He writes for television, radio, theatre and film, but for one hour on the 29th October, Simon Armitage is sticking to the books. As part of the Dylan Thomas Festival, he and other prominent literary figures have all appeared at the Dylan Thomas Centre. Roisin O’Connor speaks to the poet about university, Dylan Thomas, and Never Mind the Buzzcocks.
On the 28th October I was fortunate enough to attend an interview with the English Society to see novelist Sarah Waters being interviewed by Swansea University’s very own Sarah Gamble, where the theatre was packed out with people eager to hear her talk about her work. The audience tonight for poet/writers Simon Armitage and Matthew Hollis is much smaller: Sarah Waters obviously has some very avid fans in Swansea, but everyone leans forwards in their seat as Armitage walks on to the stage and proceeds to pull a stack of poetry books out of a satchel.
“Don’t worry, I’m not reading them all,” he says.
His reading style is completely nonchalant- one hand is buried in his jacket pocket as he tilts his head to the side, reading out in a dull, monotonous voice as though he’s boring himself. But this has a stronger impact: each word is clipped and demands attention, with an excellent placing of dry humour and a deadpan expression.
Introductions to each poem are fantastic, with short anecdotes or one word to kick off each piece. At one point he expresses surprise that he appears to be the only one in the room who frequently thinks about tractors, but fails to hide a sly grin when his audience starts to laugh.
“What… you don’t think about tractors?” he asks, then narrows his eyes. “Don’t pretend that you don’t. Everyone thinks about tractors.”
Before “Aviators”, which narrates an encounter at an airport, he ponders over the curtain that used to be drawn across the cockpit of an aeroplane and what he would have liked to be behind it.
“I wanted it to be a snow leopard,” he tells us, “or just a lit candle and nothing else… or a priest with a bag over his head. We shouldn’t be allowed to know the truth behind that curtain… it’s not something I think we need to know. Like in the Wizard of Oz, you’re just not supposed to go there.”
“The Christening” is very much a stream of consciousness poem- a muddle of thought that tumbles out of the poet’s mouth in the same way that it does on the page, with the same kind of randomness you find in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Armitage explains that he went whale-watching in New Zealand which may explain part of it, but he says that there is also “a character that you would recognise from real life”- the divorcee who listens to whale songs on audiobooks, or to quote the poem itself: “my brother Jeff, who owns a camping and outdoor/ clothing shop in the Lake District and is a recreational user/of cannabis.”
Sitting near the bar after the performance, him with a glass of wine close to hand, I ask him how he feels about being in Swansea during the Dylan Thomas Festival. He deliberates for a moment before saying anything, and when he does speak he seems to pick each of his words one by one, very precisely.
“The interesting thing about Dylan Thomas,” he says, “is that you have to dismantle the man from the poems, because his image precedes his work. I’ve spoken to people here who talk as if they actually knew the man, which is fantastic, and they’re all so passionate about him here in Swansea because he’s such a huge part of Welsh literary culture. But as time goes on his work is coming to the forefront which I feel is important and necessary if you want to be able to analyse his poems.”
During the questions from the audience, someone asked if there was a way that poetry could be made to be more accessible. It turns out that Armitage is strongly against the idea that poetry should is for everyone, and he was very forthright in his reply.
“If everyone started to read poetry, I’d stop writing.”
This is slightly surprising to me, as someone who saw him read to an audience of more than 500 GCSE students at a Poetry Live session in London in 2008 along with Carol Ann Duffy and John Agard, and I want to know if he can explain the reasons behind the answer.
“The Poetry Live thing is great because you know that there’ll be a lot of students and even teachers who aren’t expecting to have a good day. Some people are surprised by how much they enjoy those events, and even if it’s just for one day, I think that’s an achievement. But poetry isn’t for everyone, and it actually feels like a bit of a dying art form. It involves thought and analysis and concentration, which a lot of people don’t have.”
Since we (The Siren) rely on technology for a readership, I also ask what Armitage thinks about the impact that “new media” (internet downloads, Kindle, etc) is having on literature.
