Running buddies and root canals

My week started with family and ended with toothache.

On Sunday Amie and I travelled to Peterborough through rime-covered scenery to have lunch with Richard—he was down with the flu over Christmas, high temperature, days in bed. Part of the down-side of being a teacher is you always get ill in the holidays; you hang on and hang on in term-time and crash when you break up. That’s what happened to Richard in December, so we all went out for lunch on Sunday. While we were in Peterborough, Amie bought me a pair of blue-tooth headphones in the January sales to take my mind off running; I set them up when I got home and downloaded Stevie Wonder as a run-buddy.

So. Running. I’ve been at it two weeks now, and it’s going well; better with an up-beat running partner in my headphones. When I say ‘well’, I mean I’m completing the challenge and not needing breathers; and ‘run’ is more ‘jog’ really. I should be starting Week 3 tomorrow morning, but I inadvertently repeated one of the days this week, didn’t realise till I got back to my car; so tomorrow I finish week 2 of the plan. I dread going every time, but love it when I’ve done it.

When I got home from my run on Monday I got down to some work. I filled in all the deadlines I know about on my new calendar: there are too many for January 31st, they hardly all fit in the space. I printed off documents I needed for my team meeting on Tuesday. I also printed off a poem, one of my ‘alternative mother’ poems for The Group on Monday evening. We used to meet at Leaf on Portland Street, but Leaf is closing at 6.00 in the evening from now on so we had to find alternative accommodation. We met at Porter & Cole, a bar in the Northern Quarter. It’s a lovely space, a bit of a barn, but they sell artisan items for the home as well as serving drinks. Seven of us met on Monday. I took my ‘Pope Joan’ poem: they thought it really needed her name in the title; either that or some more backstory, which would make it a different poem. I’ve just been giving these ‘alternative mother’ poems a number. Thing is, I think The Group was right, some of them do need a named title really. I have written one about Boudicca too, I think that needs a name. But I don’t want to name the women I’ve known that I’ve written about. Perhaps I should just make up names for them?

On Tuesday I caught Metrolink to Manchester for my meeting with my Director of Studies. It was an interesting meeting, didn’t go at all as I expected. Firstly, we discussed the creative work I’ve been doing, which is unusual as I don’t normally discuss the creative side in any depth with the supervisors of the critical aspect. But Antony had a suggestion to make. He wants to see me take a more integrated approach to the critical side, focussed on a ‘poetics’ approach to my creative work and the theory and analyses I’ve been doing. They were reasonably happy with the critical writing I’ve been doing so far but suggested I see that as ‘building blocks’ to this integrated piece. I won’t be putting aside what I’ve done so far, just using it differently. Angelica thought I didn’t seem to be enjoying the critical writing, it felt like a chore; and she’s not wrong. I’m much happier doing the creative aspect of the work: I’m a poet, not an academic. So she also felt the integrated approach, based in a reflection on my own poetry, might be more enjoyable for me. September loomed up before me like a beast as they were talking and Antony asked how I would feel about doing my remaining time as part-time study; effectively that will stretch the deadline to next April/May with the understanding that I can submit whenever I’m ready in that time. That sounded attractive, pushing the deadline back by a few months so I’ve applied to do that: extended the deadline without asking for extra time. Breathing space. After our meeting, I spent a couple of hours in the library checking out a Pascale Petit article that Rachel Mann recommended I read.

In other PhD related work this week, I heard from Jean Sprackland: we agreed a meeting for January 22nd to discuss the poems I sent her. These were some of my ‘alternative mother’ poems, so it’ll be interesting to get her feedback. I also started to revisit some of my earlier portfolio poems this week to edit or redraft them; and to make some ‘poetics’ notes on the process.

In the ‘life’ section of the blog, this week I’ve had a sore tooth. It started off bearable but became more insistent as the week went on. It’s a tooth I had crowned about twenty years ago and it was particularly painful when I bite on it. I thought I’d probably cracked the tooth under the crown or something. Anyway, I rang my dentist for an emergency appointment on Friday and he fitted me in mid-morning. An x-ray of the tooth revealed an infection in the root canal, so he prescribed antibiotics; but he said the antibiotics only have a restricted chance of working. I have to go back to see him in a fortnight to discuss further treatment options, the best of which is work on the root canal in his surgery, the worst of which will involve surgery at the dental hospital. I look forward to meeting him again in a fortnight then, as you can imagine. Bloody teeth. As my Aunt Mary used to say, they’re a trouble coming, a trouble while you’ve got ‘em and a trouble going. I hate teeth. When I was a junior nurse on a women’s geriatric ward, one of the patients thought she would help the staff by collecting up all the sets of dentures and putting them in the sink to clean them. Guess who had to reunite them all with their owners! So I’ve had a cringe-worthy relationship with teeth most of my life. But it would be good if the antibiotics would at least give some temporary relief to the toothache: it’s not happening for me yet.

So there you have it; another week in the pursuit of a PhD: Antony has given me something to get my teeth into; trouble is, it hurts to bite!

This poem is one of the ones I revisited this week. Years ago, when my sister found her first boyfriend, our mum said to her ‘boys only want you for one thing’, and she said ‘well tell me what it is and I’ll give it to them’. That’s how naïve we were. So this poem remembers that conversation. The story of the poem never happened, it’s just that wonderfully dismissive, old-school first line I love. Lessons we learn from our mothers, eh?


So What Is It?

Boys only want you for one thing, you said,
but you never told me what that is

so now I’m climbing the steps to the bumpy slide
at Wicksteed Park, the ladder confusing
my sense of being right side up in the world
and he’s behind me so there’s no going back

and when I get to the top, I’ll have to sit
in that little house, with my feet overhanging
the chute and a hundred miles of metal
humping between us and solid ground.

Now he’s pushing me
and I’m learning about exhilaration.


Rachel Davies




Triple Tracking and Surrealism

The Millennium reached the age of maturity on Monday. It seems like only last week that I saw in the year 2000 in Germany, where my youngest son, Michael, was stationed with the army. I have a lovely photo of me, taken at midnight on 31.12.1999, holding my grandson, Richey, who was 20 months old at the time. He is 20 years old in April. On Monday the millennium had its 18th birthday celebrations.

The first week of 2018 done, and my New Year resolutions are still on track. They have been the focus of the week; they’ve contributed to the creative aspect of the PhD as well, which is a bonus.

2018 New Year Resolutions:

  • to complete the PhD
  • to do the ‘Couch to 5k’ challenge
  • to be more organised in sending my poetry out for recognition

The first one goes without saying. Never a day goes by when I don’t contribute to that one. With only nine months left to get it done, it is on every breath I take at the moment. Which brings me to the third resolution. This week I have been working toward a system for keeping track of submissions. I’ve not been very organised in that task in the past. The joy of poetry to me is in the writing of it. Of course I love to see my work in print: it means someone valued it. But I haven’t been systematic in sending stuff ‘out there’. I’ve entered the occasional competition, submitted to some anthologies. I even kept a spreadsheet at one stage, but couldn’t really see how it was helping me. So this week I did some research. I wanted to know how other poets keep track of their own work. Good old Google. I found various spreadsheets very similar to the one I had devised myself, which hadn’t been a help to me. Then I found this: It is not only a spreadsheet for submissions, it doesn’t just allow you to keep track of acceptances; it allows you to track how many times a single poem has been rejected and resubmitted. And it includes tables (I made mine in Word) for individual poems and individual publishers/competition, so you can see at a glance where your work has been and you can avoid resubmitting a poem to a publisher who has sent it back in the past. You have to open up all three trackers and make entries every time you submit to make sure the system it doesn’t have holes in it. It all seemed like a good idea, so I spent a day setting it up. I think I’ll like it as a system; but it’s still too early to tell. However, I’ve tracked my recent submissions on this system and I’ll learn in time if it works. I’ll return to this. It’s helping the creative aspect of the PhD as well; because one of my targets this year is to submit to ‘quality’ publications. I’ve been doing this. I have sent out some of my PhD portfolio poems this week. It was very satisfying to enter them into the triple tracking system. I hope it works as well as it promises.

