A life in lyrics
Celebrated Irish poet Paul Muldoon told David Hennessy about the new documentary film about his life, Laoithe is Lirici / A Life in Lyrics, which features actors and artists such as Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Bono, Stephen Rea and Liam Neeson.
For Pulitzer prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon, music matters almost as much as poetry. He sees little difference between a poem and song lyrics.
In Alan Gilsenan’s new musical documentary, Laoithe is Lirici / A Life in Lyrics, Muldoon’s life is explored by many of the musicians he has worked with in words written by Paul himself.
The format, described as a ‘documentary album’, reflects the allusive and playful poetry of Paul Muldoon who narrates this film with a stellar array of artists performing his words.
Among those to feature in the film are Paul Simon, Ruth Negga, Bono, Iarla O’Lionáird, Run DMC, Moya Brennan and PJ Harvey reflecting Paul’s personal and professional life on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Irish World got to see the film prior to it screening at Irish Film Festival London this weekend and we found it very moving so we could only imagine what it was like for him to watch. But he couldn’t tell us as he had not yet seen it himself as he was waiting to watch it on a big screen and with a crowd.
“I haven’t seen it,” he revealed to us.
“I decided to wait and I’m going to see it at the weekend.”
But you can’t blame him for being curious and he does catch himself asking us about it a couple of times.
“I shouldn’t be interviewing you about it,” he laughs.
So how did it all come about? “Let me explain to you what happened. The idea was suggested of doing a documentary about ‘my life’.
“I wanted to make sure it wasn’t your usual documentary which is often quite predictable.
“It’s usually based on an interview as a kind of spine and then there are people blathering on about this and that and after a while they all begin to look the same, so I wanted to try and do something that would be a bit out of the ordinary.
“I came up with this idea of writing a series of song lyrics that reflected- some of them anyway, many of them- reflected some aspect of different times in my life be it as a child or in England or teaching in America or whatever it was.
“And so I then invited various musicians to write music for and perform these songs so that’s basically what happened and I’ve sort of put them together but for the most part I haven’t actually seen what they’ve done so I’ll be looking at it just as a regular punter and I’m kind of looking forward to that.
“I didn’t want to see it on a small screen, I want to see it on a large screen, see what it looks like.”
And the ‘various artists’ that took part lists like a who’s who of Irish names with Jake Burns from Stiff Little Fingers, Paul Brady, Stephen Rea, Liam Neeson, Lisa Lambe, Liam O Maonlai and Camille O’Sullivan among those either reading or singing Paul’s words.
What is it like to have such a calibre of people joining him on a project like this? “I was thrilled. Some of these guys I know better than others.
“I see Paul Simon from time to time. I wouldn’t say we’re bosom buddies but we’re friends and I just love what he does. He’s an amazing writer.
“I’ve always been interested in not only the poetry traditions but the song tradition which is for me a kind of parallel track.
“For many Irish people it has a particular resonance and relevance for us because in the Irish tradition as you know, song and poem are often interchangeable and the great Irish songs, particularly in the Gaelic tradition, great poems are the songs, the songs the poems.
“That was one of the reasons why I was thrilled to have a number of the top singers on the Irish front like.
“For example Len Graham who is one of the great unaccompanied singers from the Northern tradition and people like Iarla O’Lionáird who is the greatest sean-nós singer of our time.
“They got involved in it and then people like John Sheahan from the Dubliners is in it, Horslips are a huge band. Moya Brennan and many another.
“You can see that we were trying to do something different.”
Paul recently edited Paul McCartney’s two-volume set, The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present and the former Beatle is one that Paul was delighted agreed to feature.
“I haven’t seen what he’s done.
“We wanted to have a bit of fun along the way.
“One of the reasons I thought he might want to be involved was that he himself was quite interested in nonsense, both himself and John Lennon were very influenced by the nonsense tradition in English poetry- obvious people like Edward Lear that they really enjoyed
“So I thought that for him to read what is essentially a nonsense poem written by me might be a fun way to include him in it so he very graciously did that, so there are a few of my heroes.
“I’ve been very lucky in my life in many ways and I’ve got to meet for whatever reason some of the great songwriters.
“Paul Simon is someone for whom I have a huge place in my heart and mind.”
Perhaps a surprising inclusion for some people would be Run DMC who bring a bit of hip hop to the film. “Darryl McDaniels, funny enough I saw him last night. He’s a guy I met actually through one of his charities and through a mutual friend so I met him at a concert with Aerosmith. He was doing a version of Walk This Way. I don’t know him well but I find him an inspirational person.
“He’s absolutely brilliant. He’s a great guy so to coincide with my period in the states, I arrived in the states in the mid 80s when Run DMC were at the top of their game so I thought it would be fun for him to do a kind of rap version or hip hop version of this piece I wrote. Again I’ve not seen it.
“Do you think I’m crazy not to have seen it?”
We have to say we don’t. It’s sure to be special for Paul when he does see it so much better to see on a big screen and with people than on a laptop or something.
“You kind of hand it over to a director like Alan Gilsenan who is a wonderful director.
“I have worked as a film director myself and you don’t want two directors on a film so I basically tried to stay out of his way and I’ve succeeded pretty much in doing that and sort of let him at it.
“Because you want somebody else’s vision to come to the table, you want to see what somebody else does with this stuff otherwise you might as well do it yourself and there’s no interest in that.”
Perhaps more poignantly for Paul than any big name is that his two children, Dorothy and Asher, who both have musical talent, take part.
“My daughter is a songwriter. She’s a really good songwriter. As I say, I haven’t seen it yet but my son, he’s a guy who can sing a Broadway show so I thought it would be fun, I wrote this song for him Trunk Song so I thought it would be amusing for him to have a go at that.”
Could the segments that feature his own children be among the most powerful when he does watch it? “It’s possible. I was told that they were very good in it.”
Laoithe is Lirici / A Life in Lyrics also sees Paul talk about his attitude to death. He says he is not afraid of it and he is happy to go at any time but he also says it drives his family mad when he talks like that.
“I don’t remember that,” he laughs.
“That is true. I do drive them crazy when I say that. I don’t say it too often but they don’t like that.
“Nobody knows exactly how they’d behave of course but I have been in a situation at least once or maybe twice where I did think I was going to die, on an airplane for example, and I thought, ‘Okay, it’s fair enough. Okay’.
“I feel in that sense honestly my life has been very full and I’ve had a wonderful time and it’s going to end one of these days and that’s fine.”
What happened on that plane? “I did think I was on a plane that was in trouble. I mean I was on a plane that was in trouble and I was surprised at how calm I was. Well, it was a funny thing actually. The plane, that was coming in to land, was almost on the ground and then it took off again. It was kind of weird. Apparently it almost ran into another plane on the runway so of course no one told us what had happened for a while because they had other things to do but it wasn’t what you would expect.
“There’s no point in panicking because it’s useless. If you see the trouble people have getting on and off the plane, it takes 15 minutes to get off a plane in an orderly fashion so to get off a plane in a disorderly fashion doesn’t even bare thinking about, I’ve thought that through and I’m not going to get involved.”
Born in 1951, Paul Muldoon grew up on a farm in Co Armagh.
For thirteen years (1973–86), Muldoon worked as an arts producer for the BBC in Belfast during the Troubles.
Sometimes described as a ‘Troubles poet’, he also spent time in London and the mainland UK when it was hard to be Irish and he was conscious of the suspicions that existed in an ‘intense’ time.
“I did some time in England mostly on the academic front and I still work in England on the academic front. I still teach in England so I still have a lot of connections with England, north and south.
“I was in London early 1970s when I started training in the BBC and it was a rough time and I certainly was conscious of people looking at me slightly askance when I went into a bar or whatever. I never had any real problems but I certainly was quite self conscious of being Irish.
“It was a particularly intense time and it was a rough time all round but I’ve had a very good innings in England and very attached to England in many ways.
“It’s a huge part of the back of my mind too. Those of us from Northern Ireland in particular English culture for better or worse, sometimes it was for worse, is part of who we are, as well as Scottish culture, American culture.
“I mean the way I try to look at it is we’re the beneficiaries of many influences and in my own case, my own writing for example is influenced by a whole slew of traditions, Irish, English, American, poetry in translation, Scottish tradition so it all feeds in there.”
