The Poet and the Rock Star

Photo credit: University of St Andrews
Photo credit: University of St Andrews


Two Pauls, both virtuosos of words and music, took to the stage for performances and an intimate conversation at the Byre Theatre on Wednesday November 4th for the kick-off event of the new artists series at St. Andrews, Soundings.

Paul Muldoon opened the night by reading several poems and songs, the latter coming from his work as lyricist for the Princeton-based music collective, Wayside Shrines. I fell in love with Muldoon’s rich, Irish voice through listening to his New Yorker Poetry podcasts, where he serves as poetry editor. Muldoon, who holds an honorary degree from St. Andrews, is one of the world’s most lionized living poets, winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and T. S. Eliot Prize. He is currently a professor of poetry at Princeton University, NJ, and has published over thirty books, most recently One Thousand Things Worth Knowing (2015).

PJ (Polly Jean) Harvey followed by reading several poems from her new book, The Hollow of the Hand, her first attempt at poetry. The book is a collaboration with the photographer Seamus Murphy, capturing their travels together to Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington, D.C. But the six-time Grammy nominee didn’t disappoint her many fans in the audience and performed two songs, on guitar and piano. Harvey has released eight critically acclaimed albums, including her most recent Let England Shake (2011). At the beginning of her career, in 1992, Rolling Stone named Harvey “Best Songwriter” and “Best New Female Singer”. She is the only artist to win the Mercury Prize twice.

Soundings, responsible for bringing the two artists together, is an experimental, new series of ‘in-conversation’ style events in St. Andrews. The series looks to bring artists from different disciplines, specifically pairing leading writers and musicians, to discuss the similarities and differences inherent to all artistic processes.

Reif Larsen, who founded Soundings, is an acclaimed writer himself and is in his second year as International Writer in Residence at the University. Larsen collaborated with others from the Department of English, including poet Don Paterson, as well as the Department of Music and The Byre Theatre, to create the series.

Larsen has big dreams for Soundings. He hopes ultimately to make St. Andrews a hotspot for the contemporary avant-garde and sees the series as a step towards this vision. “There’s a collision between the modern and the ancient here in St. Andrews”, Larsen said to me before the performance. He hopes Soundings will be a way to further engage the creative history, and future, of the city.

Although there was no designated moderator for this first Soundings event, in order to make the form of the conversation itself exciting, Larsen told us, Muldoon became the de-facto interviewer of the night. Though he did not dominate the conversation, he did the vast majority of the questioning, leaving many of us in the audience wishing he had allowed himself to be more vulnerable.

Nevertheless, Muldoon expertly directed a wonderful conversation probing the depths and nuances of the creative process. “To do the thing that I’m drawn to do I have to live in chaos. I have to let the chaos reign. It’s the most beautiful and terrifying experience”, Harvey said. Muldoon agreed, “The nerve to write, if one thought about it…”

Words are obviously important to both artists, but it didn’t start out that way with Harvey. Before her career as a musician began, Harvey says she wrote solely for herself, putting the emphasis on the energy and sounds of her songs. Now, as she’s matured as an artist, and especially as she steps into her newer role as poet, she pays more attention to the lyrics of her songs. The words have to work on the page, she said.

Notably, the conversation kept turning to age and aging, how the artist and his or her art changes over time. Harvey especially lamented the decreasing necessity of energy to her work. “Now I get angry that I don’t get angry”, she laughed. “I’m 46 now. While I’m fond of my older songs, I can’t perform them. It comes down to the words. It would feel lyrically inauthentic”.

Muldoon, 64, focused more on the dangers and inevitability of sounding like his younger self. “One has no right to go back”, he said. Though it’s also dangerous not to read one’s work in order not to repeat oneself.

During the Q&A following the nearly one-and-a-half-hour conversation, the artists looked encouragingly to the many younger members of the audience. Those who have yet to begin their careers have the greatest potential to do something great, they told us, somewhat wistfully. But Muldoon and Harvey seem a long way away from an end to their careers, and are still just as busy writing. The angst from those teenage years stays with us, Harvey said.

There are two more events lined up for Soundings this academic year, both set in 2016: Tansey Davies with Michel Faber on February 17th, and Robert Macfarlane with Johnny Flynn on April 27th. Tickets are already on sale at The Byre and Soundings websites.

“The goal,” Larsen said, “is to get artists outside of their comfort zone”.

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