In 2009, Carol Ann Duffy was appointed the UK’s Poet Laureate. She was the first woman to be awarded the honour in its 400-year history. Her new book, Sincerity, is her last collection of poems before she steps down from the laureateship in May 2019. It was written over a period of two years and contains the lyrical poignancy, humour and formal diversity we have come to expect from her.
Many of the poems are about a poet exploring her relationship to politics, poetry itself, and family life. Some poems are intensely personal, such as ‘Empty Nest’, about the ‘shy sorrow’ of contemplating a house after the departure of a child. The poem is reminiscent of Larkin’s ‘Home is so sad’. There is also Duffy the wordsmith, in poems like ‘Swearing In’, composed almost entirely of kennings and which explores the hidden meanings of language in the context of a presidential inauguration ceremony. All in all, Sincerity is an artwork of comic excellence and melancholy beauty.
Duffy was born in Lennoxtown, Glasgow, in 1955. Her parents moved to Stafford when she was five-years-old. At eighteen, after she completed her A Levels, she left home and lived in Liverpool. She studied philosophy at the city’s university. She won the National Poetry Competition in 1983. The publication of Duffy’s first collection, Standing Female Nude, two years later announced her as a poet with a clean, sharp style and a remarkable skill for inhabiting different voices. Poems like ‘Comprehensive’ and ‘Education for Leisure’ quickly became part of the school syllabus.
This talent was fine-tuned in her subsequent collections, Selling Manhattan (1987), The Other Country (1990) and Mean Time (1993). After the birth of her daughter in 1995, Duffy also became a prolific writer of books for children. In 1996, she moved to Manchester, where she still lives. As part of her role as Creative Director at Manchester Metropolitan University, she devised the Manchester Children’s Book Festival. Alongside this, she has continued publishing poetry of the highest standard, including the collection Rapture, a sequence of love poems. Indeed, it was poet Sean O’Brien who once wrote, ‘Poetry, like love, depends on a kind of recognition. So often with Duffy does the reader say, “Yes, that’s it exactly.”’
One of Duffy’s particular poetic talents is her ability to enfold the political within the personal without undermining the integrity of her imaginative vision. This is perhaps why she was such an apt choice for poet laureate. As Poet Laureate she has frequently published in newspapers and radio to ensure poetry can still be read and heard in the ‘national babble’ of our times, and also used her position to raise the profile of other poets. Duffy gives regular live readings of her work. She often reads from the 1999 collection, The World’s Wife, which, in poems like ‘Mrs Midas and Mrs Tiresias’, gives voice to fictive and real spouses. It offers a witty unpicking of the relationship between and within the sexes.
Duffy is a vocal supporter of independent bookshops. In recent years, she has teamed up with other poets, including Jackie Kay, Imtiaz Dharker and Gillian Clarke, to set out on reading tours of independent bookshops in the UK. It was only apposite then that when Nick Major met Duffy in her publisher’s office on National Poetry Day in October, she was seated before five or six piles of A4 paper. She was midway through signing a few thousand tip-in sheets, to be inserted in special hard back green cloth editions of Sincerity that will be distributed to independent bookshops across the country. On that same day, a special red post box was revealed in Stafford, her home town, commemorated with lines from Duffy’s poems.
‘I remember the sounds of the ships on the Clyde, I remember big black sooty buildings, and the sound of the cold steps of the tenements.’
Duffy, pen-in-hand, was wearing a black dress and blue earrings. She has dark curly hair and striking amber eyes. She talked in a slow thoughtful voice, occasionally pausing mid-sentence to glance out of the indoor window into the publisher’s office. She has a down-to-earth, practical approach to poetry and spoke in clear and concise sentences about the freedom of poetic form, the hallucinatory nature of childhood, and her habit of every year sending a bottle of sherry to the Queen.
SRB: Can we begin by talking about the time span within which these new poems were written?
Carol Ann Duffy: I would say most of the work was written over a period of two years or so, although there are a couple of revised poems which were written earlier, and which weren’t in previous collections. One in particular, ‘Dark School’, is a memory of a convent school I attended. Later, it was turned from a girls’ school to a care home, and my father actually died in my old classroom. It is a strange poem that came back to me, and I revisited it with that experience, which is very odd, but it felt necessary to include it.
There seems to be a certain flow to the poems in Sincerity. The quieter reflective poems are at the beginning and end; there are some punchier political poems in the middle.
