Dartington International Summer School 2018, Week 2, August 4-11th
Poetry of Place
It’s not often that you end a week as tutor on a residential writing course feeling completely energised. Much as I love working with other writers, giving everyone the individual attention they deserve can be tiring if you give it everything you have. It’s worth it, though. In the past I’ve co-led courses for the Arvon Foundation at Lumb Bank and at the Welsh Writers’ Centre at Ty Newydd, and always feel that I learn as much from participants as they do from me. This time was no different in that respect; but it was also an unusually invigorating experience in other ways. It was my first time at Dartington, the world-famous music summer school in Devon celebrating its 70th anniversary, under Artistic Director Joanna MacGregor.
Students come to play instruments, to sing in the choir, and to experience a wide range of world-class music in the fabulous medieval setting of Dartington Hall, with its glorious gardens, ancient trees, and wider parkland stretching down to the River Dart. I cannot recommend it highly enough. In keeping with the historic spirit of the place, under Joanna’s inspired leadership, literature and creative writing have now been added to the curriculum. Alongside James Runcie’s courses on ‘Historical Fiction’ and ‘Reading the Landscape’, I led a twice-daily writing course entitled ‘Poetry of Place’ which, over six days, involved 18 hours of close reading of published poems, writing exercises to take away, group reading of the results, and some individual tuition.
The participants in my group were quite various in their life and writing experience, but every single student proved insightful, generous, sensitive and supportive of the others. Whether that came from the legendary Dartington spirit of cooperation or from the experience which many had of communal singing, who can say. They were a joy to work with.
And when work was finished, there was lovely food, great company and a wealth of fabulous concerts to enjoy. Highlights for me were Joanna MacGregor’s transcendent piano concert, including Chopin, Ginastera and Beethoven’s Appassionata, recorded for Radio 3; Steven Devine’s brilliant renditions of CPE and WF (or, as he put it, WTF) Bach on the fortepiano; Trio Gaspard playing Schubert; James Runcie’s moving play, ‘Bach, Man and Myth’; Kate Semmens’ glorious early English songs; Robert Howarth on the harpsichord; and the extraordinarily powerful final night – Bach’s St Matthew Passion, conducted by Tom Seligman, with the role of the evangelist split between tenor Tom Randle and soprano Gillian Keith. The emotion of the piece was heightened for me by the intimate setting, the projection of the words in English, and the very personal connection with so many of my students and new friends sharing with us so movingly the experience of the deepest human failing and the redemptive power of love. I shall never forget it.
On the Sunday evening I was lucky enough to be invited to perform some of my own work in the Great Hall, alongside the brilliant folk fiddler Alexis Bennett. Alexis performed live, to an electronic soundtrack of new music which he had created for the performance entirely from sounds made by the fiddle. Various techniques were used, including recording some passages on a phone, and hitting an old fiddle with a spoon. A traditional Northumbrian pipe tune, “The Bonnie Pit Laddie”, was quoted. I read from old and new work about the Northumbrian fishing community, women’s lives and education, and the wider natural history of Northumberland, from the perspective of some of my recent science-based pieces. Our collaboration was well-received and we hope to be able to build on it for future performances.
On the last afternoon my group of writers gave a short presentation of their work to a select audience in the lovely oak-lined Solar. There were some very interesting pieces, including two sound-based works each for two voices, developed from listening to a recording of the sea; a multi-perspective sketch examining the Dartington buildings as a film-maker might, using close-up and wide-angle views; and a powerful short verse drama based on 19th century French melodrama.
Everyone’s work had been developed that week, and everyone had, to some extent, surprised themselves with something new. We gathered these texts together into a small anthology, which the hard-worked Summer School office staff printed for us.
I cannot thank everyone enough: my students for teaching me, James Runcie for his good humour and moral support, all the tutors, performers and students for their great music and spirit, the fantastic staff, both in the kitchens, the domestic arrangements and in the Summer School office: huge thanks to Emily Hoare, Rachel Wilkinson and – especially – all the volunteers, without whom none of it would be possible. Special thanks to Joanna MacGregor for inviting me – and, indeed, for asking me back next year. I greatly look forward to returning, to new adventures; and in the meantime, cherish the many wonderful memories I take away: walking across the courtyard in the morning to the swell of Bach’s choruses rising from the Great Hall; bathing my feet in the silky Dart one hot afternoon and catching a glimpse of a kingfisher through the oak trees; rehearsing poetry and fiddle music with Alexis; finding a couple of quiet hours in the summerhouse to improvise some words and music with brilliant composer and hurdy-gurdy virtuoso Stevie Wishart and the extraordinary vocalist and nyckelharpa player, Anna Tam. I hope that these connections may continue.
Most of all, I came away from Dartington feeling supported, appreciated, energised and affirmed. That is a great gift to give to an artist of any kind. I don’t often think of myself in those terms but, by surrounding me with other artists, for a short time Dartington allowed me to do so. Thank you, Dartington. May I carry a little of your spirit with me to Northumberland, as I brought a glimpse of Northumberland to you.