SIMON Armitage is the fourth Yorkshireman to be appointed Poet Laureate, in the wake of Laurence Eusden, Alfred Austin and the rather better-known Ted Hughes.
“I know bits and pieces of the other two,” says the 56-year-old Huddersfield poet, who succeeded Carol Ann Duffy as the 21st incumbent of the prestigious ten-year post last May.
Next Tuesday and Wednesday (February 4 and 5), he will be performing in York for the first time since his appointment, presenting Seeing Stars: An Evening With Simon Armitage at York Theatre Royal in two fundraising shows to support the theatre’s community work.
“But I don’t see myself as someone who speaks for the county,” says Simon, “Though I’m obviously from here and speak with the voice I grew up with, the noises and dialect I grew up with, and I certainly use Yorkshire in my poetry.”
Historically, the payment for the laureateship was a gift of wine until Henry Pye chanced his arm by asking for a salary in 1790 in the reign of George III. That all changed again when Ted Hughes became Poet Laureate, whereupon Graham Hines, director of the Sherry Institute of Spain, invited him to Jerez in 1986, and the traditional gift was re-constituted.
“They invited me over to Spain last year, and I did my tasting, educating my palate and getting to choose my sherry, and then effectively they send over a barrel every year.”
Do you like sherry, Simon? “I do now!” he says.
Meanwhile, let’s raise a glass to his shows in York next week when Simon will be joined by “well-known actors” for the Seeing Stars poetry readings. “The performance is devised around the shows we did at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse [at Shakespeare’s Globe in London], maybe four years ago, when Tom Bird [now York Theatre Royal’s executive director] was at the Glob,” says Simon.
“In fact, the first performance was just when Dominic Dromgoole was leaving the artistic director’s post, and we did Sir Gawain And The Green Knight and The Death Of King Arthur poems, and it will be something along those lines with four actors in York.”
As the show’s title indicates, Seeing Stars will feature selections from Armitage’s book of dramatic monologues, allegories and absurdist tall tales of that title. “That book is ten years old this year: it’s very dramatic, very theatrical,” he says.
The York show is being curated by Scarborough-born theatre director Nick Bagnall, with the actors involved yet to be confirmed at the time of going to press.
“I first met Nick when he was playing a monkey trapped in a bathroom in Huddersfield!” Simon reveals. What? “It was a promenade event in a house in Huddersfield in an area called The Yards that was being knocked down,” he explains.
“I’ve since done a couple of my plays with him directing them: first my dramatisation of Homer’s The Iliad, The Last Days Of Troy, at Manchester’s Royal Exchange and Shakespeare’s Globe.
“Then the Liverpool Everyman did The Odyssey: Missing Presumed Dead, which ended up at the Globe.”
Looking beyond next week to Simon’s decade-long tenure as Poet Laureate, what does the role entail?
“There are no rules really, no written spec, so it’s a question for each incumbent to decide how they will interpret it,” he says.
“I’ve decided to do several projects: one of them will be The Laurel Prize: a prize for poems on the theme of the environment and nature and all that goes with that.
“It’s very prevalent in poetry now, and I’m delighted that the Yorkshire Sculpture Park [near Wakefield] will host the prize ceremony in May.
“I’m also making tours of public libraries this year,[The Laureate’s Library Tour], doing a week of eight readings from March 16 to 21 of A and B places: Aberdeen, Belfast, the British Library, Bacup, and several others.” A tour of C and D locations will follow in the autumn.
“This is to give some support to the pretty beleaguered library service because I believe it to be a really important institution,” says Simon.
His greatest wish is to introduce a National Centre of Poetry. “Not in London,” he says. “Poetry is one of our proudest traditions, and hopefully a national centre can be a place of writing, reading, research and residencies.
“It’s a huge capital funding project, a kind of legacy idea, not a one-year pop-up space but something that becomes part of the landscape.”
You may not know, but “there is no writing obligation associated with the role of Poet Laureate,” says Simon. “Wordsworth never wrote one poem in the post!”
The ever-prolific Simon, however, will be writing as prolifically as ever, having been appointed Poet Laureate by Her Majesty The Queen and the Prime Minister.
“The call came from Theresa May a week before she resigned,” recalls Simon. What did that involve? “It was a private call.”
What did the Prime Minister say? “It was a private call!” Simon says again.
Seeing Stars: An Evening With Simon Armitage, York Theatre Royal, February 4 and 5, 7.30pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk
Copyright of The Press, York