Q&A with Paul Muldoon
We speak to the Irish poet who is to take up the post of distinguished professor in English and creative writing at Lancaster University
Paul Muldoon is one the foremost contemporary Irish poets. He has more than 30 anthologies of poetry under his name and has won numerous awards including the T. S. Eliot Prize and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. He has worked at a number of universities and has now been appointed as distinguished professor within the department of English and creative writing at Lancaster University. He takes up his position in September.
Where and when were you born?
I was born and brought up in north Armagh, although my people came from east Tyrone. These may seem like minor delineations but were actually significant, quite sharply defined. My mother was an educator, so she’d followed the job market and, before we moved, had ridden a bicycle 10 miles to work. We moved into this new milieu when I was about four.
How has this shaped you?
I always felt as if we didn’t quite belong. It wasn’t that people weren’t friendly. They were. It’s just that we weren’t from those few square miles that made up Collegeland, a place itself once owned by Trinity College, Dublin, to which the local Catholic tenant farmers had once paid rent. The fact that we were the family of the teacher set us slightly apart. This was an era when the clergyman, the doctor and the teacher were still perceived as having major roles in society. And feeling slightly apart is probably a feeling that many writers have.
Is poetry taken more seriously in US or in UK institutions?
That varies. I’m sure that many UK institutions see creative writing as a way of beefing up their scores [in the research excellence framework]. If you’ve got a couple of poets who are publishing slim volumes every couple of years, there’s more bang for the buck than with the conventional academic who, once a decade, squeezes out a study of those same poets. It’s a dreadful worldview, and one that the universities and colleges must resist. My own view is that the REF is the greatest single threat to higher education in the UK. It has diverted the energy of teachers from keeping their eyes on the horizon to looking over their shoulders.
You were good friends with Seamus Heaney who, like you, taught at a university. How great is his loss to poetry, English literature and life generally?
Seamus was such a force. His death has left a huge gap.
You once said: “For whatever reason, people, including very well-educated people or people otherwise interested in reading, do not read poetry.” Is this still true?
I believe so. Poetry is still too often perceived as being too difficult for the common man. That’s partly because we expect to be able to read poetry without being educated in it. We don’t have the same expectations of astrophysics, aeronautical engineering, algebra or even making a passable avgolemono.
Do you ever contact your contemporaries who are teaching at universities (Ciarán Carson at Queen’s University Belfast, for example) to swap lecture/tutorial teaching tips?
There’s remarkably little discussion of teaching methods. I’ve been at Princeton since 1987 and I’ve not had a single conversation with any of my colleagues about how to run a class. So much of the kind of teaching we do is quite specific, though, so that’s less surprising than it may seem.
You have covered The Troubles extensively in your poetry. What were your personal experiences of the period?
Everyone from Northern Ireland has had to try to make sense of the tortuous relationships of those people in that place. Poets are no exception. We continue to try to make sense of things. I don’t suppose there’ll be a day when everything will fall into place and a graphic with “The End” will crawl across the screen. There’s still a lot of work to be done in having everyone step back and stand down from their stated ambitions. Many of the problems continue to be exacerbated by the poor economy and the woeful lack of education. The single most important requirement is integrated education. Put crudely, Catholics and Protestants need to know each other better. I’m a big supporter of [the Labour peer] Baroness Blood and her work on behalf of integrated education.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Don’t give up the piano lessons.
What are the best and worst things about your job?
I have several jobs but, in terms of the teaching, I consider it a privilege to work with students. I can’t bear teachers who complain about their jobs. More often than not, they’ve no idea how lucky they are. I know it’s a truism, but I definitely learn from my students. I sometimes teach translation, for example, and I have been introduced by my students to whole swathes of literature I simply wouldn’t have known about. The worst thing about university teaching is having to deal with administrative types who are, quite often, nowhere near as bright as they think they are and have too readily accepted the idea that universities are indeed multinational corporations. I’m amused to see the scramble to establish a presence in every hole in the hedge around the world where there might be a chance of making a buck sometime down the road. Part of the problem is that many university boards of trustees are made up of corporate whizz-kids whose definition of a successful company may not necessarily translate to a successful university.
What keeps you awake at night?