Paul Robert Mullen Interview: “I’ve spent years marvelling over Leonard Cohen’s words”

Originally posted on Planet Slop

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.

PSCan 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 and good book stores.

Image source: Twitter @mushyprm35

Bowie, Zappa, Adele & The Purpose Of Contemporary Music

Originally posted on Planet Slop

With Glastonbury reactions highlighting the debate over elite and popular art, Alan Parry ponders the purpose of contemporary pop music.

There is an age old debate which rages over elite and popular art.

If we look back through history, its apparent that much of what is deemed ‘high’ or ‘elite’ has been presided over by a very small minority who believe that they better understand, and/or appreciate art than the grubby masses.

But why do they get to tell us what we should or should not like?

At the outset of the twentieth-century, it was common to hold the position that this small number of academics ought to reserve the right to declare what is good and what is inferior, a point promoted by F.R. Leavis when he wrote in 1930 that ‘Upon them depends the implicit standards that order the finer living of an age’. This is a position which came under great scrutiny as the 20th century advanced.

Throughout the 60s, this position was challenged by both younger, cultural critics and creative artists who had their fingers firmly on the pulse. We saw a great deal of experimentation with popular forms, think about the legacy left behind by Jackson Pollock; think about Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968); think about Doctor Who; think about Frank Zappa and The Beatles and the birth of the concept album. It was a matter of out with the old and in with the new. Creative artists everywhere were looking to push boundaries and challenge the establishment.

Nonetheless, there is still some worth in attempting to define an art and literature, and musical canon. However, after this momentous shift in what was deemed valuable, it’s difficult to stomach some of what is on offer to us today.

How can we be expected to listen to, watch, admire that which is on offer as we live in a world filled with social, political, economical and religious injustice? I mean, have you seen the news? There was a time when an artist could respond to the world around them, they could hold up a mirror and show their audience their own failings. There was a time when this was what popular music, literature, film and art was about. There was a time, before I was born I might add, but not all that long ago, when the very best art instructed us and gave us agency to change the contingent world in which we live.

So, what the fuck happened? When did Adele start to speak for me? When did everything become so safe? So beige? Have we relinquished control? I am a father of three young children, one of whom plays guitar, (and quite well too), but why is he sat in his bedroom teaching himself to play Galway Girl?

There is a debate about the purpose of art, in all its forms. Should it be instrumental, didactic or merely, to coin a phrase ‘art for art’s sake’? The answer to this is multifarious. Indeed, it is far too great to explore every possibility here. But what I will say is that art should in the very least make us feel. The risk of opening up what is deemed elite up to more popular forms and genres was, in part due to the fact that the great and the good would be diluted. There would be less quality music and film out there for us, which is why I contend that it remains important to sift carefully.

I mention my children because I am particularly interested in how I can use contemporary art and the canon to shape their moral compass. I believe that music can be feel good, that there is room for that. However, what is more important to me is that I and my children, and anybody else that I can have influence over will go in search of something which challenges their beliefs, which challenges authority, which will transcend time and tastes.

I can recall getting in my old man’s gold Ford Princess and listening on cassette to Zappa‘s Sheik Yerbouti, to Dylan‘s Desire and to The Best Punk Album in the World… Ever. More than introducing me to some great music that continues to sound fresh and exciting now, he was introducing me to music which was fighting against the status quo. I see it as my duty now to do something similar for my children and anybody who cares to read this, to urge you to look a little deeper, to look for meaning and true fulfilment from your music, art and literature. It is possible to do this without disregarding the music which makes you dance, but the discovery of that which will make you think and act differently has, in my opinion, to hold more value.

However, it is also possible to go too far the other way, and you don’t have to look too far to find people making an utter fool of themselves. It is possible to be too choosy, to morph into a snob. And all the while I urge you to seek out music, art and literature which makes you think, I urge you to be careful you don’t fall into this trap.

I once had a friend who refused listen to female vocalists, he was turning his back on Aretha Franklin, The Ronettes, Janis Joplin and Carole King among others, based purely on this ridiculous gender bias. I have read others complain about the simplistic form that pop music is supposed to have, its utter bollocks. I am wary of repeating myself at this point, but it is ridiculous to look down on people and their taste, art is personal, but I honestly believe that it has a resonance beyond, ‘That’s nice’ or ‘This is catchy’.

I’m going to end by quoting David Bowie, who once said of work, but this rings true of in the search for artistic gratification too, ‘Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting‘.

