WORLD Poetry Slam champion Harry Baker is taking to the road for his second nationwide solo tour with his new show Unashamed, visiting The Crescent in York on February 8 2023.
After his first tour was extended three times by a combination of popular demand and a global pandemic, followed by asell-out Edinburgh Fringe run for his new show, poet, mathematician, stand-up comedian and writer Baker is undertaking a 31-date tour from September 28 to February 16. Further dates include Left Bank, Leeds, on February 9, with tickets on sale at harrybaker.co
Baker’s bursts of poetry and comedy had been watched by millions online and had allowed him to perform all over the world, until suddenly Covid said No. His knee-jerk reaction was to put out heartfelt poems about missing hugs and to record a German pop music video in his local abandoned playground.
After reviewing loo seats online and writing falafel-based ‘diss’ tracks for radio presenter Chris Evans, he is returning to the stage in his most honest, playful, unashamedly Harry Baker show yet.
“At its heart, my work is all about connecting with people, whether it’s making them laugh, making them cry, or making them think ‘Hey, I didn’t think I liked poetry but this is actually pretty good’,” says Harry, who “writes about important stuff such as hope, dinosaurs and German falafel-spoons”.
“While I tried to make the best of performing online during various lockdowns, there’s only so many clap emojis you can take on Instagram live before you realise it’s not quite the same. “I’m thrilled to be back doing what I love – poems – in the places I love with the people I love (your delightful readers, who will come along after reading this).”
Summing up Unashamed, Baker says: “The show is a celebration of playfulness, the power of creativity to keep you going when your whole world falls apart, and how, if we are brave enough to be vulnerable with one another, we can build ourselves back to our best unashamed versions of ourselves.”
Since Baker became the youngest-ever World Poetry Slam champion in 2012, the past ten years have seen him perform worldwide, from a sold-out Dubai Opera House alongside Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy, to becoming a festival favourite at Glastonbury, Latitude and Bestival.
Rising to the top of the British rap battle scene, he has become a regular contributor to BBC Radio 2’s Pause For Thought, while his work has been shared on TED.com, seen by ten million people and translated into more than 20 different languages.
He has toured the UK and featured on The Russell Howard Hour as one half of the comedy-rap-jazz duo Harry and Chris (with songwriter Chris Read) and has appeared on the BAFTA-winning Sky TV show Life And Rhymesalongside Benjamin Zephaniah.
The 2022-2023 tour is accompanied by the release of Baker’s second poetry collection, also called Unashamed. Published by Burning Eye on October 6, it comprises poems from his latest show and the previous I Am 10,000, his celebration of the crossover between mathematics and poetry that toured the UK over three years, culminating in a run at Soho Theatre in March 2022.
Publisher Clive Birnie says: “We are thrilled to have Harry back with a new book. We are celebrating ten years of publishing this year and having our top-selling author back with a new title is the perfect way to crown ten years in business. We expect this one to outsell Harry’s first book, The Sunshine Kid.” Copies are on sale at gigs, all good bookshops and via harrybaker.co.
Harry Baker’s York gig will be presented by spoken-word musketeers Say Owt; doors open at 7.30pm; box office: thecrescentyork.seetickets.com or harrybaker.co.
HOW does a festival reinvent itself for the Covid-confused summer of 2021?
At Ryedale, celebrating its 40th year, although not in the way it had planned, the answer is a one-off, late-announced, open-ended, can-do-spirited programme of summer events that brings inspiring performers to play together in beautiful Ryedale places from this weekend to July 31 .
Presenting 40 live concerts to celebrate its 40 years, Ryedale Festival welcomes performers such as Jess Gillam, Abel Selaocoe, Carolyn Sampson, Isata Kanneh-Mason, Lara Melda, Milos, the Orchestra Of The Age Of Enlightenment, BBC Big Band, Kathryn Tickell and Tenebrae, as well as Poet Laureate Simon Armitage – and many more besides.
