Simon Armitage: 'If everyone was writing poetry, I don't think I would be'

As a troubadour tramping 256 miles across country or a curator assembling scores of poets for a festival, Simon Armitage is forever advocating his art. And yet, he says, he loves its place on the fringe.

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Think globally and act locally, runs that old green mantra. Or is it the other way round? Either way, Simon Armitage has more than fulfilled the brief.

This week he has been serving as a sort of MC-cum-presiding deity of Poetry Parnassus, the astonishing tribal gathering of poets from the Olympic nations on the South Bank which he instigated and curated. Poets from 204 countries are represented in the festival anthology The World Record, with more than three-quarters of them braving Britain's artist-baffling visa regime to meet and read in London. He also publishes Walking Home, a typically droll, shrewd and sinewy travelogue in which the poet tramps the 256 miles of the Pennine Way (north to south: the wrong way round) and so ends up more or less on his childhood doorstep in the village of Marsden in West Yorkshire.

He set out (in July 2010) deliberately penniless. After an appeal for gigs and hosts on his website, he managed to earn his keep as a footsore, mist-drenched and wind-blown troubadour by reading at prearranged locations along the way and asking his listeners to bung cash – if they wished - into an increasingly whiffy walking sock. Let's cut to the chase: earnings £3086.42; expenses £1174.81; net profit £1911.61. Poetry pays!

Armitage, who turns 50 next year, wanted to set himself – and his art – a stiff practical examination. As he explains when we meet in his publisher's offices, "I did feel it was genuine test of my reputation – and a test of poetry's reputation as well – as to whether anybody was interested in having me come there. It was a very exposing test."

The former probation officer – who lives in Huddersfield, only a few Colne Valley rambling miles from his native village - published his first full collection (Zoom!) in 1989. Since then he has not only built book-by-book on an ever-growing reputation but branched out into drama, fiction, memoir and broadcasting to take his place (with Carol Ann Duffy and very few others) as the public face, and voice, of an incorrigibly private art. In the national imagination, the village of Armitage stands, solidly stone-built but warm and hospitable, in the middle of an upland path that winds between the looming Yorkshire summits of Alan Bennett and Ted Hughes – although his fluid, nifty, street-smart and up-to-the-minute verse often feels closer to the limestone mutability of WH Auden.

Battling against the scree, bog and boulder of the Pennine Way, with wind, sun or horizontal rain in his face and no promise of an audience at the next lonely pub or curious B&B, he chose to knock away all the institutional props. Yet, give or take the odd sticky moment (more climatic than poetic), the gamble succeeded. "Nobody threw anything. I don't remember hearing any doors slam. My family are from an amateur dramatics background – they're all about putting on shows and plays and entertaining within the local community. Maybe to a certain extent I was interested in living up to some of those expectations." Poetry passed the test. As did Armitage's embrace of it as a livelihood, after the geography graduate with an MA in social work and a thoroughly responsible job working with offenders morphed into a freelance bard for hire.

The trek "made me optimistic about poetry," he says. "It made me glad to be a poet. It made me pleased and proud of the choice that I made in chucking in a good job to pursue something that had no guarantees at all. Maybe I was revisiting that decision to see whether it had paid off."

Walking Home confirms Armitage's rich gifts as a comic craftsman in prose, with a flair for timing, surprise and analogy that manifestly draws from the poet's side of his desk. I especially relished his encounter with the Northumbrian small pipes, which for all their "haunting and hypnotic" beauty of sound make the player look "like she's giving physiotherapy to a small marsupial wearing callipers and smoking a bong". In this aspect the book recalls the sardonic but companionable tones of his memoirs All Points North and Gig - the latter about his double- or wish-fulfilment life as rock aficionado and band member. He's also an ace at lists. One of them enumerates the possible motives of the hikers he meets striding in the opposite (conventional) direction: "The Last Hurrah; The Exuberance of Youth; Bear Grylls/Ray Mears Box Set; Midlife Crisis; Away with the Fairies", and so on. Which one fits him? Warning me that "voting should always be a private act", he takes my copy and silently marks a category. I check later. "The Call of the Wild" - but with a question mark attached.

