Paul Robert Mullen – Follow-Up Interview – musings on the poetry scene and his post-teaching writing career.

Following an incredibly productive year – I got the chance to catch up with Paul once again. He was as open and inciteful as ever.

Paul, you have something of the troubadour about you if you don’t mind my saying so. Where are you at right now?

Well I’ll take that as a compliment! I guess the idea of the troubadour has always appealed, especially since many of my heroes and influences could be considered as such. People like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Charles Bukowski, Lee Harwood, Joni Mitchell. Of course the meaning has changed over time. Troubadour nowadays has that free-spirited, hippyish, dedication-to-your-art connotation attached, which I admire.

Right now I’m at a crossroads in my life. I’ve been living between Spain and the U.K for most of this year, and pursuing a career change that will take me away from lecturing. I feel like I’ve achieved everything I can achieve in education now; the job has changed to the extent that a lot of the pleasure has been taken out of it. I still love working with people closely, and helping to inspire and encourage, so my next move will still involve that close contact with people, but not in a classroom.

As far as the writing is concerned, I’ve had a very promising year. I decided it was time to really target literary magazines with my work at the beginning of 2019, and so far I’ve had over fifty different publications take my work in seven months. I think it is really important to spend the time submitting so you can broaden your readership. It is also very rewarding and encouraging to see your work alongside other emerging voices in a wide range of diverse and edgy publications.

Since we last spoke, your third collection 35 has been published, do you want to discuss the concept and how it differs from your first two collections?

My third collection, 35, is conceptual in the sense that it features 35 poems, 35 images (mainly photographs taken around the world), and I was 35 years old when I released it. It just felt like a bit of a benchmark. It’s hard to explain. I liked the idea of doing something a little different. My first two collections were traditional in the sense that they were poems without a particular central theme. I think a poet has free reign to do whatever they want, which is the beauty of the form.

I have heard you say that your initial collection curse this blue raincoat was a response to the work of Leonard Cohen and that Testimony was something akin to saying what needed to be said, however honest and gnarled. What is the major spur for you now?

I don’t have any particular motivations in my poetry other than the need to write. It is a thrill for me to stare down at a blank sheet of paper, or a blank word document, and then realise hours later that I’ve crafted and created something out of nothing. I guess I’m really digging into the depths of my own psyche these days; I’ve had three published collections and hundreds of poems published in literary magazines, so I’m much more comfortable in my own skin as a poet now. The subject matter is rawer, darker, at times brutally honest. My work is not as safe anymore as it once was. I’ve had people write to me and tell me that my work has made them weep, or shocked them, or really unnerved them. They are the best reactions I think because it shows that your work is penetrating bone. 

Would you say that you have ever suffered for your art?

This is really a double-edged question because art, in the most part, is born out of suffering of some sort. I’ve got a pretty good grip of myself at this stage in my life; I’m not overawed by much, and any depressive tendencies I may have had in my twenties are under control. Writing is an excellent form of therapy for me because it helps me get to grip with everything going on around me in a positive way. Everyone needs therapy of some sort in my opinion, whether you suffer from mental illness or not. Some ride a bike, others paint, other walk the dog or do yoga. I write poems. Have I suffered for that? Definitely. Would I change it? Definitely not.

How important is the editing process and is that a solo effort?

This is the one thing that I have really improved over the years. A good poet has to also be a good editor, because learning to slice away the excess to get down to the flesh is so important in terms of quality. I can write a poem now, then come back to it the next day and shave 50% of it off. Then I can come back the next day and do the same again until I’m left with the essential lines. It takes courage to be a good editor. I also have occasion where others are involved too. My great friend Kate Evans sometimes takes a critical look at my poems in progress. I’m also in the process of working with Matthew C Smith, the editor of Black Bough Poems, to shape my next collection. More than one set of eyes can be a brilliant reminder that your work can be better with sound advice.

I’m interested to know has there been a shift of focus for you – from full-length manuscript submission to journals far and wide? Is this an effort to reach a wide readership and keep your finger on the pulse?

I released three collections in the space of two years. That was the monster inside desperate to get out. Once that trilogy was out it became more important for me to think about a readership, and also explore the literary magazine / journal world. I also find it very exciting to submit my work all over the world. You find out so much about your work, but also your own temperament as a writer. Rejections are never easy to stomach, especially if you have had to wait six months for a reply without any sort of feedback, but acceptances are extremely uplifting. That email landing that says “congratulations, we would love to take your poem(s)…” is a feeling that I really enjoy. I’ve been accepted in some dream magazines so far this year: Ghost City Press, Barren Magazine, The Bees Are Dead, Burning House Press and Heron Clan to name but a few. If your name is cropping up in these types of journals then you are probably being noticed to some degree, which is not the be-all-and-end-all, but nice. Justification of your commitment to your art, I guess.

