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theartsdesk Q&A: poet laureate Simon Armitage on landscapes, libraries, home and edgelands | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: poet laureate Simon Armitage on landscapes, libraries, home and edgelands

theartsdesk Q&A: poet laureate Simon Armitage on landscapes, libraries, home and edgelands

Interview with the Yorkshire-born poet ahead of his appearance on The South Bank Show

The South Bank Show airs on Sunday 13 December at 10.45pm on Sky Arts channel Freeview 11

Simon Armitage is a poet at the top of his game: in his second year as poet laureate, he has given voice to the experiences of lockdown. In March, he released his collection Magnetic Field: The Marsden Poems, a return to the childhood village in West Yorkshire that has served as his lifetime inspiration.

This Sunday on Sky Arts, he features in an interview with Melvyn Bragg for The South Bank Show. Ahead of the episode, I spoke to Simon in typical pandemic form, over Zoom in my lunch break.

INDIA LEWIS. When you went back to Marsden, your childhood home, did it make you rethink your life at all? Would you have done anything differently?

SIMON ARMITAGE. When I was young and growing up, it didn’t feel like it was a life full of options. It just felt as if it was something I was continuing with, and I actually think that maybe some of those constraints and limitations, as I saw them then, were actually a good thing in the end, in terms of making me appreciate certain things more. I certainly appreciate this part of the world more, which I’m not sure I did when I was younger. When I went back to college, I only really came back here out of complacency.

This area is not automatically beautiful, and when I was younger it was probably uglier, just in terms of the post-industrial feel of the area then. It was quite denuded, because of all the acid rain, and the soot from the factories. I’ve got some photographs of Marsden village from the forties and fifties, and there’s barely a tree standing. And now they say a squirrel can get from Marsden to Huddersfield without having to touch the ground. I don’t know whether that’s ever been tested. There’s more nature in the landscape than there was then.

In your episode of The South Bank Show, you talk about how society has become more interior, and facilities have gone – do you think that will change after this year?

I’m hopeful about that. The community spirit that’s bubbled up around these valleys where I live, it’s been incredible. It might have been there at a more underground level before, but it’s really come to the surface. I think there’s always been a strong sense of community around here, but that’s turned into a sense of support and even aid.

For all the catastrophe of Covid, I think it has reminded some of us of some core values, some things that might be more useful to us than straightforward material gains. I walked down through the village [Marsden] and bumped into several people who were out as volunteers dressed as Santas and elves, putting the Christmas lights up against a building – the Mechanic’s Institute (it’s one of the buildings I’ve mentioned in a poem) – which has been one of those amenities which has been abandoned by the council because of costs, and the village has had to take it on. That was an interesting cameo of the kind of thing that’s taking place.

 When we look back in years to come at this wrinkle in history, poetry’s part in it will be visibleDo you think that writing and poetry have a part to play in bringing communities together, and will do in the years to come?

I’ve tended to think of it as an isolated pursuit, by and large. It’s something you have to get on with on your own and not automatically something that everybody else is interested in. But I think when we look back in years to come at this wrinkle in history, poetry’s part in it will be visible, just in terms of people writing, people expressing their feelings through poems, and reading poetry. Because they’ve had more opportunity, and more time. There is this association between bettering yourself and reading poetry, and I think people will turn to it as a contemplative artform, during a time of a lot of distraction and anxiety elsewhere.

I’m a massive Middle and Old English nerd, and I was wondering if there’s anything that you feel that we can learn from them linguistically? ‘Kennings’ and so on. Do you play with these in your poetry?

I spend a lot of time translating medieval poetry, so I think by the time I turn to my own work I’ve probably had enough. Although, I’ve been thinking about some poems I’ve written recently and going back to them and deliberately injecting a few Middle English words into them. The words I particularly like from Middle English are those that have a slight suggestion of their meaning but are not completely transparent, which are really sonorous and intriguing for their sounds.

I think we can end up flattering ourselves with the idea that we live at the most enlightened point in history, and I think involving yourself in Middle English and seeing the huge vocabulary, of some very particular, specialised, and beautiful, intriguing words, reminds us that there were some smart people around a long time before us, who were making some really interesting observations about the world and were incredibly articulate.

