Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Hay Festival Kerala 2011 No.12 - Simon Armitage, the Yorkshire poet


Simon Armitage reading


Simon Armitage said poetry is a thin scene in England, but it was a great honour to be reciting at the festival in TVM. He decided to recite poems that would exhibit the variety of his verse.
O Come All Ye FaithfulThis poem is a rhythmic list of all those the poet invites to escape to the hills
   Movers and shakers, butlers and bakers
   Skinheads and swayheads
   Joggers and grafters, groovers and ravers
...
He ends by asking all to:
   Breathe and let breathe

 
The Shout
Armitage was once on a mission by his crazy school-teacher “to measure the size of the human voice.” 
The poem records what happened:

We went out
into the school yard together, me and the boy
whose name and face

I don't remember. We were testing the range
of the human voice:
he had to shout for all he was worth
...
Boy with a name and face I don't remember,
you can stop shouting now, I can still hear you.

 Simon Armitage says poems begin as daydreams

Kid
The poem is a rant by Robin the Boy Wonder, the loyal sidekick to Batman. Robin  is learning to lead his own, independent life. 
Batman, big shot, when you gave the order
to grow up, then let me loose to wander
leeward, freely through the wild blue yonderHoly robin-redbreast-nest-egg-shocker!
Holy roll-me-over-in the-clover,
I'm not playing ball boy any longer...
you baby, now I'm the real boy wonder.
The Causeway
This was one of the poems Armitage held up to show it was shaped on paper like a rectangular slab to represent a causeway. It describes his returning home with his family (wife and child) from a visit to St. Michael's Mount at a place called Marazion in Cornwall. 
Three walked barefoot into the sea,
mother, father and only child
with trousers rolled above the knee.
...
The life guard yawned a megaphone.
The oyster-catcher clenched its fist.
The common dolphin bit its lip.
...
some in khaki and some in kilts,
some in purdah and fancy dress, 
 


Stanza Stones
Stanza Stones is project to carve poems into the rocks on the moors along the Pennine Watershed in Yorkshire, with a woman stone mason, name of Pip Hall. Armitage recited two of the poems; here's the first called Snow.
SNOW
The sky has delivered its blank missive. The moor in coma. Snow, like water asleep, a 
coded muteness to baffle all noise, to stall movement, still time. 

Armitage made a number of observations after his recitation:
Poetry is the quiet voice in the corner; it's the voice after the event.

Poetry is one person performing, without accompaniment without backbeat.

For all the talk of the death of books by e-books, etc. - poetry remains an UNKILLABLE thing.

The noise a poem makes is the poem.
To get a larger dose of Armitage's poems and comments, read on below ...
 


Simon Armitage, Poet Simon was interviewed by Susie Nicklin of the British Council's Literature Department in Trafalgar Square. Armitage said poetry is a thin scene in England. He published his collection Zoom in 1989; it had a unique vernacular, and was responsible for his meteoric rise, said Susie. He carried on writing poetry and was made a CBE for his services to poetry.

Armitage said it was a great honour to be reciting at the festival in TVM. Casually he made poetic mention of the “rotor blades of the four bright chandeliers” over the hall. Poetry has many uses, he said. It can be fast, or slow; loud or quiet; new or old in spirit. He decided to recite poems that would exhibit the variety.

1. O Come All Ye Faithful
 This poem is a rhythmic list all those the poet invites to escape to the hills
Movers and shakers, butlers and bakers
Skinheads and swayheads
Joggers and grafters, groovers and ravers

He ends by asking all to
Breathe and let breathe

2. The Shout

Simon Armitage was born in Marsden, West Yorkshire; he first studied at Colne Valley High School, Linthwaite where he had a a local village teacher, eccentric, but crazy. He sent two of them once on a mission to “to measure the size of the human voice.” When he wrote these local poems of which The Shout is an example, he never expected them to travel. Most writers have a place which becomes their framework through which to view the world. His was and is W Yorkshire.
We went out
into the school yard together, me and the boy
whose name and face

I don't remember. We were testing the range
of the human voice:
he had to shout for all he was worth

I had to raise an arm
from across the divide to signal back
that the sound had carried.

He called from over the park - I lifted an arm.
Out of bounds,
he yelled from the end of the road,

from the foot of the hill,
from beyond the lookout post of Fretwell's Farm -
I lifted an arm.

He left town, went on to be twenty years dead
with a gunshot hole
in the roof of his mouth in Western Australia.

Boy with a name and face I don't remember,
you can stop shouting now, I can still hear you.

Kid
Comics are the new classic literature, said Armitage. The poem, Kid, is a rant by Robin the Boy Wonder, the loyal sidekick to Batman. Robin talks about how he has separated from Batman and is learning to lead his own, independent life.
Batman, big shot, when you gave the order
to grow up, then let me loose to wander
leeward, freely through the wild blue yonder
as you liked to say, or ditched me, rather,
in the gutter ... well, I turned the corner.
Now I've scotched that 'he was like a father
to me' rumour, sacked it, blown the cover
on that 'he was like an elder brother'
story, let the cat out on that caper
with the married woman, how you took her
downtown on expenses in the motor.
Holy robin-redbreast-nest-egg-shocker!
Holy roll-me-over-in the-clover,
I'm not playing ball boy any longer
Batman, now I've doffed that off-the-shoulder
Sherwood-Forest-green and scarlet number
for a pair of jeans and crew-neck jumper;
now I'm taller, harder, stronger, older.
Batman, it makes a marvellous picture:
you without a shadow, stewing over
chicken giblets in the pressure cooker,
next to nothing in the walk-in larder,
punching the palm of your hand all winter,
you baby, now I'm the real boy wonder.

The Causeway
 This was one of the poems Armitage held up to show it was shaped on paper like a rectangular slab to represent a causeway. The poem describes his returning home with his family (wife and child) from a visit to St. Michael's Mount at a place called Marazion in Cornwall.
It's like a poor man's Mont St Michel in the far SW corner of England. The causeway connecting the island's castle-top church to the mainland is gets submerged at high tide, and you have to get back before the water rises. This was an occasion when the tide had come in and partially submerged the causeway, but he set out bravely. The rest is in the poem.
Three walked barefoot into the sea,
mother, father and only child
with trousers rolled above the knee.
A stretch of water—half a mile;
granite loaves made a cobbled road
when the tide was low. Tide was high.
Bread vans idled on either shore.
In lifeboat sheds along the coast
cradled boats were dead to the world—
the bones of reassembled whales.
A mothballed helicopter dozed.
But three unshod went wading on,
father, mother and little one,
up to their hips in brine and krill,
the Gulf Stream nudging at their heels,
husband, wife and three-year-old,
out of their depth and further still,
over their heads in surf and swell,
further, further, under then gone.
The life guard yawned a megaphone.
The oyster-catcher clenched its fist.
The common dolphin bit its lip.
The paraglider pulled away.
The scuba diver held his breath.
Then three appeared. Two heads at first
and then the third, now figurines
emergent, shoeless, plodding on
towards the slipway and the quay.
Three forms. They stopped and turned and faced.
So hundreds followed in their wake,
some on Zimmer frames, some on stilts,
some in wellies and some on bikes,
one with gravy stains up his tie;
thousands legging it down the beach,
some in khaki and some in kilts,
some in purdah and fancy dress,
one with a monkey round his neck.
And more. In fact the bastard lot.
(Two rivers, west and east, now burst
with caribou and wildebeest.)
And woman, man and only child,
the three with trousers rolled who strolled
across the bay, were cast in bronze—
barefoot, blameless, set to stand
above the millions who drowned.
(From Tyrannosaurus Rex versus the Corduroy Kid, published by Anansi in 2006. )


Aviators
Before reciting the poem about an encounter at an airport, Armitage called attention to the curtain that used to be drawn across the cockpit of an airplane and what he would have liked to see behind it. “I wanted it to be a snow leopard,” he tells us, “or just a lit candle and nothing else… or a priest with a bag over his head. We shouldn’t be allowed to know the truth behind that curtain… it’s not something I think we need to know. Like in the Wizard of Oz, you’re just not supposed to go there.”

They’d overbooked the plane.
At this moment in time,” announced the woman at the counter,
Rainbow Airlines is offering one hundred pounds
or a free return flight to any passenger willing to stand down.”
A small man in a cheap suit and Bart Simpson socks scratched his ankle.
One hundred and fifty pounds,” she announced, fifteen minutes later.
Nobody moved.  “Two hundred?”
 From nowhere, this neat looking chap in a blue flannel jacket and shiny shoes
loomed over the desk and said, “I’ll take the money.”
But you’re the pilot,” she said, then added, “Sir,”
as if she’d walked into a Japanese house and forgotten to take off her shoes.
The pilot whispered, “Listen, I need that money.
I’m behind on my mortgage payments because my wife’s a gambler;
I’ve got two sons at naval college – the hats alone cost a small fortune -
and I’m being blackmailed by a pimp in Stockport.
Let me take the two hundred.  You’d be saving my life.”

I’d been sitting within earshot, next to the stand-up ashtray.
Give him the money,” I said.
Who are you?” she asked. She was wearing a gold plastic name-badge.
Dorothy, I’m George,” I said, “and clearly this man’s in pain.
I don’t want him going all gooey midway over the English Channel.
I once heard sobbing coming from the cabin of a Jumbo Jet
at thirty-three thousand feet, and let me tell you,
it sounded like the laughter of Beelzebub.”
But who’ll fly the plane?” she wanted to know.
Why me, of course.”  I opened my mouth
so she could see how good my teeth were – like pilot’s teeth.
Do you have a licence?” she asked.
I said, “Details, always details.  Dorothy, it’s time to let go a little,
to trust in the unexplained.  Time to open your mind to the infinite.”
By now my hand was resting on hers,
and a small crowd of passengers had gathered around our little scene,
nodding and patting me on the back. “Good for you, George,”
said a backpacker with a leather shoelace knotted around his wrist.
It was biblical, or like the end of a family film during the time of innocence.
I said, “Dorothy, give me the keys to the cockpit,
and let’s get this baby in the air.”

