Arts

Poet Simon Armitage on upcoming 'pilgrimage' to Seamus Heaney country

Simon Armitage will be appearing at Seamus Heaney HomePlace in Bellagy this weekend. David Roy spoke to the acclaimed Huddersfield-based poet and author about being influenced by the Co Derry Nobel Prize-winner and why he can't wait to visit 'Heaney country' for the first time

Poet Simon Armitage will be visiting the Heaney HomePlace for the first time on Saturday

THEY say you should never meet your heroes: however, Huddersfield poet Simon Armitage has nothing but pleasant memories of time spent in the company of two key influences, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney.

"I was lucky enough to meet Seamus dozens of times, partly because we've got the same publisher (Faber & Faber)," explains Armitage, who will visit Seamus Heaney HomePlace for the first time on Saturday.

"We also shared events and I've ridden on his coat-tails a few times. I think probably most poets in the world are in that position in relation to Seamus. He was absolutely an influence and I count myself as very lucky to have got to know him little bit.

"Ted Hughes was the big influence for me, the person whose poetry got me into writing and got me interested in wanting to write poems. But Seamus was this great other presence in the landscape, this great figure."

Like so many fans, Armitage first encountered the work of Seamus Heaney at school, where the Bellaghy-born man's words made a big impact on a fledgling poet still finding his own voice.

"Poems like Digging and Death of a Naturalist became for me sort of foundation poems," he tells me. "I've always had a fantastic admiration for his great clarity. There is very deep thinking and concentration behind the poems but they're generally so lucid and clear on the page. I think they're the kind of poems that set a kind of writing standard for me – that's the tradition that I wanted to follow."

Armitage has set his own standards of writing over the past 28 years since the publication of his first full-length poetry collection, Zoom! – indeed, his own work is now taught at GCSE level.

Currently the professor of poetry at Oxford University (a post formerly held by Heaney), he released his 25th poetry collection, The Unaccompanied, earlier this month: a 26th, New Cemetery, is due out on March 31 via the small independent press, Propolis.

Currently Professor of Poetry at Oxford University, Simon Armitage released his 25th poetry collection, The Unaccompanied, earlier this month

As for what he'll be doing in Bellaghy on Saturday, even the poet himself isn't quite sure yet.

"It's quite an open invitation, really," Armitage explains of his imminent visit to the Heaney HomePlace for a reading. "To begin with when they got in touch I think they were planning a sequence of events across a number of years based on a number of publications of his. So, I think the idea is that I'm going to read a few poems from Seeing Things and maybe talk a little bit about that collection and maybe tie that in with some of my own 'journey poems' and some of the work that I've done with Virgil and Homer.

"I haven't quite plotted it out yet but there are a number of poems with that theme in this new collection (The Unaccompanied), so I'll be reading and talking about that."

Armitage reveals that he is particularly looking forward to experiencing firsthand the Co Derry landscape so integral and inspirational to Heaney's work.

"A few months ago I was talking about that book of interviews Seamus did with Dennis O'Driscoll called Stepping Stones and how there are two maps on the inside cover of that book – a general map of the area and then sort of an exploded map of a more particular landscape," he enthuses.

"I was saying how useful that was because the poems are just littered with locations and the sense of geography and place, so it will be a bit like visiting the 'Seamus Heaney bible' – a kind of holy land of references and place names.

"I'm sure some of the landscape has changed enormously since Seamus was a kid, but I'm very keen to see it."

When I mention the special tours of 'Heaney country' run by Eugene Kielt from his poetry themed B&B Laurel Villa, Armitage explains that "a similar thing happens in Ted Hughes country, where you can make sort of 'pilgrimages' to the places where his poems are set".

"They do say 'never meet your heroes', but I certainly wasn't disappointed in either Ted or Seamus," he tells me. "Their conversation and their thinking was boundless really, so they were fascinating – and, particularly in Seamus's case, just always incredibly generous and entertaining and supportive.

"I was over in Dublin once doing a reading and Seamus came to pick me up. He was driving this big old green Merc, which I thought was just absolutely 'right'.

"We went for a meal at an Italian restaurant where he obviously had his favourite little table away in the back. I told him he must get recognised all the time and he told me how he'd walked past a bar the other day when two boyos were stood outside having a cigarette.

"As he walked by, one of them said to the other: 'There's yer man'. I think that was the kind of compliment that he really liked, from street level and unexpected."

:: Simon Armitage will be at The Helicon at Seamus Heaney HomePlace on Saturday March 25 at 4pm. Tickets and full info via SeamusHeaneyHome.com

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