Two things that are exciting about writing poetry are, one, writing a single poem and going into the world of creating that poem, and all the decision and revisions you make. For me, that’s the best part of writing. At some point, you might decide to publish them. In my case, as I’m near the end of this decade as Poet Laureate, I wanted to publish a book. The other excitement comes in where you place the poems in the book. There is a lot of moving them around and seeing how poems lie next to each other and how they might have some kind of conversation or journey. The poems in my books are never published in the order they were written. In Sincerity, I wanted to explore myself. If you define the word sincerity, it means to speak or act out of one’s beliefs, thoughts and feelings. There is also a folk etymology of the word, which means ‘without wax’, probably disputed by the OED. It goes back to the practice of sculptors in Rome or Greece who would use wax to cover up flaws in their sculptures, so it means there’s no artifice or fakery. I wanted to speak as myself both personally and as a citizen. I think the past two years with the twin evils of Brexit and Trump have been very stressful. Politics presses in on the personal, even if you’re not writing political poems.
In your collection The Bees (2011) there is a poem called ‘Poetry’. The first line is, ‘I couldn’t see Guinness and not envisage a nun.’ It suggests that writing a poem begins with an associative act, linking images.
Gosh, there are so many starting points. That is quite light verse, the idea of the nun’s habit looking like a pint of Guinness, and vice versa. Sometimes something you see can trigger a line, like Larkin’s famous poem about the trees ‘coming into leaf/ like something almost being said.’ He sees the budding tree and thinks of the edge of utterance. That image will have prompted his poem, I’m sure. Sometimes it can be a sound, a scrap of language, something one reads, a painting, a memory. It is the aliveness of being human that produces the poetry. I imagine it is the same for composers or painters. Whatever medium you work in, you’ll be drawing from all the senses, and the mental and spiritual. I never think of myself as a poet who has one area where I go to for poetry.
Your work is known for its formal diversity. In this collection, for example, there is even sestina, a kind of poem I always think must be hell to write. Do you ever set out to write in a particular form?
No. That one became a sestina just because of the first two lines, ‘Where do they keep coming from, these arseholes/ who, when we were young, were the gatekeepers?’ I kept thinking about how these politicians, like Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, must have been children once. How do they suddenly appear fully formed as the same old bullshitters in suits we remember from Thatcher’s era? I found the litany of abuse I was using fell into a sestina, which is why I called it ‘A Formal Complaint’. Some poems seem to fall naturally into a sonnet form, and that is perhaps because of what they’re about. I think it was Tennyson’s son who called a sonnet ‘a moment’s monument’. There can be moments, an incident or a day that seem to want to be sonnets. The poem itself seems to go to a form like iron filings to a magnet. I will often choose the shape of the poem when I’m a little way into it. I make use of the haiku in two of the poems in Sincerity. One is about needlework, and I think of the haiku as little stitches. Some poems will seemingly have no form apart from following the rhythms of a voice.
Once a poem has found its form, does that aid the writing of it?
Yes, once you’re in a form you have to be more inventive because you are caged in that form. You have to think about what movements and acts of dynamism you can make within that space. Whereas, if you are freer, you can do anything. I find the confinement energizing.
From your earliest publications, through to The World’s Wife and then this one in poems like ‘Scarecrow’ and ‘Clerk of Hearts’, you’ve used the dramatic monologue. Do you know why you are drawn to that form?
I suppose they are monologues, but they are both about the vocation of poetry and being a poet, so I think of those two as masks or versions of myself. The Clerk of Hearts is the shadowy presence of the poet through the human, and The Scarecrow is the mad inventiveness and poverty of the poet. Poetry is the music of being human. When I was young I was very interested in voice, how we reveal and conceal, share and exclude, just in our way of talking, so a lot of my poems were drawn to a particular voice.
Eliot said ‘the music of poetry must be a music latent in the common speech of your time.’ Are you sympathetic to that idea?
Yes, very much. It goes back earlier than that, to Wordsworth and Coleridge in the Lyrical Ballads, then to Shakespeare, and earlier again, with that sense of poetry coming out of the oral tradition. When we read poetry, it is not just flat words on the page. There is a voice that we hear in our heads, an internal music. Ordinary speech is one of the colours on the palette. I can’t see why you wouldn’t use it. I wouldn’t know what else to do.
A lot of the poems in Sincerity seem to place the narrator within nature.
I write a lot in the garden, from May through to September. That’s the time of the year when I try to be the least busy. I tend to be most busy between late September and the end of February, and May to September tend to be home-based. I was aware when I looked through the poems that a lot were written in the garden. I think in one of the poems I use the term, ‘think like a garden’. I do feel a closeness to nature and an equivalent anxiety about it. Without choosing it, it is just part of the vibrations on my skin. I try to listen to myself, but go into writing without an agenda; at best one hopes the poems one writes will surprise one.
