has been acclaimed by Poetry Review as ‘the front man of his generation … the most imaginative and prolific poet now writing’. He speaks, says the Times, ‘with an utter lack of sentimentality or pomposity of the transcendent mysteries that lie beyond the ordinary moment.’
Simon Joseph Jones looked him up in central London on 27 September 2005.
Photography: Andrew Firth
You said once that it would be hard, growing up in Huddersfield, to be a bohemian. Is that what you aspired to be?
Not especially, but when you declare yourself to be a poet there’s perhaps an expectation that you will be a nonconformist of some kind. I suppose what I was getting at was that living there keeps you fairly grounded, you know? You’re part of a community that you feel accountable to, and perhaps responsible for, and I’ve always felt that that’s had a healthy effect on the stuff that I write. I’ve never felt limited or frustrated by it.
In Book of Matches , you wrote ‘My father thought it bloody queer’ when you came home with an earring. What kind of parents did you have?
They were very easy, really. I think they were just keen for me to be happy, more than anything else. My dad is a dyed-in-the-wool Yorkshireman and he was just very pleased that at one point I was playing cricket and football for the village, and particularly pleased that I’d followed his footsteps into the Probation Service.
Did he expect that?
No, I don’t think he expected it at all. In fact, I don’t think he even expected it of himself. He’d had any number of jobs – he was in the air force, he was a plumber, he was a fireman, he used to work in an engineering company, he bought and sold tyres for a living – and then he retrained, at quite a late stage in his life. I’ve got an enormous amount of admiration for what he did. I think he just saw an advert saying that they were looking for people to train as probation officers, and he went through a huge obstacle course of interviews and finally got in.
Some people see science and poetry as being at opposite ends of the spectrum, but I don’t. I think both deal very heavily in metaphor. The main difference is that scientists deal in cause and effect
He’d probably been in the service seven or eight years when I’d finished college. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with my life and I was on the dole and probably I could see some of the rewards he was getting from that job, so I followed suit.
I’d guess that your upbringing was not religious.
My dad goes to church when he’s told to. My mum is the churchgoer in the family: Church of England, does the flowers, goes on a Sunday – I think she has got faith. I was in the church choir for seven or eight years and grew up with all the Christian mythology surrounding me, if you can call it that.
Did you just drift away afterwards, or was there a point when you became an atheist?
Well, I don’t think I was ever really somebody who had faith, even when I was going to church. It was more of a kind of set of social values and a way of life, really – perhaps attached to the fact that Mum and Dad are heavily involved in amateur dramatics and that took place in the church hall. I don’t remember a point when I became severed from the church. It was just something that I did as a child and then when I got older I didn’t.
You said recently1In the Guardian, Q&A, 6 October 2001 that life after death is ‘a great offer, but the price is too high’.
Did I? That sounds good.
What is the price? A suspension of critical reason? Too much of a commitment?
Well, I think to believe in life after death you have to believe in God, and if I believed in God I would have to forgo a lot of my other rational and scientific beliefs. It would mean a complete restructuring of the way I see the world.
Many people would think of a rational and scientific worldview as the opposite of what poetry is about. Science sticks a pin through a butterfly, and poetry deals with what evaporates when you do that.
I’m not a sort of spooky or superstitious poet. I’m not describing a mystical or shady world when I write. I’m always describing a fairly commonplace world, a recognisable world, a place where we live. Some other poets are more interested in the spiritual dimensions of their own experience, but it’s less interesting to me.
Some people would see science and poetry as being at opposite ends of the spectrum, but I don’t. I think both deal very heavily in metaphor. When scientists talk about the cosmos or about concepts like time, they end up modelling them mathematically. They produce analogies – metaphors, really. And I think that’s what we do as writers.
The main difference is that they are dealing in cause and effect.
When did you start writing?
My earliest memory of writing is in the top year at junior school, so I would have been 10. I remember we were asked to write a poem about Christmas. I didn’t really know what a poem was, I just knew that it was a short bit of writing, which I found quite appealing. So, I went off and wrote this poem about how my grandma used to put a sixpence in the Christmas pudding – which was a lie, actually.
