An uplifting day of poetry
A huge bouquet of balloons has just been released into the clear blue skies above the Southbank Centre when I meet for a chat with Simon Armitage, who is Artist in Residence at the Southbank where his various projects have included Poetry International; the Lion and Unicorn; Everyone Sang; and Poetry Parnassus. As well as being Professor of Poetry at Sheffield University, the prolific writer also has two books forthcoming over the next year.
On a special day celebrating creativity and freedom through a series of inspiring events called “Everyone Sang”, Simon Armitage gave a powerful reading alongside young members of theLion and the Unicorn project after which the balloons were released, hot-spots of colours floating upwards plastered with poems the young people wrote during a workshop day. The balloons became tiny specks in the sky and then vanished from sight.
During the afternoon, Simon Armitage has been presenting the film and poetry of young people from refugee backgrounds around themes of peace and freedom, with the young poets reading alongside established poets Joelle Taylor, Karen McCarthy Woolf, Philip Wells and Yemisi Blake.
“The balloon release is a culmination of a project with young people; we’ve been using poetry as a creative process for young people to express themselves”, explained Armitage.
“They walked into the room thinking it would be all doom and gloom and yet they had a lot of fun and joy. It shows the strength of the human spirit; and it’s about the irrepressible nature of the soul and language itself”
“I also had the idea that, depending which way of the wind was blowing, that the balloons might end up back in the country where the kids are from”.
Armitage explains how they had to get clearance from air traffic control before the balloon release, but it was worth it, for the uplifting experience. “It’s the idea of being free and an address to that idea of borders and boundaries”.
Just as a balloon filling with air, poetry can help people’s confidence grow, the project proved, and help form the identity.
I wonder where the balloons might have floated to by now. It’s the idea, says Armitage, that they may just drift, or that they may be picked up from a nobody living nowhere, that those poems might just find themselves in the hands of someone whose life might be changed in some small way from the words drifting their way.
Armitage points out that even if your poem might happen to reach all the way to the other side of planet Mars, it’s important as a poet to always retain your voice and write about the things that interest you, whether that voice is colloquial and local or global and symbolic.
Armitage also discusses the idea behind his brainchild, the visionary festival Poetry Parnassus, which will launch next Summer and see poets from all participating nations come together for a week of performances and talks. Click here to find out how to ‘nominate a poet’.
“Parnassus is the mythical home of Orpheus, and we’re trying to recreate those foothills here in the Southbank. The idea is to convene a global coming together of poetry and poets using the Olympics as a convenient device for that. There’s all kind of reasons it seems to fit, including the whole idea of Olympic values – this will be a non-competitive version of that”. It is a celebration of poetry as the oldest form of writing. “London is renowned for being an international city”, he continues. “There are people of almost every nationality living in this city”. Poets from 206 different countries have been invited to the festival.
As well as continuing his explorations into Le Morte D’Arthur, a project which has seen his translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Night being used in a Norton Anthology, Armitage is also working on a book about crossing the Pennine Way, a journey throughout which he would give readings in people’s homes. “It was absolutely fantastic. I met some really wonderful people. I was trying to use poetry as a currency. It would get me from A to B. I think that readings are part and parcel of the act of being a poet”.
Armitage also comments on the chunks of poetry which can now be found outside the Southbank Centre site. “There’s something about small chunks of texts that people find uplifting”, he says, since reading them can offer “a little moment of intensity”. He’s been working on a similar project, “Stanza Stones” through which poems have been etched into the quarries in Marsden. It’s also “partly about giving something back”.
The most recent acclaimed collection of the prodigiously talented poet is called Seeing Stars and in beautiful imagery comprises the inspiring idea of looking as far as you can see, and seeing the same old things in different ways.
As I walk through the sunlit day and glance up into the sky for the glimpse of any balloons, it’s certainly been a day of setting the sights far onto distant horizons. Just as I turn my gaze downwards, a tiny flash of a red balloon floats past the vision then vanishes.