Garsdale Retreat: New North Poets

After driving through torrents of Yorkshire rain, I finally arrived at Garsdale Retreat. Relief! I was immediately met by the lovely Rebecca Nouchette and Hamish Wilson, as were the other three New Poets; Charlotte Wetton, Freya Jackson and Penny Newell. We were the four 2019 recipients of the biannual New North Poets award, run by the Poetry School and New Writing North, and this was the final part of the award – our ‘tutored retreat’. Full to bursting with the first of many a hearty meal, we spent what was left of the evening drying off in front of a glorious fire with Clare Pollard, our mentor and workshop leader. The poetry would begin in earnest tomorrow.

After a stonking breakfast, we gathered around the large table in ‘the Workshop’; a beautiful limestone-flagged room with underfloor heating, a baby-grand piano in one corner, Rebecca’s cello in the other and walls of books. Opened in 2016 by Willy Russell; the Workshop acts as a perfect writing/performance venue. Garsdale Retreat is a simple but brilliant idea: to provide inspirational courses tutored by professional writers while enabling participants to develop their creativity away from the distractions of everyday life. Perfect!

By this point, Charlotte, Freya, Penny and I had shared many poems and poetry ideas, and been on workshops with the amazing Andrew McMillan and Rachael Allen, so we knew each other quite well, but it was great to finally meet our distance-mentor Clare Pollard. This week at Garsdale was where we could really grab our poetry by its literal throat. Rather than strictly prescribe the programme, Clare generously asked us in advance: what did we want to cover in our time with her?

Over the following days, we explored a wide range of subjects: from line-breaks to the idea of ‘truth’; from rhyme and metre to tips on assembling a collection; from translation to killer titles and last lines, and always with the flexibility of discussing other issues by association, such as punctuation, voice. In the afternoons, one of us received individual tutoring from Clare with her sharp, insightful eye, while the other poets could write, or march out for some fresh air between blasts of hail and snow. It was a totally immersive process, and although we would veer off-subject over yet another delicious dinner (and some of the most incredible cake you’ve ever eaten), that kept us fresh for the next dose of poetry nitty-gritty.

Evenings were varied. One evening, Rebecca and Hamish delivered a brilliant performance of Hamish’s Parallel Lives, a poetic, multi-media exploration of the lives of Dylan Thomas and John Lennon. On another evening, Clare performed a reading, her powerful delivery crackling through poems from her collection about motherhood; Incarnation (Bloodaxe 2017). On the final evening, we New Poets performed a selection of our own poetry, interspersed with music from Hamish (piano) and Rebecca (cello), including a beautiful rendition of Ave Maria. Oddly, although as New Poets we had critiqued each other’s poetry, and even read poems aloud to each other on a park bench or in a Students’ Union, we had never ‘performed’ in front of each other. What a thrill to watch my ‘poetry siblings’ bringing their work to life with their astonishing voices.

The New North Poets Award is a gift of time and knowledge; the opportunity to learn from co-poets, and to be guided by poetry giants like Clare, Andrew and Rachael. And our Garsdale Retreat was the perfect location to challenge our individual poetry practice and to allow our imaginations to run wild.

Freya Jackson was a finalist for 2015 Princemere Poetry Prize in 2016, was nominated by for a 2017 Pushcart Prize and won Ink, Sweat & Tears’ Poem of the Month competition for August 2017.

Penny Newell lives in Leeds. Her writing has featured in various journals including The Poetry Review, Magma, 3:AM, Hobart and Lambda Literary, amongst others. She is currently writing on commission for B-Side arts festival in Portland and for BBC Arts.

Charlotte Wetton is based in West Yorkshire. Her first pamphlet I Refuse to Turn into a Hat-Stand won the Michael Marks Awards 2017. She is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester. @CharPoetry

Sarah Wimbush is a winner of both the Mslexia Poetry Competition (2016) and the Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet Competition (2019). Her debut pamphlet Bloodlines (Seren 2020) explores her Gypsy/Traveller heritage.