Poet and novelist Simon Armitage lives in West Yorkshire, but his true home is that numinous place called poetry. He likes to think of himself as a man who hangs on the margins, listening to what words have to say. Sceptical of the big and the grand, he weaves his poems out of what he calls “the small moments of the everyday miracle.” A versatile writer, he has criss-crossed genres, sculpting poems, novels and plays with the self-same finesse and virtuosity. Armitage’s oeuvre includes well-appreciated poetry collections (Book of Matches, The Dead Sea Poems), novels (Little Green Man and The White Stuff) and essays (All Points North, a collection of essays on Northern England). He is also known for his masterly dramatized version of Homer’s Odyssey and stage plays, including Mister Heracles. He is now in the creative throes of writing The Last Days of Troy, a dramatic re-telling of Homer’s The Iliad, to be premiered at Shakespeare’s Globe in June 2014.
In this wide-ranging conversation with Manish Chand, Editor-in-Chief, India Writes (www.indiawritres.org), Armitage speaks about the art and craft of poetry, the organic link between day-dreaming and poetry, and the sense of the sacred and benevolence he found in India which he has not experienced anywhere else.
(Excerpts from the interview)
Q) Simon, how do you see your vocation as a poet? What kind of themes and situations interest you as a poet?
A) I sometimes I think of myself as a kitchen sink poet. I try not to write about what countries do to each other; my interest is in what people say to each other across the dining table. I write about domestic situations. I write about daily lives.
‘I am a professional day-dreamer’
Q) The art and craft of poetry has intrigued scholars and critics. There is a certain sublime mystery about the act of poetic utterance. Could you talk about your process of creating poems, the method that underpins your craft?
A) If I knew how it works and where poems came from, I would go and get more of them. I know it sounds sentimental and a bit old-fashioned but they seem to arrive of their own will. You know when they feel like it. You know you can’t do much about it. I guess some of it starts from language, a phrase, an overheard phrase or a situation that seems to have a kind of resonance. Then language starts attaching itself to that situation. It feels like a daydream. I am a professional day-dreamer. Before you know what’s happened, you day-dreamed your way into the beginning of a poem. And then you want to explore it further. The daily life that you take for granted, through poems you remember or recognize that it is miraculous. The small moments of every-day miracle.
Feeling at home
Q) We are living in an age where the idea of the public sphere has changed. It seems it’s all about market and consumerism — even literature is a product and when you talk about contemporary literary world the novel is the prima donna of the genres. How do you locate a poet’s place in a contemporary society? Do you think being poet is about an inner journey, it’s a compelling inner need?
A) I think for poets it is unavoidable. It’s just the way you want to express yourself and by definition it involves being on the margins. I think that is what we maybe are, a group of people who hang around in the margins. And poetry offers a kind of home for that.
Q) Do you subscribe to the idea that Martin Heidegger writes about poetry that is, how being dwells in poems. The whole idea of the homelessness of the poet and the only home he can have is perhaps the home of words.
A) Heidegger wouldn’t know, because he didn’t write poems, but he spoke about poetry. You know I feel at home when I write poetry. I feel poetry to be the natural form of expression to me. I feel very much at home when I am reading poems.
Q) You have excelled in diverse genres. Your career straddles poetry, TV, documentary, drama. How do you transit from one genre to another? As a craftsman what does it mean to juggle different genres?
A) The things that unites all those fields and projects I have been involved with is poetry. I have always felt poetry is a portable art. It has more potential than its recognizable form. I like the ancient idea of the poet. You have to account yourself publicly, sometimes in quite terrifying circumstances.
Discovering ‘benign’ India
Q) What are your impressions of India? Has India bred any poems?
A) I have been to Mumbai and to Kerala, but this is the first time up north. I get poems most of the time out of trips. But they come along a little bit later. You know I take notes when I shop around. I come from a small village, so this looks like a crazy place for me. I can’t imagine how it functions and operates. It has always felt the same in India. I feel very comfortable here and I always feel very welcomed and this feels like a kind of holy place. There is a benevolence and a sense of benign-ness here. I find that very attractive and I haven’t really encountered this feeling anywhere else. When I say this I speak it from a position of complete ignorance, from a tourist’s point of view.
Say I Say I Say
(By Simon Armitage)
Anyone here had a go at themselves
for a laugh? Anyone opened their wrists
with a blade in the bath? Those in the dark
at the back, listen hard. Those at the front
in the know, those of us who have, hands up,
let’s show that inch of lacerated skin
between the forearm and the fist. Let’s tell it
like it is: strong drink, a crimson tidemark
round the tub, a yard of lint, white towels
washed a dozen times, still pink. Tough luck.
A passion then for watches, bangles, cuffs.
A likely story: you were lashed by brambles
picking berries from the woods. Come clean, come good,
repeat with me the punch line ‘Just like blood’
when those at the back rush forward to say
how a little love goes a long long long way.
I Am Very Bothered
(By Simon Armitage)
I am very bothered when I think
of the bad things I have done in my life.
Not least that time in the chemistry lab
when I held a pair of scissors by the blades
and played the handles
in the naked lilac flame of the Bunsen burner;
then called your name, and handed them over.
O the unrivalled stench of branded skin
as you slipped your thumb and middle finger in,
then couldn’t shake off the two burning rings. Marked,
the doctor said, for eternity.
Don’t believe me, please, if I say
that was just my butterfingered way, at thirteen,
of asking you if you would marry me.
- India Writes Network (www.indiawrites.org) is an emerging think tank and a media-publishing company focused on international affairs & the India Story. Centre for Global India Insights is the research arm of India Writes Network. To subscribe to India and the World, write to firstname.lastname@example.org. A venture of TGII Media Private Limited, a leading media, publishing and consultancy company, IWN has carved a niche for balanced and exhaustive reporting and analysis of international affairs. Eminent personalities, politicians, diplomats, authors, strategy gurus and news-makers have contributed to India Writes Network, as also “India and the World,” a magazine focused on global affairs.
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