Interview: Ian Mullins

Ian Mullins

We speak to Ian Mullins – whose work appeared in issue 38 – about Ramsey Campbell, being watched by CCTV, and life in Liverpool.

There’s no shortage of stories currently in the news which might have inspired your poem “Under Surveillance”. Do you think we’re being watched? And who is watching if so? Should we be worried?

Everyone is watching. We are all before and behind the lens. There are hundreds of cameras in the hospital where I work, but one of my jobs is to gather data to feed the machine with. The full mouth is never full, and information-gathering has now become an end in itself. Every month sees one more “mandatory” field on the on-line form we fill in. Refusing to feed the machine seems ever more like a romantic reflex gesture, with no relevance to the lives we actually lead, or the jobs we actually do. Rebellions are mostly petty and private, designed to make us feel that the machine doesn’t have hold of us yet. The machine, of course, is well aware of this, and is happy to allow us these small idiosyncrasies. As long as we don’t run down the corridor shooting out the lenses, all is well.

Meanwhile, the number of corridor cameras is vastly dwarfed by those we carry around in our pockets. A colleague posted footage of a drunk falling over on-line. How can we shield our own eyes from the lens, when we invalidate the sentimental concept of privacy day after day?

“I’ve nothing to hide,” a boss once said to me, when it was suggested that cameras might be installed in every office. Not yet, I thought. But one day.

How important is location to you? I get the sense that you have a specific setting in mind when it comes to many of your poems. Is this the case? Does your home city of Liverpool appear in your writing at all?

When I was younger all I ever wanted was to escape. On my way to work I’d detour through the railway station to watch tides of people being swept away by trains, and while that feeling hasn’t gone away it doesn’t hurt so much as it used to. The sickly feeling of inevitable failure has passed. To paraphrase the great philosopher Popeye, I am what I am. I can choose from the menu, or I can cook for myself. Either way it’s my call. The platform ends here.

One of the values of sticking around is the sense of detail you find in familiar places. I notice when the hedges rise and fall; a new piece of graffiti; a broken branch splayed like an umbrella. A walk in the park can be a pilgrimage, if you let it become one. Can you journey in circles? I think so. This planet has no corners, but many sharp edges. I’m one of them myself.

So yes, place is everything in my poetry, but the details I need to sharpen the picture aren’t exclusive to me. You don’t need a picture of that particular house on that particular street to read “Stray Dogs“. Such houses are everywhere. Such people too. Poetry helps me not be one of them.

Can you tell me about a writer or poet whose work is significant to you, and why?

I first heard Ramsey Campbell’s name (or do be more exact, his voice) on BBC Radio Merseyside, reviewing new film releases. In between the comedies and the blockbusters I was struck by how interested he was in horror films, and how he found interesting things to say about them.

My next encounter was through Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, one of the bibles of my youth. Here I discovered Campbell was a writer, and a brilliant one at that. The brief extracts King included were enough to send me scurrying though the damp boxes of old paperbacks which second-hand shops would only take inside if the rain turned tropical. If I emerged with a battered paperback of Demons By Daylight or The Face That Must Die all the dust was worth sneezing.

If you live in London or New York you must get used to recognising locations in books, but that was never the case in Liverpool. The fact that Campbell set a story in the same underpass I’d walked through many times had an occult significance to me that hasn’t dimmed over the years. I felt that the Liverpool I knew was finally being placed on the map, and that I might find a place in it. Frankly, he could have written complete gibberish and I still would’ve collected his stories like an old woman collecting spoons. But no; his stories were (and still are) everything I dreamt they’d be. Dark, strange, unforgiving. These were my stories, these were my streets. The local media presented its citizens with a vision of the city that still smouldered from the rubble of World War Two, but this was the Liverpool I lived in: dour, wise, cruel and cunning. Prose sharp as a microscope turning into focus. The glasses were thick, but the eye was sharp and brave.

And still is. He helped me be brave enough to write. He still does.

Do you only write poetry, or do you write in other forms as well? What lead to you wanting to write poetry?

I love poetry, but words are not exclusive. You can stack them up or lie them down. Bind them in bandages like feet, or scatter them on the street like saliva. Either way, it’s always interesting to see what shape they fall into. When I first started to write I threw myself in at the deep end, writing novels as though hurling paint onto a page. After too many years I saw the benefits of brevity, and moved on to short stories. Unfortunately, the paint-flinging habit was hard to break. I’d always slapped about with poetry, but it wasn’t until I discovered American poetry (especially Bukowski), that I settled down to working the craft a little harder. Not in a technical way, but in a process of shaping that seems to owe as much to music as to words. This in turn has led me back to writing short stories, and a few longer pieces. They’re all dark (everything I write is dark, though none is as dark as I am), mostly horror, or dark mainstream. I come from a dark planet. I think I’m the only inhabitant, but I search it endlessly, just to be sure.

You mention in your biography that the publication of a book might be a long way off. Are you currently working on one? If so, how is it going, and what might it be about when finished?

The collection I was referring to has been ready to roll for some time, but finding a publisher for a volume of poems inspired by internet porn (its friends and foes, the users and the used) hasn’t proved as easy as you might imagine. A glance at prospective publisher’s websites is usually enough. Pretty pictures of empty little boats nuzzling shorelines? Probably not a good fit.

The collection is currently on offer to a publisher who promises “weird little books”, but nearly a year has gone by and still no yes, no, or even a maybe. At this rate my first collection will be a posthumous one. I find this idea oddly comforting.

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Ian Mullins is still firmly anchored to the rotting hull of Liverpool, England. He has recently had poetry published by The Journal, Message In A Bottle, Mastodon Dentist, Mad Swirl and My Favorite Bullet, amongst others. He has also had stories published by Hellfire Crossroads and Black Petals. He is still nowhere near getting a book published.