Evening all! It’s been a few weeks since I last blogged. I’ve been busy revising for my PhD viva – or more accurately, panicking about my PhD viva.
Lots of people kept telling me that I should enjoy my viva, as it’s the only time I will get to talk to people who have read my whole PhD and are interested in my work.
I can see the sense in this, and the truth in it, but the rebellious part of me started to wonder why this is accepted as fact. Why is it the norm that a PhD thesis will not be read by anybody except a few other academics interested in the same topic? I could, I suppose, approach an academic conference of some kind to present my work – or at least, I could have done this before lockdown.
And I have done a few events where I have combined my creative and critical research. However, the thing that I often got frustrated about was that one of the things I enjoyed the most about writing the thesis, and the thing that unlocked the PhD as a whole was structuring it as a ‘reader-directed’ text. This means that there are options embedded in the thesis, and readers have to choose what they would like to read, and look at next.
So I have decided to do an online reading of some of the thesis which will feature online polls so that the audience can decide what they would like to listen to next! This is something that would just be impossible or very unwieldy to make work at a live event, so I’m really excited about the possibility of trying it out over Zoom.
This is an experimental reading – there will be a mix of prose and poems and I have no idea if it will work. I will share as much of what I’m reading as I can on screen, so that people with hearing issues can read along as well. Some of the content may be upsetting and deals with sexual harassment, violence and trauma.
The format of the thesis was partly inspired by my love of ‘Choose your own adventure’ books as a child. I will never forget the sense of power those books gave me, and the sense that language holds possibilities, and that writers wield those possibilities. I really hope some of you can join me on what feels like an adventure into a new way of meeting creative-critical research.
And last thing is – tickets went up this morning on FB and Twitter, and somehow have already managed to sell 50% of the tickets – there is a limit, despite the event being online, due to Zoom capacity. So if you’d like to come, please follow the Eventbrite link below to book a ticket.
If you would like to come, but can’t afford to, for whatever reason, please get in touch. I have three free tickets which have been kindly donated by fellow writers and would really like them to go to a good home. You don’t have to explain personal circumstances or anything – just let me know you’d like one.
I can’t believe it’s been a whole year since I optimistically posted that I would still be blogging, but just not as frequently. Such a lot has happened in that year – I now have a fourteen month old Ally, who has completely changed my life, and we are all living through a global pandemic.
I clicked on my blog today looking for something else, and felt really sad that it was gathering dust and not active anymore – it was a place where I made so many lovely connections with people, and I would like to resurrect it.
I would like to use this blog to tell you all that I handed in my PhD thesis the day before lockdown officially began! When I found out I was pregnant, I was about to start the third year of my PhD. I remember googling ‘can you finish a PhD with a baby’, frantically searching for women that had managed it, trying to squash my rising level of panic. And that was before the severe morning sickness started…
I know it is useless in a way to say that yes, you can finish a PhD whilst having a six month old baby, because everybody’s circumstances are different, but I also want to say it is possible, because I did it. Although it was also hard, and put a strain on my finances. But if there is someone out there quietly panicking, I want to tell them it could be ok, and if you can make a human, of course you can make a PhD.
I wrote 80% of my PhD between the hours of 8pm and midnight, once Ally had gone to sleep. I was relatively lucky in that in that period, she WAS sleeping.
I made myself a chart and coloured a box in every time I wrote a hundred words. This was a great motivator for me – and it is really the only way I work. It is how I saved up £1800 to buy my first trumpet when I was 17. It is how I get anything done.
I was lucky in that my husband is self-employed, and he basically spent his time either working or looking after the baby. I spent my time looking after the baby or writing my PhD, and also fitting in a few bits of freelance writing work. Well actually, quite a lot of freelance writing work, because finances. We did put Ally into nursery when she was about nine months old so that I could get a bit more time to write.
I am lucky in that I have a supportive partner, unlucky in that I don’t have family nearby to help, lucky that I had enough money to put Ally into nursery for two half-days, unlucky that I couldn’t afford more and alleviate the stress a little. Somehow we muddled through, and I wrote a thesis which is probably the thing (apart from Ally) that I am most proud of.
I was talking to a friend about how hard it is to let the good things in, how it is easy to let negative things seep inside you, but the good things often bounce off me as I spin around looking for the next thing to achieve. But finishing this thesis is one of the things I let myself feel. I can still feel it now – I hope it will always be a warm glow inside me.
I now have the viva to do which is in mid-august. Strangely enough, I’m kind of looking forward to it. I want to get my PhD, and this is the last hurdle I have to get through. I am hoping I will be blogging here a little bit more, but this time I’m not making any promises.
I’ll leave you with a poem that was commissioned by Ledbury Poetry Festival called ‘For My Daughter’.
And later, when she asks, I’ll say some parts of it were beautiful – how in their brightness and sudden opening the faces of the neighbours began to look like flowers. I’ll tell her how we began to look back at photos of our younger selves with our arms around a stranger or leaning on the shoulders of friends, and saw that touch had always been a kind of holiness, a type of worship we were promised. I’ll tell her that in some ways our days shrunk to nothing, being both as long as a year and as quick as the turning of a page. I’ll tell her how she learned to crawl in those days, in those times when we could not leave, when bodies were carried from homes and were not counted, that she began to say her first word while death waited in the streets, that though I was afraid, I never saw fear in her eyes.