I also heard from a poet friend that she uses a calendar to track deadlines, so she’ll never inadvertently miss a publishing opportunity. I tend to keep those ‘opportunities’ as open tabs on my computer, and then the deadline passes and I haven’t submitted, because I didn’t check the tab again—I told you I wasn’t systematic. Keeping a calendar seems such a simple idea, I can’t think why I didn’t think of it myself. So this week I bought a desk-pad calendar to do that very thing: to write in all the deadlines I find out about, so they are a constant visual reminder to me while I’m working. This is the calendar I bought on Friday, waiting for me to fill in the deadlines I know about for the next couple of months:



So there has been progress in that particular resolution. Which leaves the second resolution: how have I done in the ‘Couch to 5k’ challenge? Well, I’ve done the first week. I downloaded an app to my iPhone and Apple watch and on New Year’s Day I drove myself to a local footpath, the track of a disused railway line known locally as the Delph Donkey, which has the advantage, in the foothills of the Pennines, of being a flat path. I followed the instructions on the app. Unfortunately on Day 1, I started at the very beginning of the track, which was well and truly waterlogged. I tried to skirt round the huge puddles but the ground around was sodden too, so I faced the challenge with thoroughly soaking feet. I wondered if I’d end up with trench foot in my bid to be fit—I’m nothing if not a drama queen. Anyway, I did it: 6 x 1.5 minute walks plus 6 x 1 minute runs with a five minute warm up and cool down. The voice on the app is of an American woman—‘yer doin’ grreat’, she says. ‘Eff off’, I respond, ‘I’m dying here’. Yup, it was hard for someone who has let her levels of fitness drop below critical. Day two I did on Thursday as I had an appointment with my rheumatologist on Wednesday. Two extra running sessions in Day 2; I actually ‘brisk walked’ the last 1 minute run, completely empty of fuel. Day 3, a repeat of Day 2, and I managed it all; so already I’m improving. It’s still torture; but I will do it because that’s who I am. I don’t give up easily. Even if it kills me.

Other aspect of my week revolved around personal stuff. On Wednesday, the rheumatologist was pleased with the progress of the ugly sisters, Polymyalgia Rheumatica and Giant Cell Arteritis. These are twin auto-immune diseases I was diagnosed with in 2014 and 2016 respectively. Coritco-steroid treatment brings its own issues, but I’m gradually coming off the drugs. I’m hoping to be Prednisolone-free by the summer. Bring it on.

Yesterday I met up with some of the staff of the primary school where I was headteacher for eleven years. I’ve been FaceBook friends with them for some time, so it was good to meet and have a good old chinwag and a laugh about those lovely days at work. It was a good school, a pleasant learning environment for the children. I believed in children and not curricula as the driving force behind school and we provided learning experiences, not targets. I’m so glad I don’t have to run a school in today’s target-driven climate. I think I would antagonise ‘the powers that be’ even more than I did in those days when the achievement of unrealistic targets was becoming what schools were supposed to be about. I’m a believer in the pendulum swing, and I look forward to the day when the child regains his/her position ‘at the centre of the education system’, as Baroness Plowden advocated in the late sixties. Unfortunately, we have a generation of children oppressed by the recognition of ‘fronted adverbials’. Whatever they are.

So, this week’s poem. I went to Kim Moore’s Poetry Carousel in December. This poem is a product of Hilda Sheehan’s workshop about surrealism. We had to jot down some dream memories. Then we found random sentences, phrases, words that attracted us, from a selection of books Hilda had brought along. At the end of the workshop we put together a poem built from these various jottings. This is my poem. I recognise the dream memories; I recognise the bits I took from books. They hang together in a ‘surreal’ poem that has no meaning whatsoever, but I like it. It has a sort of mystery, as if something is happening at the edge of the Unconscious; which of course is what dreams are; and what our random jottings from  books are. Take it for what it is.


Being dead and not having done it

and let her write her essays on Defoe,
how he was whisked into hospital,
for showing his other hand trapped
in the Grand Guinol.

Hyacinth: a body carnal. Shoes with golden heels.
The girl plays with you, runs away
to Goose Green to evade a drugs charge, pulls
chewing gum like magic porridge from her mouth.

I know what it feels like to drown. Death
is a long, lit ginnel where rutting stags cluster
around the ends of ancient languages.

As you are my judge, Pauline,
in the year of my conception my parents
were model citizens.


Rachel Davies
December 2017

Review and Preview

It’s that time of year when we put on our Janus masks, look back at the last year and forward to the next. So I’ll do a quick review of 2017. I won’t dwell on national and international events too much: they’re so depressing: just to say it seems to have been a year when the country and the world went a little mad. Sorry, a lot mad.

I think I’ve had a good year personally, though. I didn’t have any major accidents or illnesses, so in the light of recent history, that was a big plus. I had my seventieth birthday in July. They call that a ‘significant birthday’, a milestone event. I know lots of people who got quite depressed when they turned 70, but I actually enjoy my birthdays. They’re going to happen anyway, so you might as well meet them full on and have a ball. I read somewhere that birthdays are good for you: the more you have, the longer you live, so why wouldn’t you enjoy them! [insert laughing emoji]. My son Richard gave me my first—and last—ever tattoo, a Manchester bee on the inside of my forearm to commemorate the people killed in the Manchester bombing in May. My daughter gave me a gorgeous pair of glittery Doc Marten’s that sprinkle moon dust when I walk and get covetous looks from other women. It was also my daughter’s fiftieth birthday this year, so we all booked a holiday cottage in Trearddur Bay, Anglesey and went away for 120th birthday celebrations; a lovely memory.

IMG_1265The view from our 120th birthday celebrations in Trearddur Bay

I filled my year with poetry. I went on a fantastic poetry residential in St Ives in February with Hilary Robinson. Kim Moore organised it, she and David Tait were tutors and I met up with lots of lovely poetry friends. Hilary and I even got to meet Simon Armitage when we walked into St Ives one day to look for poems, so that was a bonus. Naturally, our street-chat with Simon turned up in the poems we found. In May I went on a residential in Trearddur Bay with three friends. That included a day-trip to Dublin, which was good. A poem I wrote on that week was commended in the Battered Moons competition in the Autumn, so that was good. There was another poetry residential in December, this time the Kim Moore carousel in Grange over Sands, with input from Hilda Sheehan, Steve Ely and David Morely. I had two poems published in Beautiful Dragons anthologies: A Bee’s Breakfast in February and Noble Dissent, which was released in November and will be officially launched early in 2018. I’m invited to read at the launches in York and Preston in January and March respectively.

I had a poem published in the Riggwelter online journal and have just had one accepted for an anthology for the ‘Mind’ charity, which will be out early next year. I have also been writing like mad for my PhD portfolio; I’ve started work on a new sequence of poems about women who might have been my mother but weren’t. It’s one of these I submitted to Mind. I’ll include another at the end of this post.

I’ve been to lots of readings in the year; I’ve seen/heard Michael Symmons Roberts read at the Poets&Players prize winning event in May and again in August when he read from his wonderful new collection Mancunia, poems inspired by his native Manchester. By the way, the P&P annual competition is open for entries again at the moment, details here: I’ve been to several Carol Ann Duffy readings: Carol Ann Duffy and Friends events plus a reading she gave to Nantwich Words and Music festival in October. That one was the best reading I’ve heard her give. I’ve heard Penelope Shuttle, James Sheard, Kayo Chingonyi, Malika Booker to name just a few. Yes, it’s been a good year for poetry. I’ve also read myself at several open-mic events in the year, offering some of my portfolio poems to the public. They have been well received.

It hasn’t been a bad year on the PhD front either. I’ve started writing the thesis in earnest. I attended a thesis-writing course at MMU in the summer, which set personal achievement goals to get us on track. It was good to meet fellow PhD researchers and to realise everyone has the same trepidations that you experience yourself. Also in the summer, I had a very pleasant and positive annual review meeting with Michael Symmons Roberts, which made me think perhaps I can do this thing. He advised getting my work into quality publications, and I’ve been working on that goal since. And now it’s my final year, I have to submit in September 2018 so I have to get my skates on. I have a meeting with my team on 9th January to discuss work in progress. I’m beavering away on that at every opportunity; and on my collection of poems for the creative aspect. I sent a set off to Jean Sprackland yesterday; we’ll be meeting soon to discuss them. I’ll be glad to submit and put it behind me; it’s been hard and unforgiving; it’s been intense and time consuming. When I get my life back I’ve promised myself I can read rubbish for a year! And I’ve told Bill that study and I are like boats and Steve Redgrave: if I ever mention undertaking anything big again, he has my permission to shoot me! My holiday in September involved analysis of Pascale Petit’s Mama Amazonica and that work has been really useful in writing the relevant section of the thesis. Also, a piece I wrote from that analysis, a ‘thin’ version of the Petit section of the thesis is published in The North issue 59, just out. I’m even mentioned on the front cover, which was an unexpected bonus.

Looking forward to 2018, my most important goal is to complete the PhD and hopefully see an end to it. I’ve enjoyed it immensely, but it has been stressful, full of self-doubt and angst. I have questioned why I started it in the first place: it’s a personal quest, I have no interest in university teaching whatsoever. But I did start it, and next year I will finish it. I really hope I succeed, but if I don’t, I know I gave it my best shot, and that’s the most you can say. Also, I had an Apple watch for my birthday, from my partner Bill. It is guilt inducing, because every day it reminds me I haven’t moved enough, or I haven’t stood up enough, or I haven’t used up as many calories as I should. It has become my fitness Jiminy Cricket. So tomorrow I start my ‘Couch to 5K’ fitness regime. That’ll teach it. Apple approval all round; as long as I keep it up. Watch this space. My third and last resolution is to give the house a good spring clean; although it will be autumn before I get round to it. It gets the light touch at the moment, I’m far too busy. Housework is what I do when I have nothing better to do, and if you read this blog often, you’ll know I always have plenty of better stuff to do! My eldest sister used to say ‘I don’t mind housework, but it all needs doing again next year.’ And that’s kind of my outlook on housework too. But it’s getting me down now. 2018 will be the year of the big clean-up. I can bear not to do it, but I can’t bear to half do it. When I start it’ll be full-on.

And there you have it. Review and preview. 2017 summed up, resolutions committed for 2018. I hope you have a truly wonderful and creative New Year. Eat, drink and be merry tomorrow, for on Tuesday we diet.

Here’s my poem. I revisited a poem I wrote at Mark Pajak’s workshop in Nantwich in October. So in this poem my un-mother is a sloth. There is no end to the fun you can have if you let your imagination run free. Imagine having a three-toed sloth for a mother. Well, you’d never get nagged to tidy your bedroom, would you?



 see youself as someone who relinquishes
digits to evolution then patents
what you save in your own slow show

see yourself as hanger-on
so your ceiling rose is hearth rug
the laminate floor your roof

see yourself as worshipper of inertia
so downtime is your vocation
quiescence your life’s career

see yourself as passive philosopher
pondering the energy of predator
and arriving at the ergo of leaves

see yourself as someone who is a human
failing but can’t even be arsed
to crack a smile at the irony of it

Rachel Davies
December 2017



May your stockings be filled



My Christmas Eve morning brew

It’s Christmas Eve, the day that always seemed to last for ever when I was a child. My mother spent the day preparing turkey and veg for ten for Christmas lunch; it was a day that smelled of metholated spirit and burnt feathers. No, she wasn’t an addict! She had a small, blue bottle of meths with an insert like a tiny pair of forceps obstetricians use to deliver reluctant babies. She used to light this insert with a match and it burned with a blue flame. She used the flame to burn off the stumps of feathers after she’d finished plucking the bird. She was always busy on Christmas Eve, but it was the one day in the year I longed for bedtime in those days when I was ‘happy as the heart was long’, as Dylan Thomas said. My Christmas Eve this year will be very different from that; for one thing, I’m vegetarian so no plucked birds for us. For another, I won’t be entertaining ten people to lunch.

The PhD has had its day(s) this week; I’ve got loads of work done. I spent two full days working on the Pascale Petit analysis for the critical section. I really got lost in it. The work I did on holiday in September, and the review of her poetry I wrote for The North, all came in really useful and I’ve written nearly 4000 words already. I had an email from my Director of Studies, asking for a meeting early in the New Year: we’ve agreed January 9th. So I’ll be busy later today adding to the section and updating the plan of action so he has a mental picture of what the critical aspect of the thesis will look like by next September when I submit. I need to think about that plan too: 20,000 words isn’t many when you actually start to write them.

I’ve also been busy with the creative aspect. There are benefits to being a part-time insomniac. I’ve been awake by 4.00 a.m. most mornings this week and I’ve written four new poems in my series about women who weren’t my mother. They’ve come to the paper almost fully formed, which is a lovely feeling: they needed only a little revision. One of them was a ‘sevenling’. I’m really pleased with that one. One of them was inspired by Boudicca, an historical heroine of mine. My staff used to call me Boudicca—on account of my coming from the fens—when I slipped into fight mode to plead the school’s case against Ofsted or the LEA. I’ll post one of the new poems at the end of this blog, but it won’t be the sevenling. I’ve already sent a couple of them, including that one, off for consideration to an anthology of poems for the mental health charity, ‘Mind’.

It’s been a very good week for the PhD then; a brilliant week for poetry; and life had a big slice of me too. In the week I received notification of issue 59 of The North, which will include my review of Pascale Petit’s Mama Amazonica and The Huntress. And as if that wasn’t exciting enough in itself, I am also mentioned on the front cover: a ‘feature’ on the poetry of Pascale Petit by Rachel Davies. All I have to do is get a poem published in there and my ambitions are all fulfilled. That’s one New Year’s Resolution sorted then.

On Friday I drove us south again to visit my sister in Stamford, Lincolnshire, to deliver her Christmas present. We stayed for a couple of hours, had coffee and mince pies. Her son Nick called in while we were there, so that was good. We drove from Stamford to Bourne—only about eight miles—to spend some lovely time with a best friend, Jo and her husband Bernard. I’ve known them both since we all worked in a primary school together in Peterborough in the mid-eighties. She asked me to look after her baby—he’s nearly thirty now—on the day of her wedding to Bernard. I said I would if I could have a title: I’ve never been a bridesmaid but I was a bit old for that. So I was officially ‘Mother Superior’ at her wedding; nothing to do with holy orders though, just a punning recognition of a day’s surrogacy. It was, as always, lovely to spend time with them. We only get to meet up once or twice a year: Jo spends a lot of time in her little apartment in Goa since she retired. But meeting rarely means we always have lots to talk about when we do meet up. We left Bourne at about midday yesterday as they were preparing to drive south to Tunbridge Wells to spend Christmas with children and grand-children. Finding time to be with friends and families is the best thing about Christmas.

The drive home from Lincolnshire was better than we expected given the closeness of the day to Christmas. There were a couple of hold-ups on the A1; and I took the wrong exit and ended up in Yorkshire north of the M62. But St. Tim of the Satnav sorted us out and got us back on track. We left Saddleworth in thick, thick fog on Friday morning, could barely see the slip road to the M62 at J22. The roads were clear of fog from Huddersfield though; and when we got back to J22 yesterday: thick, thick fog again. I remember telling my grandson, Richey, on one foggy day in Saddleworth, that we were really in low cloud but he had no concept of how we could be in clouds because clouds belong up in the sky. I had to show him later how clouds were still sitting on the hills across the valley after the fog had cleared on our side. Yesterday the clouds were very low on Saddleworth: you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. But this morning I can see lights across the valley, so hopefully the fog has cleared for anyone driving home today. When we got home, we lit a fire in the wood-burner and we hunkered down for Christmas.

There, another good week; a few more steps along the lane to PhD. And now it’s Christmas Eve. Later today I’ll be going to a party my lovely daughter, Amie, is hosting for friends and family. I’ll be spending Christmas with people who are important in my life; and I’ll be thinking of family and friends who, for whatever reason, will be missing from my festivities. I’ll also be thinking of those people less fortunate than me, who won’t be spending Christmas with loved ones at all, or who won’t even know the difference between Christmas Day and all the other days in a year. Spare a thought for them, and have a lovely Christmas and a happy, successful and very creative New Year.

Here’s a new poem about a woman who might have been my mother; actually she was an aunt, my dad’s sister. She always came to spend Christmas with us. She was a remarkable and very lovely woman. My dad first taught me how to knit; but Aunt Mary taught me how to knit things. She was blind, but her knitting was intricate; and when I went wrong, she could feel her way through the pattern and find the mistake and put it right. This poem is dedicated to her.



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,
teach me to feel the colours.

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

Your acres of bosom
are a perfect pillow for a story;
you tell me how bad stuff found you
but you survived it.

You tell me to be true to myself,
live in peace with others
but always be my own lover.

 You say fingertips
are as useful as eyes, knuckles
as feeling as fingertips
for finding your way in the dark.

You’re beside me every time
I knuckle my way out of dark spaces.


Rachel Davies
December 2017

Deck the halls…

It’s a strange thing about Time that some weeks have seven days in and others seem to be a fortnight long! This week has been one of those long, long weeks, but in a good way. It feels like ages since I woke up in Kent’s Bank and wrote my blog from my hotel bed. It has been a week of family; of preparation and celebration of Christmas; of concentrating on the creative aspect of the PhD—when the PhD has managed to find a slot in the week at all. The critical aspect has been bubbling away in the back of my brain and hardly made an appearance. Real life and poetry have been the things this week.

On Sunday I attended the carousel workshop led by Steve Ely. It was a workshop about writing Death, which sounds morbid and miserable but really wasn’t. It was an opportunity to give the dead a voice. We began with a murder ballad, “Knoxville Girl”. You can find the lyrics here if you’re interested:

We heard a recording and discussed what was happening in the song then rewrote the ballad in the voice of the murdered Knoxville girl. That was a good kick-off for a workshop about death. We read Emily Dickenson’s famous ‘I felt a funeral in my brain…’ and discussed that then wrote our own poems giving a voice to someone/thing that had died in a song or a legend or even in our own lives. I wrote giving a voice to Cock Robin from the children’s nursery rhyme. I revisited Lillingstone Dayrell churchyard in one poem, wrote as if the landscape was the voice of the dead: another poem for the portfolio I think. We wrote about a woodcock killed by flying into the glass doors of the department of chemical engineering, York University. Steve had brought in it’s wing for us to see, beautiful, powerful and so soft.

After lunch I decided to stay in and do some homework, getting my early draft poems onto the MacBook. It feels good to do that with poems I’ve handwritten, they feel more real, you get to see what they will look like as finished pieces. I worked so long I didn’t notice how dark it was getting: it was after 4.00 p.m when I’d done, so really dark by then. I’d agreed to meet with Hilary at 4.30 to share our poems over a glass of mulled wine. We met up in the bar, got our mulled wine and were joined by Bernice before we got to share any poems at all. So we had another mulled wine and a lot of lovely chat, but no poetry. Ho hum.

On Sunday evening we had Christmas dinner in the hotel and opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate Kim’s winning the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, then we all met up in the hall for the evening reading. Hilda Sheehan gave us a really amusing reading of her Frances and Martine poems, which you can read here:

She also read a poem she’d only written the night before after an afternoon walk out with David Morley. I wonder if that one will ever be published? Probably not!

David Morley was the second reader on Sunday; very different from Hilda’s reading, David’s poetry draws on his Romany heritage and on his work as a scientist: The evening completed with Sarah LIghtfeather Demmick and her husband giving us a performance of their country and western singing after the readings. Sarah has a terrific country voice. So it was a fantastic evening of poetry and song, but oh my, I was so tired! I left for my bed at the earliest opportunity and slept for seven hours—a long night for me.

On Monday snow disrupted huge swathes of the country, but there was none at all at Kent’s Bank; just a covering of frost and very, very cold. I packed my case and checked out of the hotel, packed the bags in the car before the morning workshop with David Morley. I was a bit worried about this one because I kept hearing from other course participants how ‘intellectual’ it was and Monday morning when I was so tired at the end of the carousel didn’t seem like a good time for being intellectual. But you know what? I loved it. Lots of alternative ways of looking at nature and writing, finding ‘asemic’ poems—poems without meaning—in nature, for instance the way a reed bank looks like Chinese writing, or the way frost in grass can look like handwritten letters. It’s an exercise in letting your imagination run wild. It’s also addictive: I’ve been seeing messages on the hills of Saddleworth this week in the way the snow lingers in the lee of walls. We wrote concrete poems from the shapes of natural objects: I chose the woodcock’s wing from Steve Ely’s workshop. David introduced us to a new—to me—poetry form, the sevenling. I’ll tell you more about the form at the end, because I’ll be posting the poem I wrote to this form. I think it might be a form I’ll be exploring more in the future.

The journeys home of folk who arrived by train were disrupted by the snow that had the country in thrall; which all seemed a bit bizarre because we had seen no snow at all in Grange. But snow further south had affected the running of trains all over the country; so I gave David Borrott a lift home as far as the Preston exit off the M6; and still no snow! In fact, we didn’t really see any snow to speak of until we got home to Saddleworth. So we were very lucky, and the journey home was a lot easier than it could have been. We arrived home about 4.15 p.m. We had a wonderful weekend of poetry, but I was so tired by bedtime I actually felt ill with it. I didn’t so much sleep as fall into unconsciousness.

On Tuesday I had to take my broken specs to Specsavers to see if they could mend them. They couldn’t, the plastic had snapped; but they could put the lenses into a new set of frames for £20. The downside was it would take until Christmas to get them repaired. I am lost without my reading glasses. I wear varifocals, but the reading portion of the lens is small and my head is constantly moving from side to side like some parody of a tennis spectator when I read books with them. So I decided to buy a second pair, which Specsavers could have ready by Thursday. I had managed to find my 50% off voucher so I used that. New glasses and the repair for £85; not too shabby.

On Tuesday afternoon we went to Peterborough with daughter Amie to meet son Richard and friends for an evening meal in Carluccio’s. We had hoped second son Mike might be able to join us, but unfortunately he couldn’t get out of work. Peterborough was looking very festive with its Christmas lights; even the ‘Ogre’s House’, as my children used to (still) call the Buttercross, was lit up for the season. We had a lovely evening: this has become a tradition now: instead of buying presents we meet up and enjoy being in each other’s company, much better than another unwanted pair of socks or something. Snow wasn’t a problem on this journey either; but coming home there was thick, thick fog in the descent from the summit of the M62 into Saddleworth. I was glad I wasn’t driving, it was nasty. It was midnight as we climbed the stairs to bed.

On Thursday I went to pick up my new specs from Specsavers only to find the broken pair repaired and ready to collect as well! So I could have saved myself the expense of the new pair. Hey ho! I spent the rest of the day preparing for a visit from my friend Joan: Christmas tree up, guest bedroom made up. This is another Christmas tradition. Joan comes for an overnight stay at this time of year and we visit my daughter’s restaurant, The Black Ladd, for the Christmas menu. We had a lovely evening: too much food, some more mulled wine, lots of chat. And Amie was at work, so that was a bonus, she joined us for some more chat. It snowed in a couple of flurries while we were there, but nothing disruptive. When we got up on Friday morning, there was a covering of snow on the cars, but the road was clear so we went out for breakfast to Albion Farm in Delph. I drove us there. Grains Road was covered in icy snow but by the time I realised, it was too late to change routes. It is a downhill road, quite a gradient, so it was a hair-raising drive, but by the time we got to Delph, the roads were clear again. I found a different route home. Joan went home after breakfast; Bill and I went into Manchester to do some last minute Christmas shopping and have a light lunch at Propertea. In the evening we went to the White Lion in Delph for Amie’s partner Angus’s 50th birthday bash. It was a good night. The birthday cake was an extravagant concoction of cream, cheesecake, chocolates and more cream; it was gorgeous. I haven’t eaten so much in months as I’ve eaten in the last week!

So, Saturday: I meant, I really did mean, to do some work to the critical aspect of the thesis; but my brain was switched onto Christmas, not at all conducive to serious academic work. I decided to get Christmas out of my head once and for all. Bill and I went into Oldham to finish Christmas shopping and to buy stamps for cards. When we got home we wrote our Christmas cards and got them ready to post. I hate that job, despite it being full of friends and family. I’m not organised enough, I think. Bill has a notebook with details of his Christmas card list going back decades. It includes ex-neighbours and work colleagues; he ticks them off as he receives cards every year. He writes dozens of cards. I write only for close friends and family, and that’s enough for me, just to let them know I’m still thinking of them even if we don’t meet very often. So that job is done now. In the evening we watched the Strictly final: well, I didn’t expect that: I won’t say too much in case you didn’t see it yet. What will I do with Saturday evenings now Strictly’s all over? I’ve been on a detoxing veg and fruit diet today to try to counter the culinary excesses of the week; so by bedtime I had a huge detoxing headache. I woke up with it still pounding it’s beat at 4.00 a.m. so I went back to sleep. I think it’s gone now; but tiptoe around me in case it comes back.

So that’s it then; a week full of poetry and Christmas. I’m relieved already to get back to normal, and Christmas still a week away! To my poem then, my sevenling that I learned about in David Morley’s workshop. The Sevenling is a poem with seven lines: two tercets and a single end line. The first tercet contains details of three things; the second tercet contains details of three other things, possibly in contrast to the first three. The single line ending is a sort of narrative summary. I like this; as you probably know from my fondness for the nonet, I like short, tight forms. Here’s a sevenling I wrote at the workshop. It’s not about anybody I know, it was a purely intellectual exercise to work out the form. It probably needs some work, but this is as it came out of my pen nib:



He lost these three essential things:
status, the respect of peers,
a knowledge of his own worth.

