Poet to the people
Carol Ann Duffy is racking up a lot of firsts – she’s the first Scottish, first female and first openly bisexual Poet Laureate. But is she intimidated? Never.
As the first female Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy is emphatically clear about how the role will change her writing life. “It won’t,” she says. “I have been to the palace a couple of times” – she says this so casually, as though she’s talking about Tesco – “and it’s been made very clear that there are no requirements. The way I interpret it is to properly live the life of a poet – writing poems, and doing readings for adults and children.” Which is precisely what she’s been doing for much of her life.
Born in 1955, Carol Ann became acutely aware of the rhythm of language when, at five years old, her family relocated from Glasgow to Stafford. She tried to speak like the locals to fit in, yet her father would chastise her for not “talking Scottish.” Hers was a strict and loving working class Catholic family. The eldest of five – she has four brothers – Carol Ann encountered two ‘inspirational’ teachers (one at her convent, one at her comprehensive) and, at sixteen, had a slim volume of poetry published. “Weird juvenilia,” she shudders. “There are only about 100 copies out there. I have one, which I’m glad of, if only to show my daughter.” She admits that, when someone brought one of these volumes along to a reading, “I actually screamed and offered to buy them.”
As a teenager, she attended poetry readings “like pop concerts” and, at sixteen, began a decade-long relationship with Liverpool poet Adrian Henri, twenty-three years her senior. She has joked about being “in-ed” rather than being “outed”; being openly gay was cited as the reason she was passed over in favour of Andrew Motion when the Poet Laureate position last came up in 1999, which outraged her fans.
Carol Ann’s poetry may be deeply personal, yet she has never regretted writing a poem: “I’ve thought, this could be a better – but no, I haven’t regretted what I was saying.” Nor does she worry how her words might be perceived by lovers or friends: “I never worry about that. I’m involved in the creation, but the reader gets something else from it. That’s the magic of poetry.” Poems about relationships – doomed, joyous or otherwise – are, she adds, “the most exciting and challenging to write. Only Carol Ann could describe falling in love as “glamorous hell.”
Her gift is to use accessible language beloved by critics and pubic alike. “When I was young,” she has said, “there was a sense that if poetry wasn’t written by dead men, then it had to be somehow difficult and have secrets.” Her collections have garnered numerous accolades: Standing Female Nude (1985) won a Scottish Arts Council award, Selling Manhattan (1987) gleaned a Somerset Maugham award and Rapture – her 2005 collection described as “a book-length love affair in verse” – won the TS Eliot prize.
Carol Ann writes as much for children as she does for adults. She says that motherhood – her daughter Ella’s father is novelist Peter Benson – triggered a great “whoosh” of fairy tales and picture books. “If I’m writing for children I’ll sometimes read it to Ella when she comes home from school. She’s just turned fourteen and is a cruelly accurate critic.” Carol Ann laughs her warm, rich laugh. How does she switch from an adult to a younger audience? “I think of writing for adults as swimming in the sea. For children it’s more like paddling. It’s more liberating and fun, although I wouldn’t say it’s easier. It might be less dangerous but it takes just as much effort and energy.” Nor does writing itself become easier. “The difference is, if I start a poem I’ll almost always finish it. I now know when there really is a poem there.”
Based in Manchester, Carol Ann holds the post of Professor of Contemporary Poetry at Manchester Metropolitan University and admits that, where words are concerned, she never switches off. “I think most poets would say that poetry is like a companion – it’s always there, nudging you.” Would a holiday mean not writing? “No,” she declares. “There is never a period when I am not writing. For me, a holiday would mean having nothing else to do for two weeks – no phone, no email, no students. Just a pool and all that, and to be able to sit there with a large glass of wine and a notebook.”
In the absence of a pool/wine scenario, what does today have in store? “I’m writing a poem for Oxfam about what you might buy and what that might turn into, and I’m starting with a pale blue satin tie.”
New and Collected Poems (Faber, £16.99) and To the Moon: An Anthology of Lunar Poetry (£12.99, Picador), both by Carol Ann Duffy, are published in October
Carol Ann Duffy Charlotte Square XX August Xx.xxpm From £x 0845 373 5888
If you like this, try Simon Armitage at Charlotte Square, xx August