Saturday, January 16

‘I’m more optimistic’: Poet Laureate Simon Armitage on Britain’s Great Ordeal | Simon Armitage


How to tell millions of individual stories? Or represent the pain and anxiety of a pandemic for audiences of the future? Perhaps it will take a national poet to try.

Speaking exclusively to Observer, Simon Armitage, the poet laureate, and his longtime collaborator, award-winning British filmmaker Brian Hill, have revealed that they are quietly tackling this challenge together.

The two are currently working on a documentary about what many believe has been the most difficult year in recent British history. With the provisional title Where did the world go? his film, which is still in production, examines life and loss in confinement and ties the entire narrative together with a new general poem by Armitage.

“It has become a kind of ‘shepherd’s calendar,’ marking the passing of the seasons,” Armitage said. “We have gone through phases of lockdown.

Simon Armitage said he has gone through a number of emotions with the confinement.
Simon Armitage said he has gone through a number of emotions with the confinement. Photograph: Victoria Jones / PA

“At first, people associated it with the weather and being outside, so even though there were restrictions, there were also trade-offs. I probably started to feel it more intensely recently as it got darker and colder and the days got shorter. “

Among those who will appear in the film is a Welsh woman who speaks of her grief after the loss of her elderly mother, who lives in a nursing home. The camera also focuses on the experiences of a Nigerian asylum seeker and the owner of a 200-year-old family shoe store in Devon that has closed.

“He is devastated that he ended up under his tenure,” recalls Hill. “We wanted to show the extent of the impact on people. We also wanted to somehow communicate how Covid-19 has affected performers so much. We had an extraordinary time with Zippo’s Circus at the end, talking to them about how they find a way to safely open the tent again. “

Both Hill and Armitage say they had no idea how long the film project would last. “When we started, we really didn’t know what was going to happen, or how much access we would have,” Hill said.

“We thought we could finish this summer,” Armitage said, “but then, like anyone else, we also knew that it could continue until next year. Now it seems that this project will last a year and a little. I feel more optimistic now, especially since my parents have been invited to get vaccinated ”.

A section of the film presents the challenges faced by members of the prestigious Huddersfield Choral Society, who were also the subject of a separate project, We will sing, with Armitage last month. This choir has not only had to deal with restrictions on public singing, but has also suffered the loss of two members due to the virus. Armitage wrote the lyrics for the chorus to sing, including Huddersfield’s lyrics, with the refrain: “Until the world discovers your voice, we will sing, we will sing,” and The Songthrush and the Mountain Ash, about a visit to a caring resident. misunderstood:

“Through the hospital window

she asked again

why did I stay outside

in the wind and the rain,

and said she didn’t

understand

because I did not want to

touch his hand. “

“We decided to put a bit of modern dance into this music for our film because the dancers have been hit hard too,” said Hill, who directs Century Films and who also recently worked on BBC4’s critically acclaimed blockade film. Without precedents. “Simon has written about his own thoughts and will also pick up on the themes of the stories we have found. We are also using stock footage, so there will be some moments in the past tense, seeing the first news from Wuhan, China, and what we feel then. “

Filming for the movie has inevitably been intermittent. “We have had to cancel some things,” Armitage said. “We had recently organized an event in London where people were wearing masks, like a masked ball. We could have continued it, as it was a job, but we felt we should leave it until people felt more comfortable. “

Armitage said he does not make a clear distinction in his writing between his own experience of the pandemic and those of others. “They overlap,” he said. “I often immerse myself in my poetry and, in fact, I have not yet reached that element of the film in which I write in response to others. It is not all in the first person, but it is a personal perspective. I’ve written about a third so far, and that will be the last part. “

Armitage said the main poem will act as “a kind of talking clock, expressing the whole.”

His writing thus far has been largely motivated by news coverage, and he has felt the need to regain his balance by walking away sometimes and reading about other things. “A book can give perspective by showing that this is not the worst thing that ever happened.”

But even though he is the royally appointed poet, he feels no pressure to raise national morale by painting an optimistic picture: “I’m not a cheerleader. I don’t have the pompoms. But I do believe that people find resistance from emotional truth. “

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