INTERVIEW: Poet Simon Armitage walks the South West Coast Path
I DON'T think I've ever spoken to a wandering poet before. Simon Armitage, though, sounds like he was born to be a roving bard.
The vagabond of verse has just finished packing his back pack and, in the name of balladry, is stepping out to brave blisters, bad weather and being broke.
"It would be a strange rucksack if you opened it up," he says with a charmingly dry Northern cadence that caresses everything comical. "Half of it's walking gear and the other half is stuff for poetry readings. I think you'd struggle to know whose rucksack you'd stolen if you broke into it."
Simon is preparing to throw himself on the hospitality of North Devon folk as he walks through the region as part of an expedition along the South West Coast Path from Minehead to Land's End.
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Each night, he will give a poetry reading in the hope that in return he will receive bed, breakfast and a round of butties – only in this part of the world it's much more likely be pasties, herrings and cream teas.
He's due to write a book about the experience called Walking Away.
His overriding whim, however, is to find out whether poetry can pay its way.
"The idea, once I've arrived, is to see if I can make it without cash," he says.
He hopes locals might lace up their walking boots and join him on part of the trek. When he did a similar trip along the Pennine Way, he found there were quite a few self-appointed escorts.
"People occasionally would come to the reading at night and then realise I wasn't some three-headed monster. They would say: 'can I walk with you next day?'. So there would be this little community of people who'd develop."
While plodding the Pennines he found his penchant for making up poems had to be abandoned in favour of more pressing practical issues.
"I found out that whatever part of my brain I need for poems, I also need for navigation. I just couldn't get into the luxury of the daydream to write the poem really.
"I'm presuming, maybe naively, on this walk, the path is going to be a little bit clearer. In the sense that if I go a little bit too far to the right I'll be in the sea! That will be a fairly good guide so maybe that will give me more time to think and maybe I'll come back with a few more poems."
He cites poet and prolific rambler Coleridge as evidence that wandering and words are suitable bedfellows.
"People have said sometimes there is a relationship between the rhythm of language and the rhythm of footsteps. I have always found walking a great kind of meditation in a way. It's not exhilarating to the point where you are too exhausted to think. It gets the heart rate up a little bit and it gets the blood moving. I think it gets ideas working as well."
Walking brings companionship too: "I found on the Pennine Way that people would turn up and you'd walk with them and you'd end up sharing stories. It's quite an intimate activity walking with somebody."
The former probation officer cites "a lack of other options" as the reason he became a professional poet.
"I'd discounted brain surgery and international footballer," he laughs.
"Poetry has always been a hobby, pastime and a private passion. I think it was just a way of being different. I never saw myself as being mainstream or part of the majority. I am slightly outside that and poetry offered that."
The decision paid off. Today he is the modern, accessible and unstuffy face of poetry, with writing that combines slang and a sardonic wit with memorable images. He was Poet-in-Residence at the Millennium Dome and often writes for film and television.
It's his strong hope, that while he's developing his calf muscles on the undulations of North Devon's coastal path, locals will come out to listen to his verse.
"I am a poet who sees himself as a communicator so whether you are just a little bit curious, whether you are passionate about poetry or even if you are a cynical about it, just come along and listen. It's not for everybody but I think it turns out to be for more people than you might realise."