Interview: Simon Armitage

How are you finding Sheffield?

Great! I’ve been here just over a year now, I’m really enjoying it. I’d been at Manchester Met for about ten years before, teaching Creative Writing on their MA course.

Do you find you have less time to write due to teaching?

I think it’s just about trying to get the balance right, and you always feel as if you’re getting it wrong. If I’ve been at home for three days writing, I’m tearing my hair out. But then if I’ve been travelling around, giving readings or teaching, I get frustrated that I’m not doing my writing.

You’re reading at Lyric Festival next week, can you tell us a bit about that?

I’m its co-founder and co-organizer. This is its second year and it’s ‘the festival of the written and spoken word’. So it’s really a celebration of language; a platform for people who are working within language in all kinds of exciting ways, from music lyrics, spoken word, to literary poetry. It’s only over three days, so it’s very intense – it’s the white heat of language.

Do you get lots of inspiration from events like these, or is it more from personal influences?

I think all influence ultimately comes from other people’s writing. When I sit down to teach people, I always begin by saying the key thing is reading; you can’t be a writer unless you’re a reader. Some people get anxious about influence – they don’t want to plagiarise or copy, or be drawn towards someone else’s style. My argument is you might as well be influenced by the good stuff – otherwise you’re going to be influenced by journalism or advertising or the list of ingredients on the back of a Coke can. It’s not just useful but necessary to read and listen to other poets, if only to discover things you don’t like, and to form your own versions of the things you’re astonished by. Getting to hear poets read in a live environment is very much part of this.

Another venture you’re involved in is Poetry Parnassus – can you tell us about that?

It’s a harebrained scheme of mine to bring a poet from every participating Olympic country to a week of readings and events at the South Bank in London, where I’m an Artist in Residence. There are 204 Olympic countries and we’ve got 180 poets at the moment, but we’re still trying to identify some, like from Monaco and Brunei. With all their aspirations, anxieties and different languages, it’s an enormous artistic and organizational undertaking.

When is it?

It’s the last week in June – some of the events are ticked but there are about 100 free events. We’ve got big names in poetry, like Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, and some lesser names, some who aren’t even well known within their own countries, due to exile.

Does it just involve readings?

There are some big extravaganza events as well. We’re dropping 100,000 poems from a helicopter onto Jubilee Gardens. It’s with a Chilean organization called Casa Grande and they do this event in cities in the world that have a history of being bombed. So 100,000 poems will be falling from the sky as bookmarks, unless it’s raining and they’ll come down in a big soggy mess!


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