My teacher said they were going to put the best six poems up on the board, but mine didn’t get chosen. I’ve wondered if I’ve just been pursuing my revenge ever since
The teacher had said they were going to put the best six poems up on the board, but mine didn’t get chosen. But later he came up to me, this teacher, and said, ‘Oh, Simon, I just thought I’d tell you that that poem of yours was really good.’ I just thought: ‘Well, why didn’t you put it on the fucking board then?’ I’ve actually wondered if I’ve just been pursuing a career revenge ever since. Every time I finish a poem, I think: ‘Stick that on your board, mister!’
I was always interested in reading but I never really saw myself as a writer until, I think, my early twenties, or even a little later. I’d always really enjoyed poetry at school, particularly Ted Hughes.
Why did you decide to do a degree in geography?
I was crap at everything else, that was one reason. You could get in if you applied to do geography. I also had a notion of exploration and adventure on the high sea and, you know, maybe a field trip to India. I had a Boy’s Own view of the world and there was something exotic and appealing about doing geography.
Is there any overlap between your study of geography and your very defined sense of place?
Yeah, I think there is. I’m very aware of the surroundings I grew up in and the kind of impression they made on me. I’m very spatially aware – bordering on the autistic, I think, sometimes. I’m the kind of person that can have long conversations with you (if you so incline) about motorways and service stations and slip roads and things like that.
You cite Ted Hughes as an early inspiration. Is that because of the places he wrote about, or his language, or his ideas and values?
I think it’s more to do with the clarity and quality of the work. At school, we studied poems like ‘The Bull Moses’, ‘Pike’, ‘The Thought Fox’ and ‘Bayonet Charge’ and these are complicated poems dealing with big issues. On the other hand, their surface value is just so enticing to somebody at 13 or 14. I am not that interested in pigs or foxes, you know, but he really made those things come alive for me.
And then, I suppose, there’s the fact that he was the guy from the other side of the hill – you know, he lived in the next valley system – so if he could do it, then maybe I could.
Do you see yourself as part of a lineage?
Possibly. Let me think… You know, I think for me poetry is about a dissenting voice. It’s not necessarily revolutionary or radical, but there is something wilfully obstinate about it as an art form – it even refuses to get to the right-hand margin, you know?
I suppose that from my youth I felt the urge to be nonconformist in some way. There is a history of nonconformism in Yorkshire, whether it’s religious or artistic, and maybe that’s the tradition that I’m part of, if anything. And so people like Hughes were very important to me. And Tony Harrison, as well – you know, someone who could write in his own accent and put his voice into print without having to comply with Standard English…
In a way, contradiction is what generates the poetry. I’ve always thought that you need a certain amount of friction, because that’s what produces art
There seems to be a lot in your work about borders. Isn’t that a contradiction, that you’re interested in both rootedness and liminality?
It is a contradiction, but in a way that’s what generates the poetry. There’s a contradiction between me being a stop-at-home Yorkshireman, you know, the apple who hasn’t fallen far from the tree, and the fact that I have to travel around a lot as the poet Simon Armitage. I’ve always thought that you need to be somewhere on a kind of border or in a margin where there’s a certain amount of friction occurring, because that’s what produces art.
It’s no good being in a place of utter discomfort or in a place of complete comfort, either – you have to be somewhere on the edge, where you can see things rubbing against each other.
When the Guardian asked you what your idea of perfect happiness was, you said: ‘A good summer, loose shorts and a pair of busted-in trainers.’ I rather expected a poet to say something a bit more abstract or metaphysical.
I wrote a poem called ‘It Ain’t What You Do, It’s What It Does to You’ which is a sort of manifesto – it’s like an Ars Poetica for me.2bit.ly/2wapz8m It addresses that issue – it says that you don’t have to have great subjects in mind to write well. Part of my philosophy has always been to try to find the (for want of a better word) miraculous within the everyday and the ordinary and the domestic.
That’s a fairly glib response that you’ve quoted, but I do think there is a kind of appealing truth to that state of dress I mention. I’m not being deliberately lowbrow when I say such things, or when I write about Huddersfield, say. Huddersfield is all I need to know, really, in terms of…
The limits of the universe?