The Festival will be popping up in Pickering Parish Church; All Saints’, Kirkbymoorside; Hovingham Hall; St Olave’s Church, York; Birdsall House and Church; St Peter’s Church, Norton; Duncombe Park; the Milton Rooms, Malton, and Ampleforth Abbey.
Events will be around one hour long, with no intervals and reduced capacity to prioritise audience safety, but multiple performances to enable as many people as possible to attend.
Artistic director Christopher Glynn says: “We’ve brought together a wonderful programme of British-based artists that is both vibrant and diverse. The formats of our concerts have changed but the core elements are what they have always been: great music, beautiful Ryedale locations, and audiences.
“Because, for performers like me, after the experience of the past year, one thing seems clearer than ever before: we don’t make music for an audience; we make music with the audience.”
The festival’s two weeks of summer music opened last night (17/7/2021) with the Albion String Quartet’s programme of Haydn and Shostakovich at St Mary’s Priory Church, Old Malton, and soprano Carolyn Sampson and pianist Joseph Middleton’s all-Schubert recital, themed around Elysium, the ancient Greek concept of afterlife, in St Peter and St Paul’s Church, Pickering.
Today, cellist Hannah Roberts joined the Albion String Quartet for Schubert’s String Quintet at All Saints’ Church, Kirkbymoorside, at 5pm and St Michael’s Church, Malton, at 9pm, followed by a third performance tomorrow at 11am at St Olave’s Church, York.
Birdsall House and Church is the scene for a double concert tomorrow from 5pm. Fresh from her Proms debut, British/Turkish pianist Lara Melda plays Rachmaninov and Chopin’s epic third sonata in the house, while classical guitarist Miloš plays Villa Lobos, Bach and Albeniz, among others, at the church.
The format of the double concert encompasses a two-hour interval, when the audience is invited to picnic in the grounds of Birdsall House between the two performances.
Poet Simon Armitage grew up among the hills of West Yorkshire and always associated his early poetic experiences with the night-time view from his bedroom window. Now Poet Laureate, he visits the Milton Rooms, Malton, on Tuesday to read from Magnetic Field: The Marsden Poems, his compendium of poems about the village where he grew up. The 40-minute 11am and 3pm readings and question-and-answer sessions each will be followed by a book signing.
On Wednesday, in Cubaroque at 11am and 9pm at All Saints’ Church, Hovingham, tenor Nicolas Mulroy and guitarist and theorbo player Toby Carr perform a rare combination of music from two golden ages, as songs of love, sorrow and faith by baroque composers Purcell, Monteverdi and Strozzi speak across the oceans and centuries to modern Latin-American standards by Silvio Rodríguez, Caetano Veloso, Pablo Milanés and Victor Jara, who gave voice to a continent emerging from years of suppression.
At the Palladian-style Hovingham Hall on Wednesday at 3pm and 6pm, Orchestra Of The Age Of Enlightenment violin soloists present music written for violins alone, highlighting the contrasts, textures and colours of an instrument that is usually on top of the sound-world of string instruments.
The programme takes in solos by master composer-performers, programmatic duets, profoundly beautiful trios, concertos for four violins and new arrangements.
On Thursday at 3pm and 6pm, trailblazing Jess Gillam leads her ensemble in an electrifying programme at St Peter’s Church, Norton, designed to inspire you to reflect, dance and smile with the aid of compositions by Meredith Monk, Philip Glass, Björk, Thom Yorke, Will Gregory, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Piazzolla.
South African cellist Abel Selaocoe is joined by pianist Benjamin Powell on Thursday at 11am and 9pm at Birdsall House, Birdsall, as he highlights the links between Western and non-Western musical traditions in a programme that complements his own work Nagula with compositions by Debussy, James Macmillan, Ravel and Schedrin.