You live in Manchester and you work at Manchester Metropolitan University. Is that a teaching role?
I teach the poets who are doing creative writing for their MAs, but I also have the role of Creative Director, which is to do with poetry going out of the university. That role involves organizing poetry readings at the Royal Exchange Theatre so that our students get to read with respected published poets. I have just started something new called The People’s Poetry Lectures, where we have a poet lecturing on a poet: Gillian Clarke on Dylan Thomas, Michael Symmons Roberts on Auden, Andrew McMillan on Thom Gunn. We hold these in a hotel opposite the university so that people in the bar or members of the public, as well as academics, can come and hear a very accessible lecture with a glass of wine or a pint. There are a few other things: the Manchester Children’s Book Festival, the Manchester Poetry Prize and the Manchester Fiction Prize.
Does working with new poets enable you to see the direction of contemporary poetry? Recently, Sean O’Brien told me that, among his students, he was seeing ‘a lot of impassioned attitude’, but that poetry as a craft, an ‘accumulating body of skills,’ seemed very unfashionable.
A lot of it is being young. When I was young I wrote impassioned poetry. It probably wasn’t very good, but you have those intense feelings when you’re young. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with them coming out in young poets. If they are going to be poets, they will move beyond that and find a way to harness that passion. I think poetry is changing very much. We now have spoken word and Instagram poets who are getting huge audiences. That is going to have an effect on poetry. In my case, I have worked with a poetry business in Sheffield to publish – by next May – twenty-four pamphlets of new poets I’ve come across. They are called the Laureate’s Choice pamphlets. They are all different, but the one thing that is important to me is that the poems work on the page as well as in performance. When I work with my students, I stress the importance of reading. It’s not possible to write without reading, no more than it is possible to play football without watching it. You need to know the rules, the craft, what’s possible and what people have done in the past, before you can break into new kinds of poetry. Call me old-fashioned.
Do you ever write out of a sense of anger or injustice?
I never write when I’m in any kind of mood, when I’m upset or feeling any strong emotions. To take, for instance, ‘Swearing In’. You will have noticed it is constructed of kennings, so obviously I was being very literary when I wrote that. I couldn’t have written that if I was all over the place. It’s the old Wordsworth cliché, emotion recollected in tranquillity. The original emotion has to be there as a homeopathic tincture, but it mustn’t be the whole bottle.
Last year your Christmas poem was called ‘Pablo Picasso’s Noel’. Do you think poetry can, in some sense, keep the European spirit alive at a time when it seems to be on the wane?
I am in agreement with the director Nick Hyntner that Brexit will be catastrophic for the Arts. Already artists and performers are experiencing problems with visas into the UK. As a citizen and as a poet I think of myself as European and British. Many of the poets I know consider themselves to be European Scots or European Welsh, and so on.
Do you remember much about the world into which you were born?
I was born in a place called Lennoxtown Castle. I think it is outside Glasgow. I lived in Glasgow until I was five. I only remember sensory sounds or glimpses. I remember the sounds of the ships on the Clyde. I remember big black sooty buildings, and the sound of the cold steps of the tenements.
Why did your parents move house?
My mum didn’t like living in the city. My father’s job was as a fitter, and he got a job with English Electric, who in those days had a small factory in Stafford. It is a small market town in the Midlands. It had a cattle market on Tuesdays. We used to watch the cows and pigs being auctioned. When I moved, there were three children. Eventually, I had four younger brothers. I write about it in the book, a poem called ‘Junction 13’.
There is also a poem called Frank, about your father singing Sinatra songs after coming in from a night out. Did your dad look like Old Blue Eyes?
He was much better looking than Frank Sinatra, but he fancied himself as a sort of pub singer, so when he’d had a few drinks he’d sing songs like ‘My Way’, which is what that poem is about, and he liked singing Perry Como. He was tall, dark and handsome, and he liked a party. My parents stayed in Stafford, in that same house, until they died.
How early on did you know poetry would be central to your life?
Very early on. By the time I was seven years old I knew I loved reading and that edged into writing. I really started writing poetry properly when I was ten. I know this because my teacher, Mrs Tilscher, whom I’ve written a poem about, typed six of my poems for me when I was in her class. It’s nice to be able to date that.
Did you read much contemporary poetry at school? Ted Hughes and Larkin had both published by then.
As a teenager, Hughes, Larkin and Thom Gunn were set texts in secondary school. Before that, it would have been Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Thomas Hardy, Keats, Kipling.
Any female poets?
Elizabeth Bishop, maybe, but I really started to read women poets when I was at university. Poets like Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov, Plath, and then poets closer to home like Anne Stevenson, Fleur Adcock and a bit later Liz Lochhead, who was doing poetry readings that were very popular in the 1970s.
Why did you choose to study philosophy at university?
I can’t remember. I think I thought it was something else. I should have done English Literature. I enjoyed philosophy as I got to the end of it, but eighteen-years-old is probably a bit young to start engaging with Kant and Wittgenstein. I wish I had done English Literature because I have had to spend the rest of my life filling in the gaps I would have had filled in at university, particularly with novels.
After university, did you have any sense that you could make a semblance of a living from being a poet?
I applied for a writer-in-residency, which I got, which was under a thing called a C. Day Lewis fellowship, which put young writers in schools to do workshops. I got an Eric Gregory Award for poets under thirty to do some readings. I did what young poets still do now. It was a kind of hand-to-mouth existence.
In Sincerity, there is a poem called ‘Empty Nest’, about a child leaving home. How has having a child affected your life, both personally and as writer?
Having a child transformed my life. I’d always wanted to have a child. Being a mother has been the most joyful, wonderful part of my life. Once I was a mother, it opened up a whole new way of writing. It made me start writing for children, and I think I’ve now written more for children than I have for adults. Because of that lovely ritual of reading to your child at bedtime, I thought, I should write Ella a book. I was already making up stories for her anyway. The first book was a picture book called Underwater Farmyard. Then I wrote one called Moon Zoo. I started writing poems for her. Then I wrote more picture books, and fairy tales and so on and so forth. I also worked with Tim Supple on a theatre production of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Having a child reminds you of your own childhood. You see it from the other side. It brings so much back. Everything is new to them. I remember going into the garden to look for ladybirds and caterpillars. I couldn’t see any, but Ella could see dozens because her senses weren’t knackered. Childhood is so hallucinatory, and long.
Why do you think fairy tales have endured, especially for children?
They are our first stories – a kind of safe danger. Harry Potter is rooted in fairy tale.
You have been Poet Laureate since 2009. Does the post come with any formal expectations
The only formal duty for the Poet Laureate is to chair the committee that awards the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. That medal was set up by the then Poet Laureate John Masefield with the Queen’s father George VI. It’s the most royal connection left. It’s an honour, it’s not a job. I think the understanding is that the Poet Laureate should interpret the role in their own way. Sometimes I have felt the voice of poetry is needed, so, for example, I wrote a poem about the Hillsborough verdict. I thought that was important. There have been poems I have written where I have thought, I should share that. There is no requirement to write anything. That came from when Wordsworth was appointed. He asked that if he were Laureate that it would be agreed he wouldn’t have to write any poems.
One of the perks is that you get a healthy amount of sherry, is that right?
Yes, sherry from Jerez in Spain. It’s a convoluted story. It used to come from the king or queen directly to the poet. It stopped hundred years ago, but when Ted Hughes became Laureate the people who made sherry in Jerez revived the tradition. They give it directly to the poet, so I now send the Queen sherry every Christmas rather than the other way around.
In Sincerity, there is a funny poem called ‘The Monkey’. It describes the role as having the potential of being a burden but becoming a catalyst for ideas?
Oh yeah, that is a true story. It isn’t about being Laureate as such, though I make a joke at the end. I wandered into an evil part of Marrakech that is full of snake charmers. This man rushed up, put a monkey on me and wanted money, but I liked the monkey. That’s how the poem came about. It was just a humorous thought. I thought, I could never go back and just live in Marrakech with my monkey. I’m taking the piss out of myself with that one. I say my next book’s going to be The World’s Woof. I wrote it in a rooftop in Marrakech over a period of four days.
Your time in office, as it were, ends in May 2019. Who actually decides on the next Laureate?
I think there are soundings made. I think various organizations, community organizations, and arts bodies, like the Poetry Society, are consulted, but the final approval is with the Queen because the Laureate is a member of the royal household, one of the oldest roles. I think it’s nice that it goes back so far and it is in the fabric [of the country]. Other countries, like America, now have poet laureates too.
Will you be sad to leave the post?
No. I have absolutely loved doing it, particularly being able to represent poets and encourage other poets, and put poetry’s voice into the national babble, but I will be happy to do new things and perhaps be a bit more selfish.