Yeah. Yeah. I suppose the one thing I would always try to resist is trying to describe a literary kind of happiness. I’m not really comfortable in that setting anyway, so maybe there is a little bit of reverse snobbery going on in some of those responses.
It’s the ordinariness and accessibility that make you such a readable poet, the poet that people like who don’t like poetry. Is that what you aspire to?
Well, the poets I admire are poets who are memorable and poets who are complex and simple in the same stroke.
You don’t deliberately aim to be accessible, then, to people who are wary of the abstruseness of poetry?
Yeah, it’s deliberate. I mean, I choose the words – they’re not given to me by somebody else. But it’s part of the job of being a poet, as I see it, to write about complicated things in a way that people can read. If you’re a poet and nobody reads you, you’ve failed. But that doesn’t mean you should be facile or should write doggerel. You should be trying to communicate the issues and the subjects that are important to you – but I think you have to develop a tactic for drawing people into a poem.
Does that militate against risk-taking?
It seems to me that poetry is more important than ever now, because it refuses to be garrulous and to join in with the constant diarrhoea of information. It is resolutely compact
It might do, sometimes. But it depends who you’re trying to impress.
You said in your introduction to Short and Sweet3Short and Sweet: 101 very short poems (Faber and Faber, 1999) that poetry is resolutely small in a world of so much text. Is that what makes poems important: everyone else needs an essay but a poet needs, in that book at least, no more than 13 lines?
Thirty years ago, you might have imagined that by now we might not need poetry any more – that it would seem old-fashioned and somewhat redundant, given that there are speedier and easier and more entertaining ways of engaging with the arts. But it seems to me that, in this age of over-information, poetry is more important than ever, because it refuses to be garrulous and to join in with this constant diarrhoea of information. It is resolutely compact. Prose is often about area, but poetry is about pounds per square inch.
Why, then, did you start writing prose fiction?4With Little Green Man in 2001, followed by The White Stuff in 2004
Well, I’m kind of restless and I’m always interested in trying new things. And if you declare yourself to be a writer, I think you feel empowered to try other kinds of writing. Particularly if you declare yourself to be a poet, because you can’t write poems every day – it’s not mentally possible. So, you end up with time on your hands and in that time you get ideas that either can’t or won’t be turned into poems. Sometimes they grow into narratives or become dramatic, and the place to take them is somewhere outside poetry, either prose fiction or the stage.
I wondered if it was a natural evolution for somebody who saw communication as crucial to his art to turn to a medium that was much more widely read.
I think I did say that at the time. I made the mistake of saying on telly that poetry was like talking down the toilet. What I meant was that there are moments in the life of a poet when you feel as if you are talking down the toilet, because it’s not a frontline artform and you feel every now and again that you’ve put so much effort in for perhaps not much reward. You see people on trains and by and large they’re not reading books of poetry, they’re reading novels.
If communication is the thing, what is it that you’re trying to say? Do you see yourself as someone who is trying to transmit values? Killing Time  in particular is a kind of polemic about how wrong everything is.
Killing Time is quite an unusual poem for me. I think it stands slightly outside of what I normally do, although I am fanatically proud of it. Usually what I do is take private events and make them public through writing about them, whereas in Killing Time I took public events and made them personal. It was a personal response to things that had been in the mass media.
I decided I would write about the year in news and it turned into something of a polemic. I think somebody in the Times said I had written ‘a poison pen letter of our age’, which I was really chuffed with, actually. I wanted that on the back of the book. I didn’t set out to be rancorous and difficult, but if you sit down and keep watching the news, that’s probably how it makes you feel.
Ordinarily, your writing conveys a sense of someone who is very happy with their life, and yet I think you have said it’s an artist’s responsibility to acknowledge what’s going on in the world.
I think life is meaningless, I don’t think there’s a programme or a plan. And poetry is not so much about discovering significance as about inventing it, and that makes us feel better
I don’t think we should shy away from these things. I think there is a role for public poetry and for poets to respond to events in our lifetime. Poetry is an amazingly powerful substance if you get it right. It can mean a lot to people. Often when people suffer a bereavement they write a poem – these are people who are not poets. They believe in it as a place to put their emotions.