Selaocoe returns on Friday at 3pm and 6pm with Sirocco, his energetic, joyful collaboration with Manchester Collective and Chesaba, at the Milton Rooms, Malton. Their great storm of music celebrates the warmth and diversity of folk traditions from across the globe, from Purcell to Stravinsky, original African folk to Danish folk songs.
The BBC Big Band and jazz chanteuse Tina May perform timeless feel-good numbers from the classic era of swing, all arranged and curated by leader Barry Forgie, on Saturday at 5pm and 8pm at the Scarborough Spa Grand Hall. Expect Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Benny Goodman works, plus a few surprises along the way.
On Sunday, July 25, pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason performs a wide-ranging programme of contrasting sonatas by Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Gubaidulina at Duncombe Park at 3pm and 5.30pm.
The festival’s second week opens with speaker Lucy Beckett discussing Rievaulx and Mount Grace: Contrasting Histories on July 27 at 11am and 3pm at St Michael’s Church, Malton. Twelve miles apart, both mediaeval monasteries were abolished by Henry VIII, but their glory days were nearly four centuries apart, and the difference in their histories makes for a gripping tale.
Fresh sounds merge with ancient influences when Kathryn Tickell, British folk scene luminary and Northumbrian piper, and her close collaborator, accordionist and clog dancer Amy Thatcher, of The Monster Ceilidh Band, perform at the Milton Rooms, Malton, on July 27 at 5pm and 8pm.
Coco Tomita, winner of the strings category in this year’s BBC Young Musician competition, joins pianist Simon Callaghan to play Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Poulenc’s Violin Sonata at Duncombe Park on July 28 at 11am and 3pm.
Directed by Nigel Short, Tenebrae sing Renaissance Glories, music from the Golden Age of Spanish art, on July 29 at the Benedictine monastery of Ampleforth Abbey at 7.30pm. The closing piece will be Tomás Luis de Victoria’s luminous Requiem Mass of 1605, full of humanity and beauty.
All Saints’ Church, in Hovingham, plays host to two Young Artist Day concerts on July 30. The first, at 11am and 6pm, promises a wide-ranging programme from pianist Mishka Rushdie Momen, who journeys from Bach to Ligeti to Schubert’s most virtuosic work for solo piano, Wanderer-Fantasy.
In the second, two fast-rising artists, violinist Charlotte Saluste-Bridoux and pianist Ljubica Stojanovic, present works by Biber, Schubert and Brahms (“Rain” Sonata) at 3pm and 9pm.
The final concert, by Solem Quartet and Friends at Hovingham Hall on July 31 at 3pm and 6pm, is filled with music of optimism and friendship, led off by Florence Price’s tribute to her extraordinary friend, the jazz musician and singer Memry Midgett, Summer Moon, and her arrangement of the folk song Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes. Schubert’s Octet, a work of dazzling invention and uplifting lyricism, is the finale.
Throughout July and August at Helmsley Arts Centre, York-born artist Jake Attree presents The Spirit Of The North, an exhibition inspired by time spent in and around Ryedale, dedicated to the memory of Dr Richard Shephard, York composer and headmaster.
“I want the paintings, oil pastels and drawings to have a sense of the places that inspired them, whether York, the landscape around Welburn, the River Derwent at Malton, or a view across the Howardian Hills from Pickering Castle,” says Jake, whose studio is at Dean Clough, Halifax.
“Completely dependent on the subject while simultaneously independent of it, these works are a celebration of Paul Cézanne’s idea that art is ‘a harmony that runs parallel to nature’ and full of a sense of what it feels like to spend time in North Yorkshire.”
The full programme and ticket details can be found at ryedalefestival.com.
YORK poet, storyteller, journalist, songwriter and radio presenter Miles Salter has come up with his Fix for a seven-year hiatus.
He has released a poetry book of that name on his own new imprint, Winter & May – “it’s a way of saying ‘for all seasons’, reasons Miles – after a burst of writing in the pandemic ended the lull since his second collection, Animals.
