Inside a room overlooking a loch seven poets are sweating. One of them, me, has a band of pain around her middle from the unfamiliar exercising of her diaphragm. Another, the Scottish poet Andrew Philip, is about to speak his poem. This is the last day of the course. On the first we were told if absolutely necessary we could hold the book as a prop, but our poems, from now on, are going to come from inside us and we‘ll be learning them by heart. Most poets I know cling to their book at a reading like a life raft. We fear ‘going blank’ even if we have read the poem a thousand times. And the book also lends gravitas to the poet, connects what we are reading to a publication with an ISBN and a cover. It‘s as if we need to say, we are real poets with proper printed poems. They’re on the page, they’re Poetry.
But for this week, all talismans have been jettisoned. We are thrown back on our words, our voices and our tutor Kristin Linklater. Kristin is a voice coach who has developed a method called Freeing the Natural Voice, and she has worked with actors such as Donald Sutherland and Sigourney Weaver. Donald Sutherland is a master actor who speaks his lines like they are his own actual words… and it’s that authenticity that Linklater wants to bring to poets. She doesn’t want to turn us into striding, projecting thespians, but to help us find our own voice, and to speak our poems as we first thought of them, as we meant them to be.
Anyone who has taken a creative writing course knows about ‘voice’. This is the elusive, essential, treasured characteristic of a poem on the page, the one thing we must have, as a poet above all else. We talk about ‘finding our voice’ and we know when someone has found it and when they haven’t. On the page it is the difference between the ‘quick’ and the ‘dead’: deliciously simple even as it is impossible to define. Distinctiveness is part of it: all the great poets are only like themselves and poets with a clear, memorable voice are often easy to parody. Humanity is part of it too: a sense that this is a voice that understands as well as speaks. A poet writing in their true voice can persuade you of anything, so authority is also an element. But how does this kind of voice relate to the spoken voice that we are trying to reach on this lovely hillside?
As we are finding, they are two sides of the same essential quality. Our physical
voice is tied up in our identity just like the written voice that sings from
the page. Many of us became writers because we were silenced in some way, and the written self on the page speaks more authentically than we do as individuals. Our spoken voices can be contorted, suppressed and silenced. We may speak all our lives and never know what our true, unfettered voice sounds like. We may write poetry all our lives and never connect these two parts of our voice.
I had spent my writing life largely untroubled by thoughts about my physical voice as it relates to my poems. I had a set that worked, I read from my book at readings and I was a good performer.
I was able to hide very effectively behind my poems. Then, one day, I published a collection of poems which frustrated this approach completely. The poems in Farewell My Lovely, my third collection, are different from the earlier work that was so successful at readings. The poems are, mostly, short and spare. They aspire to songs. They resist jokes, they press to be heard. My readings went wrong. I started to get nervous for the first time in my life. Anecdotes did not save me, and all the joy I had previously had in reading my poems evaporated. As is usually the case, the poems were telling me something. These were poems about a vanishing self, the price of authenticity. They could only be spoken properly if I finally confronted where that authenticity disappeared to when I opened my mouth.
T S Eliot prizewinner Jen Hadfield believes the notion of a poet’s voice is particularly problematic in Britain, because we are such a small country and have so many languages, dialects and accents, each of which carries a political burden. British poets have an extra dimension to negotiate in their work, the largely unspoken political aspect of how they speak. An English accent in Scotland has a particular resonance; a Welsh speaker makes a statement unintentional or not every time they speak Welsh. Northern, Indian, Black Country… all these ‘Englishes’ cloud our audience’s view of us and our work.
It an attempt to fit in with what we perceive to be the dominant voice we curtail or change our own. “I’d almost go so far as to say, now, that when a relative told me not to ‘talk as if I came from the wrong side of Hale Road’, that that impacted subtly on my human rights. Our speech naturally reflects where we live, where our parents come from, who we are spending time with and who we admire, but when we are told how to speak we might as well be told what to say. We either conform or clam up.” Jen Hadfield says. Getting to our own authentic voice, being at peace with it, is very difficult but one of the most artistically (and personally) rewarding things we may ever do. And if you are writing, as I was, about authenticity itself you just can’t read the poems aloud properly if your physical voice is lying.
And yet, the kind of performance as part of the writing life that I was familiar with is growing exponentially. Now it is the beginning of the road to publication, not where you get to when you’ve published a book. ‘Performance skills’ workshops abound, and in them we learn how to prepare a ‘set’ of poems of the required duration, how to entertain the audience with a decent anecdote. Poets are not necessarily natural performers, any more than they are natural teachers. But we are expected to do both to earn our crust. So we hone our skills, we master this element of our trade. To succeed in a ‘normal’ performance, we must manage the poem in public, provide context, avoid embarrassment. As if our poems were jokes we must get good at delivery. It is nothing to do with authenticity and everything to do with protection.
In our bare room, we seven are trying to put the two sides of the voice back together. Unlike actors who are trying to inhabit someone else’s words, we are trying to inhabit our own. This is a risky place to be. Most of us, with our aching diaphragms (did you know a diaphragm can ache? it can) long to hold our books again, to get back to our comfortable set pieces, our successful on- stage personae, that keep us from the place we fear most – the originating impulse of the poem. Who wants to go back there with its vulnerabilities and its truths…. but actually who doesn’t want to go back there? For that is where the excitement of creating something lies and if we can ride that wave something amazing happens.
It’s our last day on the course. Andrew Philip speaks his poem. It is one we know well, Pedestrians, a complicated vision of a poem with an incredible final image. But when Andrew speaks the poem this time, using his breathing to open up his body to free his words, his voice is deep, strong, effortless. He looks at ease, as if he were telling us something as a friend. And when we reach that final image it feels like a gift from poet to listener, and there is barely a dry eye in the room. Again and again this happens. Gerry Cambridge’s deep and lovely Scottish voice resonates across the room, surprising even himself, and bringing the Scots words to life. The tones of this ancient ballad language inhabit the words: all of us, Scottish or not, experience in his poem the power of the oral tradition. From the small frame of Liz Berry emerges a huge, mesmerising voice that seems powerful enough to lift her right off the ground, and as listeners we feel the authority at the heart of her poems. And me? At last my newest poems were heard as I’d heard them in my head. Reader, I cried. It’s terribly embarrassing I know, but the relief was immense. The compensation is that those that heard them cried too, and making other people feel is my only ambition for my poems. How transforming to discover that freeing the physical voice sets the poems free as well.