Not content with walking the Pennine Way, as documented in Walking Home, in his new book, Walking Away (Faber, £16.99) West Yorkshire poet Simon Armitage takes an unfamiliar route – the South West Coast Path – performing his poems along the way.
Why was it important to complete a walk that was the direct opposite of that in Walking Home?
It felt like unfinished business, as if I’d only done half the job, and I wanted to test myself and test poetry in a part of the world I didn’t know that well and that didn’t know me as well. I also wanted to compare and contrast the loneliness of the northern interior uplands with the low-lying, coastal touristy areas of the South West.
Is Walking Away a symbol of a departure from your hometown as a dominant subject in your poetry?
Well, it was an excursion – I’m back at home now. But I do think it’s important to travel and be an importer of ideas if you stay put in a certain region, otherwise you just become the local water-colourist. You’re ploughing your own furrow, but you’re just digging your own grave.
What preconceived ideas did you have about the south of England and how did it change your mind?
In terms of the walk I thought it would be a bit of a doddle, a stroll along golden sands. In fact it was bloody hard work, definitely harder than the Pennine Way in some sections because of the continual ups and downs, dropping from high cliffs into valleys and estuaries then scrambling back up the other side. And beyond the obvious tourist traps there were some very remote stretches. Moorland at times. And some of those communities have really struggled through the recession; like many seaside towns, a lot of the resorts along the north coast of Devon for example are having to reimagine their identities and their existences.
Is it a challenge to marry poetic fantasies with practical realities?
I think Walking Away is exactly that – the marrying of poetic fantasies and practical realities. Dolphins and blisters.
What would it mean to become Oxford Professor of Poetry?
A lot of hard work and deep thinking for the next five years! But I’m ready for a more contemplative period, I think, and it offers a good opportunity of putting into words some of the opinions I’ve formed over the last 25 years or so as an active poet. I won’t be too disappointed if I don’t get it – it’s an election and they should elect the person they want or need. If that turns out to be me I’ll be happy and honoured.
Following the Scottish referendum, should the north have a greater say in its own affairs?
Depends who’s doing the saying.