Interview with Keith Armstrong in Fitzgerald's, Whitley Bay

TDR: Keith, successful artists always combine talent with the ability to promote themselves. Do you still have to sell poetry, or is your poetry and performance more or less sustaining?

Keith: Well, I still have to keep pushing. For quite a few years now, I have been working freelance and you can easily be forgotten. Poetry is my craft, both on the page and in performance, so I burn with the desire to get my work across to as many people as possible. I am going to Prague again soon, performing in cabaret settings, where there might be 20 to 30 people, but I like doing that; the vibes, the interaction and the feedback you get.

TDR: I get the sense of great passion for your work. What has poetry done for you personally? Has it helped you to understand yourself; be the real Keith Armstrong?

Keith: The real Keith Armstrong? Yeah! There is a poem I can send you that I wrote the other week, because, believe it or not, I’m not the only Keith Armstrong on this planet. There is another one in Newcastle, who is a record producer, and he’s a bit of a nuisance, because he’s become quite famous. We met on the Metro a few years ago and we compared notes.

TDR: There is frustration, anger and love – all the emotions in your work. Have we lost the plot somewhere with what some see as a destructive, insensitive society today?

Keith: I like politics with passion; not the blandness of Blair. Then, I’ve never been a card-carrying member of the Communist Party either. What I breathe is anarchy, but anarchy in a constructive sense.

TDR: Why Whitley Bay? Is this a new refuge for you?

Keith: Well, I was born in Newcastle. My father was a shipyard worker, as you may have gathered; my mother was a nurse and we came to Whitley Bay as a kind of dormitory, really – and for a slightly posher house. I like to be beside the sea. If I am not by the sea, I feel stranded. Whitley Bay does that for me. Of course, Whitley Bay has its Spanish City; I don’t know if you’ve heard about that? I 've written a poem called 'Garcia Lorca in Whitley Bay', so I feel that I can write poetry about any area.

TDR: We all come from the North East, which encompasses a vast area. Do we need to work together in the different regions more effectively? You have done much to bring people together; how can we bring all the pieces into a whole?

Keith: Well, I’m an inveterate networker. I do believe in making links with Teesside and Wearside, but the idea of creating a community of poets rather appals me. You don’t do this kind of thing just because you can get a grant for it. I don’t mind getting a grant, but you have to respect the complexities and sometimes the historical rivalries at times between Newcastle and Middlesbrough, for example.

TDR: Your CV reads like a ‘Who’s-Who’ of poetry and performance. Does poetry support your lifestyle, or do you support the poetry?

Keith: I think it’s integrated. There isn’t any separation between me, as a human being, trying to struggle through life and being a poet. I’m often found in the back of a taxi, late at night, reciting my poems to a bemused cabman – which I’m rather proud of!

TDR: You have travelled extensively and participated actively in the international poetry scene. Is good poetry, your poetry, as readily understood, applauded, in fact, in Prague as it is in Gateshead?

Keith: It’s probably more popular in Prague than in Gateshead! You know, Prague has such a long cultural history behind it and I go there in cafes and read my poetry in English. But there are a lot of ex-pats in Prague. It’s quite difficult to get through to the genuine Czechs. You have to cut through these ex-pats to get to them. But I do go out of my way to understand the Czech culture, whether it’s Havel or Kafka; to make an attempt to understand the place, not to go in there only on an ego-trip.

TDR: The poetry talent in our region partly stems from strong qualities of survival, humour and unpretentiousness, yet we are somewhat isolated from the London scene. How do we stack up in the Capital?

Keith: I never had a good relationship with London. I find it something of a beast, really, feeding off the provinces. I realise that London is really a collection of villages. I’m part-Celt, part-Viking, part-Northumbrian. That’s why I’m more headed towards Europe than London; more headed towards Edinburgh. Armstrong is a Scottish name. I identify more with the border ballad culture or tradition. I work quite a bit with folk musicians, Northumbrian pipers and singers. I like to express my roots and my history – it’s very hard to put that across in London!

TDR: How can we make poetry a viable economic commodity? Artists can survive by painting Whitley Bay. Can poets do that?

Keith: Well, I live – I survive! I put in appeals to the Arts Council of England. I try to charm the pants off the Literature Officer and frequently fail! Well, I can get occasional subsidies; I put in some part-time teaching, but I also put in applications to key foundations, not just Arts Council North East. I diversify! I think that you have to commit to muddling through, rather than getting rich.


I am the other Keith Armstrong

The Chief Executive of Slime
The King of the Bank of England
The slob of convention
I am the other Keith Armstrong
The head of an advertiser
The brains of capital
The puke of celebrity
I am the other Keith Armstrong
The quango rat
The official in uniform
The master of ceremony
I am the other Keith Armstrong
The snide critic
The illiterate journalist
The central hack
I am the other Keith Armstrong
The arch competitor
The success of a banker
The conceptual accountant
I am the other Keith Armstrong
The deadly soldier
The machine gunner of poetry
The committed committee man
I am the other Keith Armstrong
The party prune
The rock and roll businessman
The Head of Leisure
I am the other Keith Armstrong
The hard lad of literature
The thug of the Arts
The political cleansing agent
I am the other Keith Armstrong
The industrious loot collector
The fruit machine wanker
The precision bomber
I am the other Keith Armstrong
The foul mouthed gourmet
The government terrorist
The casual rapist
I am the other Keith Armstrong
The dreamer of cash
The crusher of bird song
The killer of whales
I am the other Keith Armstrong
The gagger of truth
The scribbler of emptiness
The slaughterer of dreams

I am the other Keith Armstrong

the jingling geordie

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whitley bay, tyne and wear, United Kingdom
poet and raconteur