In conversation with Simon Armitage

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On 10 May 2019, Simon Armitage was announced as the successor to Carol Ann Duffy as Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom. Back in October 2019, Palatinate spoke to the Yorkshire-born poet at the Durham Book Festival. He spoke about the influences on his poetry, the London-centric nature of publishing and how it feels to be known as a GCSE text across the UK.

How much of your poetry is influenced by your childhood in West Yorkshire, is it important for you to retain that influence in your work?

I think it has become more important than when I started writing. I came back to the North after I’d been at Portsmouth University studying Geography and I came back home through a kind of complacency. I didn’t have much ambition and it was an easy place for me to come back to. I think it suited me at times to be nonmetropolitan and it tied into a lot of the anti-London sentiments that I had back then. The longer I’ve stayed in the North, the more intrigued I’ve become and the more I travel it’s become a place I come back to. I’ve noticed that I write mostly about the North when I’m not there, it gives me a chance to fantasise and mythologize about it.

The publishing industry is quite London-centric, how important do you think events like Durham Book Festival are?

I think the North is a much more confident place than it used to be, especially in literary terms. That’s been bolstered by publishing firms like Carcanet and Bloodaxe. When I started, there was a sense that you needed to be in London, you needed a London publisher, you needed to be seen in the right bars and you needed to network.

Do you think that idea is still there now?

No, I think that’s all gradually broken down and the scene is far more dispersed now. The idea that the margin has become the centre, is one that I’ve taken a lot of confidence from. If you write poetry you write with a sense of identity, which is centred in your idiolect. The idiolect comes from your upbringing and you’re trying to be true to yourself. I’m not saying there aren’t prejudices any more, that there isn’t still a strong London scene, but I think it’s a bit easier now.

A lot of students will know your work from the school curriculum. How do feel about your works being deconstructed in an academic context?

It definitely opens up new audiences. Students have been studying my work at GCSE and A-Level for the best part of twenty years now. That’s a delight, it’s a privilege to put work in front of people. Especially younger people, who don’t have the tramlines of literary criticism and will often respond personally to a poem in the spirit of which it’s been written. I’ll often point out to them that these poems weren’t written with the idea of being studied, that’s a happy coincidence. I don’t know whether it diminishes the experience of the poem or not, it didn’t for me when I was at school. For those people in the class whom it appeals to, I think having a relatively contemporary poet on the syllabus can only be a good thing.

There’s a big spoken word scene in Durham, do you have any advice for aspiring poets?

About ten years ago people were always telling me young people weren’t interested in language and I refused to believe that. It’s always seemed to me that younger people are ferociously interested in language, it just might not be the language that I speak or my contemporaries speak or write. Whether it’s texting, blogging or spoken word, the energy and the appetite for doing intricate things with language seem to be as prevalent as ever. I think it’s really energized the whole poetry scene. I don’t have any advice other than if it feels good, do it. God that’s terrible, it’s like something you’d have on a t-shirt.

Image via Creative Commons

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