Has Paul seen great improvement since those dark days in his home province of Ulster? “In some sense yes but a long way to go.
“I mean the fact that the politicians can’t get together is- I think the word that comes to mind is- reprehensible. I mean the people of Northern Ireland have been through a hell of a lot and frankly they deserve representation and if these guys don’t want to represent them, they should go somewhere else in my opinion.
“And they should stop dreaming up reasons for not talking to one another and they shouldn’t be paid if they’re not gonna work.
“If I stop working, I don’t get paid. I think basically the politicians in Northern Ireland need to wise up. They’ve been elected to represent the people and the people need to be represented. Otherwise they need new representatives.
“The Brexit thing was such a complete disaster- Is a disaster and it’s a mess for everyone and obviously something that wasn’t thought through and the Irish dimension certainly wasn’t thought through. I think there was a bit of arrogance about how that would pan out down the road and the kicking of the can down the road and the belief, I suppose, at the end of the day they’ll figure something out. Well, it might not be as easy as that.
“I actually feel badly for the English to tell you the truth because I think they were misled initially by people who didn’t even want to see Brexit happen and they were surprised themselves when it happened.
“What they should have done actually is what they did in Ireland which was, ‘Okay guys, you know what? I’m not sure if we got that right, let’s try it again. Let’s do it again, okay? Let’s get it right this time’.
“Because philosophically this is not a time for people going it alone. I respect the notion of people wanting to assert their individuality. Fabulous, great stuff. But I would say the same about the Scottish nationalists, why would Scotland want to go it alone? It’s time for everyone to get together and try and do something about the real problems that face the world instead of standing on their little rocks crowing.
“The problem is you’re standing on your rock and crowing but the water is actually getting into the rock.”
He may have been in USA since 1987 but Ireland remains home to Paul.
“It’s my spiritual home. I spent the first 35 years there, the last 35 in US but I go back and forth.
“I was there (Ireland) last week, I’m going there tonight, one of the great things about the modern age even though it’s problematic in terms of the carbon footprint is when a person left Ireland 50 years ago, 70 years ago they might never come back.
“They mightn’t afford to come back. If they could afford to come back, it took a while to come back.
“If you were coming on a ship, it took forever. You might not be able to take off work whereas nowadays I just get on the plane like I’m getting on a bus which probably has its bad side too but it means that I’m very connected to Ireland and I’m there all the time.
“When I left for America it just happened that I’ve been here for 35 years, I had no idea how long I would be here. It just turned out that way.
“Nothing better came up.
“I love New York and it’s a great place to live. It’s a happening town, great on various fronts which I’m interested: Music, lots happening music wise theatre wise literary wise film wise. I spend a lot of time receiving culture as a punter.”
Paul is a professor at Princeton University and is passionate about teaching.
“I love it. I’ve just taught a class this morning with a bunch of translation students and they’re amazing, raring to go at 8am with their translations from a vast array of languages and actually people say this but it happens to be true, it’s educational for me. The thing about being a teacher is you learn all the time, you’re in a situation all the time where you’re learning stuff. You’re learning yourself and it’s a lot of fun.”
In 2003, Paul was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
But you would be wrong if you thought this would be what he is most proud of.
Family is most important to Paul who is married to the American novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz. They have two children and as mentioned earlier, they feature in the new documentary.
Paul reveals in the film he does not like to look on his life and achievements.
“I don’t really. You know what? I don’t want it to sound daft because it’s the kind of thing that people say and you think, ‘Oh my God, can’t they think of something else to say?’ b
“But to tell you the truth I’m about to have lunch with my son and the fact that he still talks to me and my daughter still talks to me and we have an amusing time is really the thing that’s important to me.
“And I still plug away, I can still plug away at the scribbling difficult as it may be but I say my kids and my wife- I hate the way people say ‘my family are the most important thing’ but the truth is it is. I’m sure that’s true for many people.”
Paul Muldoon: Laoithe is Lirici / A Life in Lyrics screens at VUE Piccadilly at 8pm on Sunday 20 November as part of Irish Film Festival London.
It comes to TG4 soon and BBC Northern Ireland next year.