He found instead a hasty tongue,
a fist of stone,
a scorpion sting.

Lessened, he got by.

Rachel Davies
December 2017

A post about Christmas spirit…

I’ll be a bit later posting this this week: I’m writing this morning from Kent’s Bank, Grange over Sands, and the hotel wifi in my bedroom is temperamental. I might have to wait until I get downstairs to get sufficient signal to get online. I’m here on Kim Moore’s Poetry Carousel. It’s a different kind of poetry residential. Kim invites three other tutors to be involved. Participants are divided into four groups of seven or eight poets and each group has one workshop with a tutor each day. The tutors on this group are Hilda Sheehan, Steve Ely, David Morley as well as Kim. It’s a wonderful idea, and the ‘rides’ are as exhilarating as the Big One in Blackpool. So far I’ve had sessions with Kim (Friday evening) and Hilda (yesterday); later today I’ll be in a workshop with Steve and tomorrow morning, David. The Tutors are all different in their various approaches to stimulating poetry. Kim took the theme of ‘veiling the narrative’ and encouraged us to recount someone else’s story in our work; or just to lie! Hilda used surrealism and absurdist approaches, which I was wary of at first because I’m very much a literal thinker; but it was wonderful! She gave us strategies for developing surreal poetry and I wrote a half-decent, though weird, poem. But I did learn new approaches to building poems and I’ll be using those at home to reach out in my portfolio poems. What a great way to spend a weekend! The next carousel is in December 2018, and I’ve already put my deposit down for that one. Sketchy details at this stage, but keep in touch with Kim’s blog for further details in the coming months:

We were concerned we might not get here for the Friday start. We had snow on Saddleworth; not so much it would keep us at home, but if it was snowy at home, we thought it would be a hindrance in Cumbria. I watched for the weather reports on BBC Breakfast and, one of those modern miracles, the snow was thick in Scotland, had blown down the western edge of the UK, scuppering the Isle of Man, Northern Ireland, Merseyside and Cheshire, but left Cumbria and Lancs alone! We saw no snow on our journey after Saddleworth; and the motorway traffic wasn’t too bad either. So we arrived in Grange in time to have lunch in the Hazelmere café; and even managed to legally park in the street right outside the café window. The travel angels were on our side on Friday. We’re expecting snow later today, but it should be fine to travel home tomorrow, fingers crossed. Here’s a photo from my bedroom window, looking out over Morcambe Bay: a room with a view!


In other news, I’ve been quite productive this week, on the critical and the creative aspects of the PhD. I have started to write the Pascale Petit section of the thesis at last. Having planned it out last week, I settled to the writing of it on Sunday, and I managed about a thousand words with academic references etc. So I was pleased with that. I knew it would be difficult to find time for the critical work beyond Sunday this week because of other stuff in my life, but I used the time I had well. I also wrote two new poems for the portfolio, both of them for the sequence about women who might have been my mother. These are examples of ‘veiled narratives’: the trick is to make the lie ring true. I have so many ideas for this one: women I have known personally, but also historical figures like Mary, Queen of Scots; or women from literature like The Snow Queen or Jayne Eyre. I can have fun with it, while making serious points about the mother-daughter relationship. And following on from Hilda’s surrealist/absurdist workshop and my reading of Pascale Petit’s work, how about a lioness or a centipede or an anaconda as my mother? There is no limit to the fun I can have.

On Monday morning I did my ironing, knowing I needed to pack a weekend bag for coming away; I also did some laundry to put together a rucksack for the ‘Rucksack for the Homeless’ project in Stockport: There are similar projects in other towns, so keep your eyes peeled. The rucksack project is where my Christmas gift spending has gone this year. I’m ashamed of my country when I see so many people forced to sleep in the street. This is the sixth richest country in the world and when you go to our big cities—even to smaller towns these days—you pass a rough sleeper every fifty yards or so. It makes me angry, ashamed; I can’t spend money on the rubbish we are tempted to buy at this time of year, knowing so many others won’t know the difference between Christmas and Not-Christmas. I see people in Tesco buying A Yard of Jaffa Cakes, or ten tins of Quality Street, or other manifestations of gluttony and I can’t subscribe to it. So my money has gone to the homeless this year; although it’s like peeing in the sea. But I have done a little bit; added my drop to the ocean. Bill and I made up two rucksacks: one for a man and one for a woman. You are asked to put in a sleeping bag, underwear, socks, a fleece or warm jumper, a toothbrush, a spoon with tins of beans, soup, a flask; we also put in personal items and a Snickers bar. We packed the rucksacks on Thursday, ready for delivery. It wasn’t easy to get everything in, but we did it with a bit of brute force. It’ll be grim for the homeless this Christmas, but some at least will know they are thought about. Whisky, gin, rum: these are NOT the spirit of Christmas; helping someone less fortunate than yourself is. I’m not religious, I’m a non-believer, but I am a human being and I agree with the phrase ‘there but for the Grace of God…’ Spare a thought for someone struggling this Christmas, please. Bill delivered the rucksacks yesterday. He was impressed by the set-up in Stockport; and by the number of rucksacks that were being collected. There are good people in the world.

On Monday evening it was The Group at Leaf on Portland Street in Manchester. I took one of my ‘women who could have been my mother’ poems. It is about Hilary’s mother, whom I never met, but I went to her funeral as an emotional support for Hilary, and this poem is based in Hilary’s eulogy for her mother, who sounded like a wonderful woman. After the funeral I asked Hilary if I could be her sister because her mother sounded like an fantastic mum: her response was, ‘you already are my sister!’ How kind is that? So in a sense this is about a woman who was my mother in some—only slightly—parallel universe. I love this poem. It was well received at The Group too. I won’t post it, but I will post the second poem I wrote: it still needs some work, but it’s a different kettle of fish altogether, a bit of fun prompted by a woman my sister used to work with back in the 1960s. She was a ‘formidable woman’, as the cliché goes. Being her daughter wouldn’t have been a silver spoon.

Tuesday I went for lunch with Hilary, her husband David and my partner Bill. We went to a vegetarian restaurant, Green’s in Didsbury. It was lovely. I’ll definitely be taking my vegan son, Richard next time he visits ‘up north’. Also on Tuesday, Hilary and I were invited to read in York in February: this was a case of ‘third time lucky’: we haven’t been able to accept the previous two invites. We also received our copies of Noble Dissent, the latest Beautiful Dragons anthology. My poem ‘Candidate’ is in there, a pastiche of Jamaica Kincaid’s prose poem, ‘Girl’. Hilary’s poem in there is inspired by the suffragettes. There are some cracking pieces of work in this collection. Noble Dissent isn’t on their website yet, but it will be soon. We are reading at the launch in Lancaster on March 17th next. We were also invited to the York launch on 29th January; so Tuesday was a good day for poetry related stuff. Perhaps we’ll see some of you at these events?

So, that’s come full circle. I have arrived at Friday, where I started this blog. I’m looking forward to the rest of my weekend in Grange, and I’ll leave you with the poem I talked about earlier. It was a bit of fun; Mary B was a down-to-earth woman who liked a drink—she wasn’t alcoholic, I don’t think. She had a few memorable sayings, some of which I have alluded to in the poem. She talked of her ‘bronchial chest’ and her ‘gastric stomach’, not realising these were pointless adjectives. She also used to say ‘better late in this life than early in the next’; I think of her every time I am harassed by aggressive drivers in my rear-view mirror, or overtaken on blind bends, for instance. Any way, here’s what I think life would have been like if Mary B had been my mother; it still needs some work but I’m fairly happy with where it’s going:

Mary B

You’re always complaining
about your bronchial chest
or your gastric stomach.

You say your chest’s
like a bit o’ raw beef
but that doesn’t stop you

lighting up a Park Drive,
sucking its toxins
deep into your lungs;

and the ulcer doesn’t stay
your daily visits
to the Hare and Hounds

where you down whiskeys
like doses of medicine,
leaving me in the pushchair

out on the pavement
with a bottle of coke
and a bag of ready salted.

Rachel Davies
December 2017



It’s December, so Christmas is allowed now.

Oops, I’m a bit late this week. I got lost in working on a new poem this morning. Poets, eh?

I’ve had a good week this week: productive for work, lots of poetry, time with friends. Last week, my younger son, Michael, complained that the blog was a bit boring: it was all poetry and no social life! I think he was joking, but just in case, I’ve been a bit more of a social animal this week, Mike.