‘Cheated’ by Alan Parry

Originally published in themarkliteraryreview.com

I don’t recall her name, and I’m too afraid

to ask, but still I can see her smeared

eye-liner, those torn fishnet stockings and

that spiky blonde mane as if she stands

before me now. The image of her smashing

her fists clad in fingerless gloves against our

front door will never fade. Her anguished

adult accusations, my old man’s shouting

and my mother’s sobbing on the stairs, me

sitting in the window of the front bedroom

over the porch, it’s all there. A tragic

tableau, my earliest memory.

Paul Foot Interview: “What if Spiderman was a right bigot?”

Originally posted on Planet Slop

Alan Parry quizzes comedian Paul Foot on his wacky inspiration, ties, politics, piglets and more.

Paul Foot brings his extraordinary brand of comedy to Liverpool on Thursday 9th November.

The show, ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Piglet had moderate success at last year’s Edinburgh Festival, but a prolonged worldwide tour has provided Foot with the opportunity to hone the material and this year’s reception was far kinder. In this interview, I ask about Paul’s inspiration for his brand of surreal and consider how he positions himself within his contemporaries.

Comedy of this nature is certainly going to divide opinion, but Foot has a loyal following whom he refers to not as fans, but as connoisseurs. An audience who have paid to see him fully understands that his material is not intended to be cutting edge, or breaking down any boundaries; its simply engineered to make you laugh.

Foot could be said to find the funny where many wouldn’t dare to even look, but it would be unfair to describe him as nothing more than an eccentric. His rigorous touring and commitment to reworking and writing new material proves there is much more to him than his renowned wild movements and unique hair style.

PSWho, or what was it that drew you to comedy in the first place? And which comedians, past or present, do you admire?

PF: I was drawn to comedy by accident. I was at university and there was a student comedy night coming up, some friends of mine said that I was funny and should sign up to do it, and I agreed. However, I had never seen stand-up comedy before ever, so I didn’t really know what it was. I didn’t know, for example, that comedians tend to prepare their performance/write material beforehand. So when the moment came I just went up and made up a load of stuff about fruit, asking about audience members’ favourite fruit and improvising from there. It went pretty well, and I knew from that moment that I would do comedy for the rest of my life.

In response to the second part of your question, my favourite comedian is Brian Gittins. He is excellent, and also present. I love his comedy.

PS: Similarly, are there any up and coming comedians, new to the circuit who you would advise us to keep an eye on?

PF: I very much enjoy the comedian Malcolm Head. He does comedy poems which are top quality. He sometimes is my support act for my shows when I tour; in fact, ye will see him perform if ye come to my upcoming shows.

PS: Have you always made people laugh?

PF: I have, and not always when I want them to laugh. Sometimes I try to be a very serious businessman, and people just laugh. Filing my tax return with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is a friggin’ nightmare; they just won’t stop laughing. Maybe it is my fault for keeping all my receipts filed meticulously inside a to-scale replica of the Mary Rose, and arriving in full Henry VIII regalia, including authentic 16th Century obesity jacket.

PS: What do you wish you knew when you started out in comedy?

PF: I wish I’d known that, one day, I would be successful. Nowadays, weird and surreal comedy is quite popular, but when I started out I was one of the only weird ones, and no one wanted the weird comedy. I was spectacularly unsuccessful for about 14.3 years, earning no money and getting booed off stages. And it was very difficult, but I stuck to my instincts, and one day, after 14.3 years I became an overnight success. It would have been nice to know in those long years that it would all be OK one day.

PS: You have something of a cult following, have you made efforts to whittle down your audience in a similar way to Daniel Kitson, or is this perhaps more closely related to your style? That is to say, do you think your comedy translates easily for the more casual comedy fan?

PF: I have made no efforts to whittle down my audience, nor to manipulate their make-up in any other way. I just create the comedy that comes naturally to me, and that seems to have gained an audience who appreciate it. And that has been expanding for the past 9.37 years. I do think my comedy translates to the more casual comedy fan, especially this latest show, which even contains tropical humour about the tropical subjects of the day, like what would happen if Spiderman was a right bigot, and terrorism et cetera. There’s loads of stuff to interest the casual comedy consumer.

PS: From the outside, it very much feels like the comedy we are shown has been through a process of sanitization and as a result many of the familiar faces are a product of this. How do you feel about the live comedy which is regularly broadcast to the masses on prime time television?

