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Carol Ann Duffy: 'I've written more for kids than for adults as I was totally inspired by my own daughter'

As she embarks on a major tour, Carol Ann Duffy talks to Hannah Stephenson about her inspiration, why she's happy not to be a famous face, and writing for children

She believes poetry is our national art form - and now Dame Carol Ann Duffy is travelling the length of Britain with a group of fellow bards, on a mission to bring contemporary poetry to the masses and celebrate Independent Bookshop Week (June 18-25).

She's keen we stick to topic: the tour, poetry, and the great value of independent bookshops. Veer towards anything more personal, or any of the recent stories about her, and she politely, but firmly, declines to answer, at one point saying she wouldn't have agreed to the interview had she thought I was going to ask about anything aside from the subject in hand.

You need to tread carefully with Dame Carol Ann. She's the most studied poet in Britain after Shakespeare and has been Poet Laureate since 2009 - the first woman to do the job (predecessors include Ted Hughes and Wordsworth).

While the accolade raised her professional profile, she's not recognised when out and about, unless she's at a poetry reading - and she's thankful for that.

"What one hopes people recognise are the poems and not the person behind them," says the 60-year-old. "I don't have that burden of being a famous face. As long as the attention is on poets and poetry, that's absolutely fine.

"It was very good when I became Poet Laureate, in that there had never been a woman in nearly 400 years. I was just lucky at the time when I became a young adult, that women's voices and women's poetry were coming into the foreground."

The subjects of her poetry have been wide ranging, taking in MPs' expenses, David Beckham, love and sex, the Afghan war, HIV and Aids, climate change and healthcare. Emotions and real life are at the centre of her work.

"Poetry is the music of being human," she explains. "When people get married, or have a bereavement, or when a baby is born, they turn to poetry in those intense moments of being human.

"My own poetry is a way of celebrating and explaining the world to myself through language. You can never tell where a poem might come from, but one doesn't have to look for it. All poets, even if they are writing an elegy, are in a sense celebrating. A poem adds something to the world; it doesn't take anything away."

She is about to embark on a Shore To Shore tour with three other poets, starting in Cornwall and ending in Scotland, to celebrate Independent Bookshop Week, with an accompanying exclusive volume of poetry - Off The Shelf: A Celebration Of Bookshops In Verse - which Duffy has edited.

After that, she'll be running Manchester Children's Book Festival (June 24-July 3), poetry-reading at the Edinburgh Festival in August - plus she's busy with a new anthology (due to be published in November), as well as her continued post as professor and creative director of the writing school at Manchester Metropolitan University.

She recalls how her father (Duffy was born in the Gorbals, Glasgow, the eldest of five children to Catholic socialist parents; the family moved to Stafford when she was four) initially had reservations when she first announced her hopes of writing poetry for a living.

"He didn't think it was a job. I suppose, in a way, it isn't a job; it's a vocation. He just couldn't see how you could spend your life being a poet, although as time went on and I proved him wrong, he became very supportive."

An avid reader from a young age - Duffy used to collect her brothers' library tickets so she could take out as many books as possible - a lot of her work now revolves around young readers and encouraging children to enjoy poetry.

"When I was in school, from the age of eight, or nine, poetry was a big part of what I loved in English lessons, which carried on through my school years. I was given poetry books for Christmas and birthdays and then at university. It was a big scene."

Some might say her life has been as colourful as her poetry. Duffy met, and fell in love with, fellow poet Adrian Henri, whom she met at a concert in Liverpool when she was 16 (he was 39); they were together for 12 years.

"I was terribly in love with him for many years," she has said in the past. "And we were always very close - I was with him when he died." (Henri died in 2000, aged 68.)

She later had a relationship with another poet, Jackie Kay; they lived together for 10 years. She has one child, daughter Ella, who was born in 1995 after she and writer Peter Benson decided to try for a baby.

"Ella's doing English and drama at university. She loves music, writing and painting, but I think she wants to act," says Duffy, but any further discussion about her personal life is off the agenda.

And so it's back to poetry and engaging young readers.

"Children are natural poets and see the world in a fresh, playful way. They are great observers and love to play with language. They don't need encouraging to write, just support to do so.

"Since I've been a poet, I've written twice as much for children as I have for adults. I was totally inspired by my daughter.

"When you become a parent, you are not only sharing a new childhood, but it reminds you of your own."

Duffy turned 60 last December - not that she's one to dwell on ageing as a negative thing.

"All the decades are milestones. Turning 60 didn't seem a bigger milestone than 50 or 40, although I did have a lovely time with my friends and family," she says.

"I like getting older. It's interesting.

"You get more experience and you feel more comfortable.

"It would be interesting in old age to write about it. It depends if old age arrives, really.

"It's something I haven't thought about yet."

  • Off The Shelf: A Celebration Of Bookshops In Verse, edited by Carol Ann Duffy, is published by Picador, £10

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