I took the day off work on Sunday. The head-cold I had a couple of weeks ago has been threatening, but not quite managing, to come back all week, so I gave myself a day off work and bummed the day away. But bumming won’t get me a PhD, so on Monday I gave myself a good talking to and I was at my desk by 9.00 a.m. I prepared the ‘anonymous poems’ document for Stanza. I realized I didn’t have a poem to include so I wrote one from the notes I took at the James Sheard workshop a couple of weeks ago: a poem about Lillingstone Dayrell churchyard for the sequence about my brother’s death. It was very first draft, but that’s OK, that’s what a critiquing workshop’s for. I sent the poems out to Stanza members in time for them to have a read before the meeting on Tuesday.

When all that was out of the way I got down to the critical aspect of the PhD. I cut-and-pasted into a single document the Pascale Petit poems from Mama Amazonica that had references to masks or mirrors, in whatever guise. I re-read the poems and my analyses and inserted notes and academic references in contrasting colours. By the end of the day’s work I had completed Mama Amazonica and was ready to begin the process again for The Huntress. That was Tuesday’s job sorted. Two really productive days at the critical work, with a new portfolio poem written as well: I felt really satisfied with what I’d achieved.

Tuesday evening it was our monthly Stanza meeting, the first one since the Stanza reps meeting in York on Saturday. There were five of us there. We discussed the way forward for our group: how could we increase membership, which has dropped off since we moved to Mossley in the summer. We decided to try a move back to Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar for the next meeting in January. It seems easier for folk to get to than Mossley, so perhaps lapsed poets will return to the fold. The business out of the way, we settled to reading and discussing the poems. It was a good night: lots of variety in the poems and good discussion. Surprisingly, my poem about the churchyard was really well received; I got good advice on pruning it a bit to make it tighter, but considering I wrote it very quickly on Monday morning, I was pleased with the feedback, not what I expected at all.

On Wednesday Hilary and I went to the Bad Language poetry reading at Gulliver’s Bar in Oldham Street, Manchester. Helen Mort should have been the headline act; Hilary had an open-mic slot. But Helen was taken poorly and had to send her apologies for the event, so that opened up extra open-mic slots, one of which I managed to get. It’s not often you get to say you were a stand-in for Helen Mort; perhaps I should include it in my poet’s biog? No, perhaps you’re right.

Thursday was a day dominated by microwave ovens. Ours has been on the blink for weeks, we kept threatening to replace it but hadn’t got around to it. It was fitted into the kitchen units and we weren’t sure what a replacement would look like. However, the situation became critical when it failed to notice when its own door was closed, so on Thursday we visited Appliances Direct and looked for a new one. Bill had measured the space and we found a combi-microwave—which I didn’t particularly want but it filled all the size and colour requirements—and we bought it. In the afternoon we took the old microwave out of its housing and prepared to fit the new one in the space. Unfortunately, Bill hadn’t taken a ‘depth’ measurement, and combo-microwaves have a very ample hip measurement: a kind of bustle at the back to house the element or something technical like that. It was a good 5cm. too deep for the space so we had to take it back and change it. We bought a little Daewoo instead. It fitted: it looked lost in the space in fact. Bill considered all kinds of complicated solutions to the problem. I just moved it slightly off-centre, placed four cookery books beside it and a pretty dish on top. It works. Lesson: always look for the easy solution!

Friday was the most sociable day of the week, Mike. I met up with Hilary Robinson and Polly Atkinson at the Manchester Art Gallery. We had lunch and began to plan our next poetry week away in the spring. We used to call these our ‘bitch weeks’, but two of the bitches have moved on, so we decided to rename them our ‘Line Breaks’: clever, eh? We’re hoping to go to the west midlands next year to take in the Wenlock Festival if possible: the website says there will be a festival next year, but no details yet. We’ll all look for cottages with different providers and when we have dates for the festival and three cottages each we fancy, we’ll meet up again to book the cottage and festival events.

We went from the Gallery to Albert Square for a cursory look at the Christmas Markets: really we were looking for a mug of gluwein. Hilary and I fancied the Santa mugs they were serving hot chocolate in; but they wouldn’t serve the gluwein in the white mugs because the measure was wrong. We were told by the girl behind the bar that if we had a gluwein in a black mug  she’d change the black mug for one of the Santa mugs when we finished our drinks. Here’s a pic of my white Santa mug from Manchester Christmas market, 2017; nice, eh?

IMG_1299     IMG_1298

It was back to work on Saturday. I planned to carry on with the Pascale Petit analysis. But I was sidetracked by the Aurora Leigh reference Rachel Mann sent me last week. I just meant to read Book One to find the reference she recommended, but I was enjoying reading it so much, I went onto the Kindle shop and bought the book. I spent the morning reading it and didn’t get any further with my work. It will be useful, honest. I promise to get back to Petit later today. Saturday was also the day that the December issue of Riggwelter online journal was published, with poems by Hilary and me included; link here:

Friday was also the day we learned that Kim Moore, our lovely Cumbrian poetry friend, has won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize for her first collection, The Art of Falling. Very well deserved, too. Details here:

I’ll be at Kim’s carousel poetry weekend from next Friday. I think it could involve bubbles; well, it will involve bubbles, even if Kim doesn’t want them!

Yesterday was Mike’s birthday, so we had a telephone chat. He was having a good day including watching Manchester United versus Arsenal on the telly. I’m pleased to say our beloved Utd beat Arsenal at the Emirates: 1:3 final result, a nice birthday present. Come on you reds!

I’m posting the poem I sent to Stanza this week. I haven’t worked on it since the feedback, so you get to read the raw first draft. At the Sheard workshop we made notes of a place we visit regularly in our poems: either real visits or visits in our heads. I made lots of notes of the geography of the churchyard. The final couplet popped into my head unbidden while I was making my notes. It was a total surprise to me; and as Robert Frost said: ‘no surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader’, so I hope it surprises you too. It has a working title: the original title was too silly to retain. I could tell you what it was, but then I’d have to kill you.

Dayrell Churchyard

 The church stands in the middle of a field,
a parish church with no discernible parish, just
a few houses like loose teeth in a broken denture.

The giant yew trees bring a foreboding of darkness,
The church squats beneath them playing hide-and-seek:
it’s been counting to a hundred since Norman times.

The thick oak door wears its iron furniture like a threat,
but it’s never locked. Go inside, feel the cold discomfort,
see the simple altar, smell the decay of damp prayer books.

It’s not warmed by the needlepoint kneelers from the WI
or the bright posters advertising Christingle, or Lent, or
Epiphany depending on your visit. There’s no stained glass.

Now I’m out in the graveyard beside a gravestone
that reads loving wife and mother, loving husband
and father, beloved son and brother.

 I remember the day they first opened that grave,
placed you in it carefully, like the treasure you were,
threw that first spade of soil onto your oak bed.

That was the day I came face to face with God
and turned my back.

Rachel Davies
November 2017

The unpalatable secret of eternal youth.

Sometimes working for PhD doesn’t feel like work at all, so this week I feel as if I’ve been slacking; but I really haven’t. It’s just that the work I have done hasn’t been behind a desk. It’s been one of those weeks it’s been difficult to fit in desk-time.

On Sunday I did lock myself in the study for the morning. I filled in an RD9 record of my support team meeting. It’s all done on ‘Skillsforge’, the university’s on-line recording system. It’s a bit of a chore filling them in, but they are a necessary record, and it helps to remember what a positive experience the meeting was. I also sent out my Stanza mailing: it’s our next Stanza on Tuesday this week. I can’t believe a month has gone since Pat and I dressed as witches and read spooky poems to each other. I know for a fact there will be more members there this week. Details of what we’re doing can be found here, so if you feel like joining us, you’ll be most welcome:

All the admin out of the way, I settled to the serious and pressing stuff. I looked for instances of ‘masks and mirrors’ in my poem analyses of Pascale Petit’s work. What a wonderful thing is a search engine. I used the ‘search in this document’ facility and found more references to those things even than I expected, especially when I typed in ‘make-up’, ‘disguise’, ‘reflections’, etc: variations on the theme. So I narrowed down the number of poems I’ll be using for my critical piece on Petit’s poetry. I re-read the poems as well: not a chore at all. I felt I’d had a good morning’s work by the time I stopped for lunch. Pressing housework was my prevarication for the afternoon.