PF: I actually tend not to watch comedy on television, so I don’t really know what is being broadcast to the masses. The only things I watch on television are murder mystery shows, horse racing and Dragon’s Den, which is HILARIOUS. I especially love it when someone has come up with an utterly useless invention, and then it becomes clear that they have poured hundreds of thousands of pounds of their own money into it; they’ve remortgaged their house, spent their aged parents’ pensions, absolutely obliterated their childrens’ chances of going to university, and the dragons beg them to pack it in. But they never do! They always say, “Those dragons will regret it when I’m earning billions and every household in Britain loves my special plastic lid for the ends of half-eaten cucumbers!”

One of the things I have noticed, though, is that the comedy you get on television tends to be the sort of comedy that couldn’t possibly offend anyone, which is often not the most exciting comedy. Frankie Boyle, for example, who is a brilliant comedian, was sent away from television for ages because he made a joke about the private parts of our queen, Elizabeth Regina.

PS: You have an extraordinary ability to create hugely funny sets based on topics many may never consider an area for comedy. How do you come up with these ideas?

PF: What? People don’t think the dwindling numbers of Shire horses is an area for comedy? I thought everyone laughed at stuff like that. I guess the ideas just come from seeing a Shire Horse, or ordering a Chinese takeaway, or taking a walk by a pond. All sorts of ways.

PS: Your loyal connoisseurs are clearly prepared to seek you out, and consequently know, to an extent what they are going to get from you. That is, a very funny, although somewhat surreal evening. Bearing this in mind, do you find yourself testing their limits? Are they prepared for you to push them a little further?

PF: I do not mindfully ‘test the limits’ of any audience. It is not a case of pushing them as far as they can go, rather I just do the comedy I find funny, that I love to create, and I guess that tends to push the limits of comedy. But to me, comedy is not about pushing limits or always searching for new ways to make people laugh. It is simply about being very, very funny, and about communicating with people, and about saying something that resounds with people. Having said that, my audience do always seem willing for a right stretching.

PS: How do you try out your new material?

PF: I often try out my new material at my Secret Shows first. So the top Connoisseurs of my comedy see it first. And then I try out the comedy at various shows I do around the country. I eventually premier the new completed show at the Edinburgh Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, Sturgeon.

PS: How much does the political landscape influence your act?

PF: It is difficult to say. I am not quite sure myself whether it is quite a lot or not at all. Political subjects seem to manifest themselves in my act, such as homophobia, misogyny, racism, religion, farming et cetera, because the people within those subjects are hilarious and I think it’s important to laugh at them. But I’m not particularly interested in the party political landscape, in relation to my act that is. I love laughing about all the losers in Parliament in my spare thyme. Poor old Nicky Clegg, and Terrorisa May, and Timothy Farron, who had to step down because he found being leader of a political party incompatible with being secretly homophobic. Absolutely top quality!

PS: Do you notice any differences in audiences around the country?

PF: Not really. I find that, wherever I do a show, the people that come to see me are very plugged in and sophisticated. They know what to expect and they come to see the surreal humour. The shows are always wonderful and filled with top quality people.

PS: To what extent do you improvise in your performances?

PF: It depends which performances. My tour shows are very carefully planned and executed, even if they don’t look that way. But when I do my Secret Shows for my Connoisseurs, I sometimes improvise the whole show, for 2.4 hours.

PS: Where do you buy your ties?

PF: Duchamp in London. They have excellent ties.

PS: How did you settle on the name ‘Tis A Pity She’s A Piglet’ for this tour?

PF: I saw a piglet, and I thought it was a pity she were a piglet and not a person. People have slightly better lives than piglets do. All that mud. I can’t bear to think of it.

PS: What can audiences expect from it?

PF: I don’t know. I don’t even know what to expect from it. It’s half surreal, half silly, and half hard-hitting satire…and one third trout.

PS: Has writing begun on your next show, and what do you have planned post tour?

Writing has begun on my next show. It started last year in the month of Novella on a trip to Madeira, and now it is in full flow. And I am going away again, after this tour finishes in the month of Decadence, to Australia to complete the writing, and the show will premier in the Edinburgh Festival next Augustus. Watch this space baybayyyy! I have never understood that phrase. What space? The final friggin’ frontier? It’s such an Americanism. I despise myself for writing it.

PS: How would you describe your sense of humour?

PF: I mainly laugh at wedding cakes falling over, or newsreaders messing up. I love it when weddings go wrong though. That’s the funniest thing in the whole universe.