From Old Light to Future Frontier
A conversation with the new UK Poet Laureate
By Lim Xin Hwee
Formerly the Oxford Professor of Poetry, Simon Armitage has published more than 20 collections of poems across a very productive career. He is, without a doubt, one of the United Kingdom's most distinguished poets of all time. Since this interview, he has received the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry and has also been appointed the new Poet Laureate of the UK.
In 2019, Armitage published a new poetry collection titled Sandettie Light Vessel Automatic. A multi-talented person, he is the lead singer with the band The Scaremongers, and frequently writes about his love for music, performance and Yorkshire in his novels.
How did being a probation officer affect your life and poetry?
At that time, the probation work was my profession that's what I trained for. I spent two years at university after my degree getting that qualification, so I really saw it as my life and as my occupation, and I imagined it lasting me until I was 65. Poetry at that point was a hobby; it was just an enthusiasm, something I was doing on the side. I think I probably used poetry at that time to keep me sane a little bit. The probation work was pretty heavy-duty, it was tough-going. I was in some difficult environments, dangerous on occasions, upsetting always. I think writing the poems was a way of either escaping it or dealing with it. So in the early poems I was writing at the end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s, quite a lot of the situations from probation and the language the terminology of the courts and the prisons ended up in those poems.
So were you already a probation officer when working on Zoom! and Xanadu?
Yeah, I was a probation officer until about 1993. Just before The Dead Sea Poems. I published Zoom! in 1989, Kid and Xanadu in 1992. I published Book of Matches in 1993, and it was just after that when I started to leave. It wasn't an abrupt halt I was job-share and part-time for a while. But in my head, I'd already left.
How did you have the energy to produce a poetry collection every year?
Well, at first, I didn't really have many other things to do. I didn't have a lot of responsibilities at that age, didn't have a family
I was just pleasing myself. Turned out to be writing most days. It was possible that most weeks I was trying to write and finish up a poem. I accept that I've been very productive I've been writing for about 30 years now, and I've published a lot of books and finished a lot of projects. I have an appetite for the work, and on those occasions when I'm exhausted with it and tired of it, the next day I'm not and I want to get on with something else. Also I think I've imported my work ethic from probation work. During the day, I should be getting on with it, really; otherwise I feel lazy, slack. So I think I've brought a kind of a nine-to-five work ethic into my writing schedule.
I would like to ask about CloudCuckooLand. I think that book is particularly different because it features mythical figures like Pegasus, so why did you decide to do that? What was your writing process?
I think one of the important things to say is that I have never studied English formally. Not since A-levels. I did a Geography degree, I did an MA in Social Policy and Psychology. So everything that I know about writing I've learned myself, taught myself or mistaught myself. Everything that I know about mythology a particular interest of mine I've learned. There have been occasions where I've been learning through writing about it. So that section of CloudCuckooLand entitled 'The Whole of the Sky' you probably know, there is one poem for every constellation in the sky and at that stage of my life I was very interested in astronomy, and I was trying to find a way of amalgamating the science with the mythology. The stars seemed like the perfect canvas for that, because obviously a lot of the constellations have got mythological stories attached to them. I also recognise and accept that I was educating myself as well, so it was like picking various constellations and learning about the myths and the folklore, and making another folklore, another myth out of them.
I feel that this particular process you've adopted detracts from what you usually do, which is to take something very small, very mundane and make it transcendent. Why did you adopt this approach?
Because even though the stars is a huge concept in outer space and we talk about enormous distances, actually, from the point of view of an amateur astronomer, those stars are minute pinpricks of light which rarely move. You know, they're just little twinkling shimmering things. So even though we're dealing with, you know, planetary bodies and unbelievable distances, we are, by and large to the naked eye, talking about small details and the stories that have occurred around them. We are also talking about old light, because even though we associate outer space with science fiction and the future, and we see it as a kind of future frontier, we all know the light that reaches us from stars is ancient; we're actually looking into the past when we see things in space. I don't really see that there is that much of a distinction, because when I was there at the top of the moor in the middle of the night with my telescope, these things were minute. I might as well have been looking through a microscope.
What do you think is one theme that runs through your entire corpus of work? I realise every book has a theme, but what about your whole corpus as one unified object?
It would take a better reader of my work than myself to make that kind of judgment. I would say one thing that recurs a lot is the way that we treat each other. The way we are with each other as human beings.
Are you referring to, say, class distinctions?
All distinctions. I think it relates back to what you were talking about before this thing that I have said on a number of occasions about how we, in poetry, talk about the general from the particular. We talk about the universal from the specific. Because I think my work is very domestic, very kitchen-sink. I guess my reasoning for that would be, if I describe how two people speak to each other in a house, I'm also describing how two countries relate to each other. I'm talking about how civilisations relate to each other from the very beginning. If I had a theme, which I don't think I have, but if there's a visible recurring element in the work, it's something to do with how we treat each other.
