Interview with Paul Muldoon

Paul Muldoon has published ten collections of poetry, two children’s books, and several volumes of translation to great critical acclaim, winning a Pulitzer Prize for his 2002 poetry collection, Moy Sand and Gravel. Muldoon, born in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, worked as a producer for the British Broadcasting Corporation before moving to the United States in 1987. Since 2004, he has written song lyrics for his garage rock band RACKETT. He is currently Chair of the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University, where he teaches creative writing. Two years ago, Muldoon became Poetry Editor of The New Yorker. The Lit interviewed him over the telephone on April 7, 2009.

YLM: In America, Irish writers are usually referred to as a whole. Is there any difference between Northern Irish writing and the Republic of Ireland’s, as far as you can tell?

PM: I’d say, in general, there is no distinction between poetry written in the North and poetry written in the South. Certainly we’ve heard over the years—Thomas Kinsella, for example, asserted—that there would be no interest in poetry from Northern Ireland if it hadn’t been for the political upheavals there. And, well, of course many of us happen to think that’s not the case. It may be that there have been influences in one place that have not been quite so strong in another. I think it’s fair to say that for many poets from Northern Ireland, for example in the 1950s and ’60s, there was a lot more connection with what was hap- pening with poetry in the UK, with the poets of “The Movement” and “The Group” in particular, which had an offshoot in Belfast, where a number of poets such as Seamus Heaney and Michael Longely, among others, began to develop. That was a slightly different strain than the one that was to the fore in Dublin at the time, though I think they were also influenced by that. There was a lot of to and fro, back and forth.

YLM: You’re involved with the campaign to save Tara. In a recent visit to Yale, Eamon Grennan mentioned the destruction of the Connemara landscape through residential development. Do you feel more moved by the changes in these landscapes as a writer, or as an Irishman? Do the changes in these landscapes seem to herald a change in the poetry that will come from them?

PM: I think that one speaks as a citizen as much as anything else, but I’m not against change per se. I’m sure there are wonderful changes, and it’s probably preferable to have a roof over one’s head than to live in the kind of squalor in which many Irish for a long time did live. But certainly when we have the option to think about planning, and to think about the impact of a series of houses along a skyline, for example, it’s probably worth going the extra mile and trying to find a way to inte-

grate developments into a landscape. The Tara business is a slightly different matter, I think, in that while it does involve a development, it has got as much to do with the symbolism of the place as anything else. A motorway is needed in that area but it’s not absolutely essential that it take the route it is taking, destroying a great deal of the fabric of what is archaeologically interesting, historically interesting, in the country.

YLM: You have been appointed Poetry Editor for The New Yorker. Has reading all the submissions—the sheer amount of reading that’s been handed to you—influenced the pace or nature of your own writing?

PM: I do have several jobs, as it were, and the fact that I have taken on a number of other jobs probably does impact the amount of time I can spend on my own poems. But, you know, that is not necessarily a bad thing. I’m pretty certain that the less time one spends writing poetry, the better.

YLM: How come?

PM: I think in my case it’s a matter of being of a certain vintage, and the truth is that all the evidence suggests that the longer one continues to write poems–in my own case, it’s a terrifying 40 years or something along those lines–the longer one continues to get so unbalanced. It’s probably preferable that one has less time to do it, less time to commit those crimes.

YLM: Still, in your own poems, you are willing to commit highly poeti- cal crimes. Have you ever worked in prose? Would the aspects that are so signature to your poems come out in prose?

PM: I honestly don’t know. I would love to be able to do prose. Prose fiction. I suppose I’ve never really tried to do it, but again, part of the reason for that is that I’m pretty confident that no matter how hard I tried, I just wouldn’t be any good at it.

YLM: Why the disjunct between your confidence in poetry and your confidence in prose?

PM: Funnily enough, I’m not sure if I have that much confidence in poetry, however strange that might sound. The fact is, if one spends a day or two working on a poem and it turns out to be rubbish, compara- tively little time has been wasted on it. Whereas, if one spends a year or two writing a novel and it turns out to be rubbish, then quite a bit of time has been lost. Still, I suppose there are so many great works

of fiction that I admire that I suppose if I were trying to do it myself, I would want to be as good as Joyce, say, and I just know, of course, that to imagine such a possibility would be a form of craziness. Somehow I’ve got a little more nerve on the poetry front. I suppose that along the way I felt, everyone would be able to do this. Again, I think it’s got to do with the discipline involved. A rank amateur might actually be able (with no training, no ability), might actually, with luck, be able to run a 200-meter race, whereas one knows perfectly well that there’s no hope in hell of running a marathon.

YLM: What poem from the Romantic Era would you most like to sing as a song with your band?

PM: Oh, I don’t know, I guess it would have to be “Daffodil.” “I wan- dered lonely as a cloud…”

YLM: Do you know that’s actually been made into a rap sung by a man dressed as a squirrel?

PM: No, I didn’t! But one of the great things about that particular me- ter, that particular form, is that it’s very easily set. One could sing it to any number of tunes. One could make it sound like an Irish tune… What else is there? I’m just thinking of the Romantic period. One of my heroes from that period is Byron. What about “The Destruction of Sennacherib”? “The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold…” That’s worth looking at. That would be a good song. I’m thinking death metal.

YLM: Say you have a year just to write poetry. Where do you go and how do you live your day?

PM: You know, I really do believe, after what I was saying earlier on, that probably less time rather than more spent on writing poetry is a great idea. It’s a very intensive business and I really don’t think that it’s possible to spend much more than a couple of hours a day writing poems. One should be doing it at a time when one has most energy. For younger people like yourselves that seems to be at one o’clock in the morning, for people like me its more like five in the morning—early in the day, in other words. Then the rest of the day is free!

YLM: What would you do with the rest of the day that might encourage better poems the next morning?

PM: Take a little walk, probably read a book that is not necessarily a book of poems at all, maybe a non-fiction book, have a little swim, go

for another little walk, have a nice lunch, and generally adapt yourself. One of the terrible things that I’ve discovered over the years is that if I do have a lot of time, if I have an expanse of time, I find it very hard to focus. Whereas if I’ve only got ten minutes to actually sit down and do something…

YLM: How does one write about what one doesn’t know?

PM: One of the big catch-cries is that you should write about what you know. But I think just as great a catch-cry is that one should write about what one doesn’t know. Which, after all, is pretty much everything. Recognition is an important thing—to write out of one’s own certainty, we understand that. The terrible fact is that if you know something, the chances are I know it, too. The idea, ideally, is to be open to the possibility that in the course of writing the poem, one will discover something, will learn something, something one did not know.

YLM: Do you think it’s possible to learn something in the middle of a poem?

PM: Absolutely. If that’s not possible then there’s no point in doing it.