Simon Armitage - Northern star

HE HAS a CBE for services to poetry, an Ivor Novello Award for his songlyrics, scripted award-winning documentaries, penned plays, novels, and memoirs, and, to round it all off, has developed a recent sideline performing with a rock group.

Simon Armitage is nothing if not versatile and the Yorkshire-born poet is coming to Galway as part of this year’s Cúirt International Festival of Literature and his reading promises to be one of its highlights.

Born near Huddersfield in 1963, Armitage still lives in the area. His first poetry collection, Zoom, was published in 1989 and five years later he gave up his job as a probation officer to devote himself fulltime to writing.

Through collections such as Kid (1992 ), Book of Matches (1993 ), The Universal Home Doctor (2002 ) and last year’s Seeing Stars he has become firmly established as one of Britain’s best-loved and well-regarded poets.

“I first got into reading poetry when I was about 14 or 15,” Armitage tells me, during a phone conversation from his Yorkshire home. “Ted Hughes was a poet who made a big impression on me at the time though I had little general interest in poetry up to then.

“Poetry wasn’t a specially big thing in my family but I found out after he died that my grandfather used to write a column for the local paper; he worked as a fireman and as a hospital porter.

“After he died I remember clearing out his house and finding lots of volumes of Shakespeare. My dad also wrote plays and pantos and sketches that were staged locally so there was that vein of writing within the family.”

Mention of his fellow-Yorkshire poet Hughes prompts the question whether Armitage’s work has been much influenced by the late laureate or any of the other notable writers who have come from the area.

In Yorkshire there is an attitude of ‘having a go’ and all those people did that which helped give me the confidence to pursue my writing.

“Ted Hughes was an influence, maybe not so much in terms of my style or content but in the sense of him somehow giving permission for me to be a poet,” Armitage acknowledges. “I was mesmerised by his poems when I first read them and the fact that he came from over the next valley to me fostered the sense that if he could do it – make it as a poet – then I could do it also.

“Tony Harrison would probably be more of an influence stylistically or linguistically. He showed you could write in a local voice. His poems took a stance on issues of language and by the time I started to write a lot of those battles had been fought and won so that was important for me.

“Then you had people like David Hockney, Alan Bennett, Alan Ayckbourn as well. In Yorkshire there is an attitude of ‘having a go’ and all those people did that which helped give me the confidence to pursue my writing.”

Armitage has written eloquently on music; his lively memoir Gig charts his years of attending concerts by the likes of The Fall and The Smiths. Last year, in an interview he conducted with Morrissey for The Guardian, Armitage asked the singer whether his songwriting was a ‘clinical activity’. How would Armitage respond to the same question about his poetry?

“I’d say my writing is very clinical,” he replies. “The creative moment when I first get an idea for a poem can be overpowering, and I feel the passionate urge to write. But once I sit down to write it, it becomes more calculating. I’m trying to produce a work of art and so I need to be conscious of the kind of effect I want the poem to have.”

Armitage has also done superb work on a string of memorable TV documentaries. The poems and song-lyrics he contributed to Feltham Sings, about a young offender’s institution, helped the programme win a 2003 BAFTA and an Ivor Novello Award for best music.

Other outstanding documentaries have included Drinking for England, about alcohol consumption, Pornography, the Musical, about the sex industry, and The Not Dead, about war veterans.

In each of those Armitage brilliantly shaped the stories of the documentary interviewees into powerful poems which they themselves then recited to camera. How did he find the experience of working on those programmes?

“I was very aware of the sense of responsibility that came with turning their words into poetry,” he admits. “I’ve done a few of those documentaries and only once did someone decide they didn’t want to read the poem I’d written for them and that was nothing to do with them not liking the piece.

“I think the toughest one of those kind of pieces for me to write was a drama-documentary that was broadcast recently on BBC Radio called Black Roses. It was about Sophie Lanchester, a young gap-year student who was kicked to death in Lancashire in 2007 and the programme featured my poems and an interview with Sophie’s mum.

“I would obviously have felt empathetic about the story but at the time of the actual writing I’d have to be dispassionate about it because otherwise it could have ended up being very sentimental.”

Armitage has added another string to his bow in the last couple of years, songwriting and gigging with The Scaremongers, a rock group he formed with some old friends.

“We’re very underground!” he laughs in describing the group. “There are eight of us altogether that feature in the group at different times. It’s great fun, it’s like being in a five-a-side team.”

Ahead of his visit to Cúirt, it might be apt to enquire whether Armitage enjoys doing readings?

“I do actually, I see it as part of the task,” he replies. “I identify with that ancient role of the poet having to get up and give an account of themselves before the tribe. It’s funny because I often read a similar set of poems, because I choose the ones that I feel will have an impact at a reading, and yet the readings are all different depending on the make-up of the audiences, whether they be students, or it’s in a library, or at a festival and so on.”

Simon Armitage reads with poet Sujata Bhatt on Wednesday April 13 at the Town Hall Theatre at 8.30pm. Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie

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