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.

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

  1. What works and doesn’t work for each of us in our writing practice is very individual I suspect. The only thing that would work for me at the moment, given the demands on my waking days, is to dispense with sleep and write when everyone else is sleeping. Alas, I don’t function when I try that… I like the idea of the poet as a spy. I would say also, the poet is voyeur, and in that context reading of another poet’s struggles is voyeuristic and rather pleasurably so. Needless to say, I didn’t have time to find this piece in the Guardian myself, so thanks for sharing Mike.

  2. I’m reminded of a quote by (supposedly Tolstoy but also attributed to Dorothy Parker): “I don’t like writing but I love having written”.

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