Simon Armitage: ‘Language is my enemy – I spend my life battling with it’

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The poet on creative chaos, the cathartic effect of table tennis and writing on the undersole of a slipper.
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Simon Armitage in The  Guardian
Published: 20:29 ACDT Sat 25 March 2017 : The Guardian article
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“I have a love-hate relationship with writing. First the hate. It’s difficult. Finding language for ideas, then finding better language. During my years as a probation officer I occasionally heard colleagues joke (sort of) that the job would be great if it weren’t for the clients. I sometimes feel the same way about writing and language. Some writers swoon over language: “It’s my muse, my lover”, and so on. Well, it’s my enemy, and I seem to spend all my life arguing and battling with it. Also, sitting down at a desk aggravates my sacroiliac joint, so by the end of a week of solid writing I’m pretty much bed-bound or crawling around on all fours.

What else? Writing is static, unsocial, and restricts opportunities for the uptake of vitamin D via dermal synthesis. I know what you’re thinking: “Poor thing, must be awful.” As for the love, nothing absorbs or engages me more than composing a poem, trying to cajole it into shape, trying to get the sound of it and the sense of it operating in concert, trying to get to that place where the writing transcends by every measure its original intention and ambition, the feeling of having created something inconceivable.

In terms of the average day, if I’m at home I’m attempting to outstare and outsmart the computer, which means I’m writing prose or drama or a lecture or something that isn’t poetry. I switch on about nine and go until I can’t stand my proximity to myself any longer. And I build in displacement activities: I need to go to the post office (I don’t) or there’s no milk in the fridge (there is).

Getting out of bed of a morning has never been a problem, but I’ve noticed of late that my writing is better in the afternoon. The mornings are methodical, when all the blockwork and first-fix stuff takes place. The ornamentation or even de-ornamentation – the things that separate writing from writing – don’t seem possible until later in the day, when I’ve established some perspective.

I like the notion that I’m a spy – poetry as espionage, doing something I shouldn’t.  To that end, there’s a table tennis table in the basement, and if there isn’t time for a walk or the weather is a bit clumsy I’ll go and hit a ball for half an hour to defrag my brain. This is achievable by raising the further half of the foldable table into the vertical plane to form an unbeatable opponent. There is something very cathartic about the sound of the highly strung plastic ball meeting the implacably hard playing surface or the cushioned rind of the bat. Also, certain other sports or leisure activities are difficult to play on your own in your lunch hour – rugby union, for example.

If I’m away then I’m working in a small hardback notebook with graph‑paper pages, so I’m writing poems. I used to write poems on anything that came to hand – court reports, chocolate wrappers, the undersole of a slipper – and had a filing system that made Emily Dickinson’s scraps of scavenged paper look more orderly than a spreadsheet. But everything happens in the notebooks now, and they have come to represent a kind of companionship. I also sketch in them (badly) and keep a journal. I like the physicality of shaping letters and words, and the materiality of pen against paper, and the archaeological record of trial and error that builds up across the pages, and the notion that I’m a spy – poetry as espionage, doing something I shouldn’t. The graph paper helps me plot the length of lines against each other and gauge the size of the poem as it might appear in printed form.

I’m naive or obstinate enough to still believe in the line as poetry’s fundamental unit of expression and in line- and stanza-breaks (as applied by the poet, not the typesetter) as the device that ultimately differentiates poetry from prose. I’m happy writing poetry in a cafe or a public space. In some ways I prefer it, though it’s pointless if music is playing, because the rhythms and cadences start to clash.

As a rule (ie not always) I don’t drink during the week. Once the cork comes out of the bottle it’s curtains, so for that reason and others I tend to down tools at weekends. And I’ve always resented writing on Sunday evenings, the theme tune to Antiques Roadshow or Songs of Praise reminding me that I haven’t done my homework.”

• Simon Armitage’s new book, The Unaccompanied, is published by Faber.

