Nick Atkinson: Man of words sharing poetry and all the jazz

By Nick Atkinson

Paul Muldoon will speak and perform at the Auckland Writers Festival.
Paul Muldoon will speak and perform at the Auckland Writers Festival.

Pulitzer and T.S. Eliot Prize-winning Paul Muldoon, author of 12 international collections of poetry translated into 20 languages and now poetry editor for the New Yorker, describes Manhattan, Newark and his home of New Jersey as "a series of little villages".

This humble description is typical as Muldoon goes on to talk about his "part-time job" at Princeton University, where he's the Howard G.B. Clark Professor in the Humanities and the chair of the Lewis Centre for the Arts. Previously he was a Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford.

But Muldoon admits his task of choosing poems sent into the New Yorker can be laborious. Given it receives at least 1000 a week, that's hardly surprising.

"There are a couple of readers who work through the submissions and everything that's vaguely interesting, they pass it on. It's always very partial; you're reactive. We get a large number of poems every week, at least 1000, so there's a huge amount of material.

It's very hard to keep up with it."

I put it to him that the New Yorker is one of the few internationally distributed periodicals that still regularly feature poetry.

"If one thought about it I probably wouldn't do it." he replies.

Muldoon arrives next week for three events in the Auckland Writers Festival, the liveliest of which will be Rogue and All That Jazz. The show features Muldoon picking up a local incarnation of his Rogue Oliphant ensemble that provides a jazz-inflected accompaniment to his poems.

Auckland pianist Ben Fernandez and drummer Stephen Thomas have been roped in for the one-off performance.

"The festival helped me with that. They suggested that these guys would be up for it. It'll be fun", says Muldoon, who reassures me "there are rehearsed aspects with the musicians". He's even sent over scores and arrangements.

He's always been a participant as well as a consumer of music, with four of his libretti performed, and he's enjoyed playing rhythm guitar in several bands during the years while co-writing songs with The Handsome Family and the late Warren Zevon, whom he remembers fondly.

"First of all music is very immediate in its impact," says Muldoon. "We're surrounded by it. It's hard to walk down the street and not hear it. You don't see a film in a restaurant, or hear a poem.

"One of the distinctions between the song and the poem is the poem brings its own music. It has its own music built into it".

Conversely the lyrics of great songs can sometimes be, at best, ambiguous. "Prince has left us Purple Rain; who knows what that's about? In many ways it doesn't really matter. Raspberry Beret, who knows what it's about? But it doesn't stop it being a great song."

He doesn't watch TV or use Twitter, but is on Facebook.

"I never use any of it."

• Paul Muldoon's first memories include being stepped on by a horse near his rural birthplace in Northern Ireland where an outing might have consisted of a long drive to see a newly installed roundabout. You can hear more about his home on the afternoon of Friday, May 13 when, for the Auckland Writers Festival, he joins broadcaster Noelle McCarthy and novelist John Boyne to discuss the Easter Rising 100 years ago. On Sunday afternoon, May 15 he talks to Bill Manhire.

Paul Muldoon
What: Rogue and All That Jazz, Auckland Writers Festival
Where and when: Limelight Room, Aotea Centre; Friday, May 13 from 8.30pm.

- Weekend magazine

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter


© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf05 at 28 Oct 2016 16:13:32 Processing Time: 1355ms