Let There Be Voice! was a five-day residential course in performance poetry led by Lemn at the Garsdale Retreat. This fairly new centre in the Yorkshire Dales is based in a splendid Edwardian house walking distance from Garsdale Station and run by Hamish and Rebecca, a couple of former teachers who have thrown their heart and soul into their new venture. They have created a haven for writers where they can develop their craft under the guidance of top tutors and away from the bustle of everyday life. The groups are small. There were six on this course plus Hamish who joined most of the sessions. The homecooked food provided by Rebecca is delicious and plentiful and it’s a good thing there is so much countryside around where you can walk it off!
I found myself writing about the earliest memories of my name, the origins of my surname, the ways people misspell and mispronounce it. I wrote about how my first name David links me to past generations and the confusion caused by being known by my middle name. There was much more I could have written after the exercise finished and later in the week those notes grew into a poem I didn’t know I had in me.
"My name is Patrick
The first word to make sense because it was me…"
Lemn has performed at prestigious venues around the world but this must have been quite a unique performance and it was a privilege to be part of the exclusive audience. Highlights included perhaps his most famous poem Invisible Kisses and The Man on The Moon. As he performed the sun set behind us and the moon rose above the crest of the hill behind him. It was the most atmospheric reading I’ve attended even if part of the atmosphere was flying in my face and crawling in my hair. It was a relief to get inside and escape the cold and midges.
As the week progressed Lemn got us to write more and hone our performances. I wrote three new poems during the week and a fourth which hasn’t quite come to fruition but produced a lot of great material. In one session we wrote poems following the structure of Lemn’s poem Let There Be Peace. My poem Let There Be Fire unleashed raw emotion and spirit that my work doesn’t usually contain and was a great vehicle for pushing my performances to new heights.
"Let there be fire
so flames leap from buildings to streets to cities across borders"
We had the opportunity to hear another performance poet Ben Mellor, who showed great lyrical wit and vocal range. He has also explored different ways of performing through collaborating with musicians. He used a loop station on several poems to create loops of his vocals to accompany his readings.
After a couple of days of workshops and performances we were immersed in poetry drawing inspiration from Lemn and each other to enrich our writing and performances. The exercises Lemn set were quite simple yet they got me looking at my writing and the stage in a new way. One day we started by writing a prayer which didn’t have to be religious. I don’t know what inspired me to write a prayer for super heroes but I soon had pages full of notes and was buzzing from the thrill of writing something new and unexpected.
"Be blessed this day whether you are Batman, Banana Man
or that guy on the telly who embeds playing cards in shop windows."
Lemn also offered advice on doing gigs. He stressed the importance of getting to know venues before you perform and being aware of the lighting, the microphone, where the audience is, finding out if there are any issues that might affect your performance and getting them fixed or working round them. He emphasised that it is always the poet’s responsibility to deliver a good performance even if the PA’s dodgy or the MC is in it for self-promotion.
I left with new friends, new poems and a greater confidence and passion for performance which I look forward to bringing to the stage. The rare opportunity to work with a poet of Lemn Sissay’s calibre and the hospitality of the Garsdale Retreat was a dream experience for any writer.