When you write that kind of stuff that readers find powerful, do you hope that they will respond by changing in some way?
No. No. It is perhaps about sharing. It is perhaps, on a very crude level, me saying, ‘This is how I feel. Maybe you feel this as well.’ I don’t really know.
I don’t quite know how poetry works, what people are looking for when they read it. You’re asking really why I write, and it’s something to do with the fact that – maybe because I don’t necessarily believe in God – I think life is meaningless.
In an existential sense?
I just think it’s meaningless. I don’t think there’s a programme, I don’t think there’s a plan, and I think poetry is not so much about discovering significance as about inventing it, about inventing meaning. And that makes us feel better. You know, patterns, coincidence, significance, ideas we can share. I often think that’s what I’m doing when I’m writing: I am inventing a kind of meaning or a significance.
Your poems are now on the school syllabus. Do you think of yourself as an opinion former?
No, not at all. At most, I’m a style former in terms of writing. Opinion isn’t insignificant in poetry, but it certainly comes a long way down the list. Poetry is about style, it’s about an attitude of presentation, it’s about the way you present language back to the world.
Does that mean you don’t feel any moral responsibility towards the children who read your poems?
No. I never asked to be on the school syllabus and I don’t choose the poems. I like being on the syllabus, because I like the idea that there are 400,000 kids a year reading those poems. You know, we all want readers. But in terms of their morality, I don’t write poems to tell people how to lead their lives. In fact, there are some very immoral things in those poems that I wouldn’t want kids doing at all.
I had a protester a few weeks ago at a poetry reading. Somebody was handing leaflets out because I’d blasphemed and I’d used ‘language’ in my poems and I’d endorsed violence and these poems were now on the school curriculum. But I didn’t write those poems with a view to putting them in front of kids’ noses and saying, ‘Study these!’
I suppose that, in that sense, the most controversial thing you have done has been writing the lyrics for Pornography: the Musical on Channel 4 . Did you have any qualms about that?
I did have qualms, yeah – but not moral qualms. I was just nervous about it as a package. People are funny about sex, you know. Quite a lot of people don’t like it, or they’re not getting enough of it, and they get very agitated about it when they see it or hear about it. And obviously just the word ‘pornography’ produces a reaction, so I knew there was going to be stuff flying around.
You would never start writing poems if what you were looking for in life was fame and fortune and a limo at the front door. So, anything like that is a kind of bonus, really
Also, it’s incredibly difficult to write about sex. I mean, you shouldn’t do it really: either it becomes anatomical or it’s hilarious.
On the other hand, I completely stand by [the film] as a project. It was very much part and parcel of what me and Brian Hill, the filmmaker, have been trying to do for a long time, which is to give people a voice through poetry or (on this occasion) song. Documentary subjects aren’t always the most articulate people in the world, but I think those women had something to say.
One difference between poetry and television is that you have to have a certain level of education to read a poem, and maybe a little more to understand it, but anyone can turn a TV set on and there it all is. Should TV be given as much licence as poetry?
I don’t know, is the answer to that question. There were moments in that film which I had to watch through my fingers. It was the kind of telly that you watch from behind the settee, really. Somebody described it as ‘dark meat’ and it was. Whether it was the nudity that bothered people, or the language, or what people were doing to each other… But, you know, it was a documentary: it was about things that are happening. And I suppose poetry and telly should be brave.
I think the difference with that and, say, Feltham Sings, another film we made,5For Channel 4 in 2002 was that people (not Daily Mail readers, of course) are going to be sympathetic to a prisoner’s story, by and large. Audiences seemed less inclined to be naturally sympathetic to people who are working in the sex industry.
You have translated or reworked a number of ancient poems or verse dramas. Is there a special resonance for you in an old story, or are they just good stories?
I think there has to be something of both for me to tackle them. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a great story in its own right.6His verse translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was published by Faber & Faber in 2007. You know, it’s a fascinating poem – but also I think it has relevance. For example, you can interpret the Green Knight as a representation of Nature and the bargain that we must strike with Nature to coexist with it without us killing it or it killing us. And love, loyalty, those things never go away, even if they go out of fashion.
