How poet Simon Armitage is helping celebrate 40 years of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park

It's a grey December day just before Christmas, but the inclement weather somehow only adds to the allure and atmosphere of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. I'm there to meet poet, playwright and novelist Simon Armitage who has just taken up a 12-month residency for the park's 40th anniversary. Armitage will be helping the YSP celebrate its unique appeal throughout 2017, visiting in different seasons and producing new work in response to the park as well as curating a programme of readings and events, and launching a new publication in the autumn.

Yorkshire Sculpture Park's poet in residence for 2017, Simon Armitage. Picture by Bruce Rollinson

As we wander through the parkland, we chat about Armitage’s long-standing relationship with the park and his plans for the residency. He has been poet-in-residence there before, in 2007, when he wrote a suite of poems in response to an exhibition of Henry Moore’s work, but in fact he has a personal connection that goes back even further.

“I originally knew the place as Bretton Hall College and I gave my first ever poetry reading in one of the bars on campus,” he says. “I also came to the college to do a couple of writing days – once as a student and once as a tutor. The Sculpture Park really dates back to my young adulthood and I remember when it first started I wasn’t really sure what it was about.”

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He wasn’t the only one. When YSP founder and executive director Peter Murray first proposed displaying sculpture in the open air people were not initially sold on the idea, but he persevered and the park is now a major global centre for the art form. It was the first sculpture park in the UK and is the largest of its kind in Europe with its year-round temporary exhibitions featuring the work of leading international artists. The KAWS exhibition last year was one of its biggest and most popular to date and other recent highlights include shows by Not Vital, Bill Viola, Sir Anthony Caro, Ai Weiwei, Joan Miro and Ursula von Rydingsvard.

Iron Tree by Ai Weiwei. Picture by Simon Hulme

“In my lifetime I have watched how the park has grown and expanded,” says Armitage. “I have done book launches here, readings and workshops but I also just like to visit. I like the fact that you can come here and you don’t necessarily have to engage fully with the artworks. You can come just to enjoy the space.”

The commission for this year he says is “pretty loose” as he wanted to have the scope to experiment and think laterally.

“The general idea is that I will write 40 poems and those will be published in a collection, I might also take photos and present it as a kind of scrapbook of the year,” he says. “But I want the poems to be a bit oblique, not describing the views or the landscape. An idea I have been playing with is to re-imagine the place a bit. I have written about it relatively directly before and about some of the sculptures specifically, but I started to think about addressing the park as a country in its own right and one that has its own rules.”

He was partly inspired, he says, by a recent visit to Christiania in Copenhagen, an independent utopian commune now in its 46th year, which has its own code of conduct and regulations. “It is a free space in the city, the residents are pretty autonomous and people get on, by and large,” he says. “It felt very relaxed and easy-going there and it is a place that draws artists and thinkers and writers. I felt there was a kind of equivalence with the Sculpture Park. I am thinking of YSP as a kind of newly discovered mid-European country. I like that idea of finding somewhere you can be yourself and where the world as you interpret it can still exist. There is something borderless about it here. It is free, you can wander in and out and there is an ethic here that I like.”

Iron Tree by Ai Weiwei. Picture by Simon Hulme

We head towards the Camellia House, which dates back to around 1817, where Armitage has previously presented twilight readings. Entering it is like stepping back in time – specifically to a 19th century period drama. It’s all a bit shabby chic and that is part of its attraction.

“This area belonged to what was a stately home on an estate and I like the way in which that has been recognised and acknowledged,” says Armitage. “There is a kind of decayed aristocracy about the place.”

From the Camellia House we walk up to towards the faux temple, a Victorian folly set on a hilltop with impressive views out over the lake and parkland. “In its day, this was a kind of installation,” says Armitage. “And I like the fact that it’s a mix of classic Greek and bus shelter. In my imagined garden city of ‘Ysp’ [pronounced ‘eesp’] this will be either the Parthenon – or a bus shelter.”

His approach is imaginative and wonderfully left field. I’m looking forward to the reading the poems that this process will eventually produce. “The residency is going to be as haphazard as I can make it,” he says, adding that he has already enquired about the possibility of spending a night in the park over the summer. “I would like to stay awake, wander around and see if there is any nightlife,” he says. He might come across some interesting wildlife, in addition to Julian Opie’s LED sculpture Galloping Horse. “I wonder if the horse runs all night,” he muses.

Armitage will also be responding to the shows that will be taking place at YSP this year – including a large-scale retrospective of leading British sculptor Tony Cragg and a major exhibition of the work of the internationally renowned artist Alfredo Jaar – and he recalls with pleasure his experience of working on the Henry Moore project a decade ago. “I just sat in front of the pieces and wrote,” he says. “It was almost like sketching or doing a still life, linguistically I was looking for angles and shadows and reflections. Sculptures don’t come with their own vocabulary.” He published an illustrated collection, The Twilight Readings, of the work he produced and says he was “as pleased with those poems as anything I have written”.

When he writes in response to sculpture, his aim is to present a freshness of approach. “I don’t have an art history background, so I hope I can bring a new perspective. It is about communication. I am not trying to interpret those pieces – I am interested in discovering a language for them which is personal to me but which might also tap into other people’s first impressions.”

Since 2011 Armitage has been Professor of Poetry at the University of Sheffield, where he teaches the MA poetry course, and in 2015 he was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford University, a four-year appointment which requires him to deliver one public lecture a term. He is working on a couple of drama projects – “I’ve always been interested in writing dialogue, and there is nothing like theatre for getting an immediate response” – and has also been announced as the creative partner for the Brontë Parsonage Museum this year to commemorate Branwell Brontë’s bicentenary as part of the Brontë200 programme.

So he is keeping pretty busy – but he says it has a plus side. “One of the things that’s good for me about these residencies is that I have tried to stop writing for a while. I wanted to impose a kind of moratorium on my own writing and see what happens next.” He has done it before and out of it came a collection of poetry – Seeing Stars published in 2010 – that was, he says, “a bit different”. Described as “dramatic monologues, allegories, parables and tall tales”, it was a step away from the contemporary lyric poetry with which he is associated.

And Armitage believes in challenging himself. “I like to put myself up for things I don’t really think I can do,” he says. “I think you can fall into a pattern of knowing what works. This kind of commissioned work pushes you in a direction that you might not otherwise have gone in and you are reaching different audiences.”