Let's talk about Seeing Stars. I'm interested as Seeing Stars also detracts from your usual form of poetry would you consider Seeing Stars prose-poetry? What made you want to use that form?
Let me say one thing I don't think there's such a thing as prose-poetry. I wouldn't say that in the department where I worked, but I'm saying this on my own time now. I think it can only be an ironic adventure. You're either using line endings because it's ritualised language, or you're not. We haven't got much going for us as poets, but line endings belong to us. I am making that the ultimate distinction. The line endings in Seeing Stars aren't completely arbitrary. I wanted them roughly to get somewhere near the right end margin. I just wanted them to look like they were a little bit nibbled by rats.
I didn't realise that! To me, it seemed like a left-aligned text, or a non-justified text on Microsoft Word.
It's intentional. Even though it looks arbitrary, I decided on each occasion where those lines ended. Even though it looked frayed, I still wanted it to be roughly about the same. I wrote that book for two reasons. One was one of my great poetic heroes and friends, who died about 10 years ago an American poet called James Tate. He wrote a book called Return to the City of White Donkeys. Those poems in Seeing Stars are my versions of his poems. I even mention him in one of the poems. It's an homage to him; it was a way of trying to write in an absurdist tradition that James did very very well. There isn't much of that in UK poetry. So that was one thing, and it was latent. I knew it was coming at some point. I had spent a lot of years with James, but I'd just never gotten around to it. The other reason was that I'd just finished translating Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. So I was absolutely tired of form and feature and formulation and regulation and pattern. I just wanted to write something that had no rules, really. No rules. I just wanted to play with grammar and to let sentences have their natural progression rather than try to think about how the alliterations were or how many rhymes there were. So it was a kind of relief, an exercise in relief, from the constrictions of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Why did you not continue with this particular form after Seeing Stars?
Because I'd gotten it out of my system. I had such fun writing that book and reading the poems from it. I think of it as probably my favourite book. It was like a day out from prison. I was just running around.
How has songwriting reinforced or influenced your poetry?
I don't think I've been influenced as a poet by song lyrics. I think they're two very different things. What I do think I've been influenced by is the attitude of pop and rock music. I grew up with those attitudes of punk rock, and the attitudes in my poems are the equivalent of the attitudes of the bands I've enjoyed. Those bands whose lyrics I really like are kitchen-sink; they have domestic lyricists; they're witty.
Could you give some examples?
Morrissey from The Smiths, Alex Turner from Arctic Monkeys, Paddy McAloon from a band called Prefab Sprout they are very detailed lyricists. Details, in my view, are what make good poetry. I've always been unembarrassed about talking about the extent to which music has been an influence on my life. My generation is very happy to talk about that; we'd confidently say that we've got as much pleasure from music as we have from literature. I'm part of that no-brow generation. I'm happy to say that the Sex Pistols are as good as Sibelius. In my view, if it's good, it's good. I don't think I need to justify it. I think I brought some of those sentiments into my work. You can see that in the references, the brand names that I use, the situations that I'm in in life. The markets, the cars. I'm confident that all these things can be highly poetic.
Many of your poems seem to be drawn from real-life experiences and encounters with real people. How do you feel about turning them into poems?
I would say that some of it is a little bit sleight of hand. I'm not a confessional poet, though I've written confessional poems and biographical poems, but a lot of the poems which seem personal often have personal beginnings and backgrounds. But at some moment in the poem which you don't need to know about, they veer off into a slightly fictionalised account. The reason for that is that, at some point when I'm writing, I remember that I'm not writing diary entries. My life, like everybody else's life, is boring. On a day-to-day basis, what goes on in our lives is not interesting. What is interesting is writing. In writing and language, you define or create those moments which convey something. I see myself as a communicator, I'm an old-fashioned poet in the sense that, when I write, I've got an idea, I want you to understand it, and I use those poems as vehicles for expressing that. The episodes of my life aren't always the perfect vehicles for expressing those ideas. They might offer circumstantial evidence, but they can't fully realise the idea.
I'm careful when I bring people into poems there are very identifiable people in the poems: my wife, my friends, my parents particularly. Sometimes I just have to take a bit of a risk, I don't know what they'll make of it. I think, by and large, I'm pretty responsible, because I still live in the same community. I've never felt that I needed to go away to write about people. I know some poets who've done that they really want to tear into individuals or they want to tear into their parents or their upbringing, and they can only do that by moving away. I like the fact that I'm still living in that community to a certain extent
I won't say that it keeps me honest. It keeps me
QLRS Vol. 18 No. 3 Jul 2019
Well, possibly, but I just think
responsible. The poems have to have some kind of integrity. Some kind of faithfulness to the actual life that's being recorded. Even if that's not a verbatim documentation.