In his apocalyptic, sometimes discomfiting yet hopeful miniature narratives and prose poems, Miles’s observational writing spans climate change; the rise and fall-out of love; loneliness and grief; rock’n’roll; the rites of passage through childhood, adolescence and beyond, and life’s flow being put on hold in pandemic lockdown, his tone ranging from deeply dark to darkly witty, quizzical to surrealist.
CharlesHutchPress fixes it for Miles to answer Charles Hutchinson’s frank questions on Fix and more besides.
Why the seven-year hiatus between volumes two and three: had it become a seven-year glitch or itch over that time, Miles?
“I’m a bit of a tortoise. I find that, generally, it takes a while for a project to come to fruition. I can be a real perfectionist. I always think I can do better.
“But the long gap wasn’t intentional. I went through a seismic mid-life crisis. That really slowed everything down. My life was a mess for a while. Some of the poems came out of that. I had a couple of years where I didn’t do much at all, no writing or anything. Just tried to look after myself and keep going. It was very grim.”
At the epicentre of that crisis was the end of your marriage in 2016…
“It took a long time to recover. I was devastated, and suicidal for a while. One of the poems that wasn’t included in the book was about looking for ways to end my life. There was a period in 2017 when I wanted to die. A friend of mine said, ‘You cannot do this to the kids’, and they were absolutely right.
“One poem, Said, details exchanges between me and my ex-wife at the time of our separation. It was a very difficult time; I wanted to save the marriage but it wasn’t possible. That poem reflects what happened. Let’s say I was trying to capture two different voices.”
Given your frankness about your marriage coming to an end, and your subsequent suicidal thoughts, is there anything too personal for poetic expression?
“Fix is very confessional. It’s a risk to write about personal things. Some people have read the book and found it a little uncomfortable, because of the subject matter, although they also said it was moving.
“I feel that vulnerability is important in all art. Otherwise, how are you going to touch people? Overall, I think the balance is about right. Those poems are a record of something traumatic. There are funny poems in the book too!
“I talked about it with Carole Bromley, who’s a friend and mentor, and I reeled off a list of confessional poetry books like Stag’s Leap (about the end of Sharon Olds’ marriage), and Carole said, ‘Well, you’ve just listed my favourite poetry book’. That was very heartening.”
How have you changed as a poet over the past seven years?
“I think I’m becoming more careful in the writing, perhaps a bit more lyrical and subtle. I like to think that is a sign of maturity. I always liked muscular writers like Philip Larkin, Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage. They all were ‘zero bullshit’ in their writing. But you can have impact without raising your voice too loudly. I think I’m getting better at that.”
How have you changed as a person in that time?
“Good question. There’s a very long answer to that, but a succinct response would be: more mature, a little older, a little less naive about the world. I know myself better. A bit more determined to not mess about, and keener to be more successful than before. Life is short. I want to make the next few years count.”
How do you define what constitutes a poem: once it was rhyme and rhythm; is it now line breaks and a sense of timing for the content’s maximum impact?
“There are a lot of definitions of poetry; I’m not sure I have a definitive one. For me, it would be ‘tell a story with heart and precision, as fast as you can’. But that reflects my tendency to write stories in my poems. A lot of the poems in Fix are miniature narratives and prose poems.”
Does being a songwriter have an impact on your writing of poetry? How do poems differ from lyrics?
“I do find them to be very different things. My songs are more sloppy and more impressionistic. The poems are more crafted. Paul Simon sang once about ‘words that tear and strain to rhyme’, and he was spot on.
“With songs, you’re trying to match ‘rain’ with ‘pain’ or ‘again’. My poems dispense with that, most of the time, so the poems are much more liberated. I’d like to get closer to Del Amitri’s Justin Currie and Leonard Cohen in their song-writing, closing the the gap between poems and songs.”
Why did you choose “Fix” for the title? The word has multiple meanings: to mend a problem; to fasten; to “fix” a sports result; to be “in a fix”; to decide or settle on a date; to fix your eyes on someone; a drug “fix”. Which “Fix” is it for you?
