Poet Paul Muldoon’s intimate work, ‘Incantata’, is being re-imagined for the theatre at Galway Arts Festival

Poet Paul Muldoon’s intensely intimate work, ‘Incantata’, is being re-imagined for the theatre and will premiere at the Galway Arts Festival, writes Marjorie Brennan.

Poet Paul Muldoon’s intimate work, ‘Incantata’, is being re-imagined for the theatre at Galway Arts Festival

Poet Paul Muldoon’s intensely intimate work, ‘Incantata’, is being re-imagined for the theatre and will premiere at the Galway Arts Festival, writes Marjorie Brennan.

Paul Muldoon is considered one of Ireland’s greatest contemporary poets; as one reviewer described him in The New York Times: “Only Yeats before him could write with such measured fury”.

However, when Muldoon wrote Incantata, often described as one of the great elegies of 20th century Irish poetry, it was not anger that was fuelling him but grief. The poem was written in memory of Muldoon’s former partner, the American artist Mary Farl Powers, who had been Muldoon’s partner and later remained a close friend. She died in 1992 after being diagnosed with breast cancer. Muldoon describes the process of writing Incantata as akin to being possessed.

It was almost like a demonic possession — whatever that is, what I imagine that to be. It sort of took over and I wrote it in three days, morning, noon and night. I was exhausted by it

Incantata is now being reimagined for the theatre and will be staged at the Galway International Arts Festival this month. Muldoon is delighted that this incarnation of his poem will facilitate its transmission to a wider audience.

“As a former director myself, my view of these matters is that the writer has finished his or her work when the ribbon runs out on the typewriter, or the ink runs out of the pen. After that it’s kind of up for grabs, it belongs to anyone. I’m a

person who believes — and people laugh when I say it but I don’t care — that I don’t write my own poems. My investment is minimal and I like the idea that anyone would read them at all, and that someone might take a fresh line on it, let alone one I think is in keeping with the spirit of the piece itself.”

Incantata is being directed by Sam Yates, whose most recent work has been on a West End production of Glengarry Glen Ross. After directing the work of one Pulitzer Prize winner, David Mamet, Yates says he was thrilled at the prospect of working with another — Muldoon. The challenge of bringing such an intense piece of work to the stage was also an exhilarating one.

“I was excited, and scared, because the text, it’s an incredible piece. But fear is the petrol — as soon as you see something and think, ‘how will this work on stage’, that’s when you think, ‘come on, let’s get on with it’.”

Incantata is an intensely personal and intimate piece of work, and opening that up into something that can be digested by a theatre audience is a huge task. This is reflected in the fact that Yates has been working on Incantata with Irish actor Stanley Townsend for months, breaking down the text.

“We have spent a couple of days a week over a few months, doing a couple of pages of the text, just the references. So we started in a very academic way,” says Yates. “From there, you have to envisage a world for it and a central character who’s the speaker. We have found it to be a poem about creating and trying to make art from pain. That’s really our departure point, ‘what does the act of creation look like?’.”

Yates has also met with Muldoon, and Mary Farl Powers’ sister, Jane Powers, to get a sense of the characters. “Muldoon’s quite elliptical, he doesn’t say ‘Mary was this or that’, he’s staving off grief by filling the poem with bits of the world,” says Yates.

“So what you see on stage is a guy trying to make something that encapsulates the person [they have lost] and the feelings they’re going through. We’re asking big, big questions and the hope is it’ll transcend what was a very personal creation to become something universal.”

Muldoon says he hopes that the staging of Incantata will also bring the work of Mary Farl Powers to a wider audience. Born in Minnesota, Powers came to Ireland in 1951 and studied at the Dun Laoghaire School of Art, and the National College of Art. She was known for her work as a printmaker and was a member of Aosdána.

“She was a truly wonderful person, she was very funny, but also very serious,” says Muldoon. “She was very committed to her art-making but not in a self-regarding way. Her prints are really quite remarkable. I hope they’re able to display some of her work in Galway. Unfortunately, there is such an assault on our senses from all quarters that there’s always a danger things get lost in the dreadful, day-to-day shuffle of things. I don’t think Mary is forgotten at all by people who know anything about the history of printmaking in Ireland, but the fact is that people who know anything about the history of printmaking in Ireland are probably like the people who know anything about the history of poetry in Ireland, comparatively few and far between despite what we’d like to believe.”

Muldoon is speaking to me from the Long Island holiday spot of Fire Island, where he is staying with friends. He resides in New York, where until last year, he was poetry editor of The New Yorker. The evening before we speak, five reporters were shot dead in Annapolis, Maryland. I wonder what it is like being a writer now in the febrile political atmosphere of the US, with anti-press and anti-intellectual sentiment brewing?

“I don’t know about America but throughout the world, some of our cherished ideas are under assault, and it’s clearer and clearer how tenuous our hold on civil order is,” says Muldoon. “In America at the moment there does seem to be a return to an era in which women’s rights are under threat again. I’ve taken to pointing out to my friends in the US — not boastfully, I hope — the direction in which Ireland is going. These are complex issues but the fact is Ireland is way ahead of the game on so many things, and the Irish can take tremendous…. I don’t know about comfort, but the Irish have done very well in recent years to rise above some of the difficulties that beset them. Many of them were difficulties made by men — the trick would now be to make sure those boys are out of the game. We have to be vigilant at all times and hope things are going to change for the better.”

And for Muldoon, there is always the writing. “I’m working on a poem today,” he says. “I scribble away all the time on this, that and the other.”

Incantata by Paul Muldoon; Town Hall Theatre, Galway Jul 16–21, 8pm; Jul 24 and 27, 6pm and 9pm; matinees Jul 19 and 21, 2pm; post-show talk Jul 19, following 9pm performance. www.giaf.ie

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