We entered the main space of the Roundhouse in the warm afternoon after an early dinner. We sat in the dark, light focused on the podium. The audience was large, plenty of old and young alike, quiet except for the occasional murmur in anticipation. It was almost time. We were all there for Simon Armitage.
Simon Armitage is a figure who looms large in the poetry scene, able to command a rapt audience even ten thousand miles from his hometown of Marsden, in West Yorkshire. A professor of poetry at the University of Leeds, he was appointed Poet Laureate in May 2019. Armitage has a prodigious output with over a dozen poetry collections and five bestsellers; two novels and three non-fiction. He has two doctorates and three honorary ones. His podcast, The Poet Laureate Has Gone to His Shed is broadcast on BBC Radio 4.
Sean Pryor, an Associate Professor at UNSW, introduced him with vigor and encompassed the breadth of Armitage’s decorated career. Armitage then took to the stage, two seats in front of us. He ascended the stage and performed some of his poems. The poems were Thank You For Waiting, Causeway and The Song Thrush and the Mountain Ash.
Thank You For Waiting garnered the most laughter, but the audience was captivated throughout.
After the readings, we took to the yellow armchairs and the light moved to follow. It was the meat of the event, conversation between two fellows versed in poetry. They spoke about lockdown and its effect on writing, and how poetry travels and is received by audiences across the world.
“I wrote three poems about my windows,” Armitage quipped.
They traversed the stretch of poetry as a passport. Armitage remarked wryly that he had traveled more as a poet than as a geography student.
“The more I travel, the more I write about home,” Armitage said.
The conversation touched on the announcement of the Australian Poet Laureate, to be appointed when Writers Australia is established in 2025. Armitage spoke about how the Poet Laureate used to be a lifetime post, but is now a ten-year appointment. The appointment is phrased so that a person cannot reject being Poet Laureate, “they say, if you are offered the appointment”, he said.
Pryor was an excellent chair, maneuvering from how poetry is approached as performance to a round of quickfire questions. Armitage was to choose one over the other, or given the option to pass. He chose country over city, savoury over sweet, age before youth. He found solace in Macbeth and the use of shorter lines. He prefers North over South, and the ordinary before the miraculous,
“It is only in the ordinary that the extraordinary is found,” said Armitage.
Armitage passed on choosing between tradition or experimental. They went into a series of questions from the audience. His favourite bad poet is McGonagall. He likes poems with a performative element over poems that feel like talking or reading. The poem that made him want to read poetry as a student was Full Moon and Little Frieda by Ted Hughes. Reading is essential to writing poetry.
With that, the full hour had come and gone. The lights illuminating the two on the stage dimmed as the lights around the room came back on. Armitage descended the stairs and spoke to some audience members briefly before he went to sign books for a line wrapping around the staircase.