In the atmospheric setting of Manchester Cathedral, a large crowd gathers to hear the night’s sermon. From the well-lit centre to the room’s shadowy corners, an audience of all ages sits chatting excitedly, impatient to see their favourite poet. Two wooden thrones wait expectantly on a raised dais in the middle of the hall, one for author and Observer writer Rachel Cooke, and one for Simon Armitage.
I first came across Armitage’s work when I was 15. It was part of a set reading from the GSCE Anthology which contained many great poets, including Carol Ann Duffy and Seamus Heaney. I had a good selection to choose from but I remember that Armitage’s poems really stood out. Perhaps it was because they were written about his own childhood, an age I could relate to at the time, or perhaps it was that I found the style of his work honest and earthy. I don’t know. In an attempt to remind myself of why I had connected to these poems, I was eager to attend this event.
Thanks to its great acoustics and communal atmosphere, this is not the first time that the Cathedral has been the scene for the Manchester Literature Festival. After several introductions by the Archdeacon of Manchester and festical co-director Jon Atkin, Cooke introduced Armitage himself. He is a Northern lad, having grown up in Marsden, and has a slew of achievements under his belt, including ten collections of poetry, and translations of Middle English texts. His latest book, Paper Aeroplane, is his selected works spanning across his entire 25-year career.
Armitage is casual and comfortable in conversation with Cooke and the audience, revealing little gems such as the fact that the first cheque he received for a poem was just £2. He describes himself as a communicator, and his work as “experimental but within certain parameters”. His readings bring a new meaning to his work; he has a very ‘real’ voice, his Yorkshire accent resonating the true emotion behind each poem. After he reads out a selection of his poems, Snowjoke, Evening and the titular Paper Aeroplane, he tells us a little about the story behind each piece.
Armitage confesses that he’s not very good at making things up and so tries to build poems out of “normal” life. According to him, extraordinary occurrences happen in the everyday, and he explains that he really did see wild horses on a major motorway when he wrote his poem Horses, M62. A professor of poetry at Sheffield University, he also takes inspiration from his students, and tells of the time one of his students found an Ezra Pound book in a pound shop and he couldn’t resist writing about it in Poundland.
Aside from creative work he enjoys translating older poetry as he says “the burden of getting stuck is taken away, and you can just be immersed by poem,” which he finds “incredibly liberating”. His translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has been a huge success, and he says that when he first read the text from the 1400s he could “hear the voice of the poem, it was a dialect that I could recognise”. His translations appear in the Norton Anthology.
Armitage admits that Paper Aeroplane feels a little like a “tombstone,” so he has made a point of putting new poems at the end to take his work into the future. Though he doesn’t look back at his career too much, he allowed himself the sin of pride for the first time when he published this new book. At the end of the event he thanks the audience, and especially his long-standing fans who have been following his work since 1989. “Poetry is a participation event,” he says, and tonight he has certainly allowed the audience to engage with both himself and his work.