Simon Armitage: He can talk the talk – now he'll walk the walk

The poet's latest project is to travel the Pennine Way reciting poetry for his supper; to be followed, naturally, by writing a book about it. Rachel Shields meets Simon Armitage

Sunday 23 October 2011 02:07

He is a poet, yes. And he comes from the North. But woe betide the person who uses the phrase "northern poet" around Simon Armitage. "I'm a professional poet, not a professional Yorkshireman," he says, a slight flash of annoyance disturbing his otherwise cheerful countenance. "Sometimes when people say I'm a northern poet they use it as a put-down; as if it is a sub-division of poetry."

We talk, trudging along the route picked out by Armitage for his work, should that be walk, of art. Not apparently a natural rambler, he is about to get a lot better acquainted with the great outdoors: he is set to embark on the 268-mile Pennine Way – a challenging walk which stretches from the Scottish borders to the Yorkshire Dales – with no money in his pocket, and only his verses to help him on his way.

With his hands stuffed deep into the pockets of his corduroy jacket, head bowed against the fierce wind buffeting him from all sides, and pristine blue Converse trainers on his feet, he barely glances at the rugged Pennine peaks around him. A fleeting shaft of sun highlights the silver earring in the poet's left ear, and he holds a red notebook in lieu of a map or a compass.

"I'm going to give readings in the evening and then pass a hat around," the 47-year-old explains, in a Yorkshire accent. "But it's not about the money, I'll need bacon butties and a bed for the night."

In exchanging nightly poetry readings – in venues ranging from people's living rooms to local barns – for B&B, food or cash along the Pennine Way, Armitage is hoping to emulate the troubadours, poets of the Middle Ages who would often travel from town to town reciting verses. But while he might be passing a hat around, one thing is for sure; it won't be a traditional Yorkshire flat cap.

And yet, to many readers, the writer's link to the North is a positive one. Critics have praised his dry Yorkshire wit, and he has drawn on the region in numerous works; not least All Points North, the successful 1999 book in which he explored the quirks of the area described as "that bit of Yorkshire, where the M1 slashes across the M62, where Jarvis Cocker meets Geoffrey Boycott, Emily Brontë meets Ted Hughes, Peter Sutcliffe meets David Hockney".

"I do think I have a northern sensibility, but I don't know exactly what that is," he admits, his brown, bowl-cut hair ruffling in the wind.

When the threatening clouds get too much, we hop into Armitage's Peugeot estate and head for a local pub in the small town of Marsden. He points out the neat semi-detached house in which he grew up, and in which his parents still live.

"I don't see myself as a spokesman for this part of the world, except for the fact that I live here," he says, settling on to a bench next to the pub's open fire. He unzips his sheepskin-lined cord jacket to reveal a geometric patterned blue shirt and silver necklace that wouldn't be out of place on a 1970s geography teacher.

For some people, the very fact that Armitage dared to eschew glamorous London literary circles in favour of a quiet life in the small Yorkshire town in which he grew up is enough to earn him the tag of "northern poet". Not for him the glamorous "at home" shoots and champagne book launches of authors such as Martin Amis; one gets the impression that the poet, who lives with his BBC producer wife and 10-year-old daughter, is happy leading a simple life.

"In some of my more paranoid moments I do imagine everyone is at a dinner party that I'm not invited to," he says, sipping a soda and lime. "I'm the sort of person who could have my head turned by all of that."

Somehow that seems unlikely, although his life is slightly more exotic than he likes to admit. The healthy colour in his cheeks isn't from the balmy Yorkshire climate, but courtesy of a recent 10-day trip to Greece and Turkey to film a documentary on Homer's Odyssey for the BBC. While he has carved out a lucrative sideline in presenting television programmes with a literary bent, he says he doesn't want to move into presenting full-time.

"I've been really enjoying this presenter stuff, but I don't want to be a full-time presenter. You can end up in a situation where you've given too much of yourself away," he explains. The producer's suggestion that Armitage should strip off for a scene in his new television show being a case in point.

"I'm not going to take my shirt off," he says emphatically. "I'm a poet who keeps his shirt on." Good on him.

