Carol Ann Duffy : 'I was told to get a proper job'

She's the first female poet laureate and a set-text fixture, but, says Carol Ann Duffy, life hasn't really changed all that much

Friday 10 July 2009 00:00 BST
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Last time Carol Ann Duffy met the Queen, she told her that Kipling was "exceedingly good". Let me get this straight. Her Majesty Elizabeth II, Defender of the Faith, Duchess of Edinburgh, Sovereign of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, etc, etc, better known for her interest in livery than literature, made a pronouncement to a bisexual single mother about poetry. Now the bisexual single mother is her poet laureate, perhaps she'll quip about "Queen Kong". Or maybe "Queen Herod", or maybe "Mrs Midas", or maybe one of the other witty reimaginings of myth and history that peopled Duffy's bestselling poetry collection, The World's Wife. If the Queen likes Kipling, she'll love The World's Wife.

I last interviewed Carol Ann Duffy 10 years ago when The World's Wife was just out and the world and his wife had gone mad. Seeking poetic colour after Ted Hughes' death, the press had unleashed a torrent of imagined poetic rivalries and sexual speculation, weaving myth and fact into a gossamer web which would have done a poet proud. Bruised by the brouhaha, Duffy said that the next time the laureateship came up she would declare herself "out of the picture". "I just couldn't be bothered with all that media," she says. "It seemed unimaginable that I'd put myself in that position again."

But here we are, in a large house in a leafy suburb of Manchester, and here she is, the "Queen of modern British poetry", now bedside reading (one hopes) for the real one. On the mantlepiece are birthday cards for her daughter, Ella. "She's 14 now," says Duffy. "When it came up again, I was aware that I'd be in the running again, and I had to make up my mind whether to take my name out. I felt the landscape had changed so much that it was important to accept it, if it was offered."

Curled up on a comfy sofa with a nice cup of tea, it's quite hard to imagine that the woman sitting opposite me – cool in loose linen – was once perceived as a threat to the British establishment. The rumour was that in 1997 newly elected New Labour thought Middle England wasn't quite ready for a lesbian laureate. Actually, I don't believe it. Does she? Duffy laughs. She has a deep, comforting laugh. "Labour had just got in on a huge majority. They thought they could walk on water. They had gay people like Mandelson, they were determined to introduce civil partnerships. I find it very unlikely. I think someone thought, 'let's have this as a story', and it just got picked up and mythologised."

In fact, any passing official from the Department of Children, Families and Soft Furnishings (as David Cameron called it in a speech earlier this week) would, I'm sure, be delighted by this suburban sitting room. There are bohemian touches – a coffee table that's painted to look like a leopard, beaded cushions, an ethnic throw – but the overall sense is of calm. Next door in the kitchen, there's a wall of photos: of Ella, with her friends, her father and her elder half-siblings. On the kitchen door, in gold letters painted by the artist Stephen Raw, are words from George Herbert's poem "Prayer". "Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse" says the door, and this does feel like a place of "softnesse and peace". Duffy, too, has the air of someone comfortable in her skin – the air, in fact, of someone doing what she was born for.

Two months into the laureateship, life, she says, "isn't really any different". "Like most poets," she explains, "my diary's booked up months ahead, so there's no room for anything new to get in. What's tended to happen is that when I go to readings I was doing anyway, people are excited because they've got a poet laureate." Well, I'm sure they are, but Duffy, let's be honest, isn't like "most poets". Most poets are not booked up solidly for readings for months ahead. Most poets have not won the Forward prize and the Whitbread poetry prize and the T S Eliot prize. Most poets do not sell poetry in quantities more usual for novels. And most poets have not been living off their poetry – and readings of their poetry – for 30 years.

Carol Ann Duffy has been writing poems since she was ten. Encouraged by "storybook-special English teachers", she fell in love with poetry, and then, at 16, at a music gig in Stafford where she lived, with the poet Adrian Henri. They were together for ten years. "He took me to a party at [the Arvon creative writing centre in] Lumb Bank. Ted Hughes was there. He was dancing with Carol [Orchard], who he must have just married. I was too shy to be introduced to him, because he was my set text. It was," she adds, with a faraway look, "like watching Shakespeare dance." Inspired by the sight of her idol, and by Henri, she started going to poetry events and publishing poems. If she didn't imagine that she would follow in Hughes' footsteps – first as an A-level set text and then as poet laureate – she never doubted that poetry was her vocation. Hughes, by the way, remains a hero. She has even waived her laureate's stipend to start a prize in his name.