I did a version of Euripides’ play Heracles [in 2000], in which Heracles returns from his Tasks and ends up killing his three children. Now, one of the reasons why I wanted to work on it is that it’s an intriguing piece of drama full stop; but I was particularly interested in the idea of heroics. Is it possible to be a hero these days in the way that Heracles was? What happens to the hero when he comes home? Can you still be a conquering hero, or are modern-day heroes just people who have suffered and survived?
Hollywood has discovered you, but only as a novelist. Does it irk you that poets are not celebrated by our culture in the way that other writers are?
No. I think that poetry has its own rewards. It’s true that I’ve tasted the odd drop of champagne from that other world, but not because of my poems. But you would never start writing poems if that’s what you were looking for in life – fame and fortune and a limo pulling up at the front door. There was never any expectation on my part when I started writing poems that it would lead to Los Angeles. So, anything like that is a kind of bonus, really.
A version of this interview was published in the November 2005 issue of Third Way.
|In the Guardian, Q&A, 6 October 2001
|Short and Sweet: 101 very short poems (Faber and Faber, 1999)
|With Little Green Man in 2001, followed by The White Stuff in 2004
|For Channel 4 in 2002
|His verse translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was published by Faber & Faber in 2007.
Simon Armitage was born in 1963 and educated at Colne Valley High School. He studied geography at Portsmouth Polytechnic (now University), graduating in 1984.
He worked with young offenders before gaining a postgraduate qualification in social work at Manchester University in 1988. He subsequently served as a probation officer in Oldham until 1993.
His first volume of poetry, Zoom!, was published by Bloodaxe in 1989, and was followed (all from Faber & Faber) by Kid (1992), Book of Matches (1993), The Dead Sea Poems (1995), CloudCuckooLand (1997), Killing Time, a thousand-line poem commissioned to mark the new millennium (1999), Selected Poems (2001), The Universal Home Doctor and Travelling Songs (both 2002) and The Shout (2005).
He co-edited with Robert Crawford The Penguin Anthology of Poetry from Britain and Ireland since 1945 (1998), and edited the anthologies Short and Sweet: 101 very short poems (2002) and The Faber Hughes (2004).
He has also written for radio, television and film, and is the author of four stage plays, including Eclipse (1997), which was commissioned by the National Theatre, Mister Heracles (2000), a version of Euripides’ play Heracles commissioned by the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and Jerusalem (2005). His dramatisation of the Odyssey, commissioned by the BBC, was broadcast on Radio 4 in 2004 and published in 2006.
He wrote and presented Xanadu (1992), a ‘poem film for television’ broadcast by BBC2, who the following year screened his film about the US poet Weldon Kees. He also wrote and narrated Saturday Night, a documentary about Leeds, and Drinking for England, broadcast by BBC2 and Channel 4 in 1996. Moon Country, co-written with Glyn Maxwell, was adapted as a six-part series, Second Draft from Saga Land, broadcast by BBC Radio 3 in 1994. He wrote the lyrics for the docu-drama Pornography: The Musical, shown on Channel 4 in 2003.
He is also the author of All Points North (1999), a semi-autobiographical collection of essays on the north of England.
His first novel, Little Green Man, was published in 2001 and was followed by The White Stuff in 2004.
His first opera, The Assassin Tree, a collaboration with the composer Stuart McRae, was premiered at the 2006 Edinburgh Festival.
He presented Radio 4’s poetry series Stanza for five years and for some time was a regular contributor to the Mark Radcliffe Show on BBC Radio 2.
He has received numerous awards for his poetry, including an Eric Gregory award in 1988 and a Lannan award in 1994. He was named ‘most promising young poet’ at the inaugural Forward Poetry Prize in 1992 and ‘young writer of the year’ by the Sunday Times the following year. He has also been shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize, the T S Eliot Prize and the Forward Prize. He won an Ivor Novello award in 2002 for his song lyrics for the Channel 4 film Feltham Sings (which also won a Bafta). A recording of his dramatisation of the Odyssey won the gold award for abridged fiction at the 2005 Spoken Word Awards.
He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society for Literature in 2004.
He is married and has a daughter.
Up-to-date as at 1 October 2005