City of Hey Baby: An Interview with Patrice Melnick

Associate Editor’s Note: MockingHeart Review recently talked with Patrice Melnick, essayist, memoirist, and poet, about her new book, City of Hey Baby, published with Finishing Line Press. City of Hey Baby speaks to Melnick’s time in New Orleans before and after Katrina, but also her life in Louisiana more generally. Her love for New Orleans comes in all its complexity comes through not only in the poems but also in our discussion. 

Denise Rogers, Associate Editor

——

MockingHeart Review: The book opens with a poem in which the narrator is more or less dancing in the face of death (post-Katrina). Some might say that this is tempting calamity. Do you see the narrator as saying “hey, do your worst–I’m going to dance?”

Patrice Melnick: I had thought of “Dancing at Tip’s” as primarily a poem of escapism, a concept I tend to revisit. I was thinking about the way people cope with tragedy, sometimes facing it, sometimes diverting attention with menial tasks, and sometimes through music and dancing, which is very much a part of New Orleans and Louisiana Culture.  For some, it is like church, attending for a sense of community, and retreating into oneself, getting lost in the melodies, together and alone.  And I think that kind of immersion, physically and emotionally, helps dissipate stress, which can strengthen a person to keep going.  But for me, the poem was intended to indicate daily sorrows, and give the sense of getting lost in the rhythms and inside oneself.

MHR: Are the other dancers numb because of the flood? It seems like the dancing should be healing, but the expression on the other dancers’ faces suggests it isn’t healing entirely. 

PM: After Katrina, there were ranges of loss—loss of lives, homes and livelihoods.  And even for those whose lives were safe, everyone was touched, surrounded by loss—bodies discovered in attics, suicides, homes destroyed—a devastated community.  And that contributes to numbness, a kind of shock, where one may dance, going through the motions for temporary relief, but reality is always in one’s mind.  Dance and other activities offer relief, but trauma endures.  Healing may be incremental, and maybe never complete.

I thought of the dance as simple escape for a stunned, traumatized population, but had not thought of it as healing, not just yet.  It takes time to process experiences, especially when it’s ongoing.

MHR: What was/were the first poem (or poems) you wrote for the book (or did you just say “hey, I have quite a few poems about New Orleans, and I should assemble them into a book”)? I’m interested in how the book came to be. 

PM: Honestly, I realized I had accumulated a decent collection of poems, and I read through them seeking patterns or concepts and realized many were about New Orleans—more than anticipated.  So I decided to let that grouping lead me to develop City of Hey Baby.  I think the only poem I wrote specifically for the book was the title poem, my attempt to capture the complexity and mix of my feelings for this town.

MHR: This book came out during the pandemic. Is that a coincidence, or did the pandemic have a role in pushing the book to publication?

PM: It was total coincidence that it came out during the pandemic.  I had entered the Finishing Line Press chapbook contest for women.  I didn’t win but was thrilled that the manuscript was accepted for publication!  Then I spoke to friends published by the same press, and they told me about their good experiences with the company and said what beautiful books they produce. I learned of the acceptance in September 2019.  At the moment I opened the email, I was at the Santa Fe airport, waiting for luggage—I had arrived for my mother’s funeral. It was nice to get this piece of good news during a sad time.

MHR: If there is a relationship between the pandemic and the book, can you talk about that?

PM: In reflecting, I see commonalities between loss and sorrow in the book—loss of friends, depression—and the sadness and disorientation I see now.  

MHR: In “Dumaine Street,” what do the “hellos” mean?

PM: To me the “hellos” could mean a warm greeting from a stranger or could be hello because someone wants something from you, wants to know if you are seeking something, drugs or sex.  I guess it’s a little like “Hey Baby,” in which context informs if a casual, friendly meeting or someone seeking something.  And for women, there’s a desire to be open to the world while standing up for oneself, feeling safe.

MHR: Is Dumaine Street where you lived?

PM: Yes, I lived on Dumaine Street for a few years—it was the last place I lived before I left New Orleans.  It was a wonderful location, just a few blocks from Bayou St. John, and not far from great restaurants, coffee houses, and the New Orleans Museum of Art with good neighbors and interesting characters.

MHR: If you could (if your circumstances were different), would you go back to New Orleans to live? Or are you so much “no longer the person you used to be” that you don’t feel you would be able to return there as you say in “Fifty Days…”?

