Carol Ann Duffy: Street-wise heroines at home

Have dogs and domesticity mellowed Carol Ann Duffy, the scintillating warrior queen of British verse?

Carol Ann Duffy is sitting on a strange, throne-like leather chair, with padded sides that curve round to form a kind of hood. It seems appropriate for a woman who has been described as "the queen of modern British poetry" and who was hotly tipped for the laureateship, but who avoids publicity and hated the fuss. Appropriate, too, for a poet whose new collection The World's Wife (Picador, £10) features such imaginative rewritings of history as the figures of Queen Herod, Queen Kong and Pope Joan. The figure that emerges from the looming leather canopy is plumply elegant in a tailored black trouser suit. Together, we move to a quieter corner of Manchester's Midland Hotel.

Carol Ann Duffy is sitting on a strange, throne-like leather chair, with padded sides that curve round to form a kind of hood. It seems appropriate for a woman who has been described as "the queen of modern British poetry" and who was hotly tipped for the laureateship, but who avoids publicity and hated the fuss. Appropriate, too, for a poet whose new collection The World's Wife (Picador, £10) features such imaginative rewritings of history as the figures of Queen Herod, Queen Kong and Pope Joan. The figure that emerges from the looming leather canopy is plumply elegant in a tailored black trouser suit. Together, we move to a quieter corner of Manchester's Midland Hotel.

Carol Ann Duffy has had a difficult fortnight. Her partner, the poet and novelist Jackie Kay, has been in hospital after suffering a severe allergic reaction to a midge bite. Jackie's son Matthew has started secondary school; her own daughter, Ella, has begun primary school and, to cap it all, she has been trying with limited success to house-train the latest addition to their home: Dinks the dog. "All of this would have been a lot easier without the dog," she declares grimly.

Such images of bustling domesticity are not what one associates with a poet famed for fierce feminism and uncompromising social satire. The World's Wife will, however, please those who like such labels, as well as just about everybody who picks it up. It's a playful and extremely funny look at history, myths and legends through the eyes of the invisible wives. Mrs Faust recounts the meteoric rise of a husband who "didn't have a soul to sell". Mrs Midas has to install her husband in a caravan "in the wilds" in order to avoid the deadly effects of his magical touch. Pilate's Wife swaps a thrilling glance with the rugged, sexy Christ before her husband washes his "useless, perfumed" hands. Mrs Aesop gives her boring, pompous husband a little tale of her own: one that involves an axe and a cock. "I laughed last, longest," she announces triumphantly.

"I wanted to use history and myth and popular culture and elements from cinema and literature, but also to anchor it in a deeply personal soil and make an entertainment," Duffy explains as she nibbles a ham sandwich. "It was fun to juggle around with and there were times when I sat laughing as I was writing." Certainly, her subversion of history is a far cry from the earnest "herstory" that is usually associated with such enterprises. It sparkles with wit, intelligence and an impressive lightness of touch, while drawing on some weighty emotional experiences: loneliness, jealousy, self-loathing, desire, the fierceness of a mother's love.

These are archetypes, of course, but Duffy admits that the book is also a kind of autobiography. She is famed for her dramatic monologues, which combine compassion, rhythmic verve and an astonishing gift for ventriloquism, and for her tender, lyrical love poems. This collection brings both genres together in the form of masks which, she says, gave her the freedom to explore intensely personal experiences.

The most personal poem is the last one, "Demeter", a deeply touching lyric in which she writes of the transition from winter to spring, from "a broken heart" to "a blue sky smiling" through the arrival, "at last", of "my daughter, my girl, across the fields".

The World's Wife seems to me much less angry than her previous work, the satire more affectionate. Does she agree? "My great angry days were in the Thatcher years," she replies, before going on to admit that yes, it might have something to do with her current domestic happiness. "There's no doubt about it that for me having a child was a revolutionary experience. I can't now remember my life before I had her - it seems to have been lived by someone else."

