Books interview: Simon Armitage

"Sometimes there is nothing sweeter in poetry than a deliberate anachronism"

Giving poetry readings and making documentaries sends you all around the country. What do you do with your time on trains?

I set out with really good intentions. I take a book with me, I take a notebook, and the idea is I'm going to write the greatest poem ever written, or read some very important Russian novel. But quite often I just gawp out the window, and more recently I've started falling asleep on the train - especially going back north at night. In some ways it's good thinking time, which is quite difficult to build into a routine. Sometimes it feels you're just idling, but it's necessary.

What was your incentive with The Not Dead, the Channel 4 film and poems based on the testimonials of war veterans?
What we were doing was to some degree quite dangerous; asking people to re-live their nightmares, things that they were stuck with and hadn't been able to move past - in the case of one guy for 40 or 50 years. I think you could see through the film, when it came to reciting the poems, that it was a moving experience at that moment for [the men]. The opportunity to talk about it in a very condensed form.

I don't know what people do with those poems afterwards - whether they continue to be meaningful for them - but certainly at the time it felt we were doing something effective and useful. Though that's not our brief . . . the brief is to make good telly. And I don't want to get back into being a probation office as I was in a former life.

Is a tragicomic poem - for example "Poodles", from your latest collection - more powerful than one overtly polemical?
It's not my style to meet political subjects head-on but it doesn't mean that I'm any less enraged or inflamed. I would argue you can write a poem on the Middle East, climate change, any current political topic and make it of that subject with just the inclusion of one or two words. We're very sophisticated as readers and very alert to those signals. "Poodles" is a highly charged political poem to me, about Tony Blair, even though on the surface it seems absurd and a little bit comical.

Seeing Stars has one of those dyed and clipped dogs on the cover. Those images first made me laugh, then I was quite horrified.
Well that's pleasing to hear, in a way, because I wanted that to be the reaction to the poems in the book. First the absurdity, but then the recognition that there's something more sinister going on. That, to me, was the saddest of all those pictures. Even the saddle on the horse was actually the shaved fur.

You're also in a band, The Scaremongers. Can you be as subversive with song lyrics as in a poem?
I don't think I can as I'm not talented enough as a songwriter! It's certainly possible. On the other hand, I heard myself arguing recently that music is not available to young people as a source of revolution anymore because of the corporate involvement, and that it has become too commodified. It might just be possible that rock and roll has run its course.

Did you go to many gigs in Yorkshire as a teenager?
I grew up in a small village outside of Huddersfield and if you wanted anything that was new or different it really involved a trip to Leeds or Manchester, and that felt like going to New York. Quite often you were stuck with what was there, what the bookshops happened to be carrying. It was really exciting at school to be setting off to a gig in Leeds. I remember seeing The Jam in the Queen's Hall and lying to my parents about where I was going that night and staying in a café. It felt so subversive at the time.

Last year you made a BBC documentary about technology upgrades. Have you embraced Wikipedia?
I do use Wikipedia and then feel bad about it afterwards, like I've been lazy. Somebody got into my entry a couple of years ago and put in amongst a number of my jobs that I'd been an undertaker's assistant. The number of times I was introduced at a poetry reading and this popped up . . . I left it in there.

You've published numerous collections with Faber, so the type setting is always consistent. Do you write and self-edit your poems in their style?
I did at one point have my computer set up to the Faber page size. I don't like turned-over lines, where if the line's too big and falling into the gutter they move it slightly inside. The visual element of the poem is part of it.

So sometimes you've lost words or changed a rhythm just to fit the Faber page?
Yeah. In some ways that might seem odd but we all work to some kind of template; even a synthetic size can push your mind into territories that you might not have taken it when left to your own devices.

You've translated two Middle English tales, Alliterative Morte Arthur and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Does each modernisation of parts of that language require long consideration?
As soon as you start printing [these tales] in books you're doing something quite radical - something they had no knowledge of then. It's a negotiated truce with the past. Sometimes there is nothing sweeter than a deliberate anachronism: in Gawain there are words like "bivouacked", "mollycoddle" . . . "Bogeyman" is in there. The America editors raised eyebrows with some of those.

Every word is scrutinized. You need to be really careful with bits and pieces of contemporary language, they carry such luggage. One word I agonized over for some time was "awesome". It's hard to reclaim now. It's vacuous.

Nothing anybody's ever described as awesome has filled me with awe.
Exactly. And yet in terms of its true meaning it's a wonderful word.

Your 2004 collection, CloudCuckooLand, includes 88 poems named after the constellations. What's your relationship to asterisms and astronomy?
That became a hobby that became an obsession; in some ways like poetry itself, a language that I wanted to read, the language of the heavens. I was making comparisons between star patterns and language patterns and became really quite fanatical about it.

At the time I was living in a house right up on top of the moor; you've got these fantastic nightscapes over the house and I had a telescope, then. After a couple of years I moved down into a valley that was wooded and just didn't get a view, so I stopped reading [the sky]. I'm not sure I could do it any more. In some ways Middle English has replaced that as another language [for me] now.

Will you be seeing the new David Hockney exhibition?
Yes. Rather annoyingly my mum told me the other day that she'd got tickets so I might have to hear about it secondhand. I'm a massive fan and especially since he's moved back to Bridlington [on the East Yorkshire coast]. He's one of my local coordinates.

What do you make of the student protests? They occupied the Arts Tower at Sheffield University, where you teach.
I find it rather exciting that students are politically active, out on the streets with placards after what seemed to me to be a period of dormancy. The extent to which [the protests] then get in the way of other people's learning is a difficult negotiation.

In a few years your daughter may very well have to critique your poems for her GCSE English. Would you give her a hand with coursework?
[Laughs] She's quite alert to the idea, partly because when we starting looking around secondary schools for her we'd go into the English department and there'd be a big poster of me on the wall. There's a couple of poems on the syllabus about her granddad so my gut feeling is . . . with AQA there's two different strands and she'd probably end up taking the other one.

Last year you walked the 264-mile length of the Pennine Way. What have you written about the experience?
A non-fiction book called Walking Home. It's a day-by-day, blow-by-blow, stride-by-stride account of me walking across the fells and giving poetry readings to unsuspecting little communities [in exchange for food and shelter].

I set out on the walk to find out something about myself, about whether I was capable of walking that distance, whether I could endure the loneliness and my relationship with the land. What I came back with was a strong sense of the language of landscape and, actually, a book about people: the kindness of strangers and communities, and the fact that you can use poetry as a kind of currency in foreign places. That people will come out and listen if you've got something to say.

Simon Armitage's new book, "The Death of King Arthur", is published by Faber & Faber.

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide