wednesday I had to go to the Black Ladd to use the Wi-Fi: our BT Wi-Fi has been pants for weeks. I had to reboot the hub six times on Tuesday and it was down again on Wednesday morning when I wanted to pay the online wages so I went to the Black Ladd to make sure folk were paid for their work. While I was there I ordered fast fibre broadband from BT, upgraded my account. We haven’t been able to access fibre broadband out here in the wilds of Saddleworth, right on the edge of the exchange’s range; but apparently now I can; so I did. It will be up and running by July 9th. If I was a conspiracy theorist, I would say that was why my Wi-Fi hub had been playing up, BT building in obsolescence to force me to upgrade; because the existing hub has been performing perfectly adequately ever since. The rest of Wednesday I did book-work in the garden again. It was slightly less fierce heat on Wednesday and I stayed in the sun until lunchtime.

Thursday and Friday I doggy-sat Amie’s two Cockerpoos while she was in London. My shifts were in the daytime; Ben was home in the evening. I got lots of work done while I was there: reading, note-taking. We took several doggy walks in the sunshine, but it was so hot for them I didn’t want to wear them out too much; just enough to make them want to sleep a bit when we got home so I could do some more work. They have energy: lots of it. They are adorable.

I was back doggy-sitting again on Saturday morning for a couple of hours. At 11.30 I collected Hilary and we went to Hebden Bridge for the launch of Clare Shaw’s newest collection, ‘Flood’ (Bloodaxe; 2018). We had lunch when we got to Hebden Bridge then a look around the shops. The reading was at 4.00 at the Town Hall. The room was packed: we were wise to arrive early enough to get a seat. The event kicked off with a choir singing one of Clare’s poems, ‘Vow’, which has been set to music. That was lovely, something different. Then Clare read from ‘Flood’. Her poet friends Kim Moore, Keith Hutson and Jackie Hagan all read poems that were linked in someway to Clare’s work, through friendship, support or feminism. I bought the collection and Clare signed it for me. I’ll look forward to reading it, when I have space, perhaps on holiday in September.

In amongst all this, I have kept up the running on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I have completed week 7 of the 9 week challenge, so this week was all about running for 25 minutes with no recovery breaks. I did it, improving the distance I ran in the time by Friday as well. Bill and I saw someone running along the pavement one day this week, a lovely smooth running style. Bill asked me if that’s how I run. I had to say I had no idea; I was too busy being inside my body running and couldn’t get out of my body to see how I was doing it; but in my imagination I’m Mo Farah. Really, I could probably walk as fast as I run, but I’m doing what I didn’t for a moment think I would be able to do six weeks ago when seven-times-one-minute runs were a challenge; and that’s style enough for me.

I’ll leave you with one of the poems I’ve been re-writing this week. It started out as ‘Some Mothers’ after Kim Moore’s ‘Some People’; but it was always too sentimental for me, too ‘mother as paragon’; where were the real mothers in it, the struggles to cope, the loss of self, the women as subjects? I put that right this week, I think. It is a series of lines from the original poem interspersed with new lines to reflect the reality of modern motherhood in the week that Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, became only the second woman prime minister to give birth while in office; Benazir Bhutto being the first. I have interspersed my lines with motherhood quotes, reproduced in italics in the poem. It’s one I can keep working on, and will for some time, but I’m happier with it now. It’s nothing like the original but I think it will earn its place in the submission of my thesis. Here it is:

 Motherhood

 having or relating to an inherent worthiness, justness,
or goodness that is obvious or unarguable

 she sits for hours with baby at her breast
or tucked onto her hip like an extension

midwives told they must respect mothers who decide
not to breastfeed

she expresses milk into sterilized bottles
goes out to find her lost self

enthusiastic, anxious, joyfully fecund, heartbreakingly infertile

she knows the lonely struggle of motherhood

she carries baby in a papoose close to her heart
where she will always hold her

she takes a short maternity break, goes back to the affairs of state

she loves the smell of babies straight from the bath
dusted with Johnson’s baby powder

‘photographing motherhood’ focuses on the mother-child bond

she knows the catch 22 of child care, knows
no matter how many hours it won’t be enough

woman posts about the realities of working as a new mum

she knows baby won’t get in the way of running a country

she loves the smell of babies even when they sick up clotted milk
on her best silk shirt

she needs childcare to enable her to work,
needs to be able to work to pay for childcare

she says a prime minister’s womb is nobody’s business but her own

motherhood, the unfinished work of feminism

she knows the stigma of benefit culture, the tabloid shame of the claim

she gets to discuss role reversal with her baby’s father,
who knows there is more to a mother than her baby

woman writes to husband asking for his help raising kids

she understands that babies are shit manufacturing plants

Motherhood is a great honour and privilege, yet
it is also synonymous with servanthood


for the love of her child she will suffer the last ignominy of the food bank

she doesn’t ignore her baby’s cries even in the middle of the night
when all she needs is the oblivion of sleep

she wants the best of motherhood and self

post-partum depression is not ‘the baby blues’

she comforts her baby even when she is so tired
she can’t remember her own name

she has to conquer the world even when she hoped
to meet herself in a peaceful dream.

the rocking of the cradle and the ruling of the world

he rocks the cradle and is happy with this
knowing phallus comes in many guises

she sings nursery rhymes so loud and long
the childfree couple next door complains about the noise

she knows love is more than new shoes, a roof to sleep under,
a full belly

motherhood: all love begins and ends there

she has a library of stories about the night her baby was born
and which fair of face, full of grace day it was.

 

Rachel Davies
June 2018

…the new fifty

Age is a frame of mind, that’s always been my mantra. It’s easy to look at numbers and think yourself old, too old to do stuff. Don’t look at numbers, look to how you feel and get out there. A couple of weeks ago my family went to see the Rolling Stones, septuagenarians leaping around the stage like youngsters; this week, William Roache (Coronation Street’s Ken Barlow) was on BBC Breakfast talking about being the oldest actor in the oldest running drama in the world. In his eighties, he wants to keep working until he is the first centenarian on a soap. His message was ‘don’t think yourself old’, my sentiment exactly. ‘So many people retire and their energy goes down,’ he said, ‘their self-renewal goes down.’ We replace our entire body of cells every seven years, apparently. Every seven years there is a new you. The cells reproduce less perfectly as we get older, like the photocopy of a photocopy of a photograph, and that’s the physical ageing bit; but every seven years we are renewed. It’s only when we look at our wrinkles, our wattle chins, our saggy bingo banners and think we’re old that we start mentally ageing; and there’s the danger.

I’m seventy-one in a couple of weeks. Shall I face it and give up, sit in front of day-time television, too old to ‘do stuff’? Not likely. Another positive affirmation came this week in this article in the Guardian online:https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/the-running-blog/2018/jun/21/what-does-running-do-to-your-brain?CMP=fb_gu

It examines the effect of running on your mental health; literally on your physical brain health. I’ve been running for six weeks, couch to 5k challenge, and even in that short time I’m feeling this article: I feel good; I feel fitter; I feel like I want to get out there and run again. I know I’m fortunate in having good health and time on my hands; but seventy is the new fifty. Age is a frame of mind. I’m going to be the first centenarian to do something—I will do such things,—what they are, yet I know not: but they shall be the terrors of the earth.Lear knew what he was talking about. Although, thinking about it, it didn’t end well for him, did it?

On Monday this week I had my annual review. One of the good things about being a seventy-something student is, you don’t have to worry about rules; you don’t have to impress with ‘right answers’—you can give truthful answers that suit you. I had a lovely conversation with Michael Symmons Roberts about how the work is coming along; about skills I have—or haven’t—developed through the year; about being on target to complete. I was pleased when he read the report from my Director of Studies: not only was it a lovely, positive report, it agreed with my own assessment of my progress. We talked about the joy of revisiting poems and redrafting them; the importance of support from poet friends but ultimately being your own harshest critic. I came away from the annual review really feeling I am up to this; I have a year left to prove that to myself and my assessors. I had my picnic in All Saints park—it wasn’t sunny, but it was pleasantly warm. From there to the library to read a couple of articles I’ve tracked down in my research and then a meeting with Jean Sprackland about the creative aspect of the PhD. We talked about poems and redrafts and edits; and we talked about putting the seventy-plus poems I have into some kind of collection order and incorporating them into the thesis before I send it to my study support team in September. I’ll send a copy to Jean and meet to discuss the poems as a collection. Monday was one of the best days of this week. Last week I talked about PMA—positive mental attitude. Monday had it in spades. I fairly skipped along Oxford Road to catch my tram home. And I was home in time for the England match. A perfect day!

