Carol Ann Duffy does it for the kids
This article is from 2009.
Recently ordained as Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy wants children to love verse. Kirstin Innes reckons she should have got the gig ten years ago
Carol Ann Duffy’s appointment as Poet Laureate earlier this year caused an excited flapping of broadsheet papers, as commentators hailed the first person in that post to be either female, gay or Scottish. All this boundary-smashing seems to promise a radical reinvention of a rather stuffy job, and indeed, Duffy was considered and apparently rejected as too controversial for the role ten years ago at the death of Ted Hughes. The title passed instead to Andrew Motion, roundly dismissed as the cosier choice. Her appointment is now viewed as a shake-up with The Guardian gleefully referring to her as ‘a distinctly unsafe pair of hands’.
‘Yes, and I take exception to that!’ Duffy says, on the phone from the garden of her Manchester house. ‘I’m a very hard worker. I’m a dedicated mummy. I think I’m a very safe pair of hands indeed.’ When I suggest it seems difficult to imagine Motion, Sir John Betjeman or any of the other establishment-friendly figures who have held the role, writing and performing a children’s musical on the Edinburgh Fringe, as Duffy is set to do this August, she contradicts me immediately. ‘Not at all. When you think of Ted Hughes, he was already almost as well known for [his children’s book] The Iron Man as his work for adults, and during his time as laureate some of his very finest work was written for children. And he performed it live for them; he saw that as one of his duties. Ted Hughes’ example as laureate is very, very important to me. It’s as vital that poets write for children and young people as for adults, particularly in this role.’
In the ten years since the job last came up, Duffy has established herself as a skilled writer for both adults and kids alike with her tenth collection, New and Collected Poems for Children to be published by Faber this autumn. Her inspiration, and the catalyst for much of her work, is her young daughter Ella. ‘When Ella was born I was surprised at the way that the maternal feeling began to find an expression through my poetic language. There’s a very different quality underlying poetry for adults. It’s something darker; you go deeper. I feel that writing for adults is a little like swimming in the ocean while writing children’s poetry is more like paddling. It’s a different way of looking at language.’ Then she observes, almost to herself, ‘but in both analogies, language is the sea.’
Her Fringe show The Princess’ Blankets, adapted from her own book, is an eco-fable aimed at under 12s, a mixture of music, magic and storytelling along with the poetry. Again, Ella is the inspiration. ‘Younger audiences tend to find that sort of variety more interesting than if I were just standing up and reading them an hour of straight poetry. I first noticed this when I saw how well Ella responded to poetry when it was mixed with music.’
Ella, now 14 and a talented flautist, will actually be performing with her mum in The Princess’ Blankets, alongside Duffy’s long-term collaborator, the actor and musician John Sampson. He will also create live scores to accompany Duffy’s readings at two of her three upcoming appearances at the Book Festival. This in itself seems like a very natural step as much of her poetry’s beauty comes from its soundplay.
However, any suggestion that her laureateship reflects the arrival of a new era of poetry designed to be spoken and performed – as evidenced by everything from the increase in slam and performance poetry nights to the domination of rap music – provokes another friendly, but emphatic, contradiction. ‘Well, I started going to poetry readings when I was 15 or so, and they were hugely popular. Live poetry hasn’t got any more or less popular over the years, but it has evolved. In the 1960s and 1970s there were the Liverpool Poets, in the late 70s and 80s you had John Cooper Clarke, in the 1990s Benjamin Zephaniah. These days that sort of oral tradition comes out in rap and slam poetry but I don’t think there’s any increase, or decrease, in popularity. What is important and vital about poetry is that it is always of its time. Poetry constantly reflects what’s happening around it.’
Carol Ann Duffy, Charlotte Square Gardens, 0845 373 5888, 15 Aug, 8pm, £9 (£7); 17 Aug, 5pm, £4; The Princess’ Blankets, Scottish Storytelling Centre, High Street, 0131 556 9579, 15–24 Aug, 1pm, £7.50 (£5).