INTERVIEW WITH CAROL ANN DUFFY
Rory McGowan, Senior Non-Fiction Editor for The Lincoln Review
Milly Webster, Senior Poetry Editor for The Lincoln Review
Minerva Building, University of Lincoln, Lincoln
18 October 2019
RORY: It seems to me that in your career, you’ve done everything that you could ever hope to do with poetry. I mean you’ve taught it at degree level, you’ve published collections, what would you say would be the highlight of your career so far?
CAROL: Oh Lord . . .
RORY: (Laughing) Yeah, big question to start off.
CAROL: Yeah, I don’t really know . . . I suppose I don’t think of being a poet in terms of having a career. So for me, every new piece of work or new poem I start is what’s exciting and interesting about being, um, a poet and . . . one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in that writing life is writing poetry for children, which I didn’t do until my daughter was born, because I only wrote for adults. She’s twenty-three now, and when she was around two or three, I suddenly found that I wanted to write poems to share with her, for her, so that was the most surprisingly and lovely thing that happened to me as a poet, writing for children.
RORY: Oh, wow that’s—
MILLY: That’s lovely.
RORY: Really lovely.
MILLY: Yeah, so obviously you’ve just finished your tenure as the Poet Laureate, um, and alongside being the first female Poet Laureate, you’re also the first openly gay Poet Laureate for Britain. With this, did you find it was hard to balance the idea of being vocal about women’s rights and gay rights and being, like, an activist or would you say that some of your poetry is an act of activism, perhaps?
CAROL: I don’t think of myself as an activist, I just think of myself as a poet.
CAROL: My poems are going to come out of my life if they’re autobiographical; they’re going to come out of my imagination if I’m making up new myths or tall tales . . . When we write, in my case, poetry, you write with all of yourself.
MILLY: Um-hm . . .
CAROL: You write with your five senses, you write with your memory, your points of view, your language, and all that comes to bear on the poems one writes, but I wouldn’t think I’ve ever written a poem for a reason beyond writing a poem, so I don’t think of myself at all as an activist although, um, I’m in favour of activism but I think it’s a different talent.
MILLY: Oh, okay.
RORY: Well you, y’know, your poetry and your former status as a Poet Laureate would’ve, kind of . . . You would’ve thought that it would’ve inspired more people, especially more women to get into poetry. Would you say that you’ve left, like, a legacy there then, for future female poets to follow their dreams?
CAROL: (Long pause) Well again, it’s interesting when people ask you questions because the question comes from the way the questioner thinks.
CAROL: So, you’re thinking in terms of legacy, but I don’t think in those terms, so, I would have to say the idea of legacy has occurred to me.
RORY: What kind of terms do you think in then? What’s the most important thing when you’re writing?
CAROL: The poetic, literary. So, this interview is with a poet. I think in terms of the poem and how I might approach, um, a poem, how I might rewrite it, why am I writing it, what’s the poem about, how do the poem stand in tangent between form and content. I’m not thinking in any way other than in a literary way when I’m writing.
RORY: So the consequences, sorry Milly.
MILLY: It’s alright.
RORY: So the consequences are very much a secondary part then of what you want to write? You write something, you’re like ‘okay, this expresses what I believe, I’m going to put this out into the world,’ what the consequences are of that, what people interpret that as, that’s not what I’m thinking of, it's more about what I want to write, rather than what effect it could have.
CAROL: Yes, when you’re writing a poem you’re solving the problem of writing a poem, so it’s the poet and the piece of paper and the language and what happens in that event in language when you’re writing. There isn’t really the sense of anything other than that when I’m writing.
RORY: Okay, fair enough.
MILLY: I was here when you last came to the University and did your talk in the Issac Newton Building, and when you last came you spoke a little bit about subversion and finding something in something that’s already been written. Is that something that you practice a lot in your writing, like looking at other poet’s work or just like found items, do you kind of try and find—
CAROL: Is what something I practice enough?
MILLY: So like, the idea of subverting things and, like, looking at something that has already been written.
CAROL: So in The World’s Wife—
Milly: Um-hm . . .
CAROL: Which is the book you’re referencing, what I did, and I stumbled into this by accident—
Milly: Um-hm . . .
CAROL: was retell the story from Ovid's metamorphoses of Midas and I decided to do that from the point of view of Mrs Midas—
Milly: Um-hm . . .
