Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Comedy of Errors

Interview: MulletProofPoet

24 October 12 interview: Aly Stoneman
photos: David Sillitoe

"I started when I was about thirteen or fourteen; I was writing lyrics for a band that didn’t actually exist"

Where does the name come from?
When I was younger I was pretty obsessed with Charles Bukowski, who in certain circles became known as 'The Bulletproof Poet'. Considering my choice in haircuts and attention to all things Mod, I just took that, played around with it and tried to make it funny.

How did you get into performance poetry?
I started when I was about thirteen or fourteen; I was writing lyrics for a band that didn’t actually exist. After a while I got bored of that, so I decided to form a band with my best mate. Unfortunately, we were never as good as the band I had in my head and we didn’t last long. After being in a few more bands I decided to try my hand at performance poetry. I was young and naïve at the time and drinking way too much, so I never really got anywhere. Years later, though, I did a Creative Writing degree at Nottingham University, and it really helped me to re-establish myself as a performance poet and writer who was much more confident and committed than my younger self. Writing East Midlands have also been brilliant in helping shape my career.

What have been the highpoints of your career so far?
Performing at some of the festivals and special events, and obviously having my first collection published. In broader terms as a writer, one of the proudest moments was winning the Alan Sillitoe short story competition - being Nottinghamshire through and through, a writer like Sillitoe has always meant a lot to me.

Your first poetry collection - Citizen Kaned - was published by Crystal Clear Creators this March. Good experience?
Extremely positive. Not only have I been lucky enough to be published but I also had the privilege of being mentored throughout the whole process by Deborah Tyler-Bennett, a fantastic poet. She helped me to see my own potential as a writer. I’m incredibly proud of Citizen Kaned; at heart I’m still a frustrated rock n' roll star, and I see it as my first album, but without the music.

You've also just completed your first novel...
It's a coming-of-age story about an obsessive Alice Cooper fan struggling to come to terms with some difficult childhood memories and a father who no longer seems to care whether he exists or not. It’s set in the eighties in Sutton-in-Ashfield. I wanted to capture that real Nottinghamshire voice, and to create something that people who’d ever felt sidelined or marginalised could perhaps identify with.

How would you describe your poetry?
I don’t really know. I think it’s very difficult to write ‘political’ poetry deliberately, it usually ends up sounding preachy, so I try to avoid it - but hopefully my personal ideology will bleed through even if I’m writing about superheroes. It’s important to reflect what you see in very real terms; I don’t spend much time on meandering walks though gladed forests, so I don’t write about that. I write about what’s on my doorstep mostly, there is beauty in this city and there are troubling aspects too, I try to talk about both sides. The word 'poetry' can be misleading and off-putting; it oozes elitism and can get lost in a cloud of floweriness sometimes. I like to think I’m creating something which is hopefully a bit more accessible.

Who influences you?
I think my main influences have always been from the music side of things rather than actual poets, although I do love John Cooper Clarke and Simon Armitage. I’ve always been fascinated with lyrics - the person I admire most in terms of writing is Jim Bob from Carter USM. Paul Weller wrote some great stuff with The Jam too.

You were in the BBC4 documentary on John Cooper Clarke. How did that come about?
Someone recommended me to the production company, who then got in touch. It was a real privilege to be involved. I didn’t get to meet him, unfortunately, but it was nice to be mixing it on-screen with some of my heroes, like Billy Bragg. I think it's important to give him some of the recognition he hasn’t always had. People forget that there wouldn’t be a performance poetry scene if it weren’t for John Cooper Clarke.

What role does brand and persona play in the development of yourself as a spoken word artist?
Persona and image, for me, are essential when it comes to the performance side of things. It helps to have a character - which is a slightly exaggerated version of myself - to fall back on. It also gives it a spin, which non-poetry types can latch onto in simple terms of entertainment value. Having a recognisable name and image - even down to having a logo and an online presence - all help.

On stage, you're definitely not a paper-rustling mutterer.
I think there are way too many poets out there who believe that the world owes them a listening, but if you’re putting yourself out there on stage or whatever, you owe it to your audience to at least have some idea of presentation. As much as some writers would balk at the word, we are still dealing with ‘showbiz’ here.

What effect does coming from the East Midlands and living in Nottingham have on your material and your career?
I think the East Midlands hosts some of the most interesting writers around. People like Jon McGregor and Nicola Valentine have produced some brilliant work, and have helped to perpetuate the literary momentum which the city and surrounding areas has always had. There's a thriving scene here, but if you’re not looking for it it’s easy to miss. Part of Nottingham’s appeal is that we don’t make a big fuss about our best bits. Nottingham people are very good at putting themselves down. It’s strange but quite charming in a way.

Who are you rating in town, spoken word-wise?
It would have to be John Marriott. He's one of the most original thinkers and performers I've ever come across; I couldn't even begin to write in the way that he does. An unsung hero, in my opinion.

You shot your first performance video in Radford for The Space recently. Did you enjoy it?
It was lovely, though slightly stressful. The pieces we filmed - YouTube Youth and The Galleries of Justice League are two of my oldest poems, so it was nice to finally get them down in a short film. I’m really looking forward to seeing the finished results. I hope my hair looked all right.

Why do you think performance poetry has become so popular in the last few years?
I like words and I think other people do too. If you also look at what’s happening politically and economically it’s a real disturbing mess, which needs talking about. Unfortunately, a lot of bands out there, who traditionally would have been the mouthpiece for a frustrated generation, don’t seem to be saying anything, so poets are stepping up to the mark instead. It’s the ultimate DIY form of expression. The punks needed a band to make their point, but poets don’t even need that - a pencil, a phone and any form of platform will do.

What are your favourite places to play in town?
I run a night at Bar Deux called Speech Therapy, so I’d have to say there. It has a real rock n' roll edge to it, and proper beer too. Spoken word or poetry nights can tend to get a bit, well, quaint - and I want to avoid that as much as possible, really. I've always liked Jamcafe, The Maze and the nights they've had at the Contemporary. Sometimes though, it can be a complete surprise; one of the best gigs I've had was at the Robin Hood in Sherwood.

What advice can you give to people wanting to get involved in the performance poetry scene?
Just get out there – it won’t come to you. As a performance poet I must have done every open mic slot around over a twenty mile radius, just to get my face out there. Then eventually people started approaching me, which led to commissions and paid work. It’s a slog, but eventually you do start to see results. It can take a long time to find your voice and style, but rather than set yourself huge goals set your self lots of smaller ones, that way I think you get a real sense of momentum as you achieve each goal and that’s important. Momentum is the key. Keep going.

What's next for MulletProofPoet?
Well, I’m always writing. I’m working on a new novel as well and have some more gigs coming up as always. One of my favourite poets, Jean Binta Breeze, once told me to “keep on keeping on” so that’s what I’m going to do. Whether anyone wants to me to or not.

MulletProofPoet will be hosting Sillitoe Night at Nottingham Contemporary on Saturday 27 October

We have a favour to ask…

LeftLion is Nottingham’s meeting point for information about what’s going on in our city, from the established organisations to the grassroots. We want to keep what we do free to all to access, but increasingly we are relying on revenue from our readers to continue. Can you spare a few quid each month to support us?

Support LeftLion now