Carol Ann Duffy can draw a crowd. On Tuesday, Jan. 11, the University of Michigan Museum of Art’s Helmut Stern Auditorium was packed over capacity — students, professors and fans lined the walls and congregated in all the auditorium’s empty nooks. Many disappointed souls were denied entry to the event and, throughout the poetry reading, people constantly rattled the closed doors of the auditorium, hoping to be let in.
Carol Ann Duffy: Christmas, and Other Stories
Thursday, Jan. 14 at 5:15 p.m.
Helmut Stern Auditorium
Yet Great Britain’s newly appointed Poet Laureate handled the constant disruptions with the same air of quiet confidence her poems exude. Standing squarely behind a bulky, wooden podium, Duffy continued through her selected works with patience and a deliberate, calm pace. In fact, she seemed touched by the interest shown in her work, instead of annoyed by the disturbances.
“I was really pleased to see so many people there,” Duffy said. “It was very heartening to come all this way from Manchester and have so many people come to the reading. I enjoyed it. I felt very welcome.”
It’s no wonder that Duffy, professor of contemporary poetry at Manchester Metropolitan University, is so magnetic — her poetry is captivating. The stories she tells are both personal and collective, ranging in subject matter from her mother (who passed away five years ago) to imagined thoughts of the wives of famous literary figures, including King Midas, Faust and Tiresias.
What makes Duffy’s work so appealing is that she uses simple and often comedic language to strip the “Mrs. Fausts” or the “Mrs. Midases” of their unattainability. They become everyday women who deal with the follies of their husbands.
Her use of straightforward language also tears down the barrier between her life experiences and those of others; she can turn intimate and personal emotions or situations into universally relatable episodes. The selections she shared Tuesday night, taken from two of her collections, “The World’s Wife” and “Rapture,” exemplified her work and style.
“I thought that since I haven’t read here before, it would be best to give a sense of what I’ve done in the past,” she said. “I just read my favorites and the ones that are most accessible to the ear.”
Appointed Great Britain’s Poet Laureate in 2009, Duffy is the first woman, first Scot and first openly bisexual individual to hold the position. When asked which of her three notable “firsts” were the most important, Duffy decidedly answered “first woman.”
“I think being the first woman is the only really important one, (because) there never has been a woman. The Scottish thing, I mean I was born in Scotland, but my mother was Irish and I don’t really feel that I’m doing this for Scotland, as I left when I was five,” Duffy said.
“And the sexuality thing, I feel everyone should be comfortable with their sexuality. And I think everyone’s a lot more grown up about sexuality than they were in the 20th century,” she added.
In addition to her poetry reading, Duffy will be presenting a lecture, “Christmas, and Other Stories,” on Thursday night. This will give those turned away Tuesday another opportunity to see her. For those who were fortunate enough to hear the poetry recitation, Duffy confirmed she won’t be covering the same material.
“I’ll be talking about the stories that I’ve used in my poetry, from fairy tales, the Bible, history. I’ll be looking at how I’ve used the Christmas story in some of my most recent work. I won’t be reading the same poems or talking about the same things at all. I hope to read at least one new long poem called ‘Mrs. Scrooge,’ ” she said.
As Great Britain’s Poet Laureate, Duffy plans to continue traveling and promoting poets and poetry. To her, the honor is more of a reflection on her country, not the individual poet who receives it.
“Poet Laureate simply means to me that a country values its poets and that one poet is the representative for all the others. So it’s sort of saying I’m a poet and I’m proud to take this role, because my country cares about poetry,” she said.
Of course, Duffy will also be spending the next ten years enjoying the traditional gift that Poet Laureates have been receiving since the 17th century — alcohol. Converted from the older standard of a “butt of sack” (a large amount of wine) to modern standards, Duffy will be receiving around 105 gallons of sherry.
“It’s given by the Sherry Institute in Spain. So, I will be getting 700 bottles of sherry, but over ten years,” she said.
When asked if she had already taken the opportunity to taste her gift, Duffy responded in the affirmative.
“I’ve tasted lots of it. I get a different type every year,” Duffy added. “So I’m going to go from very dry to sweet over the decade.”