CAROL: who's, in my version, in danger of being touched and turned to gold; so how would you deal with that?
MILLY: Um-hm . . .
CAROL: So, it was a story I was very familiar with and I was playing around with retelling to see if I could do something fresh with it—
CAROL: and I so much enjoyed doing that that I decided that I’d do another one from the same book, so I had a look at the story of Tiresias—
CAROL: So, it only kind of evolved over a period of time — the poems in The World’s Wife — I hadn’t intended to do it or known that I would do it. I very much enjoyed doing it and each time I wrote a poem, I’d be dealing with that and then it seemed that it would become a collection, but over maybe two or three years. It’s an organic process, rather than a project.
Now when you introduce, or any poet introduces, poetry at a poetry reading—
MILLY: Mmm . . .
CAROL: So, you’ve got an audience there who might not have read the poem and you’ve also in a sense having to keep their attention or entertain them, you might introduce the poem by saying ‘I enjoy subversing this—
MILLY: Um-hm . . .
CAROL: story’ but that’s with hindsight and after the event—
CAROL: And it’s in a different context rather than the private world of the writer. What goes on in the poetry reading is a different thing.
MILLY: Mmm, okay that’s really interesting, thank you.
RORY: Um, yeah, so you’re, y’know, you’ve been writing poetry for decades at this point. Were there any initial role models or kind of mentors that you had, especially at an early age, that either got you into poetry or helped inspire some of your poems, um, something along those lines?
CAROL: I think in common with many writers, I was very lucky with my English teachers. I’ve written about this, and have written poems about some of my teachers. I had a fantastic teacher in year six at my junior school who was really encouraging to all of us to do creative writing and then when I went to secondary school I had a really inspirational English teacher there who was very good one-on-one with encouraging me to write poetry, would suggest poets to read and then read books and things. In my case, it was fantastic English teachers who really helped me as a young writer.
RORY: So have you kind of wanted to give that back then, because you’ve done a lot of English yourself in, y’know, your tenure?
CAROL: Yes, I think it’s very important to support young writers in a variety of different ways, either with workshops or teaching or poetry readings, um, festivals, competitions; so I’ve been involved in all of that because I think it’s, um, hugely enriching to pledge the arts: literature, music, theatre, visual arts—all of them in the centre of young people's lives.
RORY: I suppose as a final question then, unless you want to ask any more Milly, um, bringing it back to the beginning, you said that writing for your daughter, poems for your daughter, was one of the most fulfilling things, and then you were talking about teaching as becoming something that was really important at inspiring young people to go up and y’know write their own poetry themselves. Why do you think it’s important that more people, especially more children, start writing their own poetry especially from a young age.
CAROL: Well, I don’t think . . . that it’s important that everyone writes. I think it’s important that everyone reads from a young age and then some of those readers will want to become writers. I think that it’s an enriching and civilising and very human part of life to be able to sing, to be able to paint, to play an instrument, to have a go at writing a poem, to read, to go to the theatre, and we’re very much in danger of those things in education withering on the vine or not being properly invested in. I’m not kind of saying that everyone has to write and be a poet, but I am saying that everyone should read poetry and hear poetry and have it as part of lives and some of those will want to grow up and be writers.
RORY: And you’re trying to give them that opportunity then—
RORY: Through your teaching?
MILLY: Um, I was just going to say that obviously this journal is going to be edited by BA and MA students in Creative Writing. Is there anything that you’d kind of like touch on in terms of like, what’s the most important, kind of, almost philosophy to have going into a career of writing, or you said earlier that you don’t really think of it as a career being a poet, but like when you kind of—
CAROL: I’m very fond of something Picasso said . . . in his case painting, but I’ve taken it on board as a writer which is “Inspiration will come, but it must find you working.” And I find that really really useful.
A playwright and writer, Carol Ann Duffy is best known as one of Britain’s most popular and critically acclaimed poets. She became the first woman to hold the post of Poet Laureate in 2009, succeeding Andrew Motion. Born in Glasgow, Duffy’s first collections, Standing Female Nude and Selling Manhattan received instant commendation, establishing her as one of the most significant voices in contemporary poetry. Since then she has cemented her reputation with works including: Feminine Gospels, The World’s Wife, Rapture, The Bees and Sincerity and, as editor, 101 Poems for Children, Armistice and The Map and the Clock.
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