There goes rhymin' Simon: Interview: Simon Armitage

Bit of a lad, was Armitage, well before `Loaded'... And eight years after he first shot to fame, he still manages to remain a Nice Ordinary Bloke - as well as Our Best Young Poet (even at 34)

In 1989, a 26-year-old Yorkshireman called Simon Armitage shot to what passes in the poetry world for fame, and certainly wild acclaim, with a debut collection appropriately entitled Zoom!.

How could anyone resist a poem that tells the life-story of a 10p piece ("My own ambition? Well, that was simple: / to be flipped in Wembley's centre circle, / to twist, to turn, to hang like a planet, / to touch down on that emerald carpet"), or one neatly skewering male northern sexism, called "Very Simply Topping Up the Brake Fluid". Bit of a lad was Armitage, well before the days of Loaded, and although it's eight years and almost as many books later, and Armitage is part of the mainstream, no one has usurped his position as Our Best Young Poet.

We meet round the corner from his publishers, the eminent Faber and Faber, who plucked him from Bloodaxe, the Newcastle-based poetry outfit, after the success of Zoom!. His 1992 follow-up, Kid, was equally memorable, zestful, irresistible. One piece ended: "we'd settle this like men: with the gloves on. / I said no, no, no, no, no, no. OK, come on then". Emerging from Faber's hallowed portals, he hasn't got the looks, or locks, of Murray Lachlan Young, the stature of Ted Hughes, the spindly glamour of Hugo Williams. He's a grinning, slightly shy, ordinary bloke.

His latest collection, CloudCuckooLand, id tripartite: a handful of odd poems "mostly based on the place where I live", then a bravura 88- poem sequence named after the constellations, and a verse-play, with teenage characters burdened by such self-consciously poetic names as Klondike, Tulip and Midnight. The book's dedication is bizarre: a page and a half of latinized and French names: "Joties Gudaws in jure Lane ux ejus: Joties Shaw de Orchard".

What's all that about, Simon? "They were the names of the people in the first census of Marsden, where I was born and brought up (and where he still lives). They were the first footers, and there's a sort of myth or folklore in the village that the local people once tried to catch a cuckoo and keep it in a tower so it would be eternally Spring, and I suppose it refers to those people".

Once he'd hit on the idea of a mini-poem per constellation - the Great Bear, Cassiopeia and so forth - Armitage enjoyed the discipline of knocking off one a day. And they may be about stars, but they're frequently down to earth. "Aquarius" begins: "We take exception to that chain of hotels/ that asks us to think of the dying planet/ by skimping on towels and not flushing the toilet./ This is about metered water and laundry bills, isn't it?"

"I have to make myself write, sometimes. In the space between poems, you somehow forget how to do it, where to begin. It was good to be task- based for a while. I just came downstairs each day, picked the one I was going to do that day, and wrote." Still, when one poem reads in its entirety: "On the ceiling - a footfall made with the heel of a hand" and another "Like a handprint - laid with the heel and the toes in sand", it was hardly what the rest of us would call hard graft. He grins. "They were the good days. When you realise it's only going to be a one-liner, you're out of the house by nine o'clock, you're finished." What does he do then? "I might get into Huddersfield, which is a real treat, and go round the shops, have a sandwich and a cake." The excitement! "Oooh, I'd never go there at night" he agrees, sending himself up. "If I'm feeling really exotic, I go to Leeds. Otherwise, I poke around at home, read, write a bit, go for a game of bowls with my dad..."

In "Book of Matches", he wrote movingly, yet jauntily, about a bone disorder, ankylosing spondylitis, which left him "spent, bent / out of line, / a saint, burnt at the stake, / the spine" - "My dear, my skeleton will set like biscuit overnight / like glass, like ice..." He's got it for life, he confirms. "The symptoms come and go. I take these drugs called Indomethicine at night, they're slow-release capsules and they're an absolute foolproof treatment against hangovers. I'm not kidding, they're unbelievable. No matter how much I drink, I'm up at eight the next day, at the top of my form. I let them go at around 30p a capsule..."

He doesn't really do much, he confesses, beyond writing poetry, or reading it. "I even feel guilty if I'm reading a novel, because I think I should be reading Homer again. I don't really know what free time is," he sighs, "because I don't have something to measure it against." That's more likely to mean, I say tartly, that he doesn't really know what work is. He laughs at the probable justice of this. "I was a probation officer for seven years... but you're right, I don't know what work is anymore. It was funny, people said when I gave up work, aren't you scared you won't be living in the real world any more? I thought, is driving round Manchester looking at kids with cigarette burns the real world? It seems pretty bizarre to me. Give me cloud cuckoo land any day!"

`CloudCuckooLand' is published by Faber (pounds 14.99 hardback/pounds 7.99 paperback).

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