As she embarks on a major tour to mark Independent Bookshop Week, poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy talks to Hannah Stephenson.
It pays to tread carefully with Dame Carol Ann Duffy. Britain’s poet laureate is about to travel the length of Britain with a group of fellow bards, on a mission to bring contemporary poetry to the masses and she is keen we keep on topic. The tour is to celebrate Independent Bookshop Week and veer towards anything more personal and she politely but firmly declines to answer.
Since taking over from Andrew Motion in 2009 and becoming the first ever female poet laureate in 400 years, Duffy’s professional profile has been raised imeasurably, but fame doesn’t sit entirely easy on her shoulders.
“What one hopes people recognise are the poems, and not the person behind them,” says the 60-year-old. “I don’t have that burden of being a famous face. As long as the attention is on poets and poetry, that’s absolutely fine.” Give that her poetry has covered MPs’ expenses, David Beckham, love and sex, the Afghan war, HIV and AIDS, climate change and healthcare thre is thannkfully much to talk about.
“Poetry is the music of being human,” she explains. “When people get married or have a bereavement they turn to poetry in those intense moments of being human. A poem adds something to the world, it doesn’t take anything away.”
An avid reader from a young age - Duffy used to collect her brothers’ library tickets so she could take out as many books as possible - a lot of her work now revolves around young readers, and encouraging children to enjoy poetry.
“When I was in school, from the age of eight or nine, poetry was a big part of what I loved in English lessons, which carried on through my school years,” says the writer, who was born in Soctland, but now lives in Didsbury, Manchester. “I was given poetry books for Christmas and birthdays, and then at university, it was a big scene.”
Some might say her life has been as colourful as her poetry. Duffy had a 12 year relationship with fellow poet Adrian Henri, whom she met when she was 16 and he was 39.
“I was terribly in love with him for many years,” she has said in the past. “And we were always very close - I was with him when he died.” (He died in 2000 aged 68.) She later had a relationship with another poet, Jackie Kay; they lived together for 10 years. She has one child, daughter Ella, who was born in 1995 after she and writer Peter Benson decided to try for a baby.
“Ella’s doing English and drama at university. She loves music, writing and painting - but I think she wants to act,” says Duffy - but any further discussion about her personal life is off the agenda. And so it’s back to poetry and engaging young readers.
“Children are natural poets and see the world in a fresh, playful way. They are great observers and love to play with language. They don’t need encouraging to write, just support to do so. Since I’ve been a poet, I’ve written twice as much for children as I have for adults. I was totally inspired by my daughter. When you become a parent, you are not only sharing a new childhood, but it reminds you of your own.”
Duffy turned 60 last December - not that she’s one to dwell on ageing as a negative thing.
“All the decades are milestones. Turning 60 didn’t seem a bigger milestone than 50 or 40, although I did have a lovely time with my friends and family,” she says. “I like getting older. It’s interesting. You get more experience and you feel more comfortable. It would be interesting in old age to write about it.”
Off The Shelf: A Celebration Of Bookshops In Verse, edited by Carol Ann Duffy, is available through independent bookshops during the poets’ tour from June 19 to July 2, then from booksellers from September 8. Full tour details at carolannduffyandfriends.co.uk