PM: The short answer is yes, I would gladly go back.  But I have a complicated relationship with New Orleans. Generally, I adore the food, the music and the way, in this big city strangers, to one another.  Coming to New Orleans I felt more at home than any place I have ever lived and always say hello when passing. I am obsessed with live music, and in New Orleans, that’s normal. Much of my life, I have felt like an oddball, a misfit.  But in New Orleans, there is so much individualism and self-expression, there is no pressure to conform, or put on airs.  If I had the means and right circumstances, I would return.  My selective memory has optimistic leanings.  I am a little dreamy as I gaze at beautiful houses, tall shotguns and colorful cottages and imagine what it is like to live in each one.  Sometimes I forget why I wanted to leave and have to think hard to recall the negative experiences: all the copper plumbing stolen from under my house when I was gone for the weekend, or my newly planted trees chopped down to the ground.  But when you live there, you adjust, as people do in different regions, hurricanes, earthquakes, forest fires.

MHR: Are you still writing New Orleans poems? If so, why is that? If not, why is that?

PM: I still write poems about New Orleans.  I still have friends there, important memories, and I still visit a few times a year, drinking in the culture—walks down a French Quarter street, dinner in an Uptown diner, take in concerts; I love every moment I am there.  New Orleans has stayed inside of me—I’m still connected to that life.

MHR: You might think it odd, but “Refrigerator Lesson” in some ways reminds me of Hughes’ poems on “a dream deferred.” It’s as if those refrigerators in some ways ARE New Orleans–filled with what once was nutritious and now is just rotten. Was this a poem written at a particular moment when you were feeling that way? Since you say “I still dream every night of mountains / of closed claims baking in the south / Louisiana sun,” do you still feel this way? Or is this something you have come to feel over time? 

PM: After I wrote the poem, then I noticed some similarity to “Dream Deferred,” and hoped it wasn’t too close.   The town did seem to be bursting with frustration, tension, brewing emotions.  I was troubled by the thought of all those refrigerators—contamination of that metal and freon, and of course the rot inside.  I wanted to save my refrigerator but knew it would be impossible.  Generally, in the spring, I try to keep my refrigerator and freezer almost empty, in case we lost power during a storm.  But in 2005, I was away for the summer, and someone who subleased from me did the “favor,” of leaving fresh fish in the freezer.  I no longer think about those mountains of refrigerators, but I still become anxious in April, try to keep mine almost empty, so that if we need to leave, we can empty it with ease.

MHR: How did you come to your decisions on how to organize the book? Was the book always going to be called City of Hey Baby (which is a wonderful title, by the way)?

PM: The title came at the end.  In “City of Hey Baby,” I was trying to write a free-flowing poem that expressed the flow of emotions.  And after I wrote it, thought it could work as a title.  I began “Dancing at Tipitina’s after the Storm,” to focus on a moment in time.  I concluded with “City of Hey Baby” in hopes of giving a sweeping view of New Orleans, allowing a range of scenes to wash over a reader.  I sought logical ways to lead from one poem to the next, moving between urban and rural.  I tried to pair poems that might have a relationship, like two that mention Dumaine Street, two that are upbeat, like “Rock n Bowl” and “How I came to Understand Boudin.”  If the order is a journey, I tried to create one that zig-zags, emotionally and in subject matter, so that a reader would find direction as moments, reflections and images accumulate. 

MHR: Every now and then the present creeps in with a poem about Cajun country (like “How I came to Understand Boudin”) or a love poem about Olan (“Walking through the Palmetto Swamps”) or about the Lafayette shooting tragedy (about Jillian). Why do those poems fit in this book about New Orleans? (I think they do, but I want to know your thinking on it.)

PM: So much connected in music, culture and in my being.  The whole state is saturated by the culturally rich areas of New Orleans and the Lafayette/Opelousas region.  In terms of including poems outside of New Orleans, it just made sense to me.  Zydeco, boudin, jazz, swamps and awful incidents like the theater shooting—these reach beyond city limits and parish lines.  There is so much cross-pollination, it seemed natural to me to integrate poems that reach outside of New Orleans. 

MHR: At the end of “Tattoos and Birthmarks,” I get a sense of “if not for the grace of God, there go I.” I wonder about that in relation to this book. There were a lot of losses with and after Katrina, and some people were resilient enough to withstand them, but some people weren’t. Can you talk about that and how the book deals with it?