I think people underestimate the impact of dialect in early writing. Was it you who went into the hills above Manchester and noticed that people could recognise Gawain and the Green Knight, because some of that dialect hadn’t been lost?

Was that in the documentary film that I made for the BBC? We were talking to a farmer in Derbyshire, I think, who had a very exposed, hairy chest at the time, so it was very difficult to concentrate. He was very Middle English. The Yorkshire accent is still very strong. My dad and my grandad had a different dialect, but the accent is still really strong.

Has that contributed to how you write? I always remember Tony Harrison commenting on Wordsworth rhyming ‘matter’ with ‘water’.

I suppose, up to a point. People like Tony won a lot of battles and my generation has enjoyed the spoils of those wars – we haven’t had to fight for the same territory. I think a lot has changed, the idea that the margins have become the centre is very prevalent. Idiolect, vocabulary, accent, and dialect have become associated very strongly with authenticity and identity. They’re very current topics in writing.

You’ve been poet laureate for a year. Has that changed how you write?

I don’t think so, in terms of my work outside the laureateship. I’ve been writing a sequence of poems called ‘New Cemetery’ for about four or five years now, which is an ongoing body of work. I think that’s helped me maintain consistency of approach, because they’re written in a particular style. It’s always there to remind me of the way I want to write at the moment.

The laureate poems are very different because they’ve been occasioned or commissioned by different events or organisations. I’ve always been quite a good mimic, and I think I’m quite good at tuning into atmospheres of language. You have to be careful that you don’t end up imitating a style just because that’s associated with the subject.

I wrote a poem recently for the hundredth anniversary of the unknown warrior and read it in Westminster Abbey. There is a temptation on occasions like that to fall in with the cadences of First World War poetry, but I think it’s important to try and remember that you are presumably asked to be laureate because something within your own style has been recognised as valid or useful.

You talked about writing for environmental causes and for libraries, but is there anything else that you would like to push for, given your public position?

It’s really important to try and promote the idea of libraries as something more than books on shelvesThe environmental concerns will never stop – whatever you do in that direction, you are only ever scratching the surface. The Laurel Prize, for collections of nature and environmental poetry – I’d really like to grow that this year. It was a big success despite all the restrictions around Covid. I really want the annual event to turn into at least a weekend of scientific papers, family participation, and events, as well as the prize itself, and try to get it into education somehow.

The library tour I was embarking on was cancelled the week before lockdown, but I’ve reimagined that as something we could do through technologies by still visiting libraries. I’m still hoping to make that happen early next year. It’s really important to try and promote the idea of libraries as something more than books on shelves, as a community resource, a meeting place, and a venue for events. I think they were a soft target during austerity.

I was thinking about those intrinsic links to the land through poets like John Clare. Could you move to another country and write about their landscapes?

Interestingly enough, when I’ve been abroad, or lived abroad, I’ve ended up writing more about Yorkshire than when I’m here. I don’t know if it’s that something then has to appeal to the imagination, that maybe you can enter the realm of fantasy, hyperbole, or mythology a little bit more which you might be nervous about when you’re actually living in that territory.

We’re talking about all this as if I am first and foremost a nature poet, which actually I’m not. I’m someone who’s always been interested and excited when boundaries blur a little bit, when there’s some curdling between the edge of the field and the housing estate, or when I see people and their habits in the landscape, or the landscape intrudes into people’s lives. That’s pretty much a description of what it’s like around here. In one direction it’s town and the big urban areas – we’re not without those enormous lumps of urban life around here – but equally if you put one foot the other way, you’re onto some wild, desolate, beautiful, moorland. The edge, the border and the margin are good places to write from, and it’s quite often where there’s a bit of friction, a bit of heat occurring.

It’s that space where the city finishes and the countryside begins, and it’s so wild.

I have a little line in a poem somewhere, I don’t know if I’ve ever published it. about the last house in Sheffield. When you’re driving up the M1, you go past the edge of a housing estate, with a very conspicuous house at the edge of it, and it does feel like somebody has said "that’s where Sheffield stops and after that, it’s the moors".


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