Paul Robert Mullen Interview: “I’ve spent years marvelling over Leonard Cohen’s words”
With the release of Paul Robert Mullen’s new book, Alan Parry has a chat with the poet about his creative process and musical influences.
In February of this year, Paul Robert Mullen left his English Studies Lecturer position at Guangxi University in Nanning, China after four ‘very rewarding’ years to pursue other ventures. Of all the opportunities open to him, he was keen to see where his poetry would take him.
At this point, he’s back home in Southport, but you can be sure he’ll be on the go again sometime soon, ‘I’ve always been a traveller’ he tells us. And his work has been heavily informed by his journeys, perhaps most evident in his poem call it wonder, ‘I am enchanted/by/the aluminium/white dove/that/takes me to places/I never/thought/I’d see’.
Mullen and I go back as far as high school, and it feels like a lifetime ago since we tried to make music together. It goes without saying that neither of us are the same person we were back then.
Today, I’m a hardworking family man on the cusp of graduation, with a keen interest in literature and popular culture, and while I have lived away for much of the last decade, I’m now resettled in my hometown.
Although Paul shares my love for the written word, his path to this juncture has been largely different to mine. He went away to study towards an English Language, Literature and Creative Writing degree in 2001 at Sheffield Hallam, and while we wrote to each other, and met up on occasion, it was at this point we started to drift apart.
I’m pleased then, to have this opportunity to ask him several questions about his two poetry collections, curse this blue raincoat and other poems and the more recent testimony, touching on influences and the writing process.
I tried to pin Paul down, to get an understanding of how he sees himself in the world, but he was reluctant to be pigeon holed. He’s not necessarily a teacher/lecturer, or writer first he tells me. Rather, he asserts that these are merely ‘strings to my bow, and definite passions in my life… I only want to be known, or defined, as a good person’.
His work has a modernity about it. It feels fresh and relevant, and the imagery is at times nothing short of arresting, ‘she has eyes/like/troubled dreams’.
Indeed, there are discernible echoes of people like John Ashbury, and other New York School writers and this is no bad thing. Mullen is still after all a young writer, and perhaps one can see the direction his work is moving in.
But knowing Paul, he is apt to shock us. It should be noted though, that despite his relative youthfulness the texts themselves are mature, and maybe not always an easy read.
Henceforth it is worth remembering that some hold that poetry should be challenging, and confrontational. Certainly, Mullen’s work can claim to be both. But it’s also confessional, and reflective. It’s been a pleasure to read, to bare witness to how the man I have known for over two decades now has grown into an exciting, local poet.
What follows now is a short interview with the man himself. Both of the aforementioned collections are available on amazon and at good local bookstores.
Planet Slop: Paul, I wanted to say that I have very much enjoyed your work in these two most recent collections. It seems to me that you have now found your voice and have really begun to hone your style to a fine art. I have followed your work from its embryonic stages, when you released your first collection while studying at Sheffield Hallam and can see that there is a distinct shift in how you write and present your work now, what would you say is the catalyst for that change?
Paul Robert Mullen: Thanks for your compliments – I’m glad you enjoyed reading my work. I honestly believe the catalyst for change has been reading. I read very widely, which inevitably leads to soaking up all sorts of different influences that eventually help you shape your own voice.
PS: Clearly, music is a major part on your life, and it informs your work heavily. Are there any parallels you can draw with some of your favourite artists, and the work you are producing now?
PRM: I wouldn’t say that music influences my style, but certainly some themes and content. The first book, curse this blue raincoat, is very much a nod to Leonard Cohen. I’ve spent years marvelling over his words. He was such a deep, thoughtful, perceptive soul. I also like to listen to Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Terry Reid, Roger Waters – all wordsmiths in their own way.
PS: Further to my last question, which poets or texts do you find yourself going back to repeatedly? I’m a huge admirer both of Dr John Cooper Clarke and Langston Hughes, and for me their work never gets old. When I have written myself however, I found myself distancing my work from that which I like to read as a point of principle. Is this the same for you?
PRM: I think my work is influenced by the poets that I love to read – Lee Harwood, John Ashbury, Charles Bukowski. I like a lot of the new stuff that is knocking around too, particularly on the Bloodaxe press, and the Andrews McMeel press. I don’t deliberately distance myself from the stuff I like, but I’m conscious not to copy it too.
PS: Can you describe your writing process? I must say, there is some genuinely striking imagery to be found within your work, made prominent by provocative turns of phrase. I wonder how this comes to you. Does a voice, or situation come fully formed, or like me, do you carry a pocketbook containing short snippets which you intend to use at some point in the future? Or is it something entirely different from either of these two approaches?
PRM: Most of the time I carry a notebook – and I know it’s cliché, but I like to write in coffee shops or pubs – places where there is life; where there is something going on. I also write when I travel . . . I’ve spent a long time on planes in recent years, and I find that all the stuff I have stored up in my mind whilst travelling spills out as I’m flying. It’s a very productive way to spend the time. I have to wait though . . . I never force my writing, and sometimes I go through months where it’s a dry spell.
PS: One of the earliest things I was taught when I embarked upon my English Literature degree, was that one should never confuse the voice/perspective of poet themselves with that of the poet speaker. However, knowing you on a personal level, it appears you have blurred this line. I was wondering if this was intentional, introspective writing, or if you simply set out to write about the people, and the world you were seeing daily.
PRM: I don’t ever think about the speaker, or the physical voice when I write. My subject matter is often real and situational; I don’t delve heavily into metaphor or multiple layers of meaning. I like to keep the process simple and tangible.
PS: Have you, or do you intend for your work to be performed? There has clearly been a lot of effort gone into how the texts themselves will be presented on the page, would that be lost in recital, or is it something you are confident would translate?
PRM: I’m confident that I can perform these poems, particularly the longer, more narrative ones. They are, essentially designed for the page, but I believe there is life in the words when performed. I have already performed them in various guises, and I’m pleased to say they have gone down well.
PS: For the first time in several years you are back in your home town following years of living abroad and travelling extensively, what’s next for you?
PRM: I only strive to be happy. If that means heading back out into the world again, then that’s what I’ll do!
Paul’s books curse this blue raincoat and testimony are available to order now from Amazon (click here).