Simon Armitage is the leading poet of his generation. His collections include Zoom!, Kid and Book of Matches, which was hailed as 'a firework display of technique, versatility and passion' (Elspeth Barker). In his most recent collection, CloudCuckooLand, he probes the night sky to play with celestial and metaphysical themes. He is also the author of All Points North and, with Glyn Maxwell, of Moon Country: Further Reports from Iceland. Simon Armitage lives in Huddersfield. He is currently Poet in Residence for the New Millennium Experience Company, visiting millennium projects around the country, charting the nation's mood as the Millennium approaches and writing a 1000-line poem.
The "Millennium Poem", an as yet untitled piece commissioned by the Poetry Society and the National Millennium Experience Company, for presentation at the end of 1999. Well, I change my mind about it every week, but at the moment it's shaping up to be a 1000 line poem in twelve sections, based loosely around news events of recent months and their connections with the past one-thousand years of history. The poem plays with the idea of the millennium as both fact and fiction: the fiction and arbitrariness of the actual date, balanced against the indisputable fact that millions of people are choosing to acknowledge it. Within that central paradox, I'm trying to see the millennium as a milestone or marker post, from where a sizable proportion of the planet's population will turn and look backwards, asking themselves how far they have come, in every sense. Divisions of East and West, the old and the new, religion and science, and war and peace are further lines of enquiry. At the end of the bloodiest century known to mankind, I hope the poem won't swerve from its responsibilities, by aiming to address many of the global political issues as a piece of head-on public art. But on the eve of the biggest party ever, I also want the poem to sing, dance, and let off a few fireworks. Some sections will be choral, anthemic even, and if all goes according to plan, it could be those sections that find their way into public spaces or wherever NMEC can identify a place to write, paint, engrave, project, emboss, transfer, print and generally get the poem out there.
I would at some stage like to read the poem, but it's difficult to know where and when. For example, I can't imagine that many people will want to sit around for something like an hour on New Millennium Eve listening to me, when champagne corks and rockets are popping and exploding left, right and centre. Having said that, it would be a shame if the poem didn't have some kind of launch reading or presentation at an appropriate time in an appropriate venue.
Which brings me to the Dome. When it was announced that I was to be "Poet in Residence for NMEC", some people got the impression I'd be sat in under the hub of its great circular roof for the next six months, presumably picking up inspiration directly from heaven, like the focal point of those strategically placed mirrors somewhere in the Alps that collect enough light to melt diamonds. In truth, I'm hoping to travel around Britain and Northern Ireland, looking at how different regions are choosing to mark the millennium, then somehow incorporate those observations into the language of the poem.
As well as producing a published piece of text, there are plans to make the poem as a 70 minute Channel 4 television film, to be shot and broadcast before the end of the year, with the poem as its central narrative, and another plan to transmit it as feature-type reading on BBC Radio 3, possibly alongside archive-actuality and dramatised extracts.
So I'd better get on with it. I'm hoping to finish around the end of September/beginning of October, and if I haven't, I'll just have to try and extend the deadline by joining that bunch of people who say the actual millennium isn't until next year. Before I began, I was quite struck with the idea of starting at the beginning and finishing at the end, and confident that writing it would be similar to knitting a long scarf i.e. doing a few lines every day until it was long enough. But a jigsaw is probably a more useful analogy, and at the time of writing (JUNE 14th) I'd say I've got the corners and most of the sky in place, and now I'm working my way in towards the main subject in the middle. Also, thinking of it in terms of a picture rather than as lines makes it feel less like detention and more like the summer holidays.
- Simon Armitage