Between the Lines: Alex Alonso
When did you first come up with the idea for the book?
The book developed out of my doctoral thesis, which I wrote at the University of York between 2013 and 2017.
Did you start out with the intention of writing a book about a particular topic, or did a book begin to make sense as you were researching?
I began by exploring ideas of roots, origins, beginnings and endings in Paul Muldoon’s poetry. I suppose those themes were always going to lead me towards their counterparts – notions of departure, uprootedness, and forms of mobility. My approach to poetry is, in the first instance, formalist, and that particular preoccupation was unchanged to the end, but there were a couple of realisations along the way that altered the course of the research. Most significantly, I didn’t start with the intention of focusing on Muldoon’s American career – that came later, as I came to know the poetry more intimately and visited the archives for the first time. I soon saw that Muldoon’s relocation to the United States had more a profound effect on his life and work than I had assumed. That sounds obvious enough; moving halfway across the world is a momentous life event that is bound to bring its share of upheaval. Even now, though, after living more than 30 years in the U.S. and taking American citizenship, Muldoon is still referred to as an ‘Irish poet’ – and of course he is. But there’s much more to it than that. His poems are a playground for questions of identity and belonging, of being ‘in two places at once … or one place twice’, as he puts it one poem; they are full of double lives, counterfactual journeys, mixed marriages, alternative memories. Many poets have been absorbed by the difficulties of displacement, but Muldoon’s work tends to celebrate mobility and a plurality of places while somehow remaining rooted. These were some of the complications and contradictions that I set about unpicking, and they became the new foundation for the book as it progressed.
What are the book’s main ideas?
Some of them I have just outlined – origins, departures, and broader questions of travel. At its heart, the book is about the restlessness of Muldoon’s extraordinary poetic imagination and the new directions his work takes after landing in the United States. It also engages with a host of additional considerations, such as the poetics of memory and return, slips and corrections, and literary criticism as a form of ‘stunt-reading’. Perhaps the most astonishing facet of Muldoon’s career to date is an elaborate structural device, whereby the same ninety rhymes appear in a series of poems across six collections, spanning almost thirty years of poetic output. It is one of the many idiosyncratic, incorrigibly playful approaches he brings to his work, and the book sets about explaining how and why Muldoon does the things that only he, it seems, can do.
What did writing a book allow you to do that wouldn’t have been possible in another medium, e.g. journal article?
I think in the best extended works there is an effective accretion, the mounting sense of ideas aligning and intermingling over time, that can be difficult to replicate in the shorter space of a journal article. That being said, articles and other media forms have virtues that the monograph lacks. How many book-length studies do people read from cover to cover? Not as many as read a full article, or an individual chapter, I’d imagine. In my case, the book’s longer form felt like the most appropriate medium for exploring a poet who has his own fascination with ‘long forms’.
How did you decide which publisher to place the book with?
Oxford University Press has published some of the best criticism on modern Irish poetry in recent years, and it was always an aspiration to join those ranks.
How long did it take to write?
After my thesis was submitted and I had completed some other pieces I was working on, the bulk of the book came together in relatively short time. I am an incorrigible reviser, however, and spent a good deal of time tweaking the manuscript before it was submitted. The most perplexing period in the process was the permissions requests, which took a very long time. In some ways this is an occupational hazard when writing about a contemporary poet, particularly one as active as Muldoon. He remains a moving target, and has continued to publish new work during the book’s production phase. I did a certain amount of updating to reflect this, but as when writing about any living author, you have to draw a line somewhere.
Did you ever experience any moments of writer’s block? What did you do to overcome this?
Yes, certainly. I think it’s something that affects all writers and researchers to some degree. Two things help me most when I find myself hitting a wall. The first is talking with someone receptive (and generous enough to listen!). Redescribing ideas helps me to develop and connect them in ways I might have struggled to recognize beforehand. Editing my own work is a similar process, but on an individual level – it helps renew perspective, to pull together ideas which then turn into arguments. I’m a big believer in the notion that there’s a powerful unconscious aspect to writing critically as well as creatively, and that once you’ve got to grips with a subject, the difficulty is in teasing things out of what you have already put in place. Often, for me, this requires some reflective distance. Something I like to do from time to time is dip back into the work of critics I admire. Preferably these would be texts unconnected to my research, or only loosely related to it, so that it becomes a form of distraction as well as a stimulation. Turning back to certain texts can help me to reset, and I’ve found that it’s never too long before a fresh thought strikes me; it might be something as small as a single word or turn of phrase that lifts me back into the flow.
What advice would you give someone thinking about writing a book?
Stay with it. There will be roadblocks, inevitably, and having the patience and stamina to push through is the real trick. Setting daily targets or personal deadlines can help some and inhibit others; the key is to find an approach that works best for you. And while it is sometimes easier said than done, it’s important not to lose the sense of satisfaction and thrill of discovery that are among the reasons we take on such an undertaking in the first place. Over the long haul, keeping those motivations in mind will be vital.
If you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice before you started writing, what would that be?
Start the permission requests as early as humanly possible!
Alex Alonso is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Trinity College Dublin, where he is working on a project focused on Irish poets and the radio. Currently he is co-curating an online exhibition about the life and work of the poet Derek Mahon, ‘Piecing Together the Poet’, which will launch in November 2021. He is the author of Transatlantic Formations: Paul Muldoon in America (2021), and has published essays in Essays in Criticism, Victorian Poetry, and The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Contemporary British and Irish Literature.