Like thousands of children before us, we first encountered Simon Armitage at a school desk. But while it would have been easy to form a lifelong association between the poet’s work and dull textbooks, we left school thankfully wanting to read more. Armitage’s prominent place on the UK’s school syllabus obviously worked: he is one of Britain’s best-known and most-loved poets, and was awarded a CBE by the Queen in 2010.
That honour came a year after many expected him to be named UK Poet Laureate, a ceremonious role that was eventually accepted by Carol Ann Duffy. He’s still reluctant to talk about it – ‘are we done?’ he bites when we bring up his suitability for the role – but on other subjects 49-year-old Armitage talks with all the eloquence and intellect you’d expect from a writer of his stature.
The basis for our encounter is his visit to Dubai to promote his latest book, Walking Home, a prose account of the 256-mile journey he made on foot along the UK’s gruelling Pennine Way last summer, without a penny is his pocket and giving readings at night for bread and board.
‘Until the mid-’90s I was a probation officer,’ he explains, in his Yorkshire accent. ‘I was testing my reputation as a poet, and the reputation of poetry. And I found poetry is a relevant and valid art form that speaks to the people. I felt validated in the career that I’ve chosen, and optimistic about the whole human project.’ But how does he feel when someone misinterprets his work? ‘If you write a poem about your Aunt Gladys and 3,000 people think it’s about a tractor, you’ve probably got the poem wrong.’
He’s in Dubai for a number of talks and readings, including one set to music in the desert, and is enthusiastic about the role festivals play in keeping readers interested. ‘I think it’s natural human curiosity to want to see the person behind the work,’ he says. ‘It’s a testament to the fact literature and books have an important part in people’s worlds.’
Dubai, however, is a subject he seems less sure of. ‘I’ve found it too beguiling and bewildering, completely alien,’ he says. Good inspiration for a poem, then, we venture. ‘It’s not the most poetic of places,’ he steadies himself. ‘But I’m always looking for challenges and the new things in life, and I’m sure if I keep coming back it will become a sonnet.’
Walking Home is out now, from Dhs90 at www.amazon.com.