Can You Move Diagonally?

September 10th, 2009

Jeanette Winterson interviews Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy,


Carol Ann Duffy is the nation’s favourite poet after Shakespeare. ‘Poetry is our national art’, she tells me in her garden outside Manchester. Then she says, ‘I’ve got bird shit on my jumper.’ She gets up to find a cloth and turns back: ‘Shall we have a glass of champagne?’
Within two minutes the essential Carol Ann is all there: Her certainty about poetry and its place at the heart of things, her earthy straightforwardness, always present in her poetry, and, for such a serious person, a love of life and its good things, to be enjoyed without elitism or embarrassment. When I try and think of a poet she reminds me of – the presence – the person – it has to be Walt Whitman.

She is outspoken, direct, attractive in her ease about what she does and who she is, and just the kind of Poet Laureate Britain needs – not snobby, not class bound, not seeking personal advantage, political in that she wants to change things, still idealistic in that she believes she – and poetry- can change things.

And, of course, she’s a woman, she’s a Celt, and she’s gay.
When the news came that she had smashed through 341 years of male bardship, it was an incredible moment for women, as well as for poetry. She’s the real thing all right, with that combination of untamedness and seriousness that makes her both exciting and hard to ignore. But the Laureateship is an Establishment appointment – how does she feel about talking to the Queen and being Britain’s official poet?

‘I don’t have to write Royal Wedding poems, if that’s what you mean, or dirges on the Fire at Windsor Castle. If you Google Buckingham Palace/Poet Laureate, you’ll see the brief…’ She pauses a moment, ‘Poetry has changed since the days of Larkin – he ‘s a good poet, but poetry has changed for the better. It’s not a bunch of similarly educated men – it’s many voices, many styles. The edge has become the centre.’

She’s right. This is a very good time for poetry written in English, and whether you prefer Alice Oswald or John Agard, Jackie Kay or Fred d’Aguire, poetry now is both popular – in that is inclusive of experience- and dazzlingly rich in terms of language, image, and emotional range.

‘Look at this ‘ she has an early copy of Don Patterson’s new book, RAIN, and she knows I love his work so she lets me read it while she cleans her jumper a bit more.
‘It’s wonderful isn’t it? What I want to do with my laureateship is spread poetry around – it isn’t about me, it’s about poetry – and so I’m going to bring in all kinds of different poets, bring them to people’s attention, use the influence that comes with this appointment to commission and encourage, but most of all, to show people what we’ve got, because there’s enough poetry out there for everyone.’

She has already begun, bringing together her favourite women poets, commissioning new poems on the war in Iraq. ‘Poetry isn’t something outside of life; it is at the centre of life. We turn to poetry to help us understand or cope with our most intense experiences.’
It was her own intense experience of a broken love affair that sprung RAPTURE; a sequence of love poems, exact, agonising, and redemptive. RAPTURE won the 2005 TS Eliot Prize, and reminded readers that the Carol Ann Duffy, whose poem PRAYER is the second most read in the language, was a poet who would go on doing new work, and pushing poetry forward – as an emotion, as an experience, and as an art. ‘Poetry can’t lie ‘ she says, though she resists the modern obsession that reads everything as autobiography. ‘The poem tells the truth but it is not a documentary’ – though she laughs when she remembers her mother saying she should learn to write articles to earn a living. ‘Poetry is a way of being near something. The love poem is really about the person writing it, but ‘about’ and ‘person’ are transformed in the poem, so that it is the reader who can get close to the feeling.’

This feels right to me. It seems that the best writers perform the Indian Rope Trick and disappear, leaving the rope – the poem – for us to hold on to.
What happens to the poet to allow the feeling to happen to us, is not necessary for us to know.

She is private about her personal life. It is well known that for many years she was involved with the poet Adrian Henri, and the two of them remained long life-long friends. Her daughter Ella, now fourteen, benefits from the regular presence of her natural father, the writer Peter Benson, and the continuing closeness of poet and novelist Jackie Kay, with whom Carol Ann Duffy shared a home, and a long relationship. After our interview, Jackie joins us for supper, and its clear that as well as her easy intimacy with Carol Ann, she has a lovely connection with Ella.


‘Ella is the reason that I began to write for children’ says Carol Ann. ‘It started as soon as she was born – look at First Summer in the collection, that was the first poem I wrote for her.’
I look. It’s poignant, beautiful, as the child learns her first words… butterfly, bee… ‘first words/seen through the throat of a flower,’
New and Collected Poems for Children is a big delightful book that ranges from the sublime to the kind of crazy that kids love:
Miss Thunder, Miss Lightning meet in the sky:
Delighted to meet you
Likewise, I!
Do you take hail in your tea?
I do
One lump or two?