“I think it’s exciting and frightening at the same time,” he says. “A lot of fiction publishers have commented on how they’re selling far less than Amazon, who have their products ready to download. But people like to own poetry books, to have that relation between print and page. They like to hold them, feel the weight of them in their hands, carry them on the train, keep them on bookshelves… it’s a possession thing more than anything else.”
He pauses for a second to check that I’m following then continues.
“But then there’s also the fear that literature might become like music, that someone could spend £2.99 on a book and then everyone else can just have it copied for free. I do wonder how this might affect the author, but you also try not to think about it too much.”
During this time I’ve been thinking how hard it is to ask someone like Simon Armitage a question he wouldn’t have been asked before. I say as much and encourage him to tell me if there are any questions he’d like to be asked.
“You could ask me if I’d like a drink,” he suggests, and so I do.
“Well it’s funny you should ask…” he says and there’s that sly grin again.
I pick a new subject and talk to him about his degree. Armitage studied geography at Portsmouth, which seems an odd choice for someone who is now a renowned poet with a sizeable collection of awards under his belt.
“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” he says, and shrugs. “It appealed to my curiosity, I could talk about deserts, and rocks, and lakes, and oceanography…”
At this point he seems to become more animated. For me, Geography as a subject is a no-go zone, but Armitage revels in it; listing as many things related to geography that he can think of before stopping to listen as I bring up tuition fees and how many prospective students might be caught between the cost and value of a degree.
“Do you think there has always been that fear, even before the fees went up, that you might do a degree in a subject like Italian or History, and then decide you want to be a vet?” I ask him.
“Well certain vocations have to be studied, don’t they?” Armitage says. “You have to train for certain things. I mean, I wouldn’t take my dog to a vet who’d done a degree in English.”
His voice is still so deadpan that I find it difficult to catch the humour in his words, and he ploughs on with the rest of his answer.
“For me and the people of my generation it was about independent living, doing your own thing. University is three years of finding out about yourself, so you might not use your degree at all, but you learn things that will stick with you for the rest of your life.”
I feel obliged to bring up something he said about lyrics not being valid as literature, which spurred a mini-debate during the questions in the theatre.
“There’s a vast difference between singing with music and writing those lyrics down on paper. I think however good the musician is, their lyrics can never be seen as poetry because they’re filled with all the things you should avoid as a poet- bad rhymes, overused themes, clichés… With a poem, it maintains the message you want to convey on the page, without the need for music. It stands on its own.”
Despite this willingness to keep a divide between poetry and music, he has a keen appreciation of the latter, as is evident from the title of one of his poems, “Ever Fallen in Love with Someone You Shouldn’t Have Fallen in Love With”.
“For those of you who giggled at the name,” he said after reading the title to the audience, “it’s because you know that it comes from a song by a band called the Buzzcocks. And for those who didn’t laugh, the people who were laughing at the name were laughing because they know that it comes from a song by a band called the Buzzcocks.”
When this is brought up in our conversation I mention Jack Dee who hosted the panel show Never Mind the Buzzcocks for an episode in the latest series. Armitage is very much like the grumpy comedian, being able to rely on his intelligence and quick-wittedness along with an amazing knack for keeping a straight face, and I feel that if he wanted to, Armitage could potentially make that transition from performance poetry to comedy. He tells me he stopped watching the show a while ago, and when I ask if he knows when it started he tries to convince me that it first aired in 1946. I give him a skeptical look and he laughs and gives up.
“You’re right,” he admits, and looks down at the table as though he’s trying to remember the real answer. “It was 1947,” he says finally, looking at me so sharply that I feel it’s a test to see whether I’m an idiot or not.
He can see that I’ve run out of questions and stands up.
“Are we done?” he asks, and I nod. He grins one last time, then I let him head back to the bar for another drink.
Simon Armitage grew up in West Yorkshire, and went on to study Geography at Portsmouth University, as well as studying as a post-graduate student at Manchester and writing his MA thesis on the effect of television violence on young offenders. He was a Probation Officer in Manchester until 1994, and prior to mainstream publication, his work was published in several pamphlets by local or small poetry presses. He has received numerous accolades for his poems; include a Lannan award and the Sunday Times Young Author of the Year. In 2010 he was awarded the CBE for Services to Poetry, and currently teaches Creative Writing at the University of Sheffield.