PM: I think the complexity of New Orleans is part of the reason it is so interesting.  There is a fine line, to me, between freedom, spontaneity and lack of control.  For me, “Tattoos and Birthmarks,” was about not being able to control someone else’s situation, not being able to control one’s one situation.  Lack of control is the beauty, danger and loss I tried to express in multiple poems such as “Matthew,” and “Lemon Sestina.”  Brutal beauty.  To me life is a tangle of emotions, memories and that is intriguing.

TATTOOS AND BIRTHMARKS

Joe showed me his heart with the dagger, a cross, a swastika, all bleeding like algae on his thick freckled boy arms. Don’t mean nothin’, he shrugged, bowled the ball down the lane crashing the pins as his pregnant wife drank sprite. No more pitchers, she said as she kept score in the little squares. Take it, Toeper, Joe handed him the ball.

Toeper held the ball in his right, beer in the left, and an etched eagle drew taut and dark across one shoulder. Toeper launched the ball and sloshed Coors over the lane. Last pitcher, the manager scowled as he mopped at the slick. 

A scarlet birthmark stained half of Toeper’s face. I never heart the name before. Black hair hung straight into his ink eyes, as he told me he swigged his first whiskey at two. His country grandparents laughed, called him Toeper, drunk in Choctaw, the only word he still knows, and the grandparents are gone.

At 3:30 a.m. the manager threw us out and Joe’s wife cried in the parking lot to keep the keys. I drove Toeper to his house where he pulled his loaded father out  of the ditch and stumbled him inside. Toeper led his father to sleep on the kitchen floor, the bed was Toeper’s. Driving home, I climbed the bridge, staring into blackness. Coasting down, cars passed me, and I felt like I was in one of those dreams where I can’t stop—no brakes, none of us has brakes. 

MHR: In the poem “A Reporter who Parties,” are you the reporter? Or is this a book to caution those folks who came to Louisiana to report on it? Can anyone who isn’t from a place really fit into it? Is it worth it to try? 

PM: This poem was written as part of a Festival of Words fundraiser for my friend Cheryl Devall, an area reporter at one time.  Although I guess I am the reporter too, fascinated by nuance.  Maybe it’s like in dreams, where, in theory, you are every character.  Regarding “fitting in,” I think visitors and transplants shouldn’t be concerned.  None of us should expect to be accepted—it’s our responsibility to be genuine and acceptance may or may not occur.  To me, “Reporter,” is about patiently observing every messy nuance.  It’s about not only embracing sweetness but also recognizing racism and ugliness, however subtle. 

As far as fitting in, New Orleans was a place where I fit in more than anywhere I have ever lived.  I grew up in Dallas, Texas, a city of money, style, class and pressure to conform.   I never got the hang of it, rebelled against dressing like others, yet resented the resulting alienation.  In NOLA, there was no need to fit in because everyone does their own thing and, in this environment, I felt very much at ease. And I felt in sync, always waiting for the next great concert, or parade or festival, and most of the people around me were also focused in this way.  I moved to New Orleans with no job or contacts, simply to follow the music—which brings me quality of life.  After I arrived, I looked for work.  In many areas this seems reckless (I don’t deny that) but in New Orleans, this is a familiar story.  Did I just go on a tangent?

MHR: I love the connection you make between you, your father, the watermelon, and New Orleans–that memories can bubble up no matter where you are. But it’s as if he is with you for a moment in New Orleans and that New Orleans is with you when you visit him in his new home. For a moment at the end of the poem, even though you are talking about following him through the hushed hills, I can see him carrying the watermelon through the New Orleans marketplace. Am I just adding that in, or is that a connection you mean for the reader to make, too?

PM: For me, the locations and experiences are connected, so yes, I wanted to suggest a presence of my father in the New Orleans market.  This poem was written in response to food and nostalgia.  The way memories may haunt and linger in the present can create a sense of collapsed time, and I was hoping to get some of that feeling, that the past lives in the present, as though markets and vendors and watermelons are all one place, one motion.

MHR: Finally, the last poem, “The City of Hey Baby”–I think about a woman living alone in such a city, especially when I read the last stanza about how the protection of that “bubble of maleness…let me cut through the streets like a shark.” It reminded me of all the “hey, baby’s” I’ve heard all my life and the fear I feel when certain men call out to me with it. And yet, it sounds as if it should be sweet, or funny, or warm and sexy. So the danger of New Orleans is there along with its beauty and its tackiness (with the gift shops). Why have such nostalgia for it when it doesn’t seem particularly safe for women? Can you talk about the feelings you have for New Orleans and how they relate to the poem (and maybe the book in its entirety)? Seems like the book is more than a paean to New Orleans. You don’t just say “ah, New Orleans was wonderful” in this poem. 

