Ahead of his appearance at London’s Book Slam, the leading English poet tells Dazed why he’s cynical about contemporary music and confesses his dream career move
Award-winning poet Simon Armitage is practically a British-institution, and it’s not just because he’s part of the GCSE English curriculum, although that helps. From Yorkshire Moors and Arthurian legends to a longstanding obsession with Morrissey, Armitage’s poetry, novels, memoir, translations, and scripts for stage, film, television and radio have delved into British culture and history. Armitage is also a Professor of Poetry at the University of Sheffield and plays in the band, The Scaremongers. Dazed Digital spoke with Armitage about writing poetry and the state of popular music ahead of his reading at London’s Book Slam.
Dazed Digital: Just reading your extensive biography is exhausting – what drives your work ethic?
Simon Armitage: Looking at all the titles, if someone had told me I'd have to write all those books at the beginning, I probably wouldn't have started. I'm not especially ambitious but I am adventurous, and I think a lot of the work has come about by a desire to explore other forms of writing and literary styles. Plus, you can't be a poet every day, it's too intense, so what do you do on Tuesday? The answer, in my case, is collaborative work - film, telly, radio. Or translation, which is something you can keep pressing ahead with, whether you're in the mood or not.
DD: You’ve written a memoir on your relationship with music, Gig – what’s the connection between music and writing for you?
Simon Armitage: They come together in that book, but mostly they're separate. On a very literal level I can't listen to music if I'm writing or reading, it's too invasive, and although I write song lyrics as well as poetry, they're two very different art forms. The alphabet is pretty much the only thing they share.
DD: What have you been listening to recently?
Simon Armitage: I've been listening to The National a lot. Their album High Violet was my favourite from last year, along with Everything Everything's Man Alive, which is wonderful. But rock and pop music is dying, or at least not available as a form of alternative culture any more. It hasn't done anything new in fifteen years. Every pose is a cliche, every album a cannibalisation of the past, some of it the very recent past. Bands still excite me, though it's always for some reason connected with nostalgia, or because I think of it as happening within inverted commas. Maybe there is some new sound out there, some movement or style, and it's like a dog whistle, beyond my range of hearing. But at the moment all I see are poodles. I also listen to a lot of piano music.
DD: Do you make a separation between the initial inspiration behind a poem and your approach to writing it?
Simon Armitage: Yes, an idea isn't a poem. I have lots of good ideas for poems, far less good poems. I also have to distance myself from events. I can't write when I'm worked up about something. For me a good poem aspires to be a work of art which communicates an idea or sensation, and requires control and dispassion both in its design and execution. We write with ink, not blood.
DD: What do you think of Book Slam’s unique approach in combining music and literature?
Simon Armitage: I think there will always be enough appetite and curiosity amongst forthcoming generations to seek out this kind of event, and to try to combine an alternative sub-culture or attitude with a more mainstream medium, which is what writing is. "Literary nightclubs" have been around for ever, be it Byron's Hell Fire Club or New York in the sixties or cave-people sitting around the glowing embers comparing grunts. It's only the ticket price that changes.
DD: What advice do you give to students in your classes who want to be poets?
Simon Armitage: Read.
DD: What are you working on now?
Simon Armitage: I've just finished a new Arthurian translation, The Death of King Arthur, and I'm about halfway through writing a non-fiction account of my Pennine Way walk from last year, where I walked the whole 270 miles penniless, just giving readings for board and lodging. And I'm writing a lot of poems at the moment. So more books on the way, I'm afraid. More bookshelves, less trees. Beyond that I don't know. No more novels, though.
DD: If you weren’t a writer, what would you like to be doing?
Simon Armitage: I'd be a spy or a DJ. I'm actually surprised no one from MI6 has sidled up to me on a park bench and made an offer, because being a poet is in itself a form of diplomatic immunity, not to mention invisibility. I travel to some very sensitive parts of the world, and I've given readings and been to receptions in lots of embassies and government building. I was a DJ on Radio 1 for two hours about fifteen years ago, and I've done it again recently for 6 Music. I'm DJing at Scared to Dance in Kings Cross on 25th June. Come and spy on me.
Book Slam South, The Clapham Grand, Doors open at 6.30pm, the Book Slam starts at 7.30pm, The Clapham Grand, 21-25 St John's Hill, Clapham Junction, London, SW11 1TT
Photography by Paul Wolfgang Webster