A Conversation with Paul Muldoon, Author of THE BANNISTERS | Interview by Rosie Long Decter

A Conversation with Paul Muldoon
Author of The Bannisters (Vallum Chapbook Series No. 29)
Interview by Rosie Long Decter

Paul Muldoon is one of the most acclaimed English-language poets of the last century. He brings his trademark mastery of language and poetic form to his new chapbook, The Bannisters, published in the Vallum Chapbook Series. As playful as it is insightful, The Bannisters takes the reader on a journey through time and space, refracted through the histories of people, places, and—especially—things. Artefacts are made, reworked, and forgotten; railings become rifle fodder, desert plants send out calls of distress. A reminder emerges that the details and disasters of life are both malleable and inevitable.

We spoke with Muldoon about his sources of inspiration and sites of interrogation.

Rosie Long Decter (RLD): How did this collection come together? Did you write the poems all in the same time period, or was this a longer process?

Paul Muldoon (PM): I’m afraid I’m a bit of a poetry machine. I got up last night at 4 am and wrote a poem. It’s basically what I’m programmed to do. So these poems would have been written over a briefish period. A number of them will eventually be published in my next collection, which is called Howdie-Skelp and will be published in 2021. The title comes from “Salonica,” a poem included here, and it refers to the slap a midwife gives a newborn to kickstart it in the world.

RLD: The collection seems interested in the lives of objects—the way they are refashioned or repurposed, as with the railings in “The Bannisters,”or the way their purposes are forgotten entirely, as in “Salonica.” What drew you to writing about these objects, or what do you think is generated in examining them?

PM: These objects coexist with us. The poem is an object no less than a spearhead or a sardine tin or a scarf. One of the things we have to figure out about each poem is what its function might be. Some are like spears, some sardine tins, some scarves. I’m fascinated by technologies that are lost but may be rediscovered. For example, I can envision an era when the horse will once again be more to the fore and the lost arts of the smithy might be revised or reinvented.

RLD: The objects in these poems also seem to activate memories or reflections, providing access to a multiplicity of pasts and presents. In “The Sheet,” a narrator thinks he sees images from his own relationship screened via a projector; in “Wagtail,” an iron roof calls to the narrator’s mind his family heritage. How do you conceptualize the relationship between the material and the personal in this collection?

PM: We are part of the material world. We are made of stardust. We may even be golden. One way or another, I’m interested in the shock value of the poem. Anyone who has an issue with that should probably hire a bicycle and go for a spin.

RLD: How does this chapbook fit in with your other work—do you see it as being connected to any of your other projects or publications?

PM: I adore the chapbook. All poetry writing is concerned with duration. The poem needs to be of the right length. The collection needs to be of the right length. The chapbook fulfills a function in the world.

RLD: How did form figure into your writing process for these poems? Did you begin them with a particular structure or rhyme scheme in mind? I’m particularly interested in the six-part structure of “Mayday,” which travels from the desert to the spam filter of an email inbox.

PM: “Mayday” is actually a sonnet, albeit a fractured one. Again, the sonnet takes up just enough room in the world to represent a thought and either a slight modification of that thought or a compounding of that thought. It’s one of the reasons the poem of roughly 14 lines has had such a long and robust history.

RLD: The last poem, “Salonica,” tells a vivid story about a woman in a car accident and the state of her car, while referencing an archaeological museum and artefacts “from a past we simply cannot reenact.” Can you tell me a bit about where this poem came from? What interested you about the concept of an object whose “use is no longer known”?

PM: This poem began with the aftermath of a car accident I actually witnessed in Thessaloniki. It’s a scene that continues to haunt me. I keep getting flashbacks of the scene. The form of the poem, which seemed to be particularly appropriate for a recurrent image, is an exploded triolet. I’d never written a triolet until this, so this was even more a step in the dark than is usually the case. As always, it’s only as I leave the poem that I recognize it might have been akin to a spear, a sardine tin, or a scarf. “Salonica” includes elements of each.


Authors’ Bios

Rosie Long Decter is a writer and musician based in Montreal. Her work has appeared in Maisonneuve, Peach Mag, The New Quarterly, THIS, Bright Wall/ Dark Room, and elsewhere. Her band Bodywash released their debut record, Comforter, in 2019.

Paul Muldoon was born in County Armagh in 1951. He now lives in New York. A former radio and television producer for the BBC in Belfast, he has taught at Princeton University for more than thirty years. He is the author of thirteen collections of poetry including, most recently, Frolic and Detour (2019). Among his awards are the 1972 Eric Gregory Award, the 1980 Sir Geoffrey Faber Memorial Award, the 1994 T. S. Eliot Prize, the 1997 Irish Times Poetry Prize, the 2003 Pulitzer Prize, the 2003 Griffin International Prize for Poetry, the 2004 American Ireland Fund Literary Award, the 2004 Shakespeare Prize, the 2006 European Prize for Poetry, the 2015 Pigott Poetry Prize, and the 2017 Queens Gold Medal for Poetry. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society for Literature and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.