Simon Armitage talks about prisoners, prose, poetry conferences and car problems with Gary Day
Once famous for its cricket, Yorkshire is now renowned for its poets: Ted Hughes, Tony Harrison and, lately, Simon Armitage. And let's not forget Philip Larkin. He may have been born in Coventry but he spent most of his adult life in Hull. Unlike the fickle Rio Ferdinand, the muse remains faithful to the East side of the Pennines, perhaps because the characteristic reticence of its inhabitants embodies the spirit of modern British poetry where less usually means more. If poetry is, as Charles Simic said, "a translation of silence", then it doesn't do to move too far away from the original.
Armitage lives in Huddersfield. You step out from the station and there are cobblestones and classical facades, a white lion gleams on a roof and, behind the town, the countryside rolls away. Here is a place that takes pride in itself and its people. There is a statue of Harold Wilson and there is Armitage himself, dark hair flopping over his forehead, waving hello. Over cake and coffee in the bohemian atmosphere of The Blue Rooms cafe he talks about his work at Manchester Metropolitan University, the problems of teaching poetry, and how, with the publication of two new collections, The Universal Home Doctor and Travelling Songs , he sees his work developing. He believes creative writing should be compulsory at school and university. To develop your own voice means you have a chance of being heard above the endless din of the information age, the blizzard of emails, the trill of mobiles and the unshakeable sense of being stalked by special offers wherever you go. "One voice against that is rare, but good."
Armitage quotes - he thinks it is Hughes - that poetry is "a form of healing". It is an idea he has taken very much to heart in a film he is making with young offenders at Feltham, the institution that hit the headlines in March 2000 when Robert Stewart beat his cellmate, Zahid Mubarek, to death with a table leg. Armitage, who worked in the probation service before becoming a full-time writer, encourages the inmates to write songs and poems based on their lives, "because self-expression is more healthy than self-denial. If you give people the opportunity to be creative", he says, "they surprise themselves and others. And when they feel better about themselves, they behave."
Armitage teaches a creative writing module one evening a week, one term a year at Manchester Met. The rest of his time is spent in schools and at conferences and, of course, on his writing. He certainly offers value for money. His school visits include a workshop, some practical criticism, a reading and then, to end, a discussion of those poems of his on the syllabus. He does 30 school conferences a year and thinks they can be more effective than work in the classroom. "It is a bit like Oprah Winfrey," he jokes, with students putting questions through a roving mike to the assembled poets and exam board officials - a pairing that faintly mocks his assertion that "poetry is a dissenting art form". Perhaps surprisingly, Armitage prefers teaching prose to prosody. "It's easier to say what's wrong with it," he remarks. "Poetry is more slippery." And he should know, having made his debut as a novelist last year with The Little Green Man .
Many of his students at Manchester take creative writing because they want to be famous and they think, with good reason, that they are more likely to get rich from writing fiction than from composing odes. Prose is more polite, more accommodating of its audience, whereas poetry "is stubborn and stops short of trying to please its readers". Armitage sums up the difference between them by saying: "Prose is like TV and poetry is like radio." The one requires more effort than the other and the pleasures are therefore greater.
So how do you teach poetry on a November evening in Manchester? He has no magic answer. "Students need an aptitude for it." Poetry is "about comparison and requires you to spend time on your own". And it is important to "equip students with the right techniques and make them aware of the territory". Does he mean that they should be acquainted with the history of poetry? No, they should already be familiar with that before they begin the course. "The proper field of study is contemporary poetry. After all, that's the kind they want to write." As for criticism, he says that, as a teacher of creative writing, it is imperative that you create "a secure atmosphere for discussion". Students have put their "heart and soul" into what they bring to class and people must therefore be tactful in discussing work; that in itself is a kind of training in how to use words to good effect.
Who are the key influences on his work? He cites Ted Hughes, Tony Harrison and Paul Muldoon, all of whom, in their own way, are dedicated observers of the ordinary and write for the common reader. Like them, Armitage is committed to writing poetry in a "conversational style" about everyday experiences. I ask him about "Very Simply Topping up the Brake Fluid", a poem that does not appear in his The Selected Poems published last year, but which seems to me a fine expression of his view that there is nothing so mundane that it can't be the subject of a poem. He agrees, but dissociates himself from it now because he is uncomfortable with its gender politics.
Arguably, politics has become more prominent in his work, especially in poems such as The English, It Could be You and The Laughing Stock , all in The Universal Home Doctor . Armitage says that Harrison "showed what you could and couldn't do with language" so he "doesn't have to fight that battle" and that leaves him free to celebrate local myths in local dialect as in The Phoenix reprinted in The Selected Poems . I ask him about the violence, particularly in his earlier poetry. He acknowledges the influence of Hughes, but distances himself from the animal man's thick-veined rhetoric. In many ways the violence in poems such as Hitcher is more disturbing than anything found in Hughes. It erupts out of nowhere and is as suddenly gone. Armitage explains that the violence is an expression of how he is at war with himself, the one side screwed to respectability, the other thrusting two fingers up at the whole shebang, a division that accounts for the different personae in his work. But he also uses violence to wake us from "the sleep of the senses". It is "a technique to get our attention" so that we are more receptive to "the message".
Although The Universal Home Doctor contains some familiar Armitage themes, such as travel, transient communities, startled self-recognitions and a sense of things missed, there is an altogether gentler feel to this volume. He describes his progress as one from "exuberance and freewheeling experiment to something more internalised and thoughtful". He says he has "gone back to basics". There is no longer the drive to delineate mere facticity; instead a parking ticket or a glass splinter are symbols of the gift of life itself: fragile, lovely, ungraspable. It is this elusive quality he pursues in Travelling Songs , a jam session with strong, drumming rhythms and not one wrong note. "Believe me," he writes, "I'm getting there." Maybe he is, but with Armitage you're guaranteed to enjoy the journey. He rises. He has to sort out a problem with cars that is so complicated it defies even a poet's ability to explain it. Something to do with tax, petrol and friends' houses. For once, catching a train seems easy and I head to the station as he dips into a taxi with a final wave.
Gary Day is principal lecturer in English, De Montfort University. The Universal Home Doctor and Travelling Songs are published this week by Faber, £12.99 and £4.99 respectively.