Questions and Answers
Questions and answers on Simon Armitage
by Simon Armitage
Q. Several of your poems draw on family relationships. Is the sense of "family" a large part of your imaginative territory?
A Human relationships inspire and bewilder me more than anything else. People have been writing about their kith and kin since the year dot, and until we finally understand how and why people relate to each other (and we never will) then poetry will keep on occurring. Since the advent of psychology, the parent/child relationship has become crucial in our analysis of the individual. I never tire of investigating the bonds between father and son, for example. The puppet goes on dancing long after the strings have been cut.
Also, I write about family as an indirect way of writing about the world in general. I’ve always thought that we have very little chance attending to problems on a global scale if we’re unable to get things right between ourselves. So looking at personal relationships becomes a metaphor, but not an explicit one. Also, I’m still very much part of the same geographical community I was born and raised in, and it’s made me feel responsible, accountable even, to people I’ve known all my life. It’s a place I write from, not just about.
Q Your poems seem to have an affinity with the best of song lyrics. Which bands or songwriters have influenced you and how?
A I listen to music all the time, except when I’m reading or writing. Poetry is the art form of concentration. You have to concentrate when you write it and you have to concentrate when you read it. That’s why it doesn’t appeal to everyone – not everyone has the patience. And the reason you have to concentrate is to hear the music of the poem. Not a melody, and not always a beat or a rhythm, but a definite pulsing and patterning of stressed and unstressed syllables. In a good poem, this “music” comes first, and the meaning comes later. In fact, in a very good poem, the music is the meaning. It carries the message.
This is a long and convoluted way of saying there is a very strong connection between poetry and music, or more particularly “song,” but the connection isn’t always obvious, and it isn’t always to do with lyrics. I could trot out a list of song-writers whose lyrics have impressed and inspired me over the years, with Dylan and Morrissey being high up on that list, but I’d find it more difficult to point directly to the relationship between their words and mine. In terms of having something in common, style and attitude are probably more important than diction and syntax and subject matter. The tangent at which we rest against the universe.
Q How important is Form to you? When you make decisions about form, how and why do you make them?
A Form is important but it should always be the dancing monkey, never the organ grinder. Poets in the early stages of their career who try to use form often end up being imprisoned by its rules and regulations. Rules are there to be... well, if not broken, at least manipulated.
I suppose I make a decision about which form to use at a very early stage, while I’m collecting language to use in the poem. If two or three phrases come along with strong rhyming possibilities, and subconsciously I’m aware that the idea in question might take up about a third of a poem, then a sonnet might be the right shape to aim for, or something like a sonnet. Of course the tone and style of the poem are also important factors when it comes to deciding the form, or lack of it. A poem which is conversational in tone might be better written as a block of text, to suggest free-flowing speech rather than considered thought. As a general rule, short lines are “slow” and longer lines tend to be read more quickly, because they look like prose. A poet might want to regulate the speed at which a poem is experienced by choosing long or short lines.
Q There seems to be a common note struck between the voices in ‘Hitcher’ and ‘Those Bastards in their Mansions’. Can you say something about these poems?
A Well, they’re both a bit angry. Kind of. Is that what you mean? “Those bastards...” draws on the myth of Prometheus. He stole fire from the Gods. He was a mortal, not entitled to fire, and so he was punished in a most excruciating way. When I started writing poems I got the impression that a certain section of society disapproved. It was as if I didn’t have the right to be a poet. As if literature, for reasons of class, or upbringing, or pedigree, was something to which I wasn’t entitled. So in the poem I liken poetry to fire. Poetry becomes a volatile, incendiary substance, but only in the minds of those who see me running across their manicured parkland with it. The last line of the poem should not be taken literally. I’m just pushing the idea one step further. Language is a powerful tool, like a gun, and poems might be the bullets of language. But of course I don’t really carry a gun. I think people who carry guns are arseholes. I think they should be shot.
Hitcher was written at the time of the Thatcher government. It’s strange to think that students who are studying this poem at GCSE level won’t have any recollection of that period, and it’s hard to describe how it felt to be living and working in the UK under that administration. Profit was God, during those years. Nothing else mattered. The sales rep. character in the poem is flogging himself to death in the name of profit, and the hitcher character has taken an alternative view of life. One represents business, the other, roughly speaking, represents the arts. This is why the second man gets done over by the first.
Q How important is maleness in your poems?
A Poetry will always be an expression of gender, unless it’s written by hermaphrodites. I haven’t checked for a couple of hours, but the last time I looked, I was male.
Q Why did you rhyme ‘Kid’ in this particular way?
A For reasons of momentum and alacrity. The voice in the poem is running away at the mouth. He’s saying things in anger or bitterness which at leisure he might come to repent. And like many people who reach that state, he begins to access an amazing vocabulary – one he probably didn’t know he owned. The rhymes, if they can be called rhymes, are to keep the poem moving up through the gears. Technically, each rhyming word would be described as “feminine” because the second syllable is unstressed. This means the reader steps down at the end of each line, taking them onto the next line, and then the next and so on, without pausing for breath. I sometimes think of the rhyme scheme in that poem as a kind of fire-escape bolted onto the right hand margin of the poem. And there’s a fire.
Q What is ‘Homecoming’ about?
A Secrets and trust.