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Interview: Simon Armitage

About half of the pages in your seven books to date belong to long works or sequences _ Xanadu, the Robinson poems from 'Kid', Book of Matches, Reading the Banns, Five Eleven Ninety-Nine and now The Whole of The Sky, an atlas of eighty-eight short pieces on the names of the constellations. How do you decide to write a long poem? Does the idea, or vision, have to be as large as the scale?

Book of Matches was intended to be seventy-odd poems long, based on a "character assessment questionnaire" I had to dish out at work sometimes, and I found the fannat attractive because the statements it included (e.g., "I am very bothered when I think of the bad things I have done in my life") were intended to explore the sub-conscious. But after thirty or so poems, I'd said as much as I wanted or needed to.

Reading the Banns became a sequence because it was made up of a dozen related but distinct incidents, and I wanted to give each incident its own space and time.

Five Eleven Ninety-Nine is a long poem - I never intended it to be so long, but one thought led to another, and I realised it could contain most of my pre-occupations at the time, so everything I'd got poured into it.

And The Whole of the Sky is meant to be more of a grand vision, with its feet in one particular village and its head somewhere in deep space. I remember wanting to write each day, with the hope that writing might become second nature or instinctive, rather than the torture it can be if you become estranged from it for any length of time. The constellation theme allowed me to pick up a new title each morning and follow up the idea throughout the day. and I suppose the scale of the thing didn't really come into complete focus until most of the poems were written and I laid them all out on the front- room carpet.

So each piece you mention developed differently, and had a different reason for its fonn and length.

There are extraordinary images of burning and consumption in your work, as in the descriptions of Icelandic lava in Moon Country, or the apocalYPtic Five Eleven Ninety-Nine (a millennial bonfIrenight). What is it that appeals to you about fIre? Is it that it brings something supernatural to ordinary lives?

Yes, the supernatural and also the idea that fITe is one of the ways of re-connecting with the world. Disease, sex, ecstasy, death, violence, fire - they can cut through the insulation, in the same way that poetry can when it deals in sensation and not just understanding. Fire is so easily available now, and so well controlled - even though we utilise it every day, we rarely meet with it in its raw state. To plunge your hand in to a fire is to strip off all the layers that stop us experiencing the universe and our relationship to it. Hurts, though. Who was it who said that thing about good poetry - that it shouldn't just tell you not to play with matches, it should bum your fmgers?

Speaking of the ahnost-supernatural, should we read anything into your penchant for citing radio frequencies? ("I should like to master the dials and discs" ... )

No, but I suppose poetry and radio are not dissimilar in the amount of imaginative work they ask the readerllistener to do, as distinct from film, which tends to be spoon-feed. I've got a soft spot for radio; it tends to be something you do on your own, and I like its intimacy, which is the same thing that I like about reading and about writing. Radio is very believable. Being a poet must be like being a DJ on a pirate radio station, I reckon. I run through all the frequencies just to rub shoulders with radio as a medium.

You're wry about mild illnesses in your own body - with ankylosing spondylitis, a stiffening of the back, "my skeleton will set like biscuit overnight"; and now, having had your jaw dislocated, to get at your wisdom teeth: "my mouth still feels./ Like a car with its wheels stolen, propped up / On bricks." Can you imagine writing about illness with the same brilliant black humour in thirty or forty years time? Or does it come of being basically yOWlg and healthy?

I should say that a.s. isn't a mild illness, it's fucking agony, but thankfully whatever form of it I've got seems to be in abeyance - receding even. I once used the image of a scarecrow to describe it, so maybe I've driven it away.

I do write a lot about the human body for the reasons I've tried to describe above; namely, that I'm eternally interested in the fact that we're most repelled and attracted by the thing that we absolutely are. Every time I go to the doctor's I'm straight out with the pen and paper to write a poem, even if I've only been to pick up a prescription, so when I had all four of my wisdom teeth out - well, it was a case of all my Christmases and birthdays coming at once.

I'm thirty-four now - is that young? In thirty or forty years' time I'll probably be bent double with- a fist instead of a hand, so the likelihood of me writing anything at all is pretty slim, let alone wry sonnet sequences on the nature of personal health.

Events in a poem and on screen happen at very different speeds. When running through someone's life story in a poem your natural delivery seems to be rapid, so for a television film like Xanadu talking over long shots and plenty of footage - did you have to consciously change your style? Have you been happy with the results of your television work?

I do think writing to film is a completely different business, for the reason you highlight and for dozens of others. Poetry on film seems to work best just as it pulls away from the visual or just before it re-unites with it, but by definition those moments tend to be fleeting, rather than sustained. Film is such a dumb-cluck - we think of it as being sophisticated, but its sophistication is in its technology and little else. $200 million to make Titanic - it's just cave-art that moves. When you write about occupations, cars and dogs, kids and village tearaways, are you conscious of creating a mythical society - an Armitage-Land, the way people used to talk about Larkin-Land? Do you see yourself as inventing or discovering it?

I suppose there is some myth-making going on, but one of the incentives to write or to succeed in writing or to be affirmed as a writer is to let that universe enlarge and to spend more and more time in it. Invention and discovery are probably the same thing in that scenario, or at least going on at the same time.

"..I'm very slowly coming to the conclusion that all writing comes from the past, from childhood or innocence or naivety, and from loss, lost lives and lives gone by, even the loss of only eight, nine, ten, eleven seconds ago" (Moon Country). You seem to put that as a reluctant sort of conclusion - should you prefer to write immediately, in the moment?

I've listened to people who've talked about writing "in the moment" and it's puzzled me that their reactions to an event and their poems about it are the same thing. I'm just admitting that I can't bring the necessary degree of artifice to a subject if I'm still trying to work out what I think about it. For me, poetry is always an afterwards.

Having written a verse-play for young adults (Eclipse), would it appeal to you to write a book of verse for children? You must have been asked.

I have been asked but I couldn't do it. I don't have children so I don't spend much time thinking about what they read. Eclipse was about children as much aslor children, so ...

Outside of poetry, what do you read for pleasure?

Magazines. A lot of non-fiction and specialist books. Ceefax.