Poets on the road

Carol Ann Duffy.
Carol Ann Duffy.
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As she embarks on a major tour to mark Independent Bookshop Week, Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy talks to Hannah Stephenson about her work.

She believes poetry is our national art form – and now Dame Carol Ann Duffy is travelling the length of Britain with a group of fellow poets, on a mission to bring contemporary poetry to the masses – and celebrate Independent Bookshop Week (June 18-25).

She’s keen we stick to topic: the tour, poetry, and the great value of independent bookshops. Veer towards anything more personal, or any of the recent stories about her, and she politely but firmly declines to answer.She’s the most studied poet in Britain after Shakespeare and has been Poet Laureate since 2009 – the first woman to do the job (predecessors include Ted Hughes and Wordsworth).

While the accolade raised her professional profile, she’s not recognised when out and about, unless she’s at a poetry reading - and she’s thankful for that.

“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.

“It was very good when I became Poet Laureate, in that there had never been a woman in nearly 400 years,” she continues. “I was just lucky at the time when I became a young adult, that women’s voices and women’s poetry were coming into the foreground.”

The subjects of her poetry have been wide ranging, taking in MPs’ expenses, David Beckham, love and sex, the Afghan war, HIV and AIDS, climate change and healthcare. Emotions and real life are at the centre of her work.

“Poetry is the music of being human,” she explains. “When people get married or have a bereavement or when a baby is born, they turn to poetry in those intense moments of being human.

“My own poetry is a way of celebrating and explaining the world to myself through language. You can never tell where a poem might come from, but one doesn’t have to look for it. All poets, even if they are writing an elegy, are in a sense celebrating. A poem adds something to the world, it doesn’t take anything away.”

She is about to embark on a ‘Shore To Shore’ tour with three other poets, starting in Cornwall and ending in Scotland, to celebrate Independent Bookshop Week, with an accompanying exclusive volume of poetry– Off The Shelf: A Celebration Of Bookshops In Verse – which Duffy has edited.

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 published by Picador, £10.

Carol Anne Duffy will be appearing at the Nidderdale-based literary festival NiddFest in August which this year runs August 5-7. www.niddfest.com