Simon Armitage: from probation officer to poet

AHEAD of his StAnza appearance Simon Armitage tells Susan Mansfield about the power of place in poetry

Simon Armitage gave up a job as a probation officer to become a full time poet. Picture: Contributed

Emerging from a tunnel, the trans-Pennine milk train halts in the West Riding village of Marsden, one of a series of stern little towns clinging to steep-sided valleys. Above the terraced houses, high moorland meets scowling grey sky. What kind of poets, one might be forgiven for wondering, does such country produce?

Poets, it turns out, like Simon Armitage. The semi-detached house where he grew up, and where his parents still live, is up at the top of the town, and he now lives, with his BBC producer wife and 15-year-old daughter, in Meltham, all of five miles away. The land here is starred with his poems.

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“One day I got a map out and started sticking in pins where there were poems,” he says, when we meet in a cheerful little cafe in Huddersfield. “I gave up after a while because there wasn’t room on the map.” Apart from three years at Portsmouth Polytechnic, he has lived all his life within a few miles of this spot. His work is infused with these places, yet rarely feels parochial. Good poetry, perhaps, is where specific and universal meet.

He tells me about a lecture he is due to give at Oxford about place and poetry. “In my view, most of the great poems in English Literature have a really powerful connection with place. I’m going to talk about those little moments of excitement and frisson where a place name suddenly pops up and you bring to it what you know of it. I’ve been lost too many times in poems that are unlocated, floating free.”

Closely allied to place, of course, is voice. “You open your mouth and I’ll have a guess about who you are. I could be wrong, but I think that presumption is always there.” We tune in, for a moment, to Joni Mitchell on the cafe radio. “All that stuff about ‘You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’, that’s all very interesting and philosophical, but when she says ‘parking lot’, the song grips hold, there’s traction there.”

Armitage’s own voice is unmistakable, softly West Yorkshire, occasionally reticent, often warm. The thatch of dark hair around his boyish face is now flecked with grey. At 51, the poster boy of the New Generation Poets has come of age, both critically acclaimed and popular, a novelist, translator, playwright, broadcaster, but still primarily a poet, tipped for the laureateship twice, a clutch of prizes to his name.

He is one of the headline acts at the StAnza Poetry Festival in St Andrews next month, one of the few literary festivals devoted to poetry. “It makes it quite a special thing to go to. The audiences always feel very clued up and attentive. Ever since I’ve been writing there have been big poetic figures in St Andrews. For me, it’s never been a golf town, it’s always been a poetry town.”

Armitage cuts into a flapjack with a fork and tells me, he’s – in Yorkshire lingo – “pulled out”. He has just dispatched the final proofs for his most recent prose book, Walking Away, the sequel to 2012’s Walking Home, and has completed a new translation of the medieval poem, Pearl. He has two major play commissions in development, and a Professorship in Poetry at Sheffield University. No surprise, then, that his new volume of poems, The Unaccompanied, has been delayed again. “It’s in a drawer. It keeps growing. There may even be two books there now. The thing is, the other projects have deadlines so they end up becoming priorities. Nobody ever comes banging on the door saying ‘Where are those poems?’”

He says Walking Away, the account of his journey along the 250-mile South West Coast Path from Minehead to Land’s End, might be his last prose book. He wants more time for poetry, and the success of his stage adaptation of the Iliad, The Last Days of Troy, has given him a taste for more theatre. “I made the decision not to write any more novels some time ago, and I’ve stuck to that. Big books are a frustration because you’ve got to sit down for however many hours a days in front of a computer. It’s like having a job!”

The publication of his Selected Poems, Paper Aeroplane, last summer, 25 years after his first collection, Zoom!, afforded him a rare moment of reflection. “When it arrived through the letter box, I did allow myself a couple of minutes of old-fashioned pride. Quite often when projects come to fruition, I’m halfway through the next one, but I thought, maybe after 25 years, you are allowed to sit down at the end of the bed for two minutes and weigh this thing in your palm. Now it’s just head down for the next 25 years!”

He says he barely recognises the man who, after his breakthrough second collection, Kid, quit his job as a probation officer to write full-time. “I don’t recognise myself for doing that. I don’t think I’m a risk taker to that extent. I was giving up a profession I’d trained for for six years, and it was my dad’s job, so it was like the family business. At a time when there weren’t really any jobs, it came with a salary and a pension and security, and I chucked all that in for poetry.” He shakes his head. In the event, his boss offered to keep his job open for a year, but he never looked back.

Armitage bridles at being described as a Northern poet – “as if it was a sub-genre” – but when he considers his literary lineage, it’s the writers of Yorkshire he draws on: Ted Hughes, Tony Harrison, Alan Bennett, Alan Ayckbourn. “It’s about who you stand shoulder to shoulder with, whose techniques and attitudes you line up with. I’ve always felt that in the West Riding of Yorkshire, there’s a history of dissent, and poetry is a form of dissent: it’s not prose, it cuts against expectations. I also think there’s a propensity towards art that has a sort of common touch. Those people are powerful voices but they’re not avant-garde, they’re all poets who wanted to communicate.

“There’s an interesting tension in poetry because it’s never going to be for everybody, but I think you can extend what you do towards as wide an audience as possible until you start feeling that you might be losing your integrity. Poetry is already obscure, if you are an obscure poet, you’re really obscure.That suits some people, that’s why they’ve chosen it, but I’ve always wanted to explore its potential rather than just be comfortable within its limits.”

The title poem in Paper Aeroplane plays with the idea of the blank page as a place of possibilities. “I think there is something about [poetry] still being a very homemade art for me. I never studied literature. It is the paper aeroplane, in some ways very democratic and very simple, and yet if you get it right you can fly.”

• Simon Armitage will be at StAnza Poetry Festival, St Andrews on 7 March, with a Round Table Reading at 3:45pm and a Poetry Centre Stage event at 8pm.