The poems can be wonderfully silly but they are never patronising. The language is always as tight and fired with thought as her adult work.
‘I haven’t published an adult collection since RAPTURE. That doesn’t bother me. I am comfortable with letting poems come when they will. Poetry selects its own occasions.’
She talks of her ‘double bereavement, like two heavy stones’ – the loss of a lover affair and the death of her mother, so that she was unable to write for a while, except for children. ‘I couldn’t hear words. I felt deafened. So I walked to a different part of the beach – away from the noisy infested waters. I walked to somewhere quieter, gentler. The alive part, away from the wounded part. I had to do that for a while, and I couldn’t write about my mother at all. Now I can.’

Carol Ann’s mother, Irish and working class, used to make up rhymes to entertain her children, and the zest that the small Carol Ann loved, bubbles through her nonsense poems: ‘At Manchester High School for Cows/the favourite lesson is Mooing-/they all make a terrible row/then it’s off down to lunch for some Chewing.’
Children love learning and reciting poems and I can’t think of a better way for any child to jump head first into language, than with this book.

She has been committed to working in schools for a long time, but she believes her Laureateship has given her more power, and she is using that power as part of the GCSE Poetry Live initiative. From November to March 2010, schools all across the UK can benefit from having syllabus poets come and read and answer questions. Carol Ann is doing all of these gigs, from Hull to Guildford, from Liverpool to Brighton. Gillian Clarke and Simon Armitage are joining her as the core poets, and guest poets like Grace Nichols and John Agard will parachute in and out.

‘Poetry is in your everyday life – that’s what I want children to experience – and the incredible pleasure of language.’

As a child she collected her whole family’s library tickets and used them to get books for herself . ‘I had 42 library tickets. But my adult tickets – the blue ones, were confiscated, when my father caught me reading The Well of Loneliness. I used to wonder what an invert was – did it mean you had sex upside down?’

She read everything – and talks with feeling about her love of DH Lawrence – a writer who became a casualty of feminism for a while. She doesn’t believe that political correctness should select a reading list, nor is she worried by ‘message’. ‘I’ve always liked Martin Amis. I want good writing, not an agenda.’

Schools need to hear this, and kids need directing towards reading as widely as possible. The narrowness of much modern education worries her, and her public role won’t stop her speaking out – quite the reverse. ‘I will go on living the life of a poet – that means being involved, engaged, criticising, and celebrating.’

We have a bit more champagne. She is particularly pleased that she gets to present the Queen’s Medal for Poetry, and unlike Andrew Motion, intends to award it as regularly as she can, ‘because there are very good poets working now, and they should be more visible.’
Visibility is the focus of her plan to put poems in towns. On paving stones –‘under your feet.’ Anywhere where a poem will be seen and read. She’s aware that books seem remote to a lot of people, but as a live gig poet, who likes the out-loud experience of hearing poetry, making poetry available in different formats is a way of keeping poetry present. ‘A poem isn’t a special occasion. Why should it be? Poems in town centres will be like a light in the window.’
She pauses – she often pauses because she is articulate but not glib. ‘Whether I am writing for children or for adults, I am writing from the same impulse and for the same purpose. Poetry takes us back to the human.’


When she was offered the Laureateship, she had no intention of trading the human for an institution, though she was fully aware of the Laureateship’s place in the iconography of British life. ‘There’s the Queen, the Prime Minister, the Archbishop of Canterbury; you can feel a bit like a chess piece. So I asked Ella how she would feel about her mother becoming a chess piece…’

Ella thought for a bit, and asked, ‘Can you move diagonally?’
For Carol Ann Duffy, the answer is yes.

On Seamus Heaney:
Did you really criticise him for using words like ‘plash’?

‘He is my favourite living poet. Some journalist wanted to make a story out of a difference. We don’t write in the same way – that’s all. I read at his 70th birthday, and Ella played the flute.’

On Sexuality.
Does being gay matter?

Falling in love matters – I don’t think it matters who you fall in love with. I am not a gay poet – whatever that is.

On the Queen: ‘
I like the Queen and I like the idea of the Queen. But this appointment is about poetry and I don’t want to spend any more time talking about royalty!

On the Future:
I want to start a Children’s Poetry Review, and I want to get behind some new poetry festivals – like the one I’m helping to get off the ground at Much Wenlock. The more the better. People love listening to poetry – they don’t find it difficult at all.

The Times August 29, 2009