On Tuesday I worked on the thesis, putting together the bibliography from my footnotes. Yes, I know, you can get software to do it for you; I’ve been on a couple of Endnote courses at MMU since I started the PhD; but I can’t get the software to work effectively on my Mac. It works perfectly, I’m sure, with Windows, but it seems to have glitches with Mac. I’ve decided to download an update and give it another go on a defunct piece of writing to see if it’s more user friendly now. If anyone can offer advice, comments below please. Meanwhile, I compiled my bibliography by hand, following the MHRA style guide. Form is all in footnotes and bibliography. I think I’ve cracked it, but I still have questions about, for instance, web-links: how do they fit in the bibliography; or do they just hold their own in the footnote?

I looked through my poems when the bibliography was up to date. I have poems in the portfolio that I am really pleased with; I have others that I know require some work. Mostly they are the early poems I wrote for the PhD; some of them a bit pompous, some a bit harsh, about ten that are just not very good. I’ll either rework them; or write new poems to replace them in the collection. On Tuesday afternoon I worked on a couple and, in my mind, improved them; very satisfying activity.

On Friday I had an email from Rebecca Bilkau, editor of Beautiful Dragons Press. I’d sent her a set of poems for the ‘Dragon Spawn’ collection, a joint collection with my poetry twin, Hilary Robinson and the triplet we haven’t met yet, Tonia Bevins. The collection will launch this autumn. Rebecca is including nine of my portfolio poems in the collection, plus three ‘non-mother’ poems for a bit of light relief. She has taken ‘Love letter to McNaught’, a poem I wrote after seeing McNaught’s comet in the night sky in Southern Australia. I’m so pleased McNaught is finding a home in the collection, he’s always been a favourite of mine, funny with end-rhymed quatrains, very rhythmical—all the things modern poetry isn’t supposed to be. I love his anarchy! Putting this collection together is exciting; and so uplifiting.

Saturday I was back at my desk. I decided to have a creative day, revisiting the poems I’m less than happy with. I completely rewrote two poems, keeping the general subject of the poems intact, but changing the form. I had written a poem called ‘Some Mothers’, after Kim Moore’s ‘Some People’. It went on a bit; it was all mother as domesticity, which I didn’t like about it. Where was the feminist angle? Motherhood is about being a woman; more, it’s about being a person. I rewrote it, in the week the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, took time out of her official duties to give birth to a girl. Women have babies; but they also have careers; and they have jobs they need to provide money for food and clothes and warmth; and they claim benefits and use food banks; and all this was missing from my ‘Some Mothers’. I put that right yesterday. It’s a very different poem now; not in the style of Kim’s poem at all. But I’m happier with it because it’s ‘truer’ to mothers, real mothers, not the mothers created by patriarchy, not the ‘angels in the house’. I reworked another poem too; a poem I wrote on a residential in Bowland a couple of years ago. It started out as a self portrait in words; I changed it into a villanelle yesterday, about how we get all our attributes from some spurious family member: mother’s nose, dad’s eyes, love of books from Great-aunt Kit, temper from cousin Rosie etc. Is anything of us just about us? My villanelle explores that, I think. I need to revisit it, it isn’t perfect, but it is forming; and poetry is a plastic art.

I’m giving you a sneak preview of the villanelle this week. Let me know what you think.

 

Legacy

 They say she has her mother’s nose,
her hair is from her father’s head
so has she nothing of her own?

Her eyes—her dad’s—are conker brown,
her height’s from mother’s brother Ted
who tells her she’s her mother’s nose.

Her granddad taught her how to knit,
she took her Grandma’s love of books;
so, nothing she can call her own?

She sketches just like Auntie Pat,
sews seams as fine as Great-aunt Kit,
who envies her her mother’s nose.

She has a mole like Nana Jones
who passed it down through cousin Jed.
So has she nothing of her own?

Her stubbornness is Uncle Jack’s,
her kindness comes from daddy’s dad
who wonders at her mother’s nose.

She likes to get lost in a book
away from family ties that bind.
So she may have her mother’s nose
but this book world is all her own.

 

Rachel Davies
June 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

keep topping up your PMA

I heard from a friend this week that he’d drawn Saudi Arabia in his work’s World Cup sweepstake and how he knew he couldn’t win. I reminded him of the power of positive thought, feeling relieved that I had drawn Brazil myself. Some outcomes are more probable than others.

Positive thinking; self belief; ‘can-do’; positive mental attitude (PMA)—these are ‘self-help’ phrases that are bandied about to make a person feel better about a situation. But oh, my—they are also crucial to being successful in life’s challenges. I learned that again this week. All week, I’ve had Friday’s run on my radar: the first sustained run of twenty minutes. I’ve been dreading it! Twenty minutes might not sound too long a run to folk who are runners, but I’m new to this. I’ve rarely done any running since I left school more than half a century ago. I’m overawed by people who can line up for a 10k, a half or a full marathon. I always wish I could do it without ever really believing it possible. I started the Couch to 5K challenge as a New Year resolution, kept it up for four weeks until bad weather, microbes and life in general got in the way. I’m a person who rises to a challenge and hated that I’d lapsed on this one, so I decided to start again on our Line Break to Scarborough in May. On New Year’s day, running for one minute seven times nearly floored me; in May, back to square one, running for one minute did seem easier, but I was glad when it was over. So this twenty-minute run was on my week’s horizon like a threat. I’d done all the runs leading up to it, the longest being eight minutes twice with a three minute recovery walk in between, so twenty minutes of sustained running was a big deal. You can see how this was playing on my mind in a negative way: ‘on my radar…like a threat’; ‘a big deal’. I know now it wasn’t the physical challenge of running that was the issue: it was the mental attitude, the lack of belief. I went out on Friday morning not really believing I could do it. But I ran when the time came. ‘Laura’, the app-voice, told me I’d been running for ten minutes, I was half way through: I didn’t feel too bad. Laura told me I’d been running for fifteen minutes, only five minutes left to run: I was feeling it, but not badly. Laura told me I only had two minutes left. I knew I would do it, even though it was hurting; because not doing it, not crossing the line after all the hard work in those eighteen minutes would be the worst thing. I did it! Laura told me to slow down for a five-minute brisk warm-down walk. I high-fived myself walked on without a break. Now I can say ‘I can run for twenty minutes non-stop.’ If I can do that I can probably run further. I feel like a runner at last. I spent Friday feeling energised and very good about myself.

I’ve spent a lot of words describing this because? Well, I feel the same about the PhD. My attitude hasn’t always been positive about this challenge either. I realise I’ve been over-awed by my own decision to do a PhD: sometimes I’ve been frightened of it, frightened of the implications of it: why did I think I could even think about doing this? Self-doubt is a black dog that’s pursued me since my school days. I like to think anyone who knows me probably won’t realise that; but always in the back of my mind, that feeling of unworthiness. As a head-teacher, I always felt like a pretender, even though I know I was good at my job. I often felt I was making it up as I went along, that other head-teachers knew exactly what they were doing and I mustn’t let them see I was an imposter. It’s ridiculous, of course, because I’m sure most of them felt exactly as I did: the goal posts move so often in education, it’s impossible to ever know the job. The best you can do is the best you can do for your school. And here I go, rambling off the point again.

What I’m saying is, you need PMA to do a PhD. It’s a lonely path. I have two bachelor degrees and two masters degrees; all of them involved a community aspect: coming together with other course members to discuss learning, to share work, to gain feedback from peers. The PhD is not like that. To a large extent you’re on your own. Of course, you have a support team, and mine has been a life-line. But there isn’t the same regular contact with other students in seminars, lectures, all the community aspects of study I’ve enjoyed up until now. Thankfully, I have friends also doing PhD; I have poet friends who are there as a positive force, keeping me going. But without PMA it’s hard; well, it’s hard anyway, but without PMA it’s even harder. And sometimes I haven’t had PMA. I’ve doubted myself; I’ve doubted my ability; I’ve doubted my right to a place on the course. I’ve made it harder for myself.

Tomorrow I have my annual review. I’m feeling positive about this—I think. I’ve enjoyed the last two reviews, enjoyed the opportunity to reflect on how far I’ve come, to see there is a clear path through this, that the end is in sight. I still don’t know if I’ll get a PhD in 2019: I haven’t become that positive person yet. But I do know I will give it my best shot. And at the end of the day, the best you can do is the best you can do.

I started addressing the advice from my study support team this week, going through the points one by one on my draft thesis, reflecting on and addressing them. It took me five hours to address three of the points, and that’s not counting the accompanying reading, so I still have a long way to go. But I can run for twenty minutes and I can do this. I have a meeting with Jean Sprackland after my review, something positive to look forward to: discussing poems is always a pleasure.

I’m including a ‘coupling’ this week. It was inspired by a letter I found in my mother’s effects after she died. I’ve had it for nearly thirty years, tucked away in my filing cabinet. It is from my grammar school Headmaster to my parents on the death of my brother. I was fourteen at the time. This letter surprised me in two ways: one, the initials on the envelope weren’t my father’s initials, they were the initials of my deceased brother. That man couldn’t even take the time to address my parents correctly. Seeing a letter addressed to their son in the week they lost him must in itself have been a hurt to my parents. The second surprise was that they sent it at all. I didn’t realise my school knew my brother had died. He had attended a different school; and in the week he died, in the week they knew he had died, I was given a Saturday detention for not handing in my homework. You will see in this some of the roots of my lack of PMA. I have joined these two facts together in this coupling. The lines on the left are the lines as they are written in the letter; the italicised lines on the right are my reflections, my response to the letter. It’s one of the poems I’ll be discussing with Jean tomorrow afternoon. I know it’s not perfect—here I go again with lack of PMA—but I keep applying polish. (Sorry, WordPress has messed with the formatting.)

Condolences, Duplicity But No Excuses

A ‘coupling’ from a letter from the Headmaster

 Dear Mr and Mrs _______

                          how empty words can be.

I am very sorry indeed

                        for I gave you his, not your, initials

at your terrible loss

                      turning my words all to cliché.

Nothing one can say

                      can now be anything but platitudes, none of which

can be of much comfort to you

                        but what do I care of your comfort anyway?

Only those who have had to bear such things can

                             know the unbearable pain of your loss or

fully understand

                                  what can’t be easily dismissed by

those of us who have children.

                                 This is incomprehensible, we

can try to

                                massage our own self-righteousness,

no more, I suppose, than that.

                              But what of her homework? For

try as we do

                             we can’t ignore school rules even in this week of a loss

we simply cannot fully understand.

                           So, Saturday detention—she’ll submit homework

I am sure

                          one way or another

however we feel for you

                       because our governors must be impressed

and yours

                       know that children are never affected

very deeply indeed and

                      what can children really feel of grief so we

are  sorry you should have to undergo

                      this personal darkness but her homework’s due:

such harrowing experience

                     such inconsistent motives.

May you be given strength

                       to lift your eyes

to see over this affliction

                    toward her end of year exams.

Yours sincerely

                      of course, because I’m the respected

Headmaster

                      of this grammar school.

 

Rachel Davies
May 2018

 

on reflecting and earwigging

It’s that time of year for the annual review of progress in the PhD. So this week I have been looking back over the year, and looking forward to next May and my final submission, in order to write my annual review report. This will be my last review. This time next year I will have submitted my thesis. It will all be over.

But this blog isn’t just about PhD; it’s about fitting PhD into my life. This week has been a mix of life, poetry and PhD, the kind of week I like best: balanced. So on Sunday I settled to work, revisiting the poems that will find their space in the Dragon Spawn collection in the autumn. I had an email from the editor, Rebecca Bilkau, with suggestions and questions about some of the poems. I addressed those queries on Sunday. The thing about editorial advice is, it’s a dialogue, I think. I read her feedback, I thought carefully about it, I implemented her suggestions for editing the poems but I couldn’t agree with all her comments. I acted on them all initially, but I reverted to the original sometimes if I thought the poem was lessened by accepting her feedback unquestioningly. I sent the poems back to her later in the day with editorial changes; or with my reasons for not acting on her editorial advice. I have heard back from her that she has the poems; she has taken them on holiday to a Greek island where she will be reading them in the Aegean sunshine over a glass of village wine. I hope my poems have a good holiday: they’ve worked hard and they deserve it.

On Monday it was poetry again. I wrote up some of the poems from our recent Line Break workshops. We’d made a commitment to take one of the poems from the week to the next Group, which was on Monday evening. I decided to take a poem I wrote from snippets of conversation I overheard during our day out in York. I called it ‘Earwigging’, being a colloquialism for ‘listening in’. The poem is included at the end of this blog. It is a ‘found’ poem, built entirely from phrases I overheard; I have included no narrative of my own at all. I have repeated some phrases for emphasis, and to give some feeling of there being a narrative behind the ‘earwigging’. A couple of members left The Group recently, for very positive reasons; and a couple had sent apologies for this week. I have to say, The Group felt lessened without them. I suppose we’ll have to find a new dynamic now and it will take time.

On Tuesday, life claimed a large piece of me. My son Michael came to stay for an over-nighter. He arrived mid-afternoon and we went to Amie’s Black Ladd restaurant for lunch. In the evening he went to the Rolling Stones concert at Old Trafford with Amie’s partner, Angus. Mike called the Rolling Stones ‘the best rock band in the world’. He had already seen them in Southampton a couple of weeks ago and thought them brilliant. Wednesday didn’t disappoint. Their energy is astounding: all in their mid-seventies now, they run the equivalent of five or six miles during the show, all while singing and playing instruments. Mike and Angus were right in front of the stage and they caught a couple of plectra the Stones threw into the crowd. Mike was so impressed he’s going to try for tickets to the gig in London for himself and Richard. It’s nice that seventy-year-olds can be such an inspiration to the younger generations: very different from the standard media portrayal of ageing as a burden, as a weakened generation needing expensive medical and social care over milky tea and plain biscuits. Good on ‘em, I say, flying the flag for a productive and energetic old age.

On Wednesday morning we met up with Amie for breakfast before Mike went back to his real life five hours drive away and I went on to do the books at the Black Ladd.

You notice I’ve hardly mentioned the PhD once in all this: it has been a big part of my week, though. I’ve been reading a lot from the reading list I got from my last supervisory team meeting. I’ve been reading in all the spare half hours between doing other stuff; reading in bed; reading during tea breaks while preparing for Mike’s visit. I love my Kindle: it’s so convenient for taking your reading with you. I’m someone who does prefer the feel and smell of a real book, actually; but with a Kindle you can carry a whole library of books in your handbag or pocket, move from one book to another, highlight passages and make annotations, follow up references, check the meaning of unfamiliar words. It’s a godsend to any student.

On Saturday I prepared my RDAR, the official university form for the annual review report. I think it’s an acronym for Research Degree Annual Review. I spent the morning working on it, checking facts, thinking about progress since the last review, trying to be honest. One focus of the RDAR was on ‘skills development’: how my skills as a researcher and an academic have been developed during the year, for instance through presentation at conferences. The quick answer is, presentation skills are not something I feel the need to develop. I presented to conferences several times as a teacher and a head-teacher; I don’t want to do it in my retirement. I am doing this PhD, the top rung in a long ladder of education, as a personal challenge, not to gain skills for future academic employment, which I don’t want or need. My skills development has all been in the creative aspect: producing, editing, publishing poetry and presenting it to various audiences; and in developing my knowledge of poetry—and academic writing—through my on-going reading. That’s the best bit for me, the aspect I most want to develop. I sent the report off yesterday afternoon: my review is on June 18th. I’m looking forward to it.

I’ve also managed to watch some tennis from Roland Garros, especially Rafa Nadal who is one of my sporting heroes. I’ll be watching the final this afternoon, whatever else I do today. I watched the England football match on Thursday too. There’s lots of football coming up with the world cup starting this week. I’ll have to ration myself to England and Brazil matches, I think, or it could take over my life and I can’t afford the time for it to do that. I must watch the Brazil matches because I have drawn Brazil in the sweepstake at the Black Ladd. Bill has drawn France, so not too shabby a couple of teams to watch out for.

Lastly, running: I’ve kept up the Couch to 5K challenge, completing week 4 on Friday. I go out early, about 7.00 a.m. for my run; it’s a lovely time of day in the early summer. This week I have had a yellow wagtail, a shrew and a robin as running buddies. I’m beginning to look forward to my running: who would have thought it possible? By next Friday I will be running twenty minutes in one go. I can’t say I’m not a little bit worried about that but hey, bring it on.

Here’s my ‘Earwigging’ poem. It is very different from anything I’ve ever written before, experimental, a bit whacky. But I enjoyed it. Of course, it won’t find space in my portfolio on several criteria: it’s not a mother-daughter poem and it’s not very good for two. I suppose I could give it more of a narrative, make a ‘story’ from it; but then it wouldn’t be what it is, a ‘found’ poem from snippets of chat I earwigged in York. Treat it as a bit of fun; I did.

 

 Earwigging

This train will be calling at—
where’s Daisy gone

what’s the difference between—
one’s keen and the other’s not
where’s Daisy gone and where did Sir go
and if you don’t pull… oh where did Sir go

get those hands washed before you—
ant ‘ad chips of a while.
he’s more likely to wear my
yer sleepin’ dad?

but—where’s Daisy gone

tell me of something they do in Bali
you’re not gangs you’re not gangs
representatives—in a row
come back for me
and do it quickly

but where did Sir go
and where’s Daisy gone
oh, where did Sir go
drinking espresso in Carluccio

so what’s more important
do it now, do it quickly tell people
eight weeks till I got paid
too much too much
tell ‘em what to do

but where’s Daisy gone

Guten dag, vilcom im der—
ulia machia how are you
a quick question or two—
what’s woh thi eh eh
and where’s Daisy?

Gone.

 

Rachel Davies
June 2018

On preferred ways of working

We all have our preferred ways of working. When my son lived with me while he did his degrees at Manchester University, he used to like music playing in the background when he was working. Sometimes he would use his student pass on the bus and travel all round Manchester on the top deck, ear-plugs in, reading. I can’t do that.  I have to have quiet: complete quiet. One of my biggest dreads at school was when the teacher said ‘just read pages 31-40 quietly and then we’ll discuss it. You have ten minutes.’ Aaargh, panic. I could hear the other 29 in the class breathing; I could hear them silently reading the words; I could hear them mentally processing the words. What I couldn’t do was read the piece myself. I couldn’t concentrate in a room full of people. When I work at home, Bill knows better than to disturb me: I’ll emerge from the study in my own time. Actually, not only do I not want him in the room, I prefer him to be ‘not in the house’. I want my head surrounded by silence, so there is only room in it for the work.

And I’m telling you this because…? Well, this week I bought some of the books on the suggested ‘further reading’ list following my team meeting last week. Some, though, were very expensive, even second-hand on Amazon. So I decided to have a day in the library to read them and take notes. I found their shelf locations on the MMU library website before I went, to save time. Yesterday, I went to the library at the All Saints Campus. I found the first book I needed in the ground floor collection, went to find a place to work. Oh my, the noise! A librarian trundled a wobbly trolley into the room to replace books; someone started the photocopier and printed off a few sheets; a couple had a ‘whispered’ conversation: note to ‘whisperers’, your conversation is more distracting than if you spoke at full voice.  Opposite me at the workstation was a young man also doing some study. Bless him, he had a cold: his nose was as red as ketchup, he kept sniffing and blowing; but worse than this, he kept doing that snorting thing at the back of his throat. I’m truly sorry he had a cold, I’m sure he was feeling rough; but oh how it distracted me from my reading! You see, I can’t do it; I can’t lose myself in a book when so much is going on; when there are other people in the room. I read as much as I thought I needed from that first book, packed my bags and went up the floor 2 to look for the other two books I needed. I found them, took them downstairs, checked them out and brought them home to read. At least I can concentrate by myself in my own study.

I had my lunch in the seated area next to the library. In the park outside, some kind of gathering of people and flags was going on. I watched while I ate my butty. A banner read ‘Veterans Against Terrorism’; seemed strange to state it, because it goes without saying, doesn’t it? Everyone is against terrorism except terrorists, aren’t they? Anyway when I finished my butty I went out to see what was happening. It was an alt-right political rally and demo march through Manchester, protesting the need for freedom of speech. It was led by the Football Lads Alliance, apparently; which sounds like a decent group to belong to, all football fans and the World Cup coming. Their banners said differently. I won’t quote them but they were hate filled. Freedom of speech? Free to say what? I caught a bus to St Peter’s Square, where security was intense: police everywhere and roads closed to give these people the voice they were craving. This was the dark side of Manchester: but my kind of Mancunians were refusing them an ear, walking away. A small counter-demo was underway I think, to drown out the hate. What a world we live in!

In the poetry part of my world, I had an email from Rebecca Bilkau, the editor of our joint ‘Dragon Spawn’ collection. She sent me editorial advice on the poems I sent her, several of my ‘mother’ portfolio. She wants twelve poems from each of the three poets in the collection. I need to visit her email again later today and address her advice: she has given us a July deadline . Also, Tuesday evening it was our East Manchester and Tameside Stanza. We are struggling for members at the moment. We have about a dozen members on my mailing list, but probably six or seven attend regularly. After apologies from members, there were three of us there this week. It was a good meeting, we had writing exercises, wrote to prompts and shared our work; but it would have been good to have a few more members present. We discussed ways to up the membership: library advertising, open-mic event etc. So if anyone is interested in joining us, leave a message here with your email address, or look on our Facebook page for news updates: https://www.facebook.com/groups/264023166946510/?ref=br_rs

Our next meeting will be on June 26that the Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar; we’ll be reading and discussing the poetry of Hera Lyndsay Bird. You can check her out here: https://www.heralindsaybird.com

In other news: my son Richard came for the day on Tuesday. I met up with him and Amie and her two cockerpoos and we went for a walk to Grandpa Green’s in Diggle for coffee, then onto Wooliknits café for an al fresco lunch. We’ve had lovely weather again all week: how unplifting is a sunny day or two? On Bank Holiday Monday I even emptied the conservatory of furniture, put everything on the lawn and gave the conservatory a much-needed spring clean. Something has to go when you’re doing a PhD, you can’t do it and everything else; and always first item to drop off my to-do list will be housework. But I can only stand it for so long before I have to do something about it. Just the rest of the house to find time for now!

Lastly, I have been running. I have completed Week 3 of the Couch to 5K challenge I abandoned earlier in the year. I’m actually enjoying it; I didn’t expect that. I’ll be out there again tomorrow, running in 5 minute bursts. Bring it on!

So, a poem to finish. This is a poem inspired by my Aunt Mary, who was completely blind. She was like the Grandma I never knew, my father’s eldest sister. She was wonderful, her blindness never hampered her. She used to ask one of us girls to take her round the house at the start of a visit so she ‘had a feel for it’, then find her own way after that initial tour. She read Braille and had a Braille wrist-watch, which I really envied even though I couldn’t read the dots. She knitted the most intricate patterns. My dad taught me how to knit, but Aunt Mary taught me how to knit things. She could always find my mistakes with her fingers and put them right. A version of this poem was published on the Atrium website in May: https://atriumpoetry.com/?s=Rachel+Davies

 

Alternative Mother #3

 Mary R

You say there’s none so blind
as them as don’t want to see,

You buy me a scarlet coat
so I’ll stand out from the crowd,

knit me rainbow socks on four needles,
make me feel the colours.

You show me how even
silent laughing can be loud
if you listen hard enough.

Your bosom
is a plumptious pillow for a story;
you tell me how bad stuff found you
but you survived it.

Be true to yourself, you say.
Live in peace with others
but always be your own lover.

 Fingertips are as useful as eyes,
you reckon, knuckles as feeling as fingertips
for finding your way out of dark places.

 

Rachel Davies