PM: Just like a person, a region is complex, interesting.  Neither good nor bad.  A jewel.  Music.  Life.  Complexity.  Truly, when I visit, I am overwhelmed with nostalgia because what dominates in my memory are breezes, food, friends, laughter, music, openness.  The frustration of unwanted approaches from men happens everywhere.  I feel like women must carry a lot of weight, that we are expected to be friendly “why don’t you smile?” and yet when we don’t correctly read a threatening situation, we are blamed, “you shouldn’t have made eye contact.”  I was trying to use the phrase, “Hey Baby,” as a vehicle for expressing the confusion of wanting to feel safe, yet open to the world.  If one is always afraid and closed, we miss a lot of life, must refrain from self-expression, must hide, lock doors, feel afraid.  Yet if one is too open, trusting, at ease, one can be threatened.  I think all women must walk this line from day to day.  If someone has a frightening experience, she may live cautiously, for the day or a lifetime.  And I think as women, we take these challenges for granted, living day to day without giving much thought to these issues, but making choices without even knowing it.  In New Orleans, I rode my bike all over town.  But when I rode peacefully with a group of men, it made me realize how much I anticipate comments that may be harmless or not.  In public, many women anticipate and tolerate these intrusions, whether consciously or subconsciously.

As for appreciating New Orleans, the joy of the city, an unexpected second line parade coming around the corner, people laughing on a porch, does not negate the dangerous side of the city.  And the danger does not negate the joy.  It’s complex.

But my quality of life is affected by how much high-quality music and art is in my life, and I had never lived anywhere before where this pleasure was present almost constantly.  And many times, standing in a crowd at a great concert or parade, immersed in the experience, I would say to myself, “this is why I came.”

I hope City of Hey Baby illuminates New Orleans’ beauty and scars.

CITY OF HEY BABY

New Orleans is a city of couch
surfing, slipping in and out
of a friend’s house, turning
the key that I have kept in the cup
holder of my car for ten years,
the city where I no longer live
since the storms.
 
New Orleans is a city of waking
To tense morning traffic over
potholed streets and fragrant corner
coffee shops beckon, please come.

New Orleans is a city of midnight
Port of Call burgers in the joint
where Janis Joplin wails from
the juke box and dropping fishing
nets that never touched seawater
hang from ridged ceilings and
my burger is larger than is good
for me but this hunger calls and calls.

New Orleans is a city of strolling
streets, seeking gifts in cluttered
shops, glancing back and forth
to see who walks behind
or in front of me, watching
for the kind of guy who might
cut my purse strings and run. 

New Orleans is a city of flaming 
confetti and wide window laughter
that spills onto the sidewalks and years
ago, my dog barked a warning
at 3 a.m., until I awoke, moved
to the living room, found window
pried wide open, a stranger’s sneakers
on the couch from feet that
fled low dog bark, feet that
would not fear me. 

New Orleans is a City of grease
dripping on the grill at 24-hour
Coops or Clover Grill, city of one
long embrace of a former lover
on a bicycle in the middle of a daiquiri
shop-lined street on an unpredictable day.

New Orleans is the city of “Hey Baby,”
from the coffee shop waitress, the delivery
man, the telephone operator, and “Hey
Baby,” from men who follow and men
who don’t and “Hey Baby,” flies
from balconies and slowing cars because
Hey Baby means nothing and 
Hey Baby means too much.

New Orleans is the city where I once
cruised with bicycle boys through
chaotic neighborhoods, over bridges,
narrow sidewalks, cars flying past
and I was the only “girl” in the pack
riding with adult boys who jumped
curbs and made eye contact speaking
to every single person we passed, carefree
as they deterred the hey baby men who
swallowed their words; I rolled forward
in a bubble of maleness that let me cut
through the streets like a shark with no
Hey Babys to be decoded, no need to 
consider which is a hey baby push
and which a hey baby kiss. 

——

Patrice Melnick holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Her memoir is entitled Po-Boy Contraband: from Diagnosis Back to Life. The City of Hey Baby is her first poetry publication. She lives in Grand Coteau, Louisiana, and is the founder of the Festival of Words, a poetry and writing collective that hosts readings featuring poets, musicians, and storytellers as well as a yearly “poetry crawl” and writing conference in Grand Coteau in St. Mary Parish and in Lafayