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Portadown's Pulitzer Prize-winner on Van Morrison, MLA pay and Donald Trump

Ahead of appearing at this month's Belfast International Arts Festival, Portadown-born poet Paul Muldoon talks to Ivan Little about his epic 16-verse tribute to the city, working with his idol Van Morrison, MLAs' pay ... and why he thinks Donald Trump is on the way out

Portadown's Pulitzer Prize-winner Paul Muldoon, who's been hailed as one of the world's most gifted poets since the war, sips his green tea gingerly as he starts to talk about his newest work, a translation of what he says is one of the greatest-ever pieces of Irish poetry.

Paul Muldoon is in no little pain from a nagging injury to his tongue, but after being assured that he doesn't sound odd and that his mellifluous voice is in good working order, he explains why he's so thrilled about bringing The Lament for Art O Leary to The Mac theatre as part of the Belfast International Arts Festival.

And sitting in a quiet corner of The Mac's cafe, the New York city-based writer can't disguise his excitement at having musical heroes from his youth as his collaborators on the translation of the love poem Caoineadh Airt Ui Laoghaire.

Members of the iconic Celtic rock group Horslips have composed the music and will be playing on stage at The Mac to accompany the performance.

It's been a match made in musical and poetry heaven for Paul, who says: "I used to go to see Horslips in Belfast all the time. They were a band who had a terrific impact on this country. I remember hearing The Edge from U2 once saying that, before Horslips, everything was in black and white, while after them everything was in Technicolour."

The 18th-century poem about Art O'Leary tells the intensely moving story of how the soldier was killed after a dispute over a horse he'd brought back to Ireland from fighting as a Hussar in the Austrian-Hungarian war.

Under the Penal Laws, Catholics weren't allowed to own horses valued at more than £5, and a Protestant landowner and sheriff in Co Cork, Abraham Morris, demanded to buy the animal from O'Leary, who refused to sell it, which sealed his fate.

Morris gave the orders to kill O'Leary, whose widow Eibhlin Dubh Ni Chonaill, an aunt of the first major Irish nationalist leader Daniel O'Connell, wrote a lengthy lament for her husband.

Paul Muldoon, who's 67, first heard the love poem at school in Armagh and was intrigued.

He initially attempted to translate it around 1975, concentrating on the central section, where Eibhlin finds her husband mortally wounded.

He says: "She was so distraught that she lay down beside him and, as there was no way to staunch the blood, she cupped her hands and drank it.

"That image is one of the most striking in the whole history of Irish literature."

Paul recently decided to return to the poem with a view to another translation, and at its staged reading at The Mac on November 2, the poet will turn actor to portray Art O'Leary's father, with actresses Lisa Dwan and Ruth Smith playing Art's wife and sister respectively.

Paul says: "The translation is faithful to the original, but I've re-sequenced the poem to play up the dramatic tensions within it.

"It's a slightly more theatrical look at what is a very troubling and sad story that is shot through with a woman's love for her husband.

"It covers a huge amount of ground emotionally in a very short time."

A couple of days before the Mac performance, Paul has another festival engagement on October 31, when he and fellow poet Michael Longley will pay tribute to one of Belfast's most celebrated writers, John Hewitt, in the pub that bears his name.

Paul says: "John was a father, or grandfather, figure to us. We used to spend a lot of time hanging out with him, and we were all on the Arts Council literature committee together."

Paul met Michael Longley, 50 years ago, when he also encountered Seamus Heaney for the first time.

"Seamus, Michael and singer David Hammond were touring their Room to Rhyme show of poems and song in the Armagh County Museum. I was a 16-year-old schoolboy in the city and I met them all afterwards." The story goes that a teacher who introduced Paul to Heaney at the museum told him: "This is the young man who is going to be even better than you."

Paul went on to study under Heaney and Michael's wife, Edna Longley, at Queen's University Belfast, and they were a massive influence on him.

And he soon found himself surrounded by a veritable plethora of budding young poets, like Ciaran Carson, Medbh McGuckian and Frank Ormsby.

He says: "It was a remarkable flowering of a new generation of poets, to join Derek Mahon, Michael and Edna Longley and, of course, Heaney."

However, Paul, who was at Queen's from 1969 to 1973, says he wasn't as good a student as he might have been.

The Troubles were just starting and he remembers 1972 with a shudder. It was the worst year of the conflict, with 497 people killed.

He recalls: "It was horrible. I was living in Fitzroy Avenue and it was scary. Yet we managed.

"We had some fun along the way, too."

Paul, who has produced 12 major collections of his poetry, says that his family had been "fairly non-political" nationalists. Growing up outside Moy, he was aware of a sectarian divide, but his mother tried to shelter her three children from it.

He says that he didn't lose any family members in the Troubles, but admits that, "like everyone else", he was impacted by the conflict and he had friends who were murdered.

After university, Paul went to work as a radio producer at the BBC, and he thinks he may have got the job because, after a tea trolley was wheeled into the interview room, he took the initiative and poured out the refreshments for the six men in front of him.

"As we all know, as a radio producer, the only thing you really do is offer people cups of tea," he laughs with his aching tongue in his cheek, but he says the BBC were still taking a chance giving a radio producer's job to a 21-year-old.

He was involved primarily with arts programmes and worked with the aforementioned Horslips and John Hewitt, though he upset the latter by cutting the last line from one of his poems because he "didn't think it worked".

"John said that, apart from anything else, it was a sonnet, but it still ended up on the cutting-room floor. He wasn't too happy," says Paul, who stayed with the BBC for 13 years, the last of them as a television producer.

"Television was demanding and I felt I wasn't going to be able to do the things that I wanted to do. After the BBC, I got into the academic business."

He soon found himself in demand in England and America, where he teaches at Princeton University, and he is also the poetry editor at the New Yorker magazine.

He lives with his novelist wife, Jean Hanff Korelitz, and their two children in New York, but the ease of cross-Atlantic travel makes him a frequent flyer back home.

"I haven't lived in Ireland for over 30 years, but I still feel very connected," says Paul, who took comfort from the peace process but is clearly frustrated by the relentless stalemate at Stormont.

"Elected representatives of the people need to be representing the people. They need to be in there talking to each other. You don't have to be the Delphic Oracle to say that.

"Politicians have a responsibility to talk. And if they aren't doing what they're supposed to be doing, their pay should be stopped."

The suggestion that the reason why the MLAs are still getting their pay-cheques may have something to do with the DUP's confidence and supply deal with the Tories rankles with him.

He says: "That was a dreadful move, even a kid could tell you that. But both sides need to stop laying down these prerequisites for talking.

"Nobody in their right mind wants to go back to violence, but there's always a very slender thread between some sort of decent behaviour and some sort of indecent behaviour.

"Look at the US at the moment. There's a very thin line between what we think of as democracy and what we think of as chaos."

Paul bridles at my calling the States "Trump's America".

"It's my America," he says. "I'm actually an American citizen. And he (Trump) is not going to be around for much longer, I hope. But we live in a country where there is a daily affront against truth. And the relationship between words and what they mean is questionable. That could be a problem anywhere - here, too."

Paul has generally steered clear of addressing the politics of Northern Ireland in too much depth in his work, but Trump and his "assault on core values" has been mentioned "a few times" by the poet.

With his boundless love of music, we swap stories of the scene at Queen's University in the late 1960s and early 1970s; of Sunday night concerts at the grandiosely named Esoteric Music Society; of seeing bands like Hawkwind at the Whitla Hall; of Rory Gallagher and Taste shows in Belfast; and of Van Morrison, of course.

Paul is a devotee of The Man's "amazing" music and he's got to know him "slightly" down the years. Two years ago, he read the lyrics to some of his songs, including Madame George, at a celebration of Van's work at the Culloden Hotel near Holywood.

"It's been a dream of mine for 40 years to try to do something with Van," says Paul. "I was reared on rock 'n' roll. And I have been very lucky to meet Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon.

"I also got the chance to write some songs with another hero of mine, Warren Zevon.

"I still go to a lot of gigs by the likes of the Stones, Paul McCartney and U2. And I'm going to see Ash from Downpatrick in New York soon. I think Snow Patrol are wonderful, too."

Paul has played guitar with a number of bands, including one named Rakkett, and more recently he has been associated with a group called Rogue Oliphant. Although they use his words in their songs, they won't let him join in on guitar.

"They say I'm not good enough," says Paul. "And they're probably right."

Back on the poetry front, Paul has written an epic, 16-verse poem about Belfast, tracing its history right through the Troubles and name-checking everything from the Ulster fry to Crusaders Football Club.

The poem was commissioned for the Hastings group's towering new Grand Central Hotel in Bedford Street, Belfast, where Paul used to work in a BBC office in the building's former guise of Windsor House.

Part of the poem, Belfast Hymn, has been rendered in steel on a 4.5 metre-high screen at the hotel's entrance and other sections have been carved into the exterior paving that guests cross as they go in and out of the building.

With typical deadpan humour, Paul says the poem is destined to be seen by more people than any of his other work.

For more details about Paul Muldoon's festival appearances, visit www. belfastinternationalartsfestival.com

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