Certainly, little Ella has been the impulse behind the children's poems she is now obsessively writing. Her first collection for children, Meeting Midnight (Faber, £3.99), is published later this month. Every day, while walking the dog, she mulls on a poem for the next one. Meeting Midnight combines the playful wit of The World's Wife with the exuberance and sublime nonsense of the best children's writing. From the "electrifying rustle" in "Chocs" to "Toy Dog", in which a toy dog becomes a real one - "alas, that poem came true, it's appalling!" - it is full of the child's energetic delight in the world.Faber will also publish Duffy's collection of children's fairy tales, Rumpelstiltskin and other Grimm Tales (£8.99). These originally arose out of a commission for theatre director Tim Supple at the Young Vic. Duffy did one batch in 1995 and another in 1997. Initially, she was intimidated by the weight of the tradition and read five or six different versions, some going back to the 19th century. She followed Supple's advice to "stick completely to the original stories as they were, in a language his actors could speak now".The resulting tales are punchy and poetic, bringing the freshness of contemporary idioms to the reassuring familiarity of the originals. Duffy enjoyed writing them a lot and now wants to do all of them. "I'd love it when Ella has children if she said, 'Go and look it up in Grandma's Grimm,'" she says with a grin.

It's amusing to read them in parallel with the legends of The World's Wife. Mrs Aesop, for example, provides an ironic counterpoint to "The Hare and the Hedgehog", though the moral of that tale - that hedgehogs should marry hedgehogs - seems delightfully subversive. "I think in Grimm hedgehogs should marry hedgehogs and you shouldn't look elsewhere," says Duffy, with a wicked glint in her eye. "But in our world we can marry who we want, or even better not marry at all." You can see why New Labour might feel she was not the ideal New Laureate.

Duffy is sick to death of the laureate issue. She was bruised by the brouhaha and what she sees as the media's invention of imagined rivalries. She does, however, speak generously of Andrew Motion, of his recent TUC poem and his comments about education, but has made it very clear that next time she would declare herself "out of the picture".

Does she think there's a role for a laureate? "Yes, absolutely," she insists, "particularly for young people. It's nice to have a poet laureate in the way that it's nice to have a football manager or a mayor, and it's good to have someone who's prepared to say poetry is part of our national life."She believes passionately in the public role of poetry, predicting that it will "become more important and take a larger place in our lives in the next century". She thinks poetry should be splashed everywhere: "The newspapers should get their act together and follow the Independent's example; radio should have poetry all day, every hour. You should have a poem last thing at night on TV, the Royal Mail should put them on stamps. It doesn't trivialise it - put Milton on milk cartons!" We laugh at the prospect of the devil displayed on full-fat milk.

As one of the few living poets who has always been a full-time writer, Duffy has done plenty of the readings, workshops and school visits that are the poet's bread and butter. She has less time these days, and can afford to be a little more selective. After walking Ella to the school gate and dealing with the dog, she settles down daily to what she does best: bringing language alive in the near-miraculous act of poetry.

"The beginnning of a poem is always a moment of tiny revelation," she explains, "a new way of seeing something, which almost simultaneously attracts language to it - and then the impulse is to catch that with a pen and paper." For her, the process usually takes a few days "until the poem seems to have assumed the same shape as the original revelation".

She and Jackie have separate writing lives, separate studies, diaries and phone-lines. They don't criticise each other's work. They do, however, meet for cups of coffee, indulge in impromptu shopping trips and laugh together over reviews. "In our household, reviews are great fun," Duffy smiles. "They're a form of entertainment." Does she ever get upset by them? "No, not really," she replies, as if considering a fascinating new concept. "I regret to say that it's quite thrilling to get a bad review."

It all sounds enviably cosy: writing, reading "all the time", chatting about poetry, looking after and playing with the children and, of course, the dog.In the great tradition of poets, Carol Ann Duffy goes into the countryside nearly every weekend. She also plays poker and watches the football - she supports Liverpool - and Coronation Street. "Tony Warren is Ella's godfather," says the queen of modern poetry with a smile, "so she's a very lucky girl."

Biography

Carol Ann Duffy was born in Glasgow in 1955, the only daughter of left-wing working-class Catholics, and grew up in Stafford. After reading English at Liverpool, she started working as a full-time writer, of plays as well as poetry. Her first collection, Standing Female Nude (1985) won a Scottish Arts Council Book Award and was hailed by Robert Nye as "the debut of a genuine and original poet". Selling Manhattan (1987) garnered further awards and praise. It was followed in 1990 by The Other Country and in 1993 by Mean Time, which won the Forward Prize and Whitbread Poetry Award. The World's Wife appears next week from Picador. Her many other awards include the National Poetry Competition and Dylan Thomas award. She lived in London from 1981 to 1995, but moved to Manchester in 1996, where she lectures part-time at Manchester Metropolitan University. She has edited a number of anthologies including Stopping for Death and Anvil New Poets. Her Selected Poems were published in 1994.

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