Her first collection, Standing Female Nude, published in 1985 (two years after she won the National Poetry Competition), introduced the dramatic monologues and lyric poems that have become her trademark. Both strands have continued throughout her work. It's hard to think of a poet who matches the wit and virtuoso ventriloquism of her multifarious, and often tone-perfect, voices. Hard, too, to think of a contemporary poet who has written more tenderly, or more passionately, about love and loss. But it was only with The World's Wife, sneaked into Picador's fiction list, that she hit a bigger audience. "I realised," she says, "that I needed to take what income I could make from poetry a lot more seriously because I had a baby. It was quite a revelation just publishing in a different way."

The poems in The World's Wife – with the exception of the last one, "Demeter", which heralded the arrival of spring, and of a daughter "with the small shy mouth of a new moon" – were not personal. Nor were most of the poems in Feminine Gospels, the collection that followed. It was in Rapture, the collection that won the T S Eliot prize in 2005, that all hell (or heaven) broke loose. The poems – electric, searing, agonised glimpses of love found and lost – read as if they were ripped out of her heart. Not much question there, I think, about whether the book was personal.

Duffy smiles, and if the smile isn't exactly a new moon, it's like being invited in to a secret, special place. "I've always kind of moved between the very, very personal," she says, "and the mythic and storytelling. I tend to swing between them. Usually, when I've done something that's absolutely killed me, like Mean Time [the collection that won the Forward prize] and Rapture, then I took refuge in the more cerebral."

But didn't she feel exposed? "Not at all," she replies, with a flash of that secret smile, "because I think love poems, or poems of bereavement, are such deeply human, common, universal experiences that in a sense they're anyone's poems. I lost myself in the formal problems, and referring back to other love poems, so I was kind of saved by poetry." Sure, but the poems relate to very particular, and sometimes painful, moments. "Well," she says, "it's both not me and me, I suppose. In my private heart, they're my poems, but I never confuse the two. Not in public, anyway. I don't," she adds, with a smile that's now nearly a grimace, "break down at gigs... "

Duffy has never talked publicly about the private experience behind the poems in Rapture, and she's not about to now. For ten years, she lived with the poet and novelist Jackie Kay. They parted a few years ago, but Kay lives round the corner and they're still close friends. Kay's son, Matthew, and Ella are like brother and sister. There's a picture of him in the kitchen holding her as a baby which made me want to cry. "The central thing in my life," says Duffy simply, "is being a mum."

Ella's arrival didn't just, according to the poem "Demeter", bring "spring's flowers" to "winter and hard earth". It also unleashed a whole new stream of work: not just poems for children, but also fairy tales. The first book Duffy read "all through" as a child, when she was seven, was Alice in Wonderland, followed by Grimm's fairy tales. "That," she says, "would be my Desert Island Discs book. I love fairy tale, actually. To me, it's very close to poetry, because it uses archetypal symbols. It doesn't need plots or explanation. It can move through time." These days, she writes more for children than adults. "Writing for children," she explains, "brings more of your poet self alive. I was just lucky that my daughter brought this magic with her."

This, clearly, is not a poet who has ever suffered from writer's block. In addition to the eight collections for adults, and more than 15 books for children, there have been a number of anthologies. But after her mother's death, four years ago, for the first time she found herself "deafened". "I wrote lots of children's poems," she says, "but it was more like paddling than swimming." On the day that the laureateship was announced, she published a poem " imagining that I met her at the hour of her death". The poem "broke down this huge, rusty, nasty door" and unblocked a dam. Her next collection will, she says, be about her mother, and "personal".

Actually, it's probably Duffy's father we can blame (and thank) for his daughter's crusading commitment to her craft. A fitter for English Electric, and later a Labour Councillor who moved his family from Glasgow to Stafford when Duffy was six, he hated the idea of her becoming a poet. "He would always tell me," she says, "'get a job, get a proper job'. Part of my vocational sense about poetry is to do with asserting the space that poetry can have. It's as important as anything else," she adds matter-of-factly, "because it's the music of being human."

I don't know what the Queen thinks about the music of being human. I don't know what John, her favourite cabbie, thinks of it either. But I do know what he thinks about Carol Ann Duffy. "She's very calming to be around," he told me, as he dropped me back at Stockport station. "Very chilled. She has this aura around her. I was dead proud of her when she became laureate." Well, John, so was I. We are lucky, lucky, lucky to have this passionate, thoughtful, brilliant poet flying the flag for poetry, flying the flag for the healing power of words. And, boy, could we do with some calm.

Carol Ann Duffy will be reading poems and stories for children at the Edinburgh Book Festival on 17th August ( Her 'New and Collected Poems for Children' (Faber) are due out in September.

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