Simon Armitage | "You can't write poems every day. You can't always live at that pitch."

Simon Armitage | "You can't write poems every day. You can't always live at that pitch."

Simon Armitage CBE begins the interview with an interesting admission: "You can't write poems every day. You can't always live at that pitch." Armitage is one of our most in-demand and widely studied poets, whom Poetry Review has described as "the front man of his generation".

He's explaining why his latest book is not poetry, but an account of a long-distance walk he completed in the summer of 2010. Walking Home: Travels with a Troubadour on the Pennine Way (Faber, July) is the conclusion of a loose non-fiction trilogy, which incorporates his earlier books, All Points North and Gig; and the continuation of an autobiographical thread exploring what it is like to "live life as a poet". Walking Home blends observations floral, ornithological and geological, with memoir, travel narrative and the words of a few poems Armitage composed en route. The result is engaging, funny and genuinely revealing, both of the diverse landscapes he traverses, and of the life of a poet; just as he intended.

Desirous of finding a journey that would allow him literally to "walk home", Armitage settled on the 256-mile Pennine Way as the obvious route to his door. Marsden in West Yorkshire—the village where he was born, brought up, and still lives today—lies close to the route of the famous long-distance footpath, two days' march from its traditional starting point at Edale in Derbyshire. Armitage recalls the "foreign creatures in big leather boots and mud-splattered over-trousers" from his childhood, who every summer would begin descending from the moor to the south, smelling up-close of "dubbin, Kendal Mint Cake and sweat".

A few decades on and Armitage, who describes himself as "a walker, but not the 'ticking-off' kind", joins those remembered alien beings and walks the Way himself. But being a poet and therefore "naturally contrary", he introduces two unorthodox elements to the enterprise.

First, he elects to tackle the route in the "wrong direction", walking south from Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish borders towards his Yorkshire home, into the sun, rain and howling wind. Second, in order to test his reputation as a poet as well as his physical stamina, Armitage decides to become "more literal" about his profession and travel like a penniless troubadour of yore; working his passage by giving pre-arranged poetry readings in each overnight location. "I had the urge to prove that I could stage a reading literally anywhere, and pull in an audience even on a rainy night in Garrigill."

So our poet finds himself playing in small village halls, pubs, churches and even front rooms. Afterwards a walking sock is passed round, into which his audience can place whatever they consider a reasonable donation for the entertainment they have received. On the whole, people are remarkably generous; but they also stuff into the sock such gifts as corn plasters, Garibaldi biscuits, pine cones and playing cards, along with the bank notes and coins.

Taxing times

Offers of bed and board in each location, and occasionally of company on his daily marches came after Armitage placed an advert on his website. Given his plan to work every night after walking all day, he makes some concessions to rest and recuperation: his enormous deadweight of a suitcase—which he christens "The Tombstone"—is transferred from location to location by friends and acquaintances, and his overnight stops find him lodged him in guest-room comfort rather than under canvas. And yet up on the moors, in all the weathers that an English July can muster, some truly taxing times lie in wait. There are dogs, bulls and other fiercesome obstacles for Armitage to overcome, in the tradition of Sir Gawain in the epic poem he has himself translated. And then there is Cross Fell, the highest point in the Pennines, where, lost in an evil, swirling mist—and even unsure at one point if he is going uphill or downhill—Armitage has "a dark moment of the soul".

Not long afterwards, an elderly tweed-clad farmer tells him: "Son, tha' looks buggered." And then, just as he is in within sight of Edale (or what would be the sight of Edale, were it not for the atrocious weather conditions), there is another moment of genuine jeopardy, which changes the course of the entire journey. "There are terrible, terrible places up there. It's not Afghanistan; but it can still be like being on a different planet."

Against the recollection of such chilling moments, Armitage is able to set the warmth and kindness of strangers. "The journey confirmed my belief that there are a lot of people who pull together in smaller communities to make things happen. I got the impression that I could have knocked on anyone's door, and they would have helped me," he says. "After all, it was a fairly precarious journey, made up of a string of telephone numbers. It wasn't like there was a Plan B."

Though he walked the Pennine Way in high summer, Armitage was surprised by how few people he encountered—especially along its less-reached northern stretches. In a particularly entertaining passage, he describes how he learns to judge the conditions up ahead by the state of approaching walkers. These human harbingers are more often than not mud-daubed, peat-stained, and distinctly unsmiling.

Other memorable characters do more to lift his spirits. There is Colin, a Pennine Way ranger who is as much at home munching packets of Starburst as the yellow wayside flowers he swears by as a hangover cure. And there's Armitage's old college friend Slug, who shows up unexpectedly and helps him kill time on the trek by playing A–Z goalkeepers (that's Almunia through to Zoff, before you ask).

Without giving away the twist at the end, I can reveal that Armitage survives the Way, quids in, and with no blisters ("I took a lot of precautions"). He even manages it without resorting to the Kendal Mint Cake he detests ("I'm not sure it can even be classified as a food"). In the end, it is the poetry that carries him through; both that which he recites to earn his crust and the lines that the journey inspires him to write. The whole experience not only brought Armitage, in the words of fellow wanderer Robert Louis Stevenson, "down off the feather bed of civilisation . . . to find the globe granite underfoot", but also confirmed his enduring belief in poetry as an "odd kind of passport".

Faber will launch Walking Home at the Southbank Centre on 1st July, the final day of the Poetry Parnassus (of which Armitage is the artistic curator). A second launch will follow on the Pennine Way on 21st July with readers invited to walk a section of the Way (from Thwaite to Hawes) with the author, then attend an event at the Georgina Theatre Royal in Richmond.

Personal file

1963 born in Marsden, West Yorkshire

1988–94 Probation officer in Greater Manchester

1988–2011 Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University

2010 Awarded a CBE for services to poetry

2011 to present Professor of Poetry at the University of Sheffield

012 Artist in residence at the Southbank Centre and curator of the Southbank's Poetry Parnassus in June 2012

Book data

Publication date: 05/07/2012
Formats: HB £16.99/ e-book £12.99
ISBNs: 9780571249886/ 9780571284023
Editor: Lee Brackstone, Faber
Agent: David Godwin, David Godwin Associates

Simon Armitage's top five

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
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Accessible translation of the medieval poem dating from around 1400 and rediscovered 200 years ago

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Little Green Man
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A bored unemployed man reunites his childhood friends for a game of do-or-dare

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Selected Poems
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Retrospective containing work chosen by Armitage from six published volumes

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How music and the muse have intertwined in the author's work and life

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The Dead Sea Poems
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Collection of poems in which questions of belief, trust and knowledge mingle with more mundane considerations

Books sold: 8,000 since 1998