Tracy Gaughan in conversation with Nicola Harrison

Nicola Harrison is a lecturer in Singing & Interpretation of song at Pembroke College, Oxford, a vocal teacher, a professional singer, writer and performer.  She has had work published widely, including: BBC History, British Music and Classical Music Magazines, the Oxford Magazine, and many more.  She has also written story columns for BBC Radio 4.  Nicola’s directorial work focuses on the interface of poetry & music and her innovative shows of poetry, music and song are performed at prestigious venues with award-winning musicians. 

Her critically acclaimed books are: The Wordsmith’s Guide in 2 volumes and an anatomy book for singers (2016 and 2019, Compton).  She also had two small poetry pamphlets published in 2018 (The Becoming, Winetown). 

You are a vocal teacher, a singer, writer, and performer; how do you negotiate these roles?  How does one art inform the other?

One constantly informs the other! Singing is about expression, communication, lyricism, phrasing and the understanding of line. Being a musician has given me a very strong rhythmic drive but also an understanding of the need for space within the line, and applying the way music changes rhythm through different time signatures, such as 6/8, 4/4, 2/4 to change pace, increase intensity, push the movement forward or pull it back. Being a performer means you can bring all these together in a form that is able to be shared and experienced.

I teach singing every afternoon leaving me the mornings and weekends to write, create and perform in shows, learn words, new song repertoires and practice. 

I sing in several genres – classical, jazz, folk – and the stories told through the lyrics of these songs can also form part of wider poetic narratives or performances. 

Tell me a little about your books, The Wordsmith’s Guide Vols 1 & 2.  What would you like the reader to take away from them?

These are my two earnest offerings about my great passions: poetry, music, and song.  The books look at the interface of words and music in the form of art song – in these two books, the songs of English song composers Ivor Gurney and Roger Quilter. What is amazing about these composers, particularly Ivor Gurney, is their ability to paint the meaning of the words in musical form. Most notably Gurney because he was a poet as well as a musician. Poetry and music are far more than kissing cousins – these guys live under one roof and you can’t have one without the other. I love it. I don’t know how I could be a poet without the constant drive of music through my veins.

What first drew you to Quilter and Gurney?  Have they influenced your own writing in any way?    In terms of legacy, how do you think poets across the generations inform each other’s craft?

Quilter is lyrical.   Gurney is dogged in his poetry and epiphanic in his songwriting. His sensitivity to words – being a poet – is extraordinary. It’s a kinaesthetic experience, listening to his songs, and some take you to the sky and beyond, he has such a sense of expansion, of space, of silence and then activity. It’s all movement or stillness. He was a great walker, and you can feel the rhythm of his walking or striding and also the moments he stops to look at things. These rhythms are at the very root of his compositional genius. He composed while he walked – and looked. He is a genius and a marvel of human creative endeavour against the overwhelming odds of war, life, madness, and early death. The tragedy of his life is reshaped by the beauty of his music.

There is, to my mind, at least, nothing more valuable than to be immersed in the poetic culture of generations. Maybe this makes me a traditionalist. Not only do great poets tell us how people lived, felt, believed, loved, different styles of writing, fashions, etc. They offer a vast realm of reference, innate understanding, and lyricism that forms the warp and weft of the tapestry of contemporary poetry.  It gives substance.  It is the base of the pyramid.  Look at how Shakespeare has shaped everything with his words. Spenser and Milton left an indelible imprint on poetic consciousness. The anonymous Gawain poet with his fantastic humanity, characterization, and attention to detail. WHAT A POET! And that’s just a handful of British ones… there’s a whole world of poets out there in manifold languages, experiences, centuries, civilizations. 

When did you start writing poetry?  Has your idea of what poetry is changed since you began writing poems?

I wrote poetry as a child – then life came charging in and I did so many things, so many jobs, so much travel, movement and change and of course music, music, music… By the time I finished the Wordsmith’s Guide books, which explore and analyze the poetry that these composers set to music, I had re-read a huge amount of poetry that I hadn’t really thought of since my first degree in English at Oxford. I became steeped in poetry again. It kind of opened a font in my head and I wrote a 12 line poem straight off and submitted it to a competition just because I had to submit something to stay in a literary group I was part of.  It won the competition, and that kicked me off really. 

Yes, my idea of poetry has changed – more than decorative or simply descriptive or imagistic, it has to be human for me, now. I like a poem to go somewhere, change something, show something new, share experience, change a perception or bring light or understanding in some form. It doesn’t have to be a big worthy thing, just a few lines that make us look at an object differently. Look at Keats Ode to a Grecian Urn – a classic example. Even without the amazing lyricism, choice of language, rhythm and rhyme, and superb craftmanship – here we have a poem that says something so essential about being human and the nature of beauty. You can go on quite a big journey within yourself in the space of six crafted lines and open a door to a different way of seeing. 

Tell me about the origins of your poem, Psalm 1985.

I wrote Psalm 1985 three weeks ago. It was in response to great anxiety about my eldest son’s health, which is ongoing. When I wrote the poem I was going to take it somewhere else, somewhere darker, but the last verse came in the form of an epiphany.  By the time I finished the poem I realized I had found my way to a calmer understanding and a sense of peace. I think when something awful happens, we think that if we pray or cross ourselves, make deals, create shrines – whatever –  we will somehow be able to make things better. But this is omnipotent thinking – and we are not gods. Peace comes in letting go of imagined control and moving towards an acceptance of things we cannot help or change.

So the poem is written in a semi Psalm form, with breaks and tells of this woman’s heartbreaking attempts to get her son healed. Of course nothing works. Finally she gives up, steps out into the night, and opens her heart to the wonder of the stars and planets. Here she gets her answer. And what an answer it is! 1985 is the year that my first son was born.

You tour regularly with poetry, improvisation and musical storytelling shows; can you tell me about the inspiration behind such performances as Margarita Y Lorca and more recently The Becoming?  How does this experience differ from writing ‘page poetry’?

Five years ago, I wrote a show combining words music and song in an entirely new way – with an ensemble I created, Casa Margarita. The show was called House of Love and used beautiful Spanish classical song and music, with narrations woven into the story about a house in Seville where musicians co-habited with the ghosts of past inhabitants, and shared their tales of love. It was a real hit and toured for three years across the UK. The inspiration here was to share the most amazing music, almost unknown in the UK, by making it accessible through theatrical performances. 

Poetry in performance has to be written with a mind for performance, in a sense, whereas page poetry can be as complex as you like because the reader has time to digest it. 

For performance, and especially if it involves musical arrangement, I personally feel poetry works best if the imagery is clear, there is plenty of space for the audience to absorb words and meaning, and/or there is some kind of narrative aspect. Rhythm is essential – and plenty of changes in rhythm to keep attention!

What is life like on the road?

Life on the road is the mainstay of a professional musician’s life. Gigs/concerts are little sparks held together by long solitary journeys if you are travelling as a soloist, as many musicians do. If playing is your bread and butter, then you need to do that a lot, and this affects character, development, ability to form relationships, etc. It can be very lonely – and behind each glamorous performance and standing ovation is…the empty road of night. I’m lucky because I have a stable income as a teacher, which means I am not beholden to the road.

You collaborate with a variety of other artists, do you think this is a good way to grow as an artist?  How do you think you’ve evolved as a writer and performer, over the years?

I think collaboration is key, certainly for music and above all improvisation of any kind. Ideas bounce, inspiration flows, there is endless growth and learning IF you are working with like-minded dedicated creative artists. If you are with the wrong people – in temperament or thought – it can be a disaster. The best collaborations always occur where there is NO EGO. Then the sky’s your limit, really.

The biggest thing I have learned over the years is the application of COURAGE to all aspects of my performing life, from doing crazy things on stage to taking financial risks.

What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?

Getting it out there.

Are you on Facebook or Twitter? Does that fit into your writing life, and if so, how?  Do you think the Internet and social media contribute to the well-being of poetry?

It is good to use social media positively – and lightly. If you don’t tell people what you are doing, then they won’t know! However, it seems important to avoid vaunting oneself. So, it’s finding a way to let people know what you are doing/where you are performing without blowing your own trumpet or being vain or pretentious. That is the challenge. We want to give a positive face to poetry in all media and spread the word and encourage growth. I feel strongly that good poetry is not about the self – even if it starts with the self. Self-centered poetry has a limited shelf life. Give me Keats…

Are you working on anything at present you would like to share with our readers?

Yes, I am working on an hour-long show of poetic and musical storytelling with three amazing jazz musicians. It is the darkest tale! Who knows, we might be able to bring it to the US!

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