In Transit With Paul Muldoon (2014)

 

It’s an overcast morning in early April, and I am riding in a car with Paul Muldoon. It is not often one can speak those words, and I try to absorb this moment, the immediacy of having the New Yorker’s poetry editor and literary royalty in the seat behind me.

Muldoon is an Irish writer who has published over a dozen books of poetry as well as criticism. He’s a Pulitzer Prize Winner, a Princeton professor, and “the most significant English-language poet born since the Second World War,” according to the Times Literary Supplement. He found his way to UConn and I found my way to him through the Wallace Stevens Poetry Program.

I met Muldoon at nine o’clock sharp at the Nathan Hale Inn, along with Professor Dennigan. He shook my hand graciously and I instantly felt his warmth of character. He looks more like a well-groomed rock star, like the lost Beatle, than a poet really, with his Buddy Holly glasses and curly hair. Professor Dennigan offers him to ride shotgun in her car, but he declines, allowing me to sit in front instead as he settles into the backseat. As we depart campus, Muldoon speaks of his few days at UConn, sharing his affinity for Dog Lane Café. We chat a bit more, even though small talk with a poet is an event in itself (what can one say about the exchange of social pleasantries, the greetings and the figures of speech?), until Muldoon himself starts the interview. “I understand you have a few questions for me?,” he asks me. I start off by asking him on his views of the relationship between writers and editors. I venture that T.S. Eliot quip of, “Most editors are failed writers, but then again most writers are too.” Muldoon responds, “It’s just as neat to say most writers are failed editors,” and says that Eliot himself was lucky to have Ezra Pound.

Muldoon continues. “Every writer needs an editor. I think that’s the most important bit – writers need editors. You need to edit yourself and that’s not enough. You are not as strict as you need to be.”

Professor Dennigan asks if he has an editor. He says, “I have my wife. She’s very good. She’ll tell me if it’s rubbish. I don’t want to hear if it’s okay – I want to hear if it’s not okay. Editors tend not to bother their writers and they don’t want to upset them, but then everyone gets upset and a lot of rubbish gets published. Somebody needs to tell them, “excuse me, you’ve lost your drive, we can’t publish this.’”

“Everybody wants to think they’re great, but a less than good book is not doing anyone a favor, least of all the person who wrote it,” Muldoon says.

I switch topics of conversation to asking about his career trajectory. Muldoon’s job and life are the dream of many students, but “Best American Poet” isn’t a job you can apply for. I’m interested in Muldoon’s path, as he too, was a student once.

Muldoon’s first job was a radio and TV producer for the BBC, which he describes as “awesome.” “It’s related to the business of creating art, and one can feel fulfilled,” he says. He draws a link between the business of production and poetry: “Construction, it’s all about construction. Creating poetry is about construction.” He also explains that there’s “something immediate” about production, much the same as a poem.

I ask him how he got to be the New Yorker editor, and he says that, “Somebody asked me if I would think about doing it. They called me up and said, ‘We need a poetry editor. You wouldn’t do it, would you?’ and I said, ‘well, maybe I would.’”

He tells us that his receives a huge amount of material, predictably, but explains that he doesn’t necessarily respond immediately. “If you respond immediately, people think you didn’t think about the poem, or they respond with another.”
He enjoys his job, but says it can be quite difficult. “There’s so many considerations.” He also finds himself dealing with people he knows “quite a lot.”

He stands strong with his views of publishing only the best, and not because of names.

I now have an idea of Muldoon as an editor, but I would like to know him simply as a man. My next questions are more personal. I ask him about his musical inclinations. He says that, “Funnily enough, most listening has been in a motoring car.” He says that he doesn’t listen to a huge amount of music, but he does attend a fair amount of concerts. I ask him to name some of favorite artists and he rattles of a list of classics: Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, The Stones, Leonard Cohen, Springsteen, Neil Young. He mentions Cole Porter, and we ask for his favorite songs. He gets quiet for a moment, and I turn back to see him examining his iPhone. “’I Get a Kick Out of You,’” he reads. “’Let’s Do It,’ ‘Under My Skin,’ ‘You’re the Top,’” he lists.

 He says that he listens to some contemporary music, and tells a story of going to see Kanye West with his daughter. “She made me,” he explains. He describes the concert as “deadly.” I ask if he considers West a poet, as some do. He responds, “I think he’s a genius in his own mind.”

Muldoon sometimes writes songs of his own, and is in a band of his own, the Wayside Shrines. I ask how he differentiates material for songs and poems, and he says, “Certain things comes to me in a format that suggest that it’s more likely to function in that [a song] mode than any other.”

“Don’t hang up on me babe, cause I’m hung up on you,” he half-sings, “That’s not for a poem.”

“On some level, one doesn’t want to be writing all the time, certainly not writing a poem all the time.”

I ask him about non-literary inspirations and he says he garners inspirations from films, and explains the relationship between visual media and imagistic poems. “They’re both telling stories, through a series of images.”

I ask him for a list of his essential books, and he says his desert island book would be Ovid’s Metamorphoses. “It has everything, great stories, great images, ideas, quite central to many other works of art.” He is also partial to Ulysses, and the poetry of John Donne and Emily Dickinson.

We close the interview to allow for the rest of the ride to be casual and relaxing, and it is, as we talk about music and college and Muldoon’s travel plans (he is headed to Ireland tonight) but at one point, he announces, “If I die, I want you to know I had a fabulous life, and you can quote me.” And here is exactly that, because that is the lasting image I have of Paul Muldoon, and the image I wish to leave you with.