Stanza Stones
Stanza Stones is project to carve poems into the rocks on the moors along the Pennine Watershed in Yorkshire., with a woman stone mason, name of Pip Hall.
The seven stones will form a permanent moorland trail across the watershed from Ilkley to Marsden the home town of the poet. Simon Armitage said “we have identified most of the sites where the poems might stand. We’ve driven, hiked and biked around the landscape, and still have some exploring left to do. Some of the poems will be carved onto existing outcrops, others onto introduced stones. I made a decision to let Water be the overall subject, and the various forms of water to provide the topic of each individual and self-contained poem. A piece about rain, a piece about snow, a piece about dew….the Rain Stone, The Snow Stone, The Dew Stone…and so on.”

Armitage recited two of the poems, the first called Snow.
SNOW
The sky has delivered its blank missive. The moor in coma. Snow, like water asleep, a coded muteness to baffle all noise, to stall movement, still time.
What can it mean that colourless water can dream such depth of white? We should make the most of the light. Stars snag on its crystal points.
The odd, unnatural pheasant struts and slides. Snow, snow, snow is how the snow speaks, is how its clean page reads.
Then it wakes, and thaws, and weeps.
Here is the second one:

MIST
Who does it mourn? What does it mean, such
nearness, gathering here on high ground
while your back was turned, drawing its
net curtains around? Featureless silver screen, mist
is water in its ghost state, all inwardness,
holding its milky breath, veiling the pulsing machines
of great cities under your feet, walling you
into these moments, into this anti-garden
of gritstone and peat. Given time the edge of
your being will seep into its fibreless fur;
you are lost, adrift in hung water
and blurred air, but you are here.
Armitage said style is everything in poetry, everything in writing. He never thinks of poets as having wisdom, but they have style. Often you are saying the same old things others have said, but you have to find a new way. Your fabric to fashion a poem is language. Once to illustrate the point to young students he thought to recite a lyric of Bob Dylan, and found he had to first tell who Bob Dylan was to the new generation. The poem, Killing Time # 2, is from the collection Travelling Songs, and was one among seventy poems included in a volume dedicated to Bob Dylan on his seventieth birthday, titled The Captain's Tower: Seventy Poets Celebrate Bob Dylan at seventy. Armitage recited it at high speed to mimic the fast pace of life in modern society and the effect it has on the human brain. It is based on Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues, according to Armitage. You can find the poem being recited on the Web at:

The first stanza reads:
Time in the brain cells sweating like a nail bomb,
trouble with the heartbeat spitting like a sten gun,
cut to the chase,
pick up the pace;
no such thing as a walkabout fun-run,
shoot yourself a glance in the chrome in the day-room
don't hang about, your running out of space, son.

Armitage made a number of observations after his recitation:
“Poetry is the quiet voice in the corner; it's the voice after the event.”
“Poetry is a corrective to the blunt instrument of the sound-bite and the shock and awe of journalism. We are the awkward squad.”
“Poetry thinks before it speaks.”
“Poetry is one person performing, without accompaniment, without backbeat.”
“Poetry is a large tent:  people connect with ideas through language.”
“For all the talk of the death of the book by e-books, etc. – poetry remains an UNKILLABLE THING.”
“On radio, on telly, in broadsheet newspapers there are still lots of people who read poems.”
“Poems are now on the national curriculum in Britain. There are exam books by AQA (http://web.aqa.org.uk/ ), the educational charity that provides services for students. They host events where real poets read to students; there are now 40 events in UK, 'Poetry Line.' They listen all day to poetry and not just poetry. “
“You just cannot write poetry every day as a poet. You're just not up to it.”
“Poetry has more potential than on the printed page. Poetry is a go-anywhere art from according to the Australian, Les Murray.”
“The noise a poem makes is the poem. Even in silence it's working on your inner ear. The meaning of a poem is codified in its music. The acoustic effect of the poem is essential. Sound is the core component, even when the poem is not in strict metre.”

When Joe asked why in contrast to the short introductions he gave when he recited each poem, there are no notes in the poetry collections? His answer was T.S. Eliot tried it and readers have found no clarity from that. “I would have to refract the poem through that double glaze,” he said.

Armitage noted that there will never come a time when everyone on a bus would be reading poetry, for it will never be mainstream. “Poetry is an irritant, it is obstinately not prose.”

Someone asked if his early career as a Corrections Officer has ever influenced his poetry. Rephrasing the question thus: “Has crime ever influenced rhyme?” he answered it has, at least in that form of the question!

Armitage concluded with a small poem titled, A Chair.
All on its lonesome
Itself solitary,

so it starts. Armitage had the announcer sit down on stage in a chair, before he recited the poem. It was good enough to sit down in!

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