It’s been a while since I blogged again but I’ve been busy getting more and more pregnant and trying to get as much of my PhD done as possible before the baby arrives. I’m now 35 weeks pregnant and officially on maternity leave from my PhD, which feels strange. I can’t quite let go of it at the moment still – it’s become a habit I can’t put down.
My maternity leave started on the 1st May and I decided to set myself a rather arbitrary target of getting up to 20,000 words of my critical thesis. I say arbitrary because it was a self-imposed target, but I find I work best if I’ve got a goal to work towards. Overall, the thesis has to be between 30,000 and 40,000 so I thought if I had 20,000 under my belt before my maternity leave started, I would feel a bit more confident that I would finish it. The creative part of the PhD, my next collection I’m happy to let tick along at the side – it’s not finished yet, but I’m confident that I canfinish it. The critical part is harder to predict.
So the last couple of weeks have been kind of intense – I’ve been writing pretty much non-stop around the last few freelance commitments I’ve had. I’ve had really productive meetings with two of my supervisors in the last few weeks as well on both the creative and the critical side – I know what I need to do next, and I’ve decided to slowly keep plugging away at it whilst I’ve still got the urge but just at a less frantic pace than I’ve been doing.
I also can’t believe that the baby will be here in five weeks. It seems both that it’s gone really fast, and that I’ve been pregnant for years! It’s been a complete rollercoaster, which I know is a cliché, but it really has. I’m now starting to feel excited instead of scared, and looking forward to the baby arriving, massively helped by attending a hypnobirthing course a few weekends ago. I would highly recommend it to anyone feeling anxious/nervous/stressed about pregnancy or birth – it was full of really practical information about pregnancy but also lots of meditations to practice at home. I was sceptical at first, but listening to a meditation on my phone the first night after the course helped me sleep straight through the night for probably the first time in about three or four months. I listen to them every night now and I’ve gone from getting up four times a night because I’m so uncomfortable to just getting up once a night which I can just about cope with!
I have a few poetry updates for those that are interested. The Poetry Carousel is happening again this December, although we’ve moved venue to Rydal Hall in Ambleside. The course runs from the 6th-9th December 2020 costs £385 to share a room with a friend, £400 for a standard room or £415 for a superior room. This cost includes workshops, accommodation, evening readings and breakfast, lunch and evening meals.
The Poetry Carousel is a residential course with a difference – four very different workshops with four very different tutors, all crammed into one weekend. Each participant will be put into a group of between 8 and 10 to take part in a morning workshop with one of four tutors. Afternoons are free for reading and writing, and in the evening, there are poetry readings in the Great Hall at the hotel. Tutors confirmed so far are myself, Clare Shaw and David Tait with a fourth tutor to be confirmed. If you’d like to book, you need to ring the hotel direct on 015394 32050 but any questions about the course, you can contact me directly on here or via email. I’ve just got back from running my St Ives residential poetry course which was a brilliant week with possibly the best weather I’ve experienced since I started running the courses down there. Kind of frustrating as I couldn’t get out and run or even walk very far but lovely for the participants! St Ives will be running again next year, this time from the 27th April to the 2nd May 2020 and I’m really excited about the opportunity to work with the fabulous poet and writer Fiona Sampson as my guest tutor this year. This course runs more like a traditional residential, with a maximum of 16 participants. The cost of the week is £595 and this includes breakfast, three course evening meals, workshops, a tutorial with one of the tutors and readings in the evenings. To book a place, please ring the hotel direct on 01736 796240.
A few other exciting poetry happenings in Cumbria – I’m on the organising committee of ‘A Poem and a Pint’ and our next event is happening on the 29th June with the fabulous poet Ilya Kaminsky. The venue is Greenodd Village Hall and we will have some limited open mic spots available. This is a really exciting opportunity to see one of the most brilliant poets writing today so get the date in your diary!
After the success of last year’s poetry competition, A Poem and a Pint are running a competition again this year, this time with the fantastic Carrie Etter as our judge. First prize is £150, 2nd prize is £100 and 3rd prize is £50 with a special prize for a Cumbrian poet of £25. The closing date of the competition is the 15th July 2019 and it’s a relatively fast turnaround – winners will be contacted by the 7th September and we will be having a prize giving event on the 21st September with Carrie Etter as our guest reader. You can find more information about the competition here
If you need any information about any of the events listed here, please get in touch, and if you know anyone who might be interested in the residential courses, please feel free to share!
As the stories have come out and are coming out about Harvey Weinstein and more and more women are speaking out, I’ve spent a lot of my time feeling sick, with feelings of nerves and anxiety. I haven’t quite been able to work out why – I felt like I was over-identifying with the victims – I’ve never met Harvey Weinstein of course, and I’m unlikely ever to meet him. It’s taken a few days to admit to myself that I’ve met men like him my whole life, have learnt to deal/not deal with them, ignore them, laugh along, keep out of their way, or endured them.
In an article by Stephanie Boland she talks about the concept of the ‘imperfect victim’
I can’t remember exactly how old I was when I was first groped. I only know it was on a minibus and that it was an older boy who rubbed the side of my breast by sticking his arm between my seat and the window. A group of them had teased me the whole journey — it was a camping trip and a long drive — and I’d played along. I’m good at playing along: good at mimicking the register of the banter, always quick with a comeback, able to suss out someone’s personality fast and get their mates laughing. Maybe you are, too. As I got off the bus, our chaperone asked if I was okay and I said yes, carsick, a little, and avoided the boy all weekend.
The concept of the imperfect victim is probably one that many women can identify with. Throughout the course of my PhD, I’ve been looking back and examining my own life for experiences of sexism, but maybe a better way of describing them would be experiences of being the ‘imperfect victim’, and experiences of men who are ‘imperfect perpetrators’. Men who are friends and continue to be so afterwards. Men who are colleagues and continue to be so afterwards. Men who are tutors, but just be sure to avoid them if they’ve had a drink.
One of the many reasons it can be difficult for women to speak out is our own ideas of what the p perfect victim is (dressed modestly, not drunk, not walking home late at night alone) and how we match up to it, but also of what the ‘perfect’ perpetrator should be like (a stranger, violent, and only extreme assault ‘counting’).
Over the next couple of days, I’ll be posting some poems around this theme. The following poem is from a sequence I’m working on called ‘All The Men I Never Married’.
Things I didn’t know before writing this poem:
1) That something that happened to me when I was 17 had haunted me
2) That something almost happening can stay with you
3) That something happened
4) That my body did not let me down
5) That truth can be broken, and fragmented and this can make it more true
6) That I am both angry/not angry about it
One of the men in this poem, one of the boys that this poem concerns sent me a Facebook friend request years later. I accepted. The act of doing this stirred up that near miss, that thing that almost but didn’t quite happen. I wrote the poem. Afterwards, I unfriended him without explanation. The act of writing the poem helped me to realise what happened, what didn’t happen.
The idea of the ‘imperfect victim’ (drunk, at a party, wearing a skirt, going upstairs at a party, being alone, being alone with men, talking to men, being friends with a man) runs through this poem, as do ideas around imperfect perpetrators (a friend, a best friend, just having a laugh, boys will be boys, drunk).
What happens afterwards? After the near/almost/notquite incident? Or after the poem? What do women carry with them? What did I/do I carry with me? Writing about these incidents might be a way of finding out. This poem is full of air, and space, and silence, and things not said, not thought. What happens to conceptions of assault and what it is when I put a poem around it?
This poem was published in the most recent issue of The Rialto, along with three more from the sequence ‘All The Men I Never Married’. You can get a copy of the magazine from The Rialto website https://www.therialto.co.uk/pages/
All The Men I Never Married No.19
your dad handing out shots ////////////////bright green /////////////////////////liquid sloshing
over the rim //////////////onto my wrist //////////////////////////steam on the windows
of the kitchen ////////////////and the living room ///////////////////////////////full of bodies ////////////////sitting in a circle /////////////////////////////////your mother nowhere get em down /////////////you zulu warrior ////////////////////////////get em down you zulu chief chief chief ///////////////follows me
the singing ///////////////the dull thump of a bass ////////////////////////////////the staircase bending
and swaying ////////////////faraway bathroom ///////////////////////////////my hand on the bannister
to keep myself here ///////////////inside my body ///////////////////////////////inside this house ///////////////there’s darkness to my left
there you are///////////////////////////on a bed //////////////in the dark ///////////////////////////////rolling a joint ////////////////////////////////////////////////hey babe you said
I liked/////////////////////that word on your lips
your friend ///////////////at the open window //////////////////////////////letting smoke
slip out into the night ////////////////////////////////////////////////////it was good
to sit down ////////////////next to you //////////////////////////////////////////////////////my bestfriend
first I was there //////////////////////////////now I’m here
on the bed ////////////////on my back //////////////////////////////////a naked woman
blu-tacked and glossy///on the ceiling /////////////////stares down at me from above
and the weight of you /////////////////////////////////on top of me
and at first it’s funny /////////////////as I try to get up
your knees////////////////////////////on my wrists
your hands///////////////////////////on my shoulders
that panic/////////////////////////////in my belly
I’ll remember it///////////////////as long as I live
your friend coming towards me /////////////////////////////////his hand
on my breast
laughing///////////////////////////////both of you laughing
my knee up into your groin ////////you topple /////////////////////like a small tree
and I’m up and out of the room
and into the night
where there are only stars
and the dark asks why ////////////////were you there in the dark
and the wind asks what ////////////////were you doing upstairs
and the moon asks why ////////////////were you wearing that skirt
but my body ////////////////my body asks nothing
just whispers /////////////////////////////see
I did not let you down I did not
let you down I did not let you down