Simon Armitage, a living writing poet, talks about his writing in 2010, and gives practical tips for writing poetry.
“I’ve always been interested in poetry because it’s so powerful: so few words, space on the page, and all around it. So there’s an intensity there that I admire.”
Getting keen to write
His main 3 tips for writing poetry? “Read, read and read.” I think you’ll find a theme there, if you look closely and carefully (!).
“All my inspiration and drive and desire to write poems comes from the work of other people… other people’s poetry excites me so much, I want to try my own hand at it.”
“But I don’t want to read other people in case it influences my style”
Simon Armitage has had people say this to him – and he has a crisp, practical reply: “That’s rubbish – you’re influenced by everything: by fire extinguisher signs or by what you read on the back of crisp packets. So you might as well be influenced by the good stuff.” But what is the good stuff? Aha, that is the job, he points out – to find what is great to you or horrible to you in other people’s writing, and sort out what that means for your own style.
How to deal with rejection
Funnily enough, Simon dates his interest in writing poetry from age 10, when his teacher asked the class to write a poem on Christmas and the best six would be displayed on the classroom wall. Simon’s wasn’t displayed, although the teacher said it was good. He jokes that partly his career has been to defiantly challenge that first judgment.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
He believes that you can go looking for ideas – go for a drive, respond to something. But you can’t go looking for inspiration because that’s an excitement which you either have, or don’t.
So how does he define it? “It will just occur to you that you’re excited about an idea – and I think that’s what inspiration is.”
A poet’s c.v.
Simon’s c.v. is on his website – and worth having a look at. Here’s what I see in it – he’s prolific and writes across a wide range of media – he’s won prestigious awards in songwriting, spoken word, Television, as well as poetry and also written bestselling nonfiction, novels, a memoir, an opera libretto, more than 12 Television films…. and pioneered a new television format as well as conceiving and delivering an international gathering of poets.
If you’re considering life as a poet and think it may fence you in – think again, Simon Armitage’s lifework is proof that it need not necessarily be so.
Academic training – Simon did a degree in geography, followed by an MA in the influence of TV on teenage adolescents. This is more of a zigzag than the obvious path of studying classic literature for undergrad and postgrad. However, he is now at the top academic job in a literature field – Professor of Poetry at Oxford University – and he has lectured on literature in other colleges along the way.
Career – he worked as a Probation Officer in a large UK city (Manchester) at the same time as writing. In Probation work, you have to be down to earth, connected to society’s problems, pain and real life stories. He didn’t give up the day job until he had published 4 books of poetry – and all of those with 2 especially prestigious publishers known for specialising in poetry: Bloodaxe Books and Faber & Faber. To date, he has written 20 books of poetry, edited 5 poetry books, written a further 10 books and has many screen credits also. This shows a thorough workmanlike attitude to writing. His cv is worth showing to anyone who tries to tell you that poets have an easy life of it and don’t do much work. On top of the actual writing, he is Vice-President of the Poetry Society, a trustee of Arvon (they run residential writing courses in the UK and are often a starting point for upcoming writers) and has been judge on leading poetry competitions.
Getting Published – before any of his full-length poetry books were published, Armitage published 5 pamphlets of his poetry with small, local presses. These are now very collectible. So self-publishing at the beginning can work. In Armitage’s case, his book was published when he was 26 and he’d already had the 5 pamphlets printed – so if you calculate that he only wrote his first poem aged 10…. he hasn’t been hanging around.
NB Picture credit: the featured image at the top of this post is by Paul Wright.