1987 it would have been. Peter Sansom – he of Smith/Doorstop and the Poetry Business – had invited me up to Huddersfield to do a reading at the library. This back in the day when Huddersfield was being touted – largely thanks to Peter and a few other poetry enthusiasts and entrepreneurs like him, Geoff Hattersley for one, Keith Jafrate for another – as the Poetry Capital of England. And it did seem, to amend something that gets said nowadays about Nottingham, most recently by the Guardian, as if 99% of Huddersfield were poets or something: Heather Hand, Janet Fisher, Milner Place, Stephanie Bowgett – the list, I’m sure, goes on, but the memory fails.
Anyway, there I am, up in Huddersfield, there’s a decent crowd and, probably because I’ve travelled the furthest (all the way from Nottingham) I’m set to read last. [Top of the bill, Ma! as James Cagney might have said, had he been a poet, had he come from Huddersfield, or even, I suppose, ever come to it – but in the way of poets everywhere, I digress.]
Peter introduces me to the two young men (even in those days, most other poets I met seemed young, Huddersfield poets especially) who are going to read before me, Craig Smith [he of the pretty wonderful A Quick Word With A Rock and Roll Late Starter (The Rue Bella, 2003)] and Simon Armitage. I think I might have published at least one of Simon’s poems in Slow Dancer magazine by then, but we’d never met.
Listening to him read that evening, I was struck by the way that both the content of the poems – their narrative, their subject – most often taken from the commonplace – had been expressed in the language of the everyday (heightened sometimes, while pretending not to be) and reimagined in such a way as to set it in a different light. And then there was the voice – not just the light Northern accent, though that’s part of it – the voice as in the way he read, but also in the way the poems came from and were so clearly a part of him.
There was one poem that struck me particularly, about his father I think– something to do with him setting off to, or returning from, work? – and after the reading I asked Simon if I could publish it in Slow Dancer. Sorry, he said, but it’s just been accepted by the TLS. [The Times Literary Supplement, but then you knew that.]
I thought then, this lad’s on the way. And he was. There had already been a couple of small pamphlet collections, Human Geography from Smith/Doorstop in 1986 and The Distance Between Stars from The Wide Skirt in 1987. My Slow Dancer Press stepped in with The Walking Horses in 1988 (the same year Simon won an Eric Gregory Award) and Around Robinson in 1990, but by then there’d been a first book-length collection, Zoom!, from Bloodaxe, which was a Poetry Book Society Choice, and by 1992 he’d moved on to Faber and Faber with Kid and the rest, as they say …
As anyone who’s followed Simon’s career will know, he’s by no means restricted himself to poetry: there’ve been translations, adaptations, plays, television programmes, films, books of reminiscence, books about music, about long-distance walking – so many varied things, but the poetry has remained, always, at the heart of it, which is why – one of the reasons why – I was so delighted when it was announced that he has been elected Oxford University Professor of Poetry.
What next? Poet Laureate to succeed Carol Ann Duffy? You read it here first.