Carol Ann Duffy

Rachel Cooke

Carol Ann DuffyShe is that rare thing - a poet whose work is loved by children and adults alike, critics as much as the public. Now, a decade after she was passed over for the job, she is to become the first woman poet laureate. Here, in an exclusive interview, she talks about Queen, country - and the free sherry.

In the quiet of her house in south Manchester, Carol Ann Duffy is telling me about her decision to accept the poet laureateship. This is not easy for either of us. She has the slightly distracted air - faltering sentences, wandering eyes, ears metaphorically cocked - of someone whose telephone has not stopped ringing in 24 hours; when I rang it myself a little earlier, she informed me, with a low laugh, that she really didn't know whether she was coming or going and, as a consequence, was still in her pyjamas at lunchtime. Even now, it keeps interrupting. Some of these interruptions are ruder than others. First, the man from the Department of Culture rings to talk her through her big press conference tomorrow. (By the time you read this, the press conference, which took place last Friday morning, will long be over and the not-very-well-kept secret of her accession to the throne well and truly out.) This is fine. Poet or not, Duffy has a straightforward, practical manner; as you might say of her work, she tells it like it is, beautifully, no faffing. But then, a dread call, and one which arrives with almost novelistic timing. Duffy's dear friend and colleague, the poet UA Fanthorpe, has died at the age of 79. Duffy's hand flies to her head. She curses once, twice, three times, and puts down the phone. Quickly, she swallows a mouthful of the champagne we are drinking. Then she bursts into tears.

Ten years ago, when the laureateship last came up, Fanthorpe was a leading contender, and Duffy one of her supporters (though Duffy was also rumoured to be in contention herself). She placed a £100 bet on her to win, and expected to clean up. But, of course, the job went to yet another man. Fanthorpe, sweetly, offered that this might well have been a good thing - she wasn't sure she had the energy - but lots of people felt robbed. Why not a woman? Especially this woman, so prodigiously talented.

Tonight, the night before her appointment as the first woman laureate becomes official, Duffy had planned to ring Fanthorpe to tell her the news. This she will not now be able to do. She is so upset. Would she like to stop talking to me? "No!" She stands up. "Ursula would have said: 'Make sure you put on a good show for her!' She would want us to be drinking this champagne." She disappears into the kitchen, and returns with our glasses, refilled. But it is no good. We do talk for a little while longer, but I can tell how sad she feels. The community of poets - the tribe, as Ted Hughes called it - is small, and close. The too-wide gap left by Fanthorpe will be keenly felt. Poets, Duffy contends, must be able to listen to silence, poetry being as much about space as it is about words. But there are also some silences that one wants never to hear.

It would be lovely if the offer of laureateship were made by liveried page. But, alas, this is the modern age: Duffy first got an inkling that the job might be hers via her computer screen. "For months and months, it was just the newspapers talking about who would succeed Andrew [Motion]," she says. "No one official seemed to say anything. So it was only two weeks ago that it happened. I got an email. It apologised for being opaque, and asked me to call a certain number. Then I spoke to someone in the Department of Culture, or whatever it's called, and they asked me: if I was offered it, would I accept? I suppose they're checking out that you're not going to refuse. A few days later there was another phone call offering it officially. And then, a letter from the prime minister."

Duffy had pretty much made up her mind to accept the job if it was offered (recent stories in the press saying that she had got cold feet, fearing intrusion into her private life, were all "complete rubbish"). She believed, very strongly, that, this time, it should be a woman. "There are so many fantastic women poets. Had it not been [a woman], it would have been like saying: there isn't one woman writing in Britain who's good enough." But it was her 13-year-old daugher, Ella, who had the final say. "I let her choose. We sat in the garden. I said: it will probably cause a bit of fuss in the beginning, then everything will calm down again. But I also told her that if she didn't want me to take it, I wouldn't. She said: You must, Mummy. There has never been a woman, and that isn't fair."

But didn't she once say that no self-respecting poet would ever want to write about, say, the match of Edward and Sophie? She insists not. "Anyway, when I went to be briefed, the palace representative said that the idea that the laureate has to write poems for royal occasions is a myth. Though he graciously added: 'But if you do, that would be lovely.' I hope we can all grow up about this. It's so daft to focus on that sort of thing when there are so many poets, for children and for adults, tireless vocational poets who go into schools, and into prisons; poets who don't earn a lot of money, but who serve the language. I think this is what the poet laureate should shed light on. If something happens in the life of the nation that inspires me, I'd just be grateful I'd got an idea. You're always grateful for that nudge towards a poem. I would feel no embarrassment about writing a poem associated with the Queen. But neither will I be sitting at home watching out for the engagements of minor royals."

For the record, she is very much in favour of such things as queens and princesses: she loves fairy tales, and where would they be without queens and princesses? Though she hasn't yet met the actual Queen in her new capacity, she did encounter her once before, at some reception or other. Duffy informed her Majesty that her subjects' favourite poem was alleged to be "If" by Rudyard Kipling. "And the Queen replied: well, Kipling is exceedingly good. Rather witty, I thought." She laughs. Duffy will give her (meagre) salary as laureate to the Poetry Society, for a new prize. But she will continue the tradition, revived by Andrew Motion, that the poet laureate receives a butt of sack (630 bottles of sherry) a year. "Only he hasn't received his yet. So I've asked for mine up front," she says. Her face is wry, but her voice is deadly serious. If they want my advice, the palace had better get on to Berry Bros & Rudd right away.

Carol Ann Duffy was born in 1955, in Glasgow, but grew up in Stafford, the eldest of five (she has four brothers). Her father was a fitter with English Electric and a trade unionist. Hers wasn't a bookish family, but her parents, who'd left school early themselves, were keen on the idea of education, and her mother was "a great storyteller - she'd make rhymes up, all the time". Duffy began writing poems seriously at 10, inspired by three different teachers in three different schools whose names she still pronounces with love and a kind of reverence even now. "They were devotional teachers who delivered more than the school syllabus: they would lend me their own books. Poetry was always right at the centre of my life. I used to fill notebooks with it." After school, she won a place at Liverpool university to read philosophy - and it was in that city, at a poetry reading, that she met the poet and painter Adrian Henri, with whom she had a decade-long relationship. He was two decades her senior. "I was wearing jeans, and he was wearing a leather jacket. He was a big star. We were friends at first, and then... he was very encouraging, and it was when I was with him that I met people like Liz Lochhead, a great role model, and Adrian Mitchell, a gorgeous poet." Her parents "had no money", so she worked as a waitress at the Everyman bistro, and as a barmaid, and paid her own way through college; and afterwards, she managed just fine, somehow, in spite of her chosen career.

Her first published poems appeared in pamphlets. Only later, when she won the National Poetry Competition in 1983, did she land a publishing deal. But money went further in those days: a poet really could make a kind of a living. "I had a C Day Lewis Fellowship, and an award from the Society of Authors. A couple of thousand pounds in those days was a lot of money."

In the 1980s, she began winning prizes, and in the 1990s, she began being read by people who don't read poetry; her books even became A-level texts. Then, in 1998, Ted Hughes died, and suddenly Duffy's name was one of those being touted as his likely successor as laureate. At the time, she was living with the poet Jackie Kay, and it was reported that she only failed to get the job on account of the fact that "Blair was worried about having a homosexual as poet laureate because of how it might play in middle England".

This can't have been the best of times - Duffy would prefer to keep her private life to herself (though this is not to say she cannot be funny about it, too: she once said that the only thing she and Philip Larkin have in common is that "we are both lesbian poets"). But the fuss died down eventually and, soon after, she published the collection for which she is still, perhaps, most famous: The World's Wife, a series of poems about the women who are excluded from history: Mrs Aesop, Mrs Faust, Frau Freud. (The poem "Mrs Darwin" goes like this: "Went to the Zoo/ I said to Him -/ Something about that Chimpanzee over there reminds me of you." It is one of only two poems that I know by heart.) Duffy had long been the critics' darling, but this book made her truly loved.

Duffy moved to Manchester (from London) when she had her daughter (Ella's father is the novelist Peter Benson). "I'd wanted a child for years, but I was always in the wrong relationship. Being a mother is the most important thing in my life. It was like being in a house, and suddenly finding a room that you didn't know was there, filled with treasure." But it was also good for her work. "Oh, yes: wonderful! I've written more now for children than for adults. From when she was about two: fairy tales and picture books and poems. Whoosh!"

This creativity shows no sign of abating: she is about to publish an anthology of poetry about the moon, and has half a dozen new poems of her own that will eventually form her next collection. She thinks that the view - as spouted by Kazuo Ishiguro - that great writing is done only by the young is "a bit macho - the Ryan Giggs school of novels". For her, the best may be yet to come. "I still have a feeling that I haven't written the best that I can write. I think all poets must feel this: that there is constantly something new to be discovered in the language. It's like a thrilling encounter, and you can find things. The moment of inspiration can come from memory, or language, or the imagination, or experience - anything that makes an impression forcibly enough for language to form. I see it as being like the sand in the oyster; then the pearl begins. I see the shape of the poem before I start writing, and the writing is just the process of arriving at the shape."

But the process is so very fine, so deeply concentrated; the word "just" does it no justice. "When my mum died, which was four years ago, though it only feels like about four months, I didn't want to write about her. I felt somehow that it wasn't appropriate. Then, very recently, I did, and because it was so truthful, and so painful, I found that I discovered things that were valuable to me, and I hope that other people will find them valuable, too." She uses the word "vocation" a lot - which is rather an unfashionable one these days. Is that how it feels? Has poetry called her? Could she have ignored it if she'd really wanted to? "Yoo-hoo!" she cries, in a silly high-pitched voice, fluttering one hand in a wave. Then, in a lower tone, the voice of a newspaper headline, she says: "New Laureate is Nutter Shock." But she cannot joke about this for long. "Yes, it is a vocation, to give your life, your imagination, to language; to offer up your experience of being human." Only rarely do the critics love the work of the poor old poet laureate, but this is such a statement of intent, spoken so solemnly, it's impossible to feel anything other than thrilled at the prospect of what might lie ahead. Meanwhile, there is this moment to savour: after 400 years, we have a woman.

Notable laureates

  • 1668 John Dryden is Britain's first official poet laureate.
  • 1688 With the accession of William III, Thomas Shadwell takes over and begins the tradition of birthday and New Year odes.
  • 1843 Aged 72, William Wordsworth becomes Victoria's laureate.
  • 1850 Alfred Lord Tennyson takes up the reins and becomes the longest-serving incumbent. When he dies in 1892, William Morris refuses the job, which remains open until Alfred Austin is appointed in 1896.
  • 1930 John Masefield becomes the second-longest-serving poet laureate.
  • 1967 Cecil Day-Lewis is appointed.
  • 1972 Sir John Betjeman begins his tenure; according to his letters he hated the position.
  • 1984 Ted Hughes accepts the job after Philip Larkin turns it down.
  • 1999 Andrew Motion becomes the first poet laureate to be appointed for a fixed term of 10 years.
  • 2009 Carol Ann Duffy becomes the first woman to be appointed - and the first Scot (Sir Walter Scott having refused in 1813).

Lisa Kjellsson

The Observer,
Sunday 3 May 2009

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