“The big theme of the book is living in an imperfect world. The title was an allusion to addiction, to being in a fix, to trying to make things better. I liked the ambiguity. [Fellow York poet] Antony Dunn had a book called Bugs, which has three meanings. Maybe that was in the back of my mind.”
If you could fix one problem to improve the world, what would it be?
“Climate change. We’re all in big trouble. I have two children and I am scared for them. It’s very frightening. I keep writing about it, as if warding off a bad dream that keeps coming back.”
Dark humour has its place, but what else drives you in your writing. Is it cathartic?
“The humour is important, because life is funny and ridiculous as well as difficult and sad. Thomas Merton once said, ‘I want to write a book that contains everything’. I know what he means.
“There’s a Justin Currie song called At Home Inside Me, which has a similar feeling. As an artist, you want to encompass everything. There’s something universal about art. It’s funny, beguiling, unsettling, inspiring…”
Does something make more sense to you by the end of a poem than at the beginning?
“The best poems, usually, are the ones where you don’t know where you are going. You just follow an idea, and it takes you down a little rabbit warren. It’s a very exploratory thing. Was it Picasso who said ‘If you knew what you were doing at the start, what would be the point?’ Can’t remember. Somebody like that!”
When do you know a poem is finished? Artists often find it difficult to decide when a work is complete. What about you?
“Fix was exhausting at the end. Multiple revisions and then more, and more. It went through 16 drafts. I’m a bit of perfectionist. I just want stuff to be really, really good. Some of the poems I thought were finished, but I showed them to writer friends and would always try to revise them in light of what people said. I’ve learnt that a dodgy phrase is ‘That will do’. Revision is important. Do it again!”
Writers are outsiders, whose observations make us look differently at the world around us. Discuss…
“Yes, absolutely. Writers are outsiders, and sometimes they are difficult, prickly people. But we need their perspective, the way they hold a mirror up to the world. What would literature be without George Orwell, Margaret Atwood, Philip Larkin, D H Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway? We need outsiders sometimes. They show us how life is, and how it could be different.”
You name your influences as Larkin, Duffy, Armitage. Why that trio?
“They didn’t pull any punches; they talked about life in such an uncompromising way, and they were all brilliant with language. Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings is one of the greatest poems of the last hundred years, I think. It’s so moving.
“He has a bad reputation as a human but the writing is wonderful. I used to stand outside his house in Pearson Park in Hull and go ‘that’s where he was’.
“I always admired Larkin for the way he was so honest about the more unpleasant aspects of life – he wrote beautifully but was never sentimental. Like him, I try to balance the dark elements with some humour, too. I didn’t want Fix to be unremittingly bleak. I really wanted it to feel life-affirming.”
…and Duffy and Armitage?
“I worked with Carol and Simon when I ran the York Literature Festival. I put Carol on three times. That was a buzz.
“Armitage’s Seeing Stars was a big influence on me; it’s an amazing book. He walks a tightrope between humour and horror. Beyond Huddersfield – a bear in a recycling plant. It starts light and funny and gets really dark. Brilliant.”
Your candour within Fix takes in expressing frustration with men being portrayed in a negative light in the poem Shed. Over to you, Miles…
“In the wake of Me Too, there’s been a lot of anger about male behaviour. Some of that is entirely justified – abuse is unacceptable. However, I also see lots of comments that demonise men, and some of that takes place in the poetry world.
“Shed is about toxic masculinity, but there’s a redemptive aspect to it: men can be better, we can move on. I’d like to see that reflected in the discourse, instead of ‘aren’t men awful?’ I feel very strongly about it.
“The highest risk category of suicide in the UK is men aged 45 or under, and I was nearly one of those statistics. Voices that demonise men are not helping, frankly. There’s a lot of shame – and shaming – going on out there, and we need to find a more rounded way of talking about things.”