What excites you about the poetry scene right now?

The poetry scene is thriving right now. In the same way that vinyl records have made a comeback, it seems that poetry has been revived. If something has class, and authority, and the power to move it will never go away. There are some great poets emerging with distinct voices. I also like the indie scene that I keep up with on Twitter too. I think many are opting to avoid the traditional publication routes these days and do it for themselves. I have mixed feelings about this because it inevitably means some folk have free license to publish any old crap, but on the other side of the coin it has given some brilliant voices a chance to emerge who wouldn’t have had the time or inclination to pursue a publisher. Traditional publishing can be such a long, drawn out, weary process, with lots of wounding realisations and disappointments. The inner circle is still very much who you know I’m afraid.

There are some really exciting new magazines out there today. I really like Black Bough Poetry, which is causing a stir and heading towards its third issue. I also like American magazine, Cleaning Up Glitter. Selcouth Station is another magazine that I really rate, and Streetcake magazine too. I’m happy to have featured in all of them. A few magazines that have alluded me so far that I love are Okay Donkey, Butcher’s Dog and Nightingale & Sparrow. It would be a dream to feature in Ambit, or The New Yorker, or Under The Radar – all long established classic poetry journals.

How do you measure success now?

Success to me is happiness in what I’m doing. I’m extremely happy at the minute creating, submitting, editing, and slowly working towards my next collection. If I get positive responses to my work, which I regularly do (especially on Twitter, which has been a great tool for interacting with similar minds) then that is success in my eyes. Of course it would be great to find a reputable UK publisher to show interest in my work, but I’m not quite ready to pursue that with everything else going on.

How do you feel about describing yourself as a poet?

I don’t generally. It has obvious stigmas. I don’t advertise the fact that I write unless I’m in the company of people who may be interested or appreciate it. I’m certainly not ashamed of it – quite the opposite. I write poems and therefore I am a poet, but I don’t feel the need to broadcast it. More and more people tend to ask me about it these days, which is positive.

Can you open up on your route into publication?

I was lucky. That’s the truth of it. I was working at a University in a relatively unheard city in China, called Nanning, when Kate Evans, a distinguished American writer, turned up to lecture poetry. We became friends, spent afternoons together discussing our passions for writing and poetry, and she was enthralled with my stuff. She put me in touch with her editor who also liked my work and offered me the opportunity to submit a collection. That’s how curse this blue raincoat was born, and Kate Evans helped me to both edit and order it, and she also wrote the forward. I was in the right place at the right time.

How do you reflect on your decision to leave teaching?

It was time to leave. As I mentioned before, teaching has become a business where there is too much focus on unrealistic attainment instead of the individual. Teachers have become powerless scapegoats today, and quite frankly I got fed up with working eighty hour weeks, doing everything I possibly could to be the best teacher I could, and getting told that too much was never enough. It is no coincidence that ALL my former teaching colleagues are either in different careers or working abroad now. The government have a lot to do to battle this problem because the profession has lost some incredible people to teach, influence and encourage future generations.

You have spoken about your desire to release a novel – do you have an update for your ever-growing fan base who are eager for more work?

I’ve definitely got a novel in me, but it just hasn’t happened yet. At the moment I’m almost entirely focused on poetry, but I’d like to think I could write one before I’m 40. I’ve completed two, but they were both shit. I think I want to try and get a few more poetry collections out there first before I focus on sitting down to pen the novel. I’ve had some short stories and flash fiction pieces published lately in various magazines (most notably The Fiction Pool and Iceberg Tales), but the longer form is much more intimidating.

Can you tell us about your favourite novels – what is it about them that draws you back to them? What are you reading at the moment?

Wow, how long have you got! I’d have to try and narrow them down. I loved Journey To The End Of The Night by Louis Ferdinand Céline. It is such a dark but funny novel. I thought Women and Ham On Rye were two great novels by Charles Bukowski. He had a remarkable way of tapping into raw emotion. I think Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude is just about as poetic as prose can be. He was a special writer.

There are a few more contemporary novels that I’ve enjoyed very much: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, and The God Of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. I love Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, and found myself engrossed in its 1500 pages for months. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote is mesmerising. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe is essential reading. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is disturbingly gripping. I like the early novels of H.G Wells and Stephen King – both writers who bring back fond memories of my teen reading. Dickens is consistently brilliant, and the greatest creator of memorable characters. I’ll end there because I could go on forever. At the moment I am tackling Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and thoroughly enjoying it.

Anybody who follows you will know that you’re an accomplished musician and lover of all sorts of different musical genres. But what was the last album you listened to and what was the last gig you got to?

I have been having a real Joni Mitchell phase of late. I think it is my appreciation of her poetic lyrics that draws me back to her again and again. Court & Spark is the album I really love, although her debut album, Song To A Seagull, is incredible too. It really says something that the likes of David Crosby, Graham Nash, and Stephen Stills regard her the greatest songwriter of all time, even ahead of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Joni is very inspiring.

I watched the Beach Boys a few weeks back in Marbella, Spain, and loved every second of it. I’ve spent the last twenty years watching live music, and I can honestly saw it was one of my favourite gigs ever. What a body of work. Mike Love is the only original member left, but the musicianship was spectacular. It was in an amazing venue in the mountains too.

Are you concerned about the passage of time?

Of course. Especially when you see people that you know die, and the reality of mortality dawns on you. I guess I’m about half way through now if I’m lucky enough to live a normal lifespan, which feels crazy. I still feel like I’m eighteen. The passage of time is a major theme or point of consideration for most artists I think. We are all battling against the years and what we can achieve or fit in before we die. I love the fact that many of the old musicians like McCartney, Dylan, CSNY and The Stones are all still out there touring and making music, essentially defying age. They are all heading towards eighty, so times have changed; artists are continuing to be artists for longer, and evidently until death.

Is experience/authenticity important to you? Are you comfortable with the idea of travel writing when written from the perspective of the privileged white man – and if not, how do you combat this?

I think you have to take your privilege and use it for good. I know how fortunate I am to be where I’m from. I’ve been all over Asia, and into some of the poorest and most deprived places on earth. I had four years living in China, which is desperately poor in places. I’ve been to North Korea, Myanmar, Laos, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Vietnam and India. I’ve seen heart stopping poverty. I don’t think you can hide away from your privilege. You just have to be humble about it, and grateful. Whenever I write about these places, whether it be in my poetry or otherwise, I try to tell it how it is, but also attempt to be positive in some way. I’ve seen some really disturbing stuff, but it only opens your mind further to what is possible artistically. And, by the way, some of the greatest people I’ve ever met have been from these places where they have nothing. We can learn so much.

Are you overly concerned by the nuts and bolts of language/stylistics? Or do you have broader concerns about bigger themes?

I am definitely a fan of minimalism. I like the shorter poem, and even the micro-poem. I think they can both be as powerful as the longer form. Anyone that knows my work will also know that I favour the narrative form. I don’t hold back with language. If the poem needs expletives then it gets them. It totally depends on that specific poem and the feelings you are trying to convey.

As far as themes are concerned, I rarely tackle the major themes these days. I think if you want to write about Trump, or Brexit, or climate change, or human rights abuses, or #metoo, you’ve got to get it inch perfect or you can look preachy or insincere. Half of these things I mention I’m not qualified to comment on, so I generally don’t. It doesn’t mean I don’t care about such issues. With my writing, especially my poetry, I tend to write about my own experiences and emotions, as well as the things I observe in my daily existence. If you watch the news for too long with the intention of writing about it you’ll go crazy pretty quickly.

Essentially, what would you say makes a quality poem? Is it tied to the idea of accessibility?

The answer to that question is different for every reader. I personally don’t relate to anything too lofty or contrived. I like to read about things I understand, or can relate to. I like it when a writer is prepared to spill their guts. I like bravery. I’ve read some really raw poetry of late that has made me stop in my tracks. I think the perfect poem uses every single word as a sucker punch. A great poem has impact, and doesn’t waste words or lines that aren’t needed. To answer your question, for me, great poetry is accessible, yes; but not for everyone.

What’s next?

I will keep writing whilst I’m on a roll, continue submitting whilst I’m having success, and continue enjoying homing my craft. At some point towards the end of this year I may be getting involved in editing a start-up journal, which will be exciting. I have my fourth collection in the mix at the moment, with enough solid work for a fifth soon after. The future looks promising as long as I stay disciplined.

Credits:

The Last Night of Our Lives (poem – originally published in Anti-Heroin Chic)

The Old Man (poem – originally published in Dodging the Rain)

Hemmingway (poem – orginally published in Crepe & Penn)

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