2 March 2020
An audience of pupils, parents, staff and members of the public gathered for the Poetry Festival, which is part of an ongoing series of Arts and Sciences Enrichment Evenings organised by Bolton School Girls’ Division.
Simon began his performance with ‘Thank You For Waiting’, much to the amusement of the audience. He went on to share a wide variety of his work, including with each piece a short explanation of the inspiration or ideas behind it. These included ‘Zodiac T-Shirt’, described as existing in the space between song lyrics and poetry; ‘The English Astronaut’, inspired by the space race and disappointing news of the ‘British space attempt’ when he was growing up; ‘Song of the West Men’, based on the true story of an Icelandic fisherman; and ‘Legends of the Crossings’, about his experience trying to cross Hale Estuary during his 2013 walk along the South West Coast Path. He also read ‘To The Fashion Industry in Crisis’ and ‘You’re Beautiful’ before moving on to ‘I am Simon Armitage’, composed from anagrams of his own name, and finally ‘To Do List’, from the point of view of someone concerned about the rapid pace of modern life.
After the readings, the floor was opened to questions from the audience, which included groups of students from several local schools who were keen to quiz Simon about his work. One pupil asked on behalf of their teacher which poem had inspired him to become a poet. Simon replied that it was the Ted Hughes poem ‘Bayonet Charge’, which he read as a fifteen-year-old while studying for his English O Level, and in particular quoted the lines: ‘In what cold clockwork of the stars and the nations Was he the hand pointing that second?’ He said, ‘I didn’t know that the world could be recreated in these small packets of language. … It struck me that they were circuit boards activating something in my brain. … I knew then that poetry was for me.’
A pupil also asked him why he wrote ‘The Manhunt (Laura’s Poem)’ from the perspective of the soldier’s wife. He explained that this poem is taken from a film called ‘The Not Dead’, for which he wrote poems based on interviews with service personnel, and spoke of the importance of both having a woman’s voice and showing the impact of war on family members.
He also talked about the role of Poet Laureate today. He described poetry as contemplative and said that there are many different definitions of a poet, from solitary and contemplative to communicative, entertaining and engaging. He also talked about the way his style and themes change depending on what he has been reading, and said: ‘I don’t like poems that sound like thinking and I don’t like poems that sound like writing. I like poems that sound like speech.’
Finally, he ended his performance with a reading of ‘Red Wings’, a poem named after a type of bird that winters in the UK, but which also acts as a metaphor within the work. Afterwards, he was available to sign copies of his books and answer more questions.
The first half of the evening was dedicated to the young writers in the Girls’ Division and the audience also enjoyed hearing their readings.
In honour of Simon’s visit and his work championing the climate crisis, particularly through his creation of The Laurel Prize, the school held a poetry competition on the theme of the environment in the run-up to the Poetry Festival. Seven prize-winners performed their poems on the night. Sophia Wormald (Year 7) looked into the future with her poem ‘3020’ and Lucy Johnstone (Year 7) read ‘A Poem for the Environment’. Three Year 9 pupils explored the consequences of climate change in their work: ‘Repercussions’ by Nithu Loganathon, ‘Borrowed Time’ by Charlotte Hothersall and ‘The End’ by Emaan Murtaza. Amelia Thompson (Year 11) used grim news from the recent wildfires in Australia as inspiration for ‘There could be more to go’ and Amelia Doherty (Year 13) reminded the audience that ‘There Is No Planet B’. In addition, twenty-nine Bolton School Girls’ Division students from Years 6 to 13 recently visited Patterdale Hall for the annual Writing Retreat: copies of their Anthology were available for the audience to read on the night and thirteen of these girls performed their work.
The evening was a wonderful celebration of creative writing at Bolton School and gave pupils the opportunity to share their work as well as hearing from a much-celebrated professional poet.