Your poems stretch from realism to surrealism. What draws you to fantasy: a need to escape; a wish for change?
“I like that space where you take a real situation and twist it a little, so it becomes more surreal. I like to have one foot in the real world and one in a place that is much less familiar.
“I always had a slight feeling of guilt about fantasy and escapism, until I saw [artist] Grayson Perry talk about escapism, and how it’s OK and important. That really helped me a lot. I think imagination is hugely important. We need, as a culture and society, to be more imaginative. I hate the way technology is making us less imaginative, I find it really depressing.”
Is that why you have given your book imprint Winter & May the tagline “Books for Humans”?
“In an age of technological dependence, the motto stands as an attempt to reach for human creativity and independence. It scares me how we’ve all been sucked into thinking like machines.
“Part of me longs for a Utopia where we’re much closer to the earth, and much less attached to technology. One of the apocalyptic poems in the book, Witness Statement, foresees a society where machines take over from humanity.”
Despite the stultifying frustrations and uncertainties of the pandemic cycle of Government-enforced lockdowns, how have you been keeping artistically busy, aside from publishing Fix?
“My band, Miles And The Chain Gang, released a couple of videos in 2020, When It Comes To You and Drag Me To The Light, and we’re working towards making an album.
“We’ve been going two years, and it’s been a slow burn. That’s partly because of Covid, but the songs are really strong and the band are brilliant. I’m optimistic about what we can do in the future.”
How is your regular Wednesday night slot on Jorvik Radio, hosting The Arts Show, going?
“I’ve interviewed luminaries such as cookery book writer Nigel Slater, young adult author Melvin Burgess and Barnsley bard Ian McMillan.
“Talking to Ian was great. He’s one of those writers who really inspired me; he’s so good at wearing different hats, but it’s always about communication and connecting with people. That’s where I feel happiest. Communicating makes me feel more alive.”
How do people respond when you say you are a poet?
“Ha! I don’t really say that. I say I’m a communicator.”
Musician, poet, broadcaster, communicator: why is communication so important to you?
“I just feel happy when I’m using words or music to make a connection with people, tell a story, create an atmosphere, impart information. It makes me happy. I’m getting better at it. It’s taken a while, but I’m improving.”
Should you be wondering…
Why has Miles Salter called his publishing imprint Winter & May?
“It was a joke. It was a way of saying ‘for all seasons’. It’s a made-up name, I just liked the way it sounded. Weidenfeld and Nicholson. Winter and May.”
Is this new venture mere vanity publishing for you? “I really hope not. I always had an inkling that I might go into publishing, in some way. I’ve always adored books. The feel of them, the smell, the potential held inside pages. I’ve got ideas for possible projects with other writers, so I hope it’s not just a bit of ego.”
York Theatre Royal, Simon Armitage may never have become Poet Laureate.
Huddersfield writer explain, as he did last night on the first of two
fund-raising nights for the Theatre Royal’s community fund.
As a boy,
Armitage’s first experience of poetry in performance – poetry in motion, as it
were – was attending a double bill of fellow Yorkshiremen Ted Hughes and Tony
Harrison at the York theatre.
he was on that stage himself, marking the tenth anniversary of Seeing Stars, his
“very theatrical, very dramatic” book of dramatic monologues, allegories and
absurdist tall tales.
Curated by Scarborough-born theatre director Nick Bagnall, who made the briefest of appearances at the start, the show combined Armitage, standing to one side, with four actors, beret-hatted Richard Bremmer, Charlotte Mills, Tom Kanji and Kacey Ainsworth.
Sometimes seated in a row, sometimes leaping to their feet, if the lines demanded it, they took their lead from the dry-witted, deadpan Armitage, who orchestrated the show’s rhythms from beneath his still boyish fringe at 56 with a stand-up’s sense of timing.
In a show of two halves, there was a sense of mischief and playfulness throughout, as well as more serious observations, even bleak horror, that the thespian quartet revelled in as much as Armitage.
