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February 10, 2012

The Story of The Writers’ Room Deep Space Telescope

In its new home

See that telescope in the middle of this photograph?

This powerful Russian telescope, currently on loan to The Writers’ Room at Warwick University, has been on a fascinating literary journey.

In the early 1990s it was acquired by the poet Simon Armitage. Scanning the night skies above his native Huddersfield, Simon began writing a sequence of fifty poems. The titles were taken from the constellations he observed through this telescope’s lenses. However, his poems did not take stellar observation as subject. Cunningly, Simon used the names of the stars and their configurations to stimulate personal poems about family, relationships, work and loss. These poems were published in his collection Cloudcuckooland which he read from at Warwick University in 1999.

During the early part of the 21st century, Simon sold the telescope to the novelist Monique Roffey. Monique was then working as Centre Director of the Arvon Foundation at Totleigh Barton in Devon. Monique used the telescope to examine the brilliantly dark skies of Devon and gain inspiration.

The telescope occupied the Arvon Foundation offices for many years, sometimes being used to prompt poetry and stories during the weekly creative writing courses that took place at the centre. Many writers pass through the doors of Arvon at Totleigh; and hundreds of authors will have “played about with”, or used, this telescope during that fertile period in its journey. During this period David Morley taught a number of Arvon writing courses and greatly admired what he then christened the Armitagescope a.k.a. the Roffeyscope.

Later, Monique Roffey left Arvon and became a full-time writer, taking the telescope with her. She moved to central London , to the famous Black Sheep Co-op, and wrote the fiction (and non-fiction) that made her name and led her, later that decade, to become one of our most renowned and generous writers.

In 2005, Monique contacted David Morley to explain she was moving on to her own flat, and the telescope was too bulky to make the trip. It might have faced a sad end. So, Monique and DM arranged a ‘gift economy’ exchange: Monique wished to learn how to write poems with a little guidance from DM, and in exchange DM would adopt the telescope so long as he could somehow get to and through London , rebuild it and collect it. Which he did. One memorable rainy Sunday morning in Spring.

The telescope needed some TLC by this time. DM reconditioned the lenses, cleaned the scope inside and out, and gave it a coat of paint for good luck. The telescope then lived in DM’s writing studio for six years, making occasional sorties into his garden to study The Great Galaxy of Andromeda. These studies led to the creation of an elemental poetry workshop ‘Nightfishing for Poets’ which examines the universe and how various phenomena within it have acted as templates for the making of oral ‘literature’ in the shape of creation myths.

DM believes Warwick University's Writers’ Room is the natural home for this historical piece of literary-scientific equipment. It is not a theatre prop. It is not trivial. It is a powerful Russian. Deep space. Telescope.

And it can see the face of God.


November 09, 2010

Grave Robbing with Richard Dawkins: Simon Armitage

Hamlet

Photo copyright hkoppdelaney under creative commons

Simon Armitage’s recreations of the worlds of Gawain and The Odyssey were well received in circles that otherwise might never bother with the epic tradition; while his new collection Seeing Stars presents prose poetry to readers for whom it could be a revelation. Baudelaire said, ‘Always be a poet, even in prose’ and like decent poetry, the best prose poems generate imaginative mischief, linguistic and political escapade and a rapidity of combination of images. But the absence of the line does not mean the poet’s ear need not be alert to the sense of spoken voice - even when that voice is entirely in character. The poems in the Seeing Stars resemble a spree of proser’s yarns, parables and absurd monologues, often droll, moving and confidently voiced. The poetry has much in common with the tone and poise of James Tate’s poetry, an influence about which Armitage has been scrupulous, not least when Tate himself soars through ‘The Knack’ like King Wesley at the climax of It Happened One Night. That poem’s final slowing lines show how voice and line bicker with each other in a way that dares our understanding of when a poem is a poem and when it is not a poem:

                         Then James Tate, a

poet much admired in America, went by in an

autogyro, flicking Boris the V-sign. North America,

I should say, though for all I know he might be the

toast of Tierra Del Fuego, and a household name in

Bogotá.

‘The Knack’

Anything can happen in these word-worlds. The more incongruous the event then the more effectively realised the parallel world of the poem (‘Hop In, Dennis’, ‘Cheeses of Nazareth’, ‘Aviators’, ‘The English Astronaut’); and the challenge to expectation and the pure pleasure of invention owe as much to Vince Noir’s madcap tales in The Mighty Boosh as they do to James Tate or Luke Kennard’s The Harbour Beyond the Movie. The parallel worlds that Armitage invents are not so much surreal as super-real (or strangely recognisable if you’ve spent time in the borderlands of Yorkshire and Lancashire). Many of them are successful on their terms once you tune into their fairy-tale frequency, flashes of magic and deadpan absurdity. This is the opening of ‘The Experience’:

I hadn’t meant to go grave robbing with Richard Dawkins

but he can be very persuasive. ‘Do you believe in God?’

he asked. ‘I don’t know’, I said. He said, ‘Right, go get

in the car.’ We cruised around the cemetery with the

headlights off. ‘Here we go’ he said, pointing to a plot

edged with clean, almost luminous white stone. I said,

‘Doesn’t it look sort of…’ ‘Sort of what?’ ‘Sort of

fresh?’ I said. ‘Pass me the shovel,’ he said.

Armitage has taken the possibilities of the prose poem and remade them for the mainstream. What this book also refashions isn’t so much the poetic form as the poet himself, allowing him to travel artistically from the hewn, tensioned speech of epic to a circling, roundabout, confident yarning. This is not to suggest the poems are all marshmallows around a campfire. Some of the throwaway brutality in these poems is unsettling not least because the characters using it are true to their word and recognisable in their casual contempt (‘the peaks and troughs it produced had a confidence about them…like…a graph of Romany populations over the centuries’). There are many moments of astonishing emotional momentum that take your breath and defy the gravity of either prose or poetry. And there are also flickering shifts in register, usually towards the end of a poem, in which epiphany and a folkloric vision create a coda of grief and glory.

You have been reading about Seeing Stars, Simon Armitage, Faber and Faber, hb., 74 pp., £12.99, ISBN 978-0-571-24990-9

Many thanks to Fiona Sampson, editor of Poetry Review, where this piece first appeared.

David Morley’s new collection from Carcanet is Enchantment. He is editing The Cambridge Companion to Creative Writing. His website is right here.


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