Simon Armitage is one of the big draws at this weekend’s Wordplay book festival. A prolific creator of literature that crosses every form, he has been the recipient of an array of accolades, including The Sunday Times Author of The Year, an Ivor Novello and a BAFTA.
In his most recent book Seeing Stars, which was shortlisted for the 2010 T S Eliot Prize, Mr Armitage explores the profundity of modern life from a series of bizarre, fairly ordinary and downright surreal perspectives.
In the opening monologue a sperm whale contemplates its place in the history of the universe and the annals of human thought; in another, a couple discover an at once desperate and touching way to hold their troubled relationship together with the aid of nothing more than an ordinary curtain. The lasting effect is that of an author with an effortless ability for rendering thoughts and emotions in a way that is plain to understand, yet full of depth.
Speaking from his West Yorkshire home on a misty afternoon earlier this week, Mr Armitage said he was looking forward to his first visit to Shetland: “It’s somewhere I’ve always wanted to go, but until now I seem to have fallen short.”
Having grown up and lived in villages around the Pennines since his birth in 1963, he seems to have found a certain affinity with the sense of space he has experienced in other Scottish islands. He points out how both his home and the islands are dominated by wide open scenery: one by the moors, the other by the seas.
The effect of one place is much like the other, he says, and is something he began to notice last year when he was invited to read at the Orkney book festival. As a lifelong fan of George Mackay Brown, he found this experience “quite overwhelming” and has since been keen to venture north again.
Mr Armitage likes to travel around, though he does not appreciate being told where to go by a voiceless guidebook: “I’m quite an accidental tourist really. I like the coincidence of meeting people and them saying you should go here, you should go there.”
He took this a step further last year when he walked 264 miles across the Pennine Way. Not only this, he relied on the good will of people in towns and villages to put him up for a night and send him off with a decent breakfast. In return, he offered to give a reading to friends and relatives in his host’s living rooms. “I wanted to see whether poetry could be a currency … I put a notice on my website saying I was doing the walk and that I’d be stopping in this part of town or that one.”
Before setting out he thought the project was about him, a kind of exploration of his relationship with home. But the public reception was so positive that it became a much bigger thing.
All together it took three weeks to walk across some fairly treacherous terrain. At present he is documenting his experiences for a travelogue called Walking Home that he hopes to publish next year.
As if trudging over a vast swathe of the north of England was not enough, 2010 also saw Mr Armitage receive the honour of CBE for services to literature. When asked if this had much effect on his work he replied: “I don’t know whether it makes any difference to people or not. I don’t fling it around, but it’s nice to be recognised for what you do and that part of it is very satisfying.”
Recently, however, he has experienced some problems with the award itself: “I just had to take the medal back into the shop yesterday because it’s broken. It’s a beautiful thing … but all the glazing has come off.”
Luckily Mr Armitage did not have to struggle to find a repair shop.
He was in London to attend a meeting about a project he is leading called the Poetry Parnassus, which is an attempt to get a poet from every country in the world to read their work in London for the 2012 Olympics.
He said that the plans were coming along well and he is hopeful of including new writers alongside big names.
As for what the Shetland audience can expect when he takes to the stage at Islesburgh tomorrow, he said: “It’ll be a bit of everything … But no trick cycling or sword swallowing.”