So much so, at one point he cut across Ainsworth, not rudely, but because he could not resist the sudden urge to read out more of his favourite opening lines from the poems, such was his enjoyment of the audience response.
I say “poems”,
but at the outset Armitage recalled how reviewers had been unsure of exactly
what these works were. “Not poetry,” said one. “Crazy, slightly surreal,” was Armitage’s
own description last night, as the likes of The English Astronaut and Last Day
On Planet Earth spun their modern-day fairytale magic.
Behind Armitage and co was a large print of the book cover: a hybrid of a horse and a pooch that captured this storytelling fusion of prose and poems. Prosems, if you like. It is a perfect choice of image, like Armitage chooses his words so cannily.
There is another
story here too. Proceeds will go to the Theatre Royal’s community work that
facilitates bringing people to the theatre who would not otherwise be able to
visit. Later this year too, there are plans to “embed” people with dementia in
youth theatre sessions in a union of old and young. Fantastic idea.
Tickets are still available for tonight’s 7.30pm performance, when you can savour a night of surprises, satire and surrealism from a Yorkshireman with a darker vision than Alan Bennett crossed with Ripping Yarns. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
YORKSHIREMAN Simon Armitage performs in York tonight and tomorrow for
the first time since being appointed Poet Laureate last May.
The 56-year-old Huddersfield poet is presenting Seeing Stars: An Evening
With Simon Armitage at York Theatre Royal in two fundraising
shows to support the theatre’s community work.
Confirmed to be joining Armitage for the 7.30pm shows are actors Kacey Ainsworth (best known for playing Little Mo in EastEnders), Richard Bremmer, Charlotte Mills and Tom Kanji.
Curated by Scarborough-born theatre director Nick Bagnall, Seeing Stars features readings from Armitage’s works inspired by Sir Gawain And The Green Knight and The Death Of King Arthur on the tenth anniversary of Seeing Stars, his “very dramatic, very theatrical” book of dramatic monologues, allegories and absurdist tall tales.
Nine months into his Poet Laureateship, how would Armitage, the first
Professor of Poetry at Leeds University, define poetry? “I’ve always taken the
view that poetry is not just one thing,” he says.
“There have been recent times when people think it’s just words in a
book, but performance has always been important and that has come back into
fashion and been re-imagined too with spoken-word slams. There is room for everybody
creating the language.”
Armitage continues: “One of the roles of the Poet Laureate, as I see it,
is to promote poetry and speak up for the arts.
“My feeling is, if you’re involved with the arts, you’re more
comfortable with yourself and you bring that to the inner universe you exist
in, even if it’s only being more comfortable about language and how you think.”
At a time of cutbacks in arts funding and schools putting science before
the arts in the curriculum, Armitage says: “You stifle creativity at your peril
because, if you don’t offer an outlet, if you antagonise, it will still find a
Where does Armitage see sitting poets sitting in the public’s perception
in 2020? As minstrels? Prophets? Commentators? Outsiders? “I know it can have a
strange effect on people when you say you’re a poet. Definitely there’s something
of the outside, the alternative, about it,” he says.
“It’s been a ‘peculiar’, not ever a mainstream, artform but I think people
have a soft spot in their heart for poetry, especially at moments in their life,
happy or sad, whether reading it or even writing it in those moments, so I still
don’t think it’s a remote artform.”
As for his aims in his ten-year tenure as Poet Laureate, Armitage says: “By
the end of those ten years, I would like to have seen my projects come to
fruition [such as the newly founded Laurel Prize for nature poems and the
establishing of a National Centre for Poetry].
“I’d also like to be judged for my writing, either myself seeking to
maintain standards, or writing in a communicative, engaging way, and my Poet
Laureate poems have to satisfy me too.”
Seeing Stars: An Evening With Simon Armitage, York Theatre
Royal, tonight and tomorrow, February 4 and 5, 7.30pm. Box office: 01904 623568
or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk
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