On Monday evening I went to the workshop at Leaf on Portland Street. The group, after a vote of its members, is now officially called ‘The Group’, which I don’t think will change much, do you? It’s a fairly unambiguous title, don’t you think. Anyway, I picked Hilary up to catch Metrolink into Manchester. It’s the first time I’ve seen her since she came back from her globe-trotting holiday, so it was particularly lovely to spend time with her. We made space for coffee and chat before The Group started. There were six of us there, and some lovely writing shared. I took a recent poem from the sequence I mentioned last week and got some useful feedback. They felt that when I get into writing the sequence, I could even have more than one poem from that one piece. They also said—wonderful idea—that as it’s a sequence I could have a narrator/chorus to fill in the narrative blanks that a series of poems written in the voices of different characters necessarily threatens for the reader. So I came away feeling fired up to get on with some more of it. If you are serious about writing—poetry or prose—and you live in the Manchester area, you should try to come along. Amy McCauley and Rosie Garland are members and they in particular are seriously spot-on with critiquing work, they get right to the meat of issues. We meet here: every second Monday, 6.00p.m. to 8.00 p.m.

On Tuesday I went into Manchester again, to meet up with Rachel Mann. She has just completed—and achieved—her PhD. We met when we started our MA in Creative Writing at MMU in 2007, so I have known her for ten years now. We met over tea and toast in Proper Tea. I wanted to pick her brains about masks and mirrors in the poetry of, particularly, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti, two poets she studied in depth for her PhD. She didn’t disappoint: she gave me lots of references in ‘Aurora Leigh’; and an article by Pascale Petit asking if women write differently to men. When she emailed all this to me she threw in a chapter in Elisabeth Bronfen’s Over Her Dead Body, and Rossetti’s ‘In An Artist’s Studio’; how generous is this of her time and knowledge. I say again: the community of poets…

On Friday I drove south to visit my sister in Stamford, Lincs. We haven’t seen each other since May so it was good to catch up. She made us a lovely lunch too: overload on Stilton cheese and trifle—not on the same plate, obviously—and lots of chat. We drove home via Holmfirth and the first snow of the winter proved a challenge driving over Saddleworth Moor, although it disappeared as we descended into Greenfield. I cursed the decision not to stay with the A1 and M62 route then, but it was snowing in Denshaw when we got home as well, so I think the route down from the motorway to the village would have been as hazardous. I really don’t like winter: I was born in one of the hottest summers of the last century and I’m definitely a summer person. Roll on Spring, I say.

It snowed again overnight, there was about two inches of lying snow when we got up on Saturday and it was still coming down. I was due to go to York for the Poetry Society Stanza Reps meeting on Saturday, so I cursed the snow all over again, thinking I’d have to cry off. But by 9.30, when Bill took me to Stalybridge to catch the train, the roads were passable so I did manage to get my train. Interestingly, there was no snow at all on the other side of the Pennines; it was a lovely crisp, sunny, cold winter’s morning, but no snow. I was in York before mid-day. The Christmas markets were on, so it meant queuing for everything, even a cup of coffee in the many cafés along the street into the town centre. But I eventually got a cup of coffee to take out and I sat in a courtyard by a church and ate my packed lunch and drank my coffee and felt generally at peace. My meeting started at 2.00 p.m. It was good to meet up with old poetry friends: Paul McGrane, Bernie Cullen, Simon Currie; but also good to meet new people. It was a lovely meeting, so many different approaches to running a stanza, and all valid. I learned a lot about reviving our dwindling fortunes at the East Manchester and Tameside Stanza: we’ll be discussing some new ideas on Tuesday.

I’ll leave you with a poem that couldn’t be any newer if it tried: I just finished it this morning. It’s part of the same sequence; and I apologize: yes, it is a double nonet. I have this rhythm in my head and I must break it, but this one tells thoughts about death I’ve held for a long time. I often think of my brother, how we lost a brother, our children lost an uncle. But when I think of him, he’s always seventeen. Laurence Binyon wrote ‘They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old’, and here I am, his younger sister being old enough to be his Grandma. So it’s these thoughts in this week’s poem. I promise I’ll never write another nonet, ever. Although…


The Secret of Eternal Youth

You were seventeen when you found it.
I was fourteen. Now I’m older
than Grandma was then and you’re
still seventeen. There’s
no portrait in
the attic,
no foul
no fresh clear
water springing
from the summit of
Mount Olympus. You found
the lost key to eternal
youth and it’s the simplest truth:
you died. You’re seventeen for ever.


Rachel Davies
November 2017

Travelling that divergent path…

Yesterday I met some poet friends who started their PhD at the same time as me: we were on the same induction programme two years ago. It was good to see them, because PhD can be a lonely journey: you plough your own furrow and the more you plough, the bigger the field seems to get. You work away on your own research, and it takes you where it will: there are productive routes and there are interesting but diverting side paths. And then, suddenly and surprisingly, you reach a place where ‘two roads diverge’, as Robert Frost said, and you decide to take ‘the road less travelled’, because that is the requirement of PhD: an ‘original contribution to knowledge’. That sounds such a daunting phrase at the outset: if it is an original contribution, how will you discover it among all the existing knowledge you’re researching. But the phrase needs bringing down to size: you aren’t looking for a new knowledge system, just a new slant on an already huge body of human experience. For me, the lightbulb moment came in reading Pascale Petit’s Mama Amazonica in the summer. That’s when I found my ‘road less travelled by/and that has made all the difference.’ It was reassuring to hear that the experience of friends mirrors my own: we are all searching for our own way out of those woods.

This week I had a meeting with my support team for the critical aspect, so I concentrated on the creative aspect of the PhD at the start of the week. This is my favourite kind of work; it constitutes about 75% of the thesis and yet it gets the smaller share of my time while I knock the 25% that is the critical aspect into submission. So it was good to spend time on just writing poetry. I prepared plans for three short sequences of poems; one is a single event viewed from multiple perspectives. My intention for that one is to give a voice to everyone involved in the event, even the dog. I also prepared a plan for a series of poems about women who might have been my mother: thank you to Kim Moore for that idea; and one directly related to mirror theory, about all the mirrors held up to me as a child to provide opportunities for me to become ‘me’; or, conversely, to allow me to develop the masks that became the multiple faces of me that enabled me to negotiate my place in the world. I even wrote a couple of poems for the first sequence, one of them fulfilling the ‘syllabics’ framework I talked about with Jean. Unfortunately, it’s another nonet, about which more later. I must get beyond this little nine-line wonder, but I do find nonets very satisfying to write.

On Tuesday I went to MMU to meet Antony and Angelica, my support team for the critical aspect, to discuss my ideas for a ‘masks and mirrors’ focus on the work. I had sent them a piece to whet their appetites a couple of weeks ago, explaining that it was just to show them where my thoughts were leading, that there was an authoritative theoretical base for said focus. None-the-less, they were concerned that I was getting bogged down in the theory, and that, with only 20,000 words to play with I needed to get straight in with the analysis of the poetry and bring the theory into that rather than dedicate space to the theory on its own. I’m happy with that. They also asked, was I changing direction from the ‘mother-daughter’ theme into something completely different at this late stage: that wouldn’t be acceptable. Good God, no! Absolutely not; I’m planning to examine the mother-daughter theme through a focus on masks and mirrors. They were happy with that and thought the focus could be a good idea, a good way to bring a huge body of work down to manageable size. Yes, that’s what I’d hoped for. I’d also sent them the review I wrote for The North as a taster of where I was going with the Petit analysis. Interestingly, one of the parts they liked most about it was the inter-textual bit about Tennyson’s ‘Lady of Shalott’: Antony thought I could have developed that idea in much more depth. This was one of the ‘academic’ bits I toned down in the review, on the request of the editors! Different strokes for different folks! Antony asked me to send him the sections on the sonnet and the Selima Hill analysis that I’d revisited following our last meeting in the summer; I sent it, on the understanding that the Hill section would be redrafted now to some extent in the light of the ‘masks and mirrors’ focus. There is lots of useful stuff in ‘My Sister’s Sister’, on masks in particular; redrafting it won’t be a huge problem. So, altogether it was a productive meeting and I came away feeling good about my work and I actually felt as if the end might be in sight.

After the meeting Antony sent me an example of a creative-critical PhD thesis that might give me some insight into the process of writing it. It was, he said, nothing like my own work, but the style of the writing might be helpful for me. I read it in bed on Tuesday night. It was a PhD from Edgehill University, so it had a heavy emphasis on poetics, which is an Edgehill creative writing interest: I know this because a friend has just completed her MA in Creative Writing from Edgehill. So the thesis was quite avant garde in it’s approach; but it was a useful read, because a large part of it wasn’t really prose at all, but a fairly staccato series of reflections, a list in single sentences. It was food for thought, though, that the thesis can be what you want it to be, that it doesn’t have to follow academic rules. This is reassuring to one who has struggled to become fluent in acadamese.

On Saturday it was the Poets & Players event at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. James Sheard ran a poetry workshop in the morning: it was interesting because we didn’t actually do much writing, but we did a great deal of discussing ideas. The theme of the discussion was ‘the territory of the poem’: territory in terms of ‘place’ but also the psychological territory explored in poetry. I found this useful. The piece of writing we were asked to do as a culmination of the disucussion was focussed on a particular place we visit regularly in our poems; we had to make notes on the place in terms of its concrete elements that make it real. I chose Lillingstone Dayrell churchyard, where my brother is buried. My brother’s death was a huge event for me when I was fourteen; he was just seventeen. I began by thinking about the churchyard, the yew trees, the gravestones, the situation of the church surrounded by fields, the church itself, its Norman origins, its huge wooden door which is never locked, the cold discomfort of it. And then the thought popped up that it was here ‘I came face to face with God and I turned my back’. Wow. It’s true, this was when I became an atheist; at my brother’s funeral, when they put his coffin in the ground and threw soil onto it. How could a beneficent god allow that? There is the skeleton of a poem in that thought alone. So it was a productive morning all round.

The afternoon event involved music from students of Chetham’s School in Manchester: so young, but so much talent. There were two string quartets, one played to start the event, the second opened after the break. They were wonderful. The poetry readings were by Rebecca Hurst, Kayo Chingonyi and James Sheard. As usual it was a wonderfully uplifting event: poetry and music in the south gallery; and the green parakeets in the trees of Whitworth Park through the huge windows. Fantastic.

It’s been a productive and positive week. Oh yes!

I’ll leave you with another nonet: I promise I’ll break the habit soon. This is a response to a longer poem, ‘Not good enough for sainthood’, that I wrote from another perspective, the sister’s, on the same event. It is part of the sequence of multiple viewpoints for the same event, the untimely death of a young man, my brother. This nonet is written in his voice; it doesn’t stand alone particularly well, perhaps, but it works in the context of the sequence, I think.


I didn’t ask for sainthood

 …truth is, it hijacked me that summer
out in the fields, helping strong men
harvest hay; gut wrenching pain,
theatre, surgeons, counting
to ten backwards then
the eternal dream.
I much preferred

Rachel Davies
November 2017


The 3 Pees: PhD, Poetry and Parking Fine

Hard to believe, but this is the first time since I left school that I’ve been registered as a full-time student. I decided on full-time because six years seemed like forever when I started this PhD: I knew I would be 71 when I finished, even if I registered full-time, and that seemed old enough for anyone to be studying in this depth. So I registered for the three year, full-time option; and even then, three years seemed like a long time. Now, I’m well into the third year, the sand is running out. I recently paid my first of the final year instalments; only two more to pay!

But I keep chipping away at it like a word sculptor, making it take shape. I’m beginning to see the finished piece. Sunday last saw me at my desk after breakfast. I decided to make a start on putting my theoretical reading into something. I had thought not to write anything until after my meeting with my supervisory team: we’re meeting on Tuesday this coming week to discuss my ideas about masks and mirrors in self development. But it seemed like a good idea to have something to show them where I intend to go with it, so I started writing my piece on Sunday. I realised in writing it that it was heavy on mirrors with less on masks, so another library search found a good academic article on multiple identities in adolescents: multiple identities is an aspect of masking, so that was really useful.

So Sunday was a good day’s work. I picked it up again on Tuesday. More library searching and I found another article on Winnicott’s theory of the True and False self. I have read Winnicott, but this was a useful article, and it put me in the direction of a Winnicott book I haven’t found yet. They have a copy in MMU library, so I’ll be seeking it out on Tuesday. I drafted my own writing onto the recent review I wrote on Pascale Petit’s poetry: it’s that I’m going to develop for the Petit chapter of the thesis. I ‘red-penned’ places to be developed and notes to self on where to go next; and it was at this stage when I sent it off to Antony and Angelica as a discussion document, with the proviso that it is a very early draft discussion document, not an academic piece needing assessment.

I also heard from Jean Sprackland on Tuesday. She reminded me we haven’t met for ages and perhaps we should set up a meeting soon. It is indeed some time since we met: it must be last May when we last had a discussion around the creative aspect of the PhD. We talked then about concentrating on form and syllabics. Although I have new poems for the portfolio since then, I’ve written very little within those form perameters. So I got back to her asking if we could meet in December: I’ve been concentrating too much on the critical side—as usual—and the creative has been back-burnered somewhat. December would give me time to compose some poems for discussion. Her reply was we could leave it till January if that helps; so agreed on January as a deadline and I wished her Merry Christmas, despite it being early November. I’m a ‘keep Christmas for December’ person: as a recent FaceBook meme said, ‘There are twelve days of Christmas and none of them are in November’. So it seemed strange giving out Christmas wishes in November; but not as strange as the house I saw the other day, all decorated up for the season. Please!

As a result of that email from Jean, and in light of the critical piece having gone off for discussion, I did concentrate on the creative aspect on Saturday. I spent the day in my cat’s favourite chair—he wasn’t impressed—in the study, notebook and pencil in hand and worked on a new poem in a syllabic format. I’ll include the early draft at the end of this blog. It’s only a short poem, a nonet; but it took a big bite out of the morning. I think I’m pleased with it, but I need to put it away for a week or two and come back to it with fresh eyes to know for sure if it’s repaying the time and effort. I also wrote a second poem based in the ‘timeline’ idea from Mark Pajak’s workshop in Nantwich last month. I chose the wrong poem for my starting pistol, I think, and my own poem doesn’t work. It’ll be deleted from my MacBook later today. Sometimes you know immediately they don’t work; not even worth working on. It happens. I’ve learned that to write that kind of poem, you need a starter with a distinct story, an ‘event’ poem. I tried to work from one of Pascale Petit’s Mama Amazonica poems, to tie it in with the critical aspect. It didn’t work, not enough happening as a story. I decided I need more direction in my creative work so I devised a plan for a series of poems to follow a story, multiple characters and voices all focussed on the same event. I’ll be working on that later today.

In other news: Poetry and Life. In ‘Poetry’, my copies of Magma: The Deaf Issue and PN Review dropped on my mat this week. Good to see poets I know personally and some who are only known to me through their words in there along with poets who are new to me. I’ll enjoy reading these two lovely magazines in my tea-breaks this week. I also paid the balance on the Poetry Carousel that Kim Moore is running in Grange-over-Sands in December. I’m really looking forward to that one: a round of poetry workshops with David Morley, Hilda Sheehan and Steve Ely as well as Kim. It’s been an expensive couple of weeks; but worth every penny.

In ‘Life’, Bill had an appointment at the hospital on Thursday. It took ages to find a parking space: all the hospital car parks were full with several cars looking for spaces. I tried the local streets but they all have ‘Permit Only’ signs, so no joy there. After about fifteen minutes of driving around looking, I came across a car park at the back of the hospital I didn’t even know existed until Thursday. I found a space and was so excited to have parked the car and be just about in time for his appointment—if we could find the location of the clinic—that I forgot to pay. Yup, I had a little packet behind the windscreen wiper when we returned to the car later. I handed it to Bill to take care of. Two parking tickets in one month? Seemed fair to share this one! Then on Friday, I met my friend Joan for dinner. We meet once a month. Joan has recently joined a reading group and they have been reading the poetry of Ruth Padel, which reminded me of her Radio 4 programme ‘Poetry Workshop’ that my Poetry Society Stanza was involved in in 2012. We had a lovely afternoon working with her; she is a gracious and generous woman. Joan was pleased to know I had met her.

So, to my latest poem: so new the ink’s barely dry. I was thinking how it’s easy to hold grudges against the ones who reared us. My own children have this on-going banter about how hard-done-to they were as children. But when I reflected on my relationship with my own mother, which wasn’t an easy one, I realised that life was hard for her, that she had to give up so many of her own aspirations in being a wife and mother. She was born too soon, should have had a career as well as a domestic role. She was too intelligent, gave too much to being a wife and mother. I think it hurt her in ways we weren’t aware of as children, but which I appreciate now, as an adult looking back. That is what this is about, if it’s about anything.


Molly 2

Why did we expect her to give like
some dumb altruistic martyr
beguiled by an after-life?
We were the stakes of her
endless slow-burning
woodpile, turned our
deaf ears to
her mute


Rachel Davies