An interview with
Simon Armitage

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Transcript

Why is poetry important to you?
Poetry is more important to me probably than it is to a lot of people. It's not important, say in the way bread or love is important - I once heard someone reporting that Heaney had said it was an anthropological necessity and to me that sounds like it's going too far but I think it's certainly a consequence, it's a kind of human consequence, and I think we are a species that looks for pattern, and looks for significance, and looks for meaning in a life, probably where there isn't that much meaning or significance, you know, unless you're devoutly religious. So I think it's a way of not finding significance but actually inventing it, inventing significance and sort of proving it to yourself, and I think it's a way of manifesting ourselves to ourselves, so it's important on that level.

How does a poem begin for you?
If I knew where poems came from I'd probably go and get more of them than I have already! "I'm just not sure" is the answer to that - I suppose sometimes there's an idea that I'm passionate about: it might be a political idea and I feel as if I want to write about it, or language might come along and I might overhear something and I want to take that language on, take it further, but I think probably at the base of it is some kind of urge, you know, there is an urge to write, to create something, to express yourself. I think that's probably at the very pit of it for me because I have had occasions when I've felt the urge to write with nothing to write about, when I've sort of gone out and got the poem, I've gone looking for it, because I've been in that mood, so . . . there's a mystery element to it and maybe on top of that mystery element for me, and perhaps to do with my background, I don't know, there's some sense of having to get on with something and not just sit around and do nothing. I've always been somebody who's worked or had a proper job, and I suppose I've always felt that once I've declared myself a poet, I should be getting on with it.

What is the relationship between your speaking voice and your written voice?
I think part of the project of my poetry is to try and find a written way of demonstrating my voice. I think when I started writing I noticed that the poems that people seemed to appreciate or wanted to publish in magazines were the ones that had the closest relationship to my speaking voice - you know, they might have contained some element of colloquial language or vernacular language, and I guess I've tried to develop that. I mean it is impossible to write as we speak, and if we did that the poems would just look dumb or crazy or very obscure, but I think it's about working out a plausible version in print culture, of what is likely to come out of your mouth, and, you know, that's something I've been really keen to develop over the years. And in fact I've started writing some dialect poems: you know, dialect poems are things that are usually frowned on and make you local and insignificant and it's been very interesting for me, as somebody from this part of the world, to try and find a way of representing some of the noises that people make round here, because they, you know, in the phonetic alphabet they don't really exist.

How do you decide what form to use in a poem?
I tend to think that poems come pre-packaged, and that when the idea suggests itself to me the form comes with it: I sort of see it in my mind's eye - particularly with poems that come as blocks of text, you know, that look like gravestones or something like that, or those that come as quatrains and look like hymns. They don't always stay in that form because when I start writing I'll sometimes notice that there is a pattern of language, perhaps a rhyme or a repetition, and that might suggest some further, you know, physical form or shape on the page, but I think I do imagine these things to be predetermined in some way - that they are somehow in concert with the whole idea of the poem and with the style of the poem because I don't think I would ever embark on a poem unless I knew its style - style is everything to me, in writing. You know, the subject is almost - well it's not kind of insignificant but the style is the main thing: I think that is what people are interested in in poems.

Do you work on poetry and prose at the same time?
I've tried to write poetry and prose at the same time. I don't mean with a pen in each hand, I mean, you know, sort of, perhaps on the same day, and it just doesn't work. I think they're two different mindsets, and I particularly notice that the poetry will spill over into the prose and the prose will become clogged and it will become lyrical and it will even end up having rhymes in it! I've written a couple of novels and the first time I sat down to embark on this first novel, you know, I simply didn't know how to do it. Poetry's become a kind of first language, and my creative, literary thoughts appear as poems. So I had to keep going to the bookshelf and picking out novels and reading a paragraph and reminding myself "Oh yes, that's prose, that's how you do it!" I remember Margaret Atwood once saying that she thought they came out of different sides of the brain. I don't know how you would prove that, but it sounds like a good metaphor to explain it.

Is the 'I' of your poems a fictional character?
There is a kind of fictional Simon Armitage that pops up in a lot of the poems, even those that seem overtly autobiographical. Poets are always complaining that when they use the word 'I' in a poem, readers are very quick to assume that, you know, these are confessional in some way, and it's not always the case. But at the same time I think poets are aware that that 'I' word is a useful little barb in a poem to catch hold of a reader's attention. I suppose I tend to think that there are two versions of me - there's a sort of literary Simon Armitage that I read about in papers, not always in glowing terms, and he makes me smile; and then there's my other life, my kind of home life which is decidedly non-literary. And I'm always playing with the persona of the literary Simon Armitage in the poems and, maybe these two characters sort of blur a little bit. In my book Tyrannosaurus Rex versus the Corduroy Kid, there's a lot of experimenting with the self in that book including a dialect poem which I dedicate to Simon Armitage. That might be seen as being incredibly immodest, but actually, you know, I was thinking of dedicating a poem to a person I didn't really recognise.

Select bibliography

  • Zoom!, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Bloodaxe Books, 1989
  • Xanadu, Bloodaxe Books, 1992
  • Kid, London, Faber & Faber, 1992
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  • Book of Matches, Faber & Faber, 1993
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  • Penguin Modern Poets 5 (contributor with Sean O'Brien and Tony Harrison), London, Penguin, 1995
  • The Dead Sea Poems, Faber & Faber, 1995
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  • Moon Country (with Glyn Maxwell), Faber & Faber, 1996
  • Wild Blue Yonder, Penguin/Faber Audiobooks, 1996
  • Cloudcuckooland, Faber & Faber, 1997
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  • The Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland since 1945 (editor with Robert Crawford), London, Viking, 1998
  • All Points North, Penguin, 1998
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  • The Poetry Quartets 11, Audio Cassette, The British Council/Bloodaxe Books, 1998
  • Killing Time, Faber & Faber, 1999
  • New Chatto Poets, Vintage 1999
  • Selected Poems, Faber & Faber, 2001
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  • Short and Sweet, Faber & Faber, 2002
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  • Travelling Songs, Faber & Faber, 2004
  • The Universal Home Doctor, Faber & Faber, 2004
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  • Ted Hughes: poems selected by Simon Armitage, Faber & Faber, 2004
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  • Simon Armitage Reading from his poems, CD, The Poetry Archive, 2005
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  • Machinery of Grace, The Poetry Society 2005
  • Tyrannosaurus Rex Versus the Corduroy Kid, Faber & Faber 2006
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  • Homer's Odyssey, Faber & Faber 2006
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  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, W W Norton, 2007
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  • The Twilight Readings, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2008
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  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight CD - read by Simon Armitage. Faber & Faber, 2008
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  • The Not Dead, Pomona Press 2008
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  • Out of the Blue, Enitharmon Press 2008
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  • Out of the Blue, Enitharmon 2008
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  • Gig, Penguin Books 2009
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  • Poetry of Birds, Penguin Books 2009
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  • Seeing Stars, Faber and Faber 2010
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  • Walking Home, Faber and Faber 2012
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  • The Death of King Arthur Faber and Faber 2012
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  • Poetry Quartets 1, Bloodaxe Books 1998
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