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Interview with Carol Ann Duffy

Carol Ann Duffy had her first work published when she was 16. She went on to write a number of widely praised poetry collections for adults. In 1997 she published her first poetry collection for young readers, Meeting Midnight (Faber). She has gone on to publish more poetry collections for both adults and children to great critical acclaim. Carol Ann was interviewed by Jane Bentham who wrote to Young Writer saying how much she admired her work. Carol Ann doesn’t normally give interviews but Jane’s letter impressed her so she agreed.

From your experience of teaching creative writing, what is it you look for in your students’ work?

I usually look for someone who reads poetry - who reads poetry if you like backwards, by which I mean reads twenty-first century but also goes back and has the ability to read earlier poetry. I don’t think anyone who wants to write poetry can do so unless they read and learn about what other poets have been doing. So I look for somebody who is a reader and a writer and if someone does both then they are almost always going to be good, but if someone doesn’t read then they will be bad.

Can you explain how your poems come into being. Do you have a typical routine to the writing process?

I have a typical routine to the writing day, which is after I take my little girl to school - she’s six - and I walk the dog. I get to my desk at ten o’clock in the morning and I pretty much write through to three o’clock when I have to collect her from school if I’m at home - sometimes I have a public poetry reading or a visit at a school so I’m not at my desk, but ideally that’s what I do. I’ve been doing that this week; I haven’t had any poetry readings this week since half-term. So I write for five hours a day and then I might do another hour or two in the evening when she’s in bed.

Which of your poems would you have chosen to be in the GCSE anthology?

I probably would have included 'In Mrs Tilscher’s Class' and 'Stealing'. I might have put a copy of the poems that I’ve written for younger readers in - not because I think they’re easy. I like them with the same intensity as I like poems that are used for so-called adult collections - but I think there is space in some of those poems.

Many of your poems, particularly in 'Mean Time', seem to draw on auto-biographical experience and have a distinctly private and 'confessional' feel to them. Does this self-revealing ever make you feel vulnerable?

I haven’t felt vulnerable in anything I have written so far. There have been subjects that I haven’t written about because of the feeling of privacy, vulnerability, in the first sense that you wouldn’t even begin a poem. But once I begin a poem it becomes a literary problem rather than a personal one.

Some of your poems in 'Mean Time', such as 'The Windows', create the effect of a voice locked out of normal life. Is it this sense of being different, of being able to see life as if removed from it that makes poetry possible?

It can do. There’s that time when I wrote some of the poems in 'Mean Time' I had had personal changes in my life, which meant that I was moving home and ultimately leaving the city and that can be quite a dislocating experience... so I was writing about that. But I don’t think poetry needs to be outside to be written, poetry can be written from the inside - it can be written from any angle. It’s not so much from where it’s written as why it’s written and the 'why' to me is the sense of excitement or intrigue.

Why does poetry matter?

I think at times like this with all the troubles we’re having in the world at the moment, if you’re a poet you wonder if poetry does matter - it seems a pretty useless thing to do. But then again I think everyone at the moment who is in a position of power just feels powerless, hopeless and worried at the moment. So then perhaps poetry can articulate ordinary people’s feelings and worries and in some small way be a form of consolation or utterance for common humanity - very much in that way as a form of unholy prayer. And for me it’s always been a vocation, its been a companion in my life and I think I actually would feel physically lonely if I didn’t write poetry.

And what is its future?

I don’t know. For myself, I’m working on developing the whole idea of the poetry reading - trying to make that different... trying to come up with new ideas for the actual form of the poetry reading. I think that touches on making it a more vital part of people’s cultural life that readings can become even more popular and potentially that’s the way to get people to read. I think now we accept the fact that people aren’t just going to go out and buy slim volumes of verse and poetry does need to redefine how it approaches people. So I think this century we’ll see a change in how we present poetry and that will affect how it’s written perhaps. I think the twentieth century began that process with difficulty, but it was still done in nineteenth century form...

Thank you very much Carol Ann Duffy!

Read more interviews of leading authors by children.

YoungWriter was a magazine published from 1995 to 2003 by Kate Jones.
We here at Myst Ltd had the pleasure of producing the magazine for Kate.
Sadly, Kate passed away in 2010.