BIG ISSUE NORTH, 12 DEC 2009
“There really did have to be a woman” Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy
Ten years ago Carol Ann Duffy was allegedly passed over for the appointment of poet laureate – because Tony Blair was worried about the reaction to a gay incumbent “across Middle England”. Duffy herself said at the time: “I would not write a poem for Edward and Sophie. No self-respecting poet should have to.” This year she was offered and accepted the post – so joining a list of royal appointees that includes Wordsworth, Tennyson, Masefield, Betjeman and Hughes – and it would be difficult to imagine a more
From her breakthrough collection, The World’s Wife, with its wry dispatches from shadowed spouses, to her aching pen-portrayal of a love affair, Rapture, she has captured the imagination of the public with verse that is vernacular yet at times sublimely perfect. Her 1992 sonnet Prayer, with its intimations of how the spiritual can be found in the commonplace, has polled as Britain’s second favourite poem. With her numerous stage plays, children’s books and even Christmas carols, this Scots-born, Stafford-raised, Scouse-schooled resident Mancunian has without doubt written herself into the heart of the nation.
Since her appointment in May, Duffy has lost little time in re-energising the role, using the annual £5,750 stipend to found a brand new poetry prize, issuing new work on the destructive effects of politics, commissioning her own anthology of poems in response to the crises in Iraq and Afghanistan, and contributing new work for Oxfam and the 10:10 Climate Change campaign – all in between penning children’s books and poems for beloved daughter Ella, fourteen.
The first female incumbent, the first Scots incumbent, the first openly gay incumbent, Duffy remains nonplussed about the fanfares that accompanied the announcement. “It’s just that thing of defining you,” she shrugs, glass of red in hand, from the glow of a Manchester pub. In fact, with Christmas approaching, a new children’s collection in the shops and her adapted Grimm Tales staging at the local theatre, Big Issue North finds that “the new incumbent” is more likely to identify with Santa Claus.
Where were you when you heard that you’d been appointed?
Well I was at home. Because what happens is that you get invited to do it, and there’s a sort of formal process. And then I had time to think about it, obviously, and discuss it with my family.
Were you in two minds about it?
My only concern was the fact that I’ve got a fourteen year old daughter, but she was very positive about it. Had she not been, I would have been in two minds.
I did think that there really did have to be a woman – not necessarily myself. I didn’t think it would be possible for the people who were appointing the Poet Laureate to look at the whole of the UK and say “actually there isn’t one woman poet good enough to be laureate.”
How have you found reactions from the public?
Lovely. That’s kind of really made me love doing it. Just a lot of support and a lot of enthusiasm. So it’s a really happy year so far, to have been involved in that.
Did you soften on the ‘Edward and Sophie’ question? [Duffy was quoted ten years ago as commenting that she could never write a poem for the royal couple’s wedding]
No, none of these quotes are [mine]. What happens in interviews is that someone might ask a question, you answer the question, and then half their question and half your answer is cobbled together in some kind of statement. And then, as you’re doing now, when someone interviews you ten years later they go on the file, pick out a quote, and you end up being interviewed about an interview you did ten years ago.
You used the stipend to donate to the Poetry Society and fund a new prize in Ted Hughes’s name. Why Hughes’s name, and what was the reasoning behind that particular prize?
Well I think Hughes was the greatest laureate since Tennyson. He also wrote for children and adults, which I do, and I’m very keen that poetry is seen to be something that children and adults can share. I think he’s probably the greatest children’s poet of the twentieth century.
The first poem associated with your laureatship was ‘Politics’, which was associated with the MP’s expenses scandal. Do you associate it with the MP’s expenses scandal?
It was about the effects of politics on idealism, for me. How I believe most people who go into politics do so for ideals and beliefs – change – and to help or make a difference. The male side of my family was very political. But I’ve seen in my own family how the need to compromise in politics can eat away that kind of idealism with wheeling and dealing and smoke-filled rooms.
‘Last Post’ was written as a memorial to the deaths of Harry Patch and Henry Allingham [The two last surviving British veterans of the World War One, who had recently died] Was the poem commissioned?
Yes, that was the Today programme. They asked me to do it. And I said, as I do if anyone asks me to write a poem ‘If I can write a good poem, I would.’ But it happened to coincide with my own private concerns as a poet. And that’s when the best commissions are written. When what you would have written anyway crosses over with what you are asked.
Did you notice the letter to the Guardian claiming that there are far more interesting things to be found in Oxfam than were listed in your poem [‘Oxfam’]?
I got sent it. I was a bit puzzled because I wrote that for Oxfam and I actually went into my local Oxfam in Didsbury, so they were all things that were there.
The Andrew and Fergie plate…
That wasn’t a shoehorned witticism? It made me laugh out loud.
Oh, no, no. But it makes its point doesn’t it?
Going back, what led you to adapt the Brothers Grimm’s tales for the stage?
Well again, I’ve always loved fairy tales – from childhood. And I think I was pregnant with Ella when Tim Supple asked me if I’d retell them so that he could direct them at the Young Vic. I loved the way that they were properly frightening but had good endings. And I liked the humour of them. I liked donkeys that excreted gold, and three wishes where you had to use the last wish to undo the first two.
You’ve spoken about being very much in favour of Christmas. What’s Christmas like in your house?
Well my birthday’s very near Christmas – that’s the twenty third. So we usually have a little party at home then. And then Christmas Eve is wrapping the presents, and I always watch “It’s A Wonderful Life” while I’m wrapping the Christmas presents. And I start crying when the credits begin.
Why do you think it’s important to celebrate Christmas?
Well I think children like celebrations. They like birthdays and Halloween and bonfire night and Easter and…Hanuka and Eid and Christmas Day. And also ritual, I think, is very important for children. And family and coming together and thinking of other people, perhaps. And giving presents.
What led you to update Clement Clark Moore’s ‘A Visit From St Nick’ (aka ‘The Night Before Christmas’?]
I was asked to do that by a friend who was working at the publishers at the time. She must have asked me six times. I said, “No, no, this doesn’t need changing, it’s fine.” She said, “Well, just try.” I knew the original well enough to just be able to do the meter without even referring to it.
The way you use cashpoint machines and plastic Santas to evoke atmosphere, you seem very comfortable with the modern Christmas.
Well it’s going back to story again. I think all these things just are stories. If we feel comfortable with our stories, from whichever culture – and comfortable with hearing stories from other cultures – we’ll be happier.
What’s driven your move into writing for children? I know you’ve said it came after the birth of Ella.
I think one night when she was about two I suddenly thought…I should write her a story, instead of reading her stories. So it was a kind of gift of love as a parent. The first one I wrote was called ‘Underwater Farmyard’. She had a little farm, and we had lots of books about farms, so I suppose I thought ‘how can I make it interesting if I write one?’ and I thought ‘Oh, I know, I’ll put my farm at the bottom of the sea’. So the mermaid was the milkmaid, and, you know…
So that was good. And she loved that and she also liked zoos – she had a toy zoo – so the year after that I wrote a zoo picture book. But the zoo was on the moon, so it was called ‘Moon Zoo’.
I did get the impression that these books fulfill for you a love of ‘making books’.
Yes. Yeah, yeah…I do love the book itself very much. So I’m quite hands-on with all my books.
Do you find Christmas overly commercialised?
Oh yeah. [But] I think I can feel us changing. I’d be interested if we discover that there’s less…crap this Christmas. I think everyone’s learned a tough lesson with the recession. I think that’s just turned it, and I don’t think we’ll go back.