New laureate plans environment award and hopes for national poetry centre

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The new poet laureate Simon Armitage has spoken of setting up an award for poets responding to the climate crisis, and even a national poetry centre. In a wide-ranging interview with the Guardian he also said that living in the north “probably helps … you are operating from the margin or outside the centre”. He talked of taking the train from Wakefield to King’s Cross after his appointment as laureate and walking across London “utterly incognito”. 

In the immediate aftermath of the announcement he spoke of his parents - who still live in the same village of Marsden where he grew up - crying when he rang them to tell them the news: “They’ve wanted it for a long time.” In the early 90s he told them he was giving up his job as a probation officer to concentrate on poetry. “There were a lot of unknowns. So it was great to go back to them and say it sort of worked out.”

He is following in the footsteps of his hero and fellow Yorkshireman Ted Hughes, who was poet laureate until his death in 1998: “His poetry woke me up, not just to poetry, but fundamentally. He came from the next valley. The house where he grew up looks almost identical to the house I grew up in.” When Armitage started writing in his early 20s the idea that he might get published was a “fantasy. I had no literary pedigree. Poetry still felt like quite a closed establishment.” But “I suppose I always thought, if he can do that from there, why can’t I do it from here?”

In the interview he said that he wanted to “try and keep the middle of poetry in the centre ground. Poetry is already an obscure art form, so if you are an obscure poet within that you’re really obscure, you are operating beyond Pluto.”

Armitage’s appointment was met with questions as to whether, in 2019, the top job should go to a middle-aged white man. Imtiaz Dharker was tipped to become the second female laureate, but dropped out of the running. “I just hope that I won’t be judged on my identity, but on my values and what I bring to those issues,” he said. Although “these are really exciting times” for poetry, he warned against complacency. “If you talk to people from diverse or disadvantaged backgrounds they will still say they feel under-represented, under-served, under-recognised.”

He has written about “moments of national or collective consciousness”, such as the millennium, the 9/11 attacks and most recently Brexit, in his poem ‘The Brink’. But he would “rather have a kicking” for saying “no”, than for a bad poem: “I don’t want to give anybody anything that I don’t think is any good.” A previous laureate, Andrew Motion, noted that the laureateship had been “very, very damaging” for his own work. Is Armitage worried about that? “No. I can’t help writing poems. I was at home the other day. I got up in the morning thinking: ‘I’m the poet laureate!’ Two hours later I was writing a poem. I just can’t help it,” he said.

He has taken to the hills with an account of trekking the Pennine Way, and writing on to the landscape in Stanza Stones, a series of poems on the subject of rainfall, carved into rock faces around Marsden, “probably the most satisfying” as well as the most “complicated and arduous” of his projects. Armitage said he was “absolutely determined” that writing about the environment, “the issue of our time”, will be at the heart of his 10-year laureateship, and hopes to establish a new award for poets responding to the crisis. He also would like to set up a national centre, “a place that hosts and houses what I think of as these islands’ greatest art form”.

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Jonathan Humble

Tue 11th Jun 2019 22:31

Let's build the National Poetry Centre in Goole …

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