Carol Ann Duffy talks about being England's poet laureate and her trip to Dubai next year.
'I write best in chaos'
Carol Ann Duffy would like to make one thing clear. She never actually said she wouldn't write a poem for Edward and Sophie now that she is Britain's poet laureate. It just never crossed her mind. She points out that the requirements, as explained on the official website of the British monarchy, mean she doesn't actually have to write anything about royal births, marriages and deaths. It's not a job as such, more of an honorary title, which she accepted in May this year.
"Most poets' diaries are booked up well in advance, because of the nature of festivals, so I haven't been able to do anything new as poet laureate because my diary is full until the end of February, as every poet's is," she says. The question of her alleged refusal to write a poem to celebrate the marriage of the Earl and Countess of Wessex does tend to come up rather a lot, though. "Journalists will get the file out and you will end up being interviewed about other interviews, and so a couple of things get attached to you like barnacles, such as the thing about Edward and Sophie, which you might not have ever said. It's very difficult to get rid of them.
"The question would have gone something like 'Would you write a poem for a royal wedding, say for Edward and Sophie' and I may have said 'Well not necessarily' and then it's gone into the paper as 'I will not write a poem for Edward and Sophie'. "I would find it very unlikely that I would set out to write a poem about a minor royal event. Having said that, poetry chooses its own moments and you cannot say what you will and won't write," she says mildly.
The post of poet laureate is a special honour, held for 10 years and awarded to a poet whose work is considered to be of national significance. Although the role, which dates back to the 17th century, originally required the poet to produce poems for national occasions or royal weddings and funerals, that is no longer a requirement, although latterly holders of the post, including Duffy's immediate predecessor Andrew Motion, have addressed public issues that have seemed important to them.
Duffy, who will be 54 in December, is an acclaimed poet and playwright whose work is studied in schools and who has produced award-winning poetry collections, plays and fairy tales and children's verse. A new volume of Selected Poems is published this month, along with a book of poems about the timeless fascination of the moon. She was made an OBE in 1995 and a CBE in 2002. She has won numerous literary prizes including the £10,000 TS Eliot Prize for her 2005 anthology Rapture, a series of searingly intimate poems charting the course of a love affair. Her first collection, Standing Female Nude, was published in 1985, followed by Feminine Gospels in 2002. In August last year her poem Education for Leisure was removed from the GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) syllabus after a complaint from an examiner about a reference to knife crime in the poem, something she says "devastated" her.
She explains that most of a poet's income comes from performances. "Only a very few poets make a significant income from book royalties. You might get an advance on a book and then you have to earn that advance back, and then you start making money that's 10 per cent of £5.99, so it's not a lot," she says. She is giving the £6,000 annual stipend that goes with the role of laureate to the Poetry Society to set up an award in honour of Ted Hughes. "Because this isn't a job and it isn't a role and you don't have to do anything, I thought that it was odd to have some money attached to it, so I managed to get the Poetry Society to set up an award called the Ted Hughes Award in honour of him," she says, dismissing the suggestion that the award could have been named after her. "You can't call an award after yourself, that would be like the Sergeant Bilko Award, too vain. I will keep out of it. The Poetry Society will manage it."
One responsibility she is looking forward to is chairing the committee that gives the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry, set up by the Queen's late father. "It's a lovely thing to do, a properly struck, beautiful medal. It's not competitive, it's awarded and traditionally given for an exceptional work. " On the evening of our interview Duffy is appearing at Crosby Civic Hall in Liverpool, where she is performing with the musician John Sampson; the previous night it was Chester and the following week it will be a school in Manchester, then on to London for a guest appearance at the London Press Club Ball in aid of the Journalists' Charity. In between all this there is her "day job" as creative director of the writing school at Manchester Metropolitan University.
At Crosby, Duffy reads a selection of her poems and Sampson plays a variety of woodwind instruments and horns with a unique brand of comedic musicality. They are old friends and a popular double act, so the hall is full. Even with her Irish-Scottish parentage, Duffy - who grew up in Stafford and lives in Didsbury, Manchester - is seen as "local" in that part of the world. It's a typical midweek "gig" for the poet laureate, with book signings in the foyer afterwards. Then there are radio and television appearances, after-dinner speaking events, the annual book fairs and festivals to attend, including an appearance at the Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature in Dubai in February next year.
"I'm looking forward to visiting Dubai again. I was there with a group of poets whose work is featured on the GCSE syllabus, including the Welsh poet laureate Gwyneth Lewis, John Agard and Grace Nichols. We read in an international school in Dubai to several hundred teenagers who were amazing. The children were overwhelmed that we had come all that way and it was very moving." Wherever she goes she is constantly jotting down thoughts in a notebook. Her schooldays provide a rich vein of inspiration in several anthologies and she credits teachers for early encouragement and support.
"I loved poems from about 11 years of age. I was very lucky with my teachers in Stafford. I had three very good teachers, Mrs Tilcher who first typed my poems for me - we all know that thing when you have something in your own hand-writing and it's suddenly typed and it looks important and it sort of goes away from you and it's all special. Then I went to a convent because my parents were Catholic, I had Miss Scrivener and she was a Miss Brodie figure. She helped me get a little pamphlet published when I was 16. And then there was Mr Walker who I did my A-levels with who was also very good. They would have done it for any child, I wasn't a good pupil, they were just good teachers."
Duffy was born in Glasgow to a Scottish father and Irish mother, the eldest of five children. She has four brothers to whom she is close, and the family moved to Stafford when she was six. Growing up the only girl in a family of boys, she soon developed the ability to retreat into her own little world and concentrate on writing. "There were seven of us and we had one room so I'm very used to writing with the telly on and people arguing. In fact, I write best in that kind of chaotic noisy atmosphere.
At school, although she loved Shakespeare, Keats, Wordsworth and Coleridge, it was the study of living poets that drew her into their world. "The Sixties changed a lot. I did my O-levels in 1974. At school I read Ted Hughes, Thom Gunn, Dannie Abse and Christopher Logue. They were people in their forties. I remember once going to a party and Ted Hughes was there dancing and I was too overwhelmed to go and be introduced to him. He was my set text."
Duffy, who graduated from the University of Liverpool with an honours degree in philosophy and has since been awarded several honorary doctorates from other universities, was also influenced by the Liverpool poet Adrian Henri, with whom she fell in love. She also had a relationship with the novelist Peter Benson, with whom she had a daughter, Ella, now 14, and lived with the writer Jackie Kay for several years.
She is pleased to be the first woman to hold the laureate post in a long line of distinguished male names including William Wordsworth, Alfred Tennyson, John Betjeman and Ted Hughes. Her main worry was the effect her raised profile might have on her daughter. "I didn't want her little free-spirit, independent life to be affected with that sort of, 'Oh your mum's poet laureate' at school but she was cool about it," she says. "Her father's a writer and she's got lots of writer friends. Also, the school she goes to has a good sense of women being strong."
The invitation to become poet laureate started with a discreet and anonymous e-mail that Duffy almost deleted. "You get an email from an unnamed source asking you to ring this number. Initially I thought it was one of those scams from Nigeria. Then I noticed it said gov.co.uk at the bottom and when I rang the number I was asked if I was offered the laureateship, would I accept it. "A lot of conversations were being had at the time and I knew that I would be in the frame. It would be silly to say I didn't know that. So I talked to a lot of close friends and my brothers. Mostly I spoke to Ella and explained that it might mean a bit more of a high profile, although it wasn't a job and it wouldn't mean I would have to do anything or not be with her as much."
Duffy has four new books out this month. To the Moon is a selection of poetry that brings together lunar poems from Sappho to Alice Oswald. A children's book, Mrs Scrooge, finds Scrooge's widow standing outside her local supermarket campaigning about the conditions in which turkeys are kept. Two more children's books, The Princess's Blankets, about a princess who can't get warm, and New and Collected Poems for Children are also published this month.
She has a clear notion of what she will and will not write as poet laureate. "My view of the poet laureate is a poet who has to be seen to be a truthful vocational poet. If I had a model for a poet I think it would have to be Seamus Heaney, although I wouldn't compare my talent to his for a minute. I think it's about not compromising and not publishing anything that isn't worthy of poetry, for example writing stuff for money or writing jingles.
"I think it has changed. Tennyson and Wordsworth and Betjeman were very grand figures but it was a different time. I regard the laureateship now as something for all poets and all poetry and I'm first among equals. I don't think I'm poet laureate because I'm the best poet writing. I would be very stupid if I did think that." To the Moon is published by Picador at £14.99, Mrs Scrooge is published this month by Picador at £4.99, New and Collected Poems for Children is published by Faber & Faber at £16.99, The Princess's Blankets is published by Templar at £12.77.