The book certainly introduces us, and its author, to an empty and stormy upland England that over scores of miles of fell and heath mocks the politician's rhetoric about an overcrowded island packed to bursting-point. This landscape – above all in Northumberland, by which time most of the fair-weather south-to-north trekkers have fallen by the wayside – is the wilderness in our backyard. "I don't think I'd realised the extent of it," Armitage says. "After that belt of cities across the M62, going north through the middle of the country, there is very little pretty much until you get up to the Glasgow-Edinburgh corridor. Every day, you'd get back up onto a hill or a moor and you'd look south, and there was still just this endless horizon after horizon after horizon…. I found that very comforting.

"They are uninhabited and uninhabitable, those places – places where you can go to find solitude and contemplation. Although... that was one of the ironic things about the walk. I imagined that on a day-to-day basis there would be poetic contemplation and composition. And there wasn't – because I spent all my time finding my way." Navigation and composition proved irreconcilable pursuits – although a handful of new poems do survive the mists and blasts.

Besides, Armitage doesn't seem to enjoy total solitude. He panics when lost in the fog. And his prose climbs down – happily, we feel – from wind-scoured sublimities back into nuanced social comedy when companions, the more eccentric the better, join him for a stretch. Dread and awe do nibble at the edges of the picture – in his days of bedraggled desolation; even in the coincidental appearance of the fugitive killer Raoul Moat as he lurches towards his violent, fated end a few miles away (almost, Ted Hughes's Wodwo in the accursed flesh). Those driven travellers Odysseus and Sir Gawain (Armitage has composed dynamic new versions of both the Odyssey and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) at times shadow his steps. But these are interludes. Back in Yorkshire, Armitage's wife and daughter catch up with him – and his mum and dad. You didn't find Pa Shackleton in the Antarctic visitors' centre car park, smoking his pipe.

"In lots of ways," Armitage comments, "it has become a book about other people" – even if only the ad hoc "community" of fellow-trampers who keep him company for a few miles before peeling away. "There's something about walking with someone – I don't know if it's the silence, or the fact that you fall into step – that does elicit tale-telling. People did tell me things – and God knows what I told them!"

A fertile paradox crops up here. Walking Home takes shape in the first place because of "the kindness of strangers" who shelter, feed, hear and pay the wandering bard. As, in its way, does Poetry Parnassus, with its world-wide mobilisation of poets after Armitage issued a call for participants on the Today programme last May. Yet both the book and his preface to The World Record underline their author's belief in poets as "the awkward squad": innate contrarians and naysayers, "under siege" from the prose world of power, "dissenters from the norm and the expected".

So are poets, and their readers, natural heretics and rebels? "I think there is some psychological truth in that. The main game, the bigger picture, isn't for everybody. It has occurred to me from time to time that if everybody was writing poetry, and everybody was reading it, I don't think I would be. There's something about its position – in the world, in the marketplace, even in the landscape of books – that I find attractive."

But these awkward squads can come together in robust battalions. In both projects, "crowdsourcing" – with plenty of help from the internet - assuages the loneliness of verse. As he writes, "I was made welcome wherever I travelled."

He enjoyed the Pennine march (though readers will find a dramatic twist in the trip's tail) and plans further literary treks. "I'm definitely going to do either another journey or other journeys along similar lines to this." Now he's looking for locations "outside my comfort zone" – insofar as hiking up a featureless mountain all day in the teeth of a screeching gale can count as "comfort" in anybody's book.

Before the wanderlust kicks in again, the Professor of Poetry at Sheffield University – where he recently moved, in a trans-Pennine swerve, from Manchester Metropolitan - has creative-writing students to guide: "I learn a lot from my students. I always have done. They keep you on your toes." Poetry Parnassus, meanwhile, climaxes on the South Bank this weekend before splitting into separate events up and down the country. "I haven't noticed a unifying theme or organising principle," he remarks about the 200-plus contributors, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe: "Just that urge to speak in a concentrated way", with the individual voice always at its heart. "Poetry is so different from the factual writing that we get elsewhere – there's just that constant urge to explain the inner life." For poets, as for their readers, that journey can have no terminus.

'Walking Home' is published by Faber & Faber (£12.99) and 'The World Record' by Bloodaxe Books (£10). Poetry Parnassus events: