I’ve just returned from an extraordinary week at Cove Park in Scotland. Extraordinary in so many ways – not least for me the strangeness of living alone (instead of with six people I am partially or wholly responsible for). Food preparation for one -what joy! Washing up for one – takes 2 minutes! It is hard to express the bliss contained in such simple things for those already alone or with limited ‘duties’.
The tranquility on the Cove Park site, and in my accommodation, was extraordinary. I spent long hours gazing at Loch Long and the mountains on the other side. And many other hours reading or dozing, with the sliding doors ajar, gently immersed in the sound of birdsong. I thought I might write there, start the new project (whatever it is), but once I was there I realised all I needed to do, between the workshops, was rest.
Ah yes, the workshops. Because this was no writing retreat. This was a twice-a-day voice coaching retreat with Kristin Linklater. I went, I confess, not because I thought there was much I could improve in the poetry-speaking department – my husband coached me in this more than a decade ago, and I now teach others. I’m pretty good with my diaphragm. No, I went because you never know what will unfold, what extra things you might learn – and it was a brilliant excuse to travel north of the border for the first time in my life, mix with some poets I had either never or barely met, and absorb some new poetry. I also thought it would be useful to get some feedback on speaking poems from The Marlowe Papers.
What did I learn? Firstly, that voice didn’t need all that much freeing. It’s pretty free. In a week when we had our heads regularly shaken and our chests thumped, where we were made to deliver poems with our heads on our knees or held outstretched as if crucified by our fellow poets, I was handled less than most. Secondly, that rather than engage with the “wash” of emotion that colours the poem – thinking, for example, “this is a poem of longing” – the most engaging ‘speakings’ (we were banned from saying ‘reading’, as we weren’t) were those that connected with the emotion of each line, independently, bringing the speaking process much, much closer to the writing process, where each line is a development, a shift, part of a journey whose end is (at the time) uncertain. That was very valuable.
The final thing I learned was to implement something I have been saying I needed to implement for a very long time, which is to listen to my body. I’ve had a bit of a disconnected relationship with my body over the years. I’ve lived mostly in my head, often in my heart, but very rarely in my body. I’ve treated it the way my mother used to treat her cars – a bit of a workhorse that gets you from A to B, neglecting regular maintenance and only really noticing it when it’s a bit of a nuisance and breaks down. I realise now that my body’s got rather a lot to say to me, and my ‘shushing’ it isn’t going to work any longer.
The physicality of the course came as a bit of shock to me and some of the other participants. The writing of poetry requires very little movement, and though I have bursts of regular swimming, and walk the dog for an hour every morning, generally my body is required to do little more during the day than tap fingers on a keyboard and raise a cup of tea to the lips at intervals. Suddenly, there I was, on my feet and moving, bending, swinging, curling up, stretching out. On Wednesday afternoon, my back locked up completely and I realised my body and I had to have a serious conversation. Complaints were made on both sides, but we’ve worked some stuff out. I’ve agreed to new terms.
If we are forgiven for disgracefully failing to wash up after getting lost in the final night of carousing, I hope to go to Cove Park again soon. Just for writing, this time. But as a consequence of my first visit, on much better terms with my body.