Ledbury Poetry Festival #2 : Simon Armitage

When it comes to poetry, Simon Armitage feels a bit like my dad. Or rather, my older brother, because you rarely revere your parents like you do an older sibling; they’re doing all the cool stuff, introducing you to new cool stuff, and making you jealous of all the cool stuff because you really want to do the cool stuff too. Poetry is, in this case, the cool stuff, but it wasn’t always. Until year 9 (aged 13/14) I was a proper little sh*t. My mum often joked, wearily, that I had my teenage tantrum years as an infant. She was playing it down a bit. My teenage tantrum years may well have begun in infancy, but they lasted right through to Christmas, year 9, and saw me get into all sorts of trouble at primary and secondary school. I can pinpoint almost to the week my big “why are you behaving like such a [insert choice expletive]” epiphany, where I realised, not a moment too soon, that wasting my education, disappointing my parents, and lying to myself about a wealth of things wasn’t ever all that fun (o! adolescence).

Now, I’m not about to say that poetry saved my life. This isn’t going to be a gushy blog post. Well, it’s not supposed to be. After all, at this point Poetry Live! (a countrywide tour of the GCSE English-featured modern poets) wasn’t going to happen for another 2 years, and I did a lot of rethinking cool stuff in that time. No, it’s about why I like Simon Armitage, and why you should come and see him at Ledbury Poetry Festival on July 8th.

Poetry Live! remains the fullest I have ever seen Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall, at 2,294 capacity across its 4 tiers. It is also the most apathetic I have ever seen it, with kids about to sit their GCSEs finding anything and everything to distract them from the onstage action. Well, for some readers, Carol Ann Duffy included, unfortunately, ‘action’ is the wrong word (though her poetry is superb), but for Armitage, and the impossible-to-dislike John Agard, it was action through and through. Armitage was funny and friendly, telling risque anecdotes about how young people in his home town did a lot of their growing up in telephone boxes (piercing ears, losing virginity, etc., etc.), and other similar gems. He was also honest and moving, and these factors combined, sneaking up on me surreptitiously as they did, to plant a small seed of change. Because, at some point in the course of that afternoon, a sentence like this drifted through my mind: “You know, this poetry stuff’s alright.” Then I probably sat there feeling a little alien and vulnerable, as if at any moment someone might stand up and shout “Look, he’s privately quite enjoying himself, kill him!”

And here I am now, studying Creative Writing, working at Ledbury Poetry Festival, writing and performing (particularly poetry). Of course, it’s impossible to say how big a part Armitage at Poetry Live! played in this metamorphosis, but a part it did play.

I am by no means the authority on Armitage – he was a catalyst for my delving and discovering within poetry – but I remain a big fan. Of his many published books, I’ve read Kid, The Dead Sea Poems, Gig, and now Walking Home. His writing spans numerous genres, including poetry, translation, novels, essays, and travel-memoir. Walking Home, published this year and available to purchase from next month, falls into the latter category, and is a record of his attempt to walk the Penine Way “backwards”(i.e. North to South). While most people start in Edale and finish in Kirk Yetholm (actually, most fail or only aim to complete a tiny segment of the 256-mile route), Armitage wanted to arrive back in (and then slightly overshoot) Marsden in Yorkshire, his home town, the triumphant and symbolic culmination of a very challenging journey. He also wanted to give poetry readings along the way, in exchange for a bed and some grub, and any donations that the modest rural audiences wanted to give.

The book follows these travels with a troubadour and each day (walk + reading) is a chapter. At a little over 280 pages, the experience is documented thoroughly, with Armitage speaking snippets into a voice recorder during the day and transcribing them each night, sprawled among loose change and blister plasters on a stranger’s bed. At its worst, the book is a little adjective-heavy, with descriptions of the weather/view/path occasionally blurring into one another, but at it’s best Walking Home is everything I love about Armitage; funny and dry, and simultaneously very human, even vulnerable.

Whether he makes it home or not is not for me to say. What is for me to say, however, is this:

Simon Armitage’s Walking Home is on Sunday 8th July from 12:45 – 1:45 at Community Hall, Ledbury. Tickets are a mere 8 quid, and you can get them on http://www.poetry-festival.com/bookings.html or by calling 0845 458 1743.

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