May 25, 2015

Carol Ann Duffy at AWF15

           Auckland Writers Festival

“You don’t get to be Britain’s poet laureate by having a tin ear," notes Claire G of Grey Lynn Library, who relished the chance to hear and see the multiple-award-winning Carol Ann Duffy, and tells us about it in this guest post.

Here she is in Auckland at last, netting elusive truths as a skilled gillie might a slippery fish. Without fuss.

Carol Ann Duffy stands at the mike and reads – from The World’s Wife (Mrs Midas, Mrs Tiresias, Mrs Darwin), from Rapture (Text, Tea, Row, Syntax, Art) and from The Bees (Mrs Schofield’s GCSE, Premonitions, The Counties). Some of us have previously read these poems ourselves but we’re spellbound.

She talks a little, sitting across from broadcaster John Campbell, who leans forward as she just perceptibly leans back. She somehow – invisibly – holds that eager puppy at bay, tolerating his fond effusions without letting him lick her face.

“God I can’t recall when I was so nervous,” he tells us, and her. “Holy ****!” He indicates the bottle by his chair and the glasses of some dark liquid that he’s requested for himself and our guest. He claims, a little later, to have discovered a twinkle in the eyes of the black-clad, pale-faced poet. And “God damn it, Carol Ann,” he implores at one stage.

We knew she’d be wonderful with words and she is: you don’t get to be Britain’s poet laureate by having a tin ear. What we don’t expect are her silences. They are magisterial, magnificent – all the more so for occurring at a weekend that is essentially a talkfest, in which even the breaks between sessions are abuzz with conversations. The people who’ve filled the Aotea Centre’s ASB Theatre to hear her are hanging on her every word, but on her pauses too.

“Do you ever think, ‘God, Carol Ann, that’s good’?” asks John Campbell. (He’s just echoed, in a way that indicates he finds it marvellous, one of the lines from her reading of Mrs Midas.) For quite the longest time, she says nothing in reply. Then,

“No.” Another pause. “I was never quite sure about that one, actually,” she adds, in her northern-not-quite-Scottish accent. The repeated line has Mr Midas – the man with that golden touch – spitting out corn kernels like rich people’s teeth.

The whole ‘Mrs Midas’ poem might have taken two or three weeks to write, its creator says. “A lot of things come together before you put pen to paper.... There’s a lot of silence beforehand.”

In a way, that short work and its companions in The World’s Wife (1999) were forty years in the making. At school Carol Ann Duffy was taught about the figures from classical myth and legend, on the basis that they might be useful. They never were, so eventually she set them to work in poetry.

She reads next from Rapture (2005). This collection records a love affair from beginning to end by way of sonnets, which she describes as “kind of the little black dress of poetry”. Barely perceptibly – some might say sexily – she moves as she speaks.

“How true is it?” John Campbell asks. “Does it need to be true? Does it matter?”

For those who are desperate to see the personal in the poems, she agrees it’s there, but it’s like “the sand in the oyster that produces the pearl” – a simile she also uses in her (ever so slightly) more candid interview with Kim Hill on National Radio the previous day.

Carol Ann Duffy doesn’t discuss the affair. She is famous for being as mean with autobiographical detail, or gossip, as she is generous in the promotion of poetry, poets and other good causes such as public libraries, books in prisons.

J.C. is leaning forward again, his hand extended like (but less languorously than) that of a figure in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Finally, the creator of Rapture reaches out and touches his hand with her own. “I’m fine now,” she deadpans, looking him in the eye.

At question time people, including the playwright Roger Hall whom John Campbell enthusiastically introduces, leap to the proffered mikes. The laureate puts down – does she? – someone who asks a question to which he should perhaps already know the answer.

And the last questioner wants to know about The Dolphins, republished in New Selected Poems 1984–2004. Carol Ann Duffy explains that she once saw captive dolphins giving a public performance and as a result “felt very screwed up... about these poor creatures being forced to do tricks.”

How could she not?

--Claire G

Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 17:23


  1. Great post, thanks! It's always a bonus when there are quotes from the people involved in the talk included - it makes for a more vivid picture. I like the eager puppy image too.

    - Zoë.


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