Possibly the weirdest film I’ve ever seen: Toni Erdmann

You might think that a two and three quarter hour German language film about an annoying prankster father and his career obsessed, high-flying daughter would not appeal, but believe me, it is brilliant.

The title is a pseudonym the father adopts when pretending to be alternately a life coach, a consultant, an ambassador and the friend of a famous tennis player. He is actually a piano teacher whose last student has quit and whose dog has just died. He decides to head to Bucharest in an attempt to connect with his businesswoman daughter, who is ruthlessly engaged in promoting her career as a downsizing business consultant.

What follows is a hilariously painful series of encounters in which the father appears at her office, at parties and business functions, often wearing a bad wig. In doing so, he exposes the emptiness, lovelessness and hard-heartedness of her life.

This is perhaps the weirdest film I’ve ever seen, but also one of the funniest and most touching. Put 3 hours aside. It’s worth it.

“Toni Erdmann” was written and co-produced by Maren Ade. It stars Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller. It won five awards at the 29th European Film Awards: Best Film (a first for a film directed by a woman), Best Director, Best Screenwriter, Best Actor, and Best Actress.It also won the European Parliament LUX Prize.It was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 89th Academy Awards. (Wikipedia)

Free the Garron Five: Brock, Dally, Flett, Hopkins, McKenna – Saturday 25th March 2017 7 p.m., Blackwood.

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Well, not quite free, but only $5 on the door. A reprise of the launch of the 2016 Garron chapbooks at The Artisan Cafe, 252 Main Road, Blackwood, South Australia.

Probably advisable to book a table in advance.

For bookings/info call Rebecca Edwards on 8278 2473

On Facebook:

https://www.facebook.com/events/1857556531173873/

 

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Book Review: “The North Water” by Ian McGuire

The North WaterThe North Water by Ian McGuire

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A gripping read. The incredible story (maybe at times too incredible) of an ex-army surgeon with a chequered career, who signs onto a whaling ship headed to the frozen north. It is a page-turner but also incorporates significant historical detail of the period and the professions of the characters.
Some characters are drawn in more detail, which is probably inevitable with a large cast, but I found myself not fully understanding the motivations of some of them.

McGuire has created one of the nastiest pieces of work ever to besmirch a novel, one Henry Drax. Drax is not a man you would ever want to encounter in real life. In this novel, however, he provides a compelling villain.

Almost as horrifying for me, as a vegetarian, are the attitudes to nature exhibited by the characters. Nature is to be plundered and ravaged, and not much more value is placed on human life.

I found McGuire’s prose overly ornate at times. He could be accused, I think, of trying to impress with his vocabulary. For instance:

“The moon is gibbous, the arcing sky garrulous with stars. The two dead bodies lie just as they were, exposed and recumbent, like the eerie gisants of a long forgotten dynasty”.

WTF? Still, don’t let this put you off if you’re looking for a gripping tale of murder and mayhem. Not for the faint-hearted or squeamish.

Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016.

(You probably knew this already, but in case not, a gisant is “A tomb effigy, usually a recumbent effigy or in French gisant (French, “recumbent”) is a sculpted figure on a tomb monument depicting in effigy the deceased.”)

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Book Review: “Piano Lessons” by Anna Goldsworthy

Piano Lessons: A MemoirPiano Lessons: A Memoir by Anna Goldsworthy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It is as much about an inspirational teacher as it is about a precociously talented young student who reaches the top-level of her artistic profession. Goldsworthy takes us on the path from an Adelaide childhood through to an adulthood dominated by her obsession with the piano. Her whole life is changed by the piano teacher discovered by her grandfather. The teacher is a Russian exile, living in Adelaide. The teacher has amusingly fractured English, and unique insights into the difference between someone who plays the piano with technical proficiency, and someone who is a true artist.

It reminds me in some ways of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, in that it describes in great detail a subject which few of us know intimately, and manages to do this in a gripping way. There are of course also shades of “Dead Poets Society” in the inspirational figure of the teacher.

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