Poetry in motion: Carol Ann Duffy is going the distance

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Interesting teenagers in verse can be a hard slog, but Carol Ann Duffy has taken to the road to give them inspiration. John Walsh joins the laureate who's going the distance

It's 11.45am and the Central Hall in Westminster is heaving with yakking schoolkids. Fifteen-year-olds, with iPods, notebooks and temporarily customised uniforms, file up the stairs chattering like jackdaws, as though at a hip-hop gig.

Inside, some scholars pause as though awestruck by the huge organ that dominates the stage, its immense pipes resembling long steel fountain pens – appropriately for the occasion, which is a three-hour reading by some of the finest Parnassian talents in the country.

Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage, Gillian Clarke, John Agard, Imtiaz Dharker and Daljit Nigra, among others, have been on tour since December, visiting assembly rooms and civic halls, corn exchanges and theatres, reciting their work to schoolchildren from Plymouth to Newcastle. Their work features in the modern verse section of the GCSE English syllabus, now being studied by 450,000 children. Today, the poets appear in person – the word made flesh – to read some of the poems the children have been studying, and answer questions about them. It sounds like a dream: imagine Keats or Milton turning up on stage at a theatre near you, chatting about blindness, consumption, nightingales and Paradise.

On the Poet Laureate's arrival on stage, huge cheers from 2,100 students sweep the auditorium, along with a wolf-whistle from a gallant on the balcony. Ms Duffy, dramatic and dishevelled in a long black coat and straggly black hair, opens with a poem about her mother, ten years before she gave birth to Carol: a lovely portrait of a Glasgow teenager, living for dances, polka-dot dresses, girl pals and dreams of romance. "She always wanted to stay for the slow dances at the end, when she was most likely to cop off," the poet explains.

Next she introduces a sonnet about Anne Hathaway and her "second-best bed" as a poem of "passionate sexual love – if it's not too early for that". The audience murmurs, unsure how to respond to this saucy material, but appreciative nonetheless. "I think the bed was the first bed they got it on on," says Duffy, ungrammatically but brilliantly, to a long wave of laughter. Later a girl in the stalls asks what's meant by the imagery of "shooting stars" and "diving for pearls". "It's a celebration of physical love and these are erotic images," says the laureate smoothly. "I won't elaborate further." Nice try, though.

"We reckon we've read to a million students in the last six years," says Duffy in a taxi later, as we dash to her next event, an appearance at London's Shaftesbury Theatre, before moving on to a third event at the Logan Hall in Russell Square. "Poetry Live! was started by Simon Powell, who died in October, and it's changed the way young people connect with poetry. The traditional way would be the poet going to a school to recite. Here, we'll go together to a town, and all the schools in the area will be crammed into a theatre. A million lives with a direct connection to living poets! If I drop into the Halifax now, the person behind the counter will recognise the name and say, 'Oh – Poetry Live!'"

Halifax tellers, to be fair, probably don't need prompting to recognise Duffy. Since she became Poet Laureate in May last year, she has matched her high-energy predecessor, Andrew Motion, in throwing herself into both composition and availability. Her public statements – about MPs' expenses, the last 1914 war veterans, the Copenhagen conference – have been models of poetic anger. And as for busying herself...

"It's quite missionary work," she says, "these live events – 40 consecutive days since before Christmas." But it must be fun, I suggest, hanging out with other poets, staying in hotels, partying all nights with tequila and chicks, like INXS in the 1990s...

"I've been going home every night, because I live in Manchester and have a 14-year-old," she says crisply. What about when you're in Taunton or Exeter? "I fly," she says. "I get the plane from Exeter to Manchester. If it's Brighton, I fly from Manchester to Gatwick and take the train." Blimey. Poets didn't use to be like this. Do the audiences blur into each other? "Last week in Northampton was really sparky. The questions were brilliant, the quality of listening was brilliant." How do you judge the quality of listening? "It's a controlled silence," says Duffy, "that's very focused on you."

She interrupted the poetry roadshow on 28 January to co-host a "PoetryAid" event for earthquake relief, also at the Central Hall. She told BBC News that poetry was a perfect medium for disaster relief, because "it is so close to prayer, it is the most intense use of language that there is." The evening brought together 22 leading poets, an audience of 1300, raised £71,000 – and had the bonus of a visit from Gordon Brown and his wife. "He introduced the event and spoke very movingly about poetry," says Duffy, "then talked to all the poets in the Green Room. He talked to Dannie Abse, whose brother he knew (the late Leo Abse, MP) and Sarah chatted to Roger McGough, because her children like his poetry."

Has her butt of sack – the traditional reward of the British laureate – arrived yet? "Do you know, I'm only the third laureate to have had the sherry in recent times? They found out, when Hughes was laureate, that British laureates hadn't been given their butt of sack for centuries. I've been to Jerez, with the artist Stephen Rourke, because you have to design your own label. In the churches of Jerez, there are storks building huge nests, so we're doing a picture of a stork in a nest and going over in June to deliver it. It's 700 bottles! I'm giving most of it away to charity."

Do you manage, I ask, as she disappears through the Shaftesbury's stage door, to write poems in the middle of all this? "Oh yes," she says, smiling. "There's so much time to write on trains and in airports. I've been working all week on a poem about a fifth season. So I'm looking forward to getting out my notebook and a glass of wine..."

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas