Thursday, February 23, 2012

Simon Armitage

The Butler writing community didn't know what to expect when they arranged to fly British poet Simon Armitage across the pond. His book, "Seeing Stars," features whimsical, surreal poems. We wondered about the man who penned this work. A stereotypical stand-offish Brit? A dry, funny, Monty Python wit?

We were surprised in the best way. Memories of certain authors' visits stay with us. Jonathan Lethem and John Green, with their open-hearted generous spirit, with their desire to engage and share literary wisdom, left deep marks. And so it was with Armitage's quiet energy, his eagerness to participate and engage.

Not as well known in the U.S., Simon Armitage, awarded the title Commander of the British Empire, is a writer of poetry, novels, translations and nonfiction, and has also written for radio, television and film. What's the path a young Brit takes to becoming a CBE awarded poet? By the time he entered his teens, Armitage was enthralled with poetry. One year his teacher posted the six best poems from Armitage's class. Armitage's wasn't one of them. He chuckled as he told us that he might be pursuing a career of revenge.

Following his father's footsteps, Armitage's first job was as a probation officer, in Britain a position more closely aligned with social worker. There's a link between the social values of probation officers and the social values of poetry, he said, in that in both professions you're social irritants, not fully signed up to society's expectations. When he started writing poetry, still working as a probation officer, others asked him if he'd still have material from which to draw upon if he quit his job. Armitage wondered if the world of a probation officer, with its drama of, for instance, babies with burn wounds, is actually the real world. His days in social welfare behind him, he has now achieved his independence -- freedom of thought and expression -- through the quiet world of poetry.

At his Tuesday night reading Armitage read his poems with soft-spoken humor. He was funny, gracious and quick to respond to questions with dry wit. He began by explaining that for U.K. poets, 'place' is emphasized, is the taproot and wellspring of their work. The poems in "Seeing Stars," he said, have been described by some reviewers as prose poems, but he doesn't agree with this classification. Others have said the works are flash fiction, and Armitage quipped that he wasn't sure what that designation means. They have also been called "Not Poems." Because, he said, if one writes poems it's almost impossible not to write one, he gave this label a hearty Yes!

Armitage prefaced each piece by relaying a personal story that formed the seed for the poem. Despite his quiet nature, Armitage was a natural performer. His reading, deadpan and peppered with singular inflections and wry pauses, entranced. He told us that his interest lies with poetry that has a living voice within it, a relationship with the language, rather than poetry that sounds like writing or thinking.

Although Armitage has penned novels, he said that the longer term energy commitment a novel requires no longer suits him, and he much prefers the short bursts of energy involved in composing a poem. He loves the idea that poetry is portable, and can have poignancy, life and energy in different settings. In writing poetry Armitage said he is trying to communicate an idea

"Poems come to me as daydreams. My mind floats from one idea to the next, and a bit of language comes along."

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