While he may – perhaps quite rightly – resent being pigeon-holed, if Armitage is trying to shake the "northern" tag, then doing the most famous northern walk might not be the best way to go about it. He explains that it is less about celebrating his home county, more about tapping into the tradition of epic journeys in poetry; comparing it to Homer's Odyssey.

"I started researching a book about the journeys in poetry – the Odyssey, Gawain and the Green Knight, John Clare's trip – and wrote a proposal for a book about them, and the idea was that the Pennine Way was going to be part of it. Then I decided that that might be the most interesting bit of the journey in its own right ... I'm not walking 268 miles for one chapter!" he says cheerfully, tucking into salt and vinegar crisps.

He might not be walking 268 miles at all unless he knuckles down to some training, sharpish. While attempted by 10,000 people a year, the Pennine Way is generally regarded as the toughest long-distance walk in Britain, and there are just five weeks until the largely sedentary writer sets off.

"I tried to walk a section with some friends, from Edale to Marsden. We set off quite bouncy, but then it started to hail ... it was like Lord of the Rings. The map got torn, someone stomped off, we only managed about four miles," he says, sheepishly. "It can be bleak up here. Some people go up and don't come back. People have died up there. I'm not trying to big it up but it is bleak."

At least he will have company for some of the trail; a note he posted on the website appealing for people to host his poetry readings along the way also prompted groups of fans to announce that they will join him for sections of the walk. All of these encounters will provide material for the book that he plans to write.

"I'm interested in where reader and writer meet," he says earnestly. "It is about community, but not every poet sees themselves like that. There are poets who are a lot more obscure than me, who you have to work a lot harder to connect with," he muses, in what is probably as close to a dig at another writer as the eminently likeable poet is going to get.

If Armitage is occasionally sneered at for being a Yorkshire poet, he is also sometimes frowned on by snootier critics for being a popular one. "All writers look down on other writers most of the time," he says, good-naturedly. "Some people think being a poet and reaching a level of affirmation are somehow incongruous."

His poems are relatively easy to understand, and have been a staple of the GCSE literary anthologies for more than a decade; cementing his reputation among younger poetry fans. For the past three years he has performed at hip music festivals such as Latitude, in Suffolk, shows which he believes prove that poetry remains popular with younger people.

While Armitage's Pennine Way attempt is in some ways a look back – to the Middle Ages, when poetry was performed rather than written down, and to the epic journeys of wandering bards – there is something resolutely modern about his own work, which resonates strongly with young readers.

"It is more relevant than ever. A lot of contemporary life is about instantaneous experience, about having something right now. Poetry is not like that, you have to concentrate. It is an alternative choice."

While sure of the importance of poetry, he is less confident about the future of organisations which support it – including Manchester Metropolitan University where he is currently the senior lecturer in creative writing – given the impending cuts in government spending.

"I'm worried about the arts, everyone in the sector is. Poetry magazines and organisations are dependent on arts council grants. A lot of my students are self-funded, and if money is tight it might not be a priority. Potatoes come before poetry," he admits sadly.

Although he also writes prose and plays, for Armitage it seems that this oddball adventure is about making sure nothing comes before poetry. Except, perhaps, the land to which he appears to be – despite his protestations – inextricably linked.

"I'm not doing a charity walk, but if I have any money left over at the end I'd like to plough it back into the land somehow," he explains. "There are some organisations that look after the trail that I could give it to. The older I get the more I want to connect with the world, with the land."

Curriculum vitae

1963 Born in Marsden, West Yorkshire.

1981-1984 Studies geography at Portsmouth University.

1986-88 Post-graduate student at Manchester University, researching on the effects of television violence on young offenders.

1989 First collection of poems, Zoom!, published.

1993 Wins Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year.

1994 Gives up his job as a probation officer in Greater Manchester.

1995 Publishes The Dead Sea Poems, shortlisted for the Whitbread, TS Eliot and Forward prizes.

1999 Publishes poetry volume Killing Time.

2000 Is made the Millennium Poet.

2000 Marries BBC Radio Producer Sue Roberts.

2001 First novel Little Green Man, is published by Penguin.

2004 Elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

2010 Publishes the poetry collection Seeing Stars.

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