Guest Speakers Interview: Simon Armitage

Photo: The Guardian

Simon Armitage CBE is one of Britain’s foremost contemporary poets. This summer, he was appointed as Oxford Professor of Poetry – one of the most prestigious positions in the world of poetry – and has won numerous awards. He has released several novels and poetry collections, written plays, and been commissioned to work on various television and radio projects for the BBC. Until 1994, Armitage was a Probation Officer in Manchester. He was born (and still lives) in West Yorkshire.

You can find his books here

Very recently you became Oxford University’s Professor of Poetry and announced that you’d like to use rap and hip hop to explore the definition of modern poetry. With the rise of a popular art form that is heavily influenced by poetry, or that might even be considered to be poetry in itself, has poetry become more accessible?

I think it’s too early to say if that particular art form changes poetry’s role in the world, but what I would hope is true of poetry is that it’s adaptive to changes in society and changes in language. I see it as something that is nimble enough to keep transforming itself to make itself relevant for each era.

Rap is interesting because I heard for a long time that people aren’t interested in poetry, young people especially. I was listening to rap, and listening to people talk about rap, thinking that it involved verbal dexterity of a kind that poetry usually admires. It seems to me that it’s become a kind of lingua franca of young people working with words.  I can’t see any reason to discount it, to say it’s not poetry per se – except where it relies very heavily on music, and then I think it becomes something else.

I have to say, I’m not an expert on rap by any means. Even talking about it a little bit, I’m sure I come over as a sort of high court judge talking about the Sex Pistols. I just acknowledge its incredible popularity and see that it’s an art form that has metre, and rhyme, and harmonies, and verbal acoustics at its heart.

In 2010, you walked the Pennine Way, stopping along the trail to read poems to people in exchange for food and money. Firstly, why did you do it, and secondly, did meeting strangers influence your attitude towards poetry and its ability to engage people who aren’t already very familiar with it?

Good questions. I did it because, as I said, I’m a restless person and I wanted to get on and do something. I probably imagined when I was younger that what I would end up doing would be outside; but poetry is by and large an indoor activity. So it just occurred to me that it was a way of spending more time out there in the world, and connecting with the elements and the landscape.

Beyond that, I had the idea of testing poetry’s reputation and seeing if people considered it as an evening’s entertainment in little villages along the way. Maybe I was testing my own reputation as well. Twenty years ago, I was still working as a probation officer in Manchester and I think it was a slightly egotistical adventure: trying to find out if I had enough reputation to carry me from A to B. I came home feeling very optimistic about poetry. I’ve always believed, at some level, that there’s a place in people’s hearts and minds for poetry. It seems as if that proved to be the case on the journey.

Your poems have been included in the GCSE English syllabus for a number of years. Do you appreciate how it exposes teenagers to your poetry, which they might otherwise not read, or do you worry that the fact that they’re forced to learn it for an exam could lead them to think that poetry, even yours, is boring?

Both things have occurred to me. I think, by and large, I am happy with the work that’s out there. I get a lot of very positive feedback from teachers, saying that the kids in their classes who haven’t shown much interest in language and literature up to that point, have found in those poems a way of engaging. It’s been very satisfying because the poems have been on the syllabus for 15 years now and there are kids – who are now in their late twenties – who have very vivid memories of my poems and when they read them at school.

It is a little bit of a concern that in the educational machine, people turn poems into bullet point answers; which isn’t the spirit in which they were written. They weren’t written for educational purposes and are written usually from personal experiences or from ideas and feelings. I would prefer if people could respond in kind, in that vein, but overall I enjoyed the privilege of presenting work in front of that age group.

You have translated and adapted very old literature, such as Homer’s “The Odyssey”, using your own voice. What prompted you to begin adapting them and how important are the classics to you?

I suppose at some level, I feel as if I’ve missed out on any kind of classical education. So some of it has been my way of catching up. As I’m a fairly restless person, it’s never been good enough for me just to read something: I’ve always wanted to write in response to it. I had to dramatise “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad”, rather than translate them, because I don’t read Ancient Greek, or even Modern Greek. Instead I was so familiar with the stories that I was able to work with them as narratives, rather than just texts.

I do translate medieval poetry. I can read Middle English now, just about off the page. I’ve translated “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” the “Death of King Arthur,” and I’ve just finished translating a poem called “Pearl”.

One thing that I’ve enjoyed with those projects is that you can get on with it on a day-to-day basis, because you can’t write poems of your own all the time – you’re just not in the mood – but you can work on something that already exists. It’s been a way of writing when I haven’t really been in the mood to write my own stuff.

You released Paper Aeroplanes, a collection of your poems from 1989 to 2014. What strikes you about your early poems when you go back and read them?

I think with the very early poems, it’s just the sense of innocence and freedom that I was writing with at the time. The first couple of dozen poems in that collection were written before I’d got any kind of publishing deal or any sense of myself as a writer: it was just something I was doing because I wanted to do it. I think, once you become published, it’s like you’ve crossed the Rubicon and can’t really go back. It makes a difference to your outlook and to your writing practice. There’s a very strong sense of nostalgia. Some of the poems were ones I had almost forgotten about.

As much as anything, I felt incredibly proud. I try not to let pride creep into it too much; but when that book came out, I do remember sitting at the edge of the bed – that’s not significant, it was just the nearest piece of furniture at the time – holding it in my hand and thinking that I was very pleased with the body of work I’d produced. You never know when you start writing how long it’s going to last. It could have all been over just in a couple of years, and equally it could all be over in the next couple of years.

Finally, is there a poem by anyone else that you wish you had written yourself?

Yes, pretty much every poem I ever read by other people. That really is the spur to writing; you read somebody else’s work and you are envious of it, and you are gob struck by it, and you’re amazed. You admire it to such a point that you think I’d like to try my own version of that, or how would those techniques work if applied to my own work? What would their voice sound like if I tried to harmonise with it? I guess that’s the age-old idea that there’s nothing new in this world. I’ve always thought of poetry as a continual conversation with other poems and other poets.

If you were asking about any one poem specifically … One of the poems that I admire as much as any other poem is a poem by Ted Hughes, called “Full Moon and Little Frieda.”* I don’t think this is a poem I’ve ever attempted to emulate, except through some of the techniques it practices. Hughes is describing the moment where his young daughter comes to the door of the farmhouse, where he lives at that time, and looks up into the night sky and sees the moon, and says its name. I think you are given the impression that it is the first word she has ever spoken. There’s this incredible identification and equilibrium between a planetary body and this tiny child, and yet they feel to be in balance. Even the title, “Full Moon and Little Frieda”, feels like it’s balanced on this very delicate fulcrum of the word “and”. The poem is tenderly laid out at the beginning – that tenderness and tension is suddenly broken by the launch of the word “moon.” It’s only fourteen or fifteen lines: it’s a tiny little poem.

(Cue sirens)

That’s the police coming, for me.

* Full Moon and Little Frieda, by Ted Hughes

A cool small evening shrunk to a dog bark and the clank of a bucket –

And you listening.

A spider’s web, tense for the dew’s touch.

A pail lifted, still and brimming – mirror

To tempt a first star to a tremor.

 

Cows are going home in the lane there, looping the hedges with their warm

wreaths of breath –

A dark river of blood, many boulders,

Balancing unspilled milk.

‘Moon!’ you cry suddenly, ‘Moon!  Moon!’

 

The moon has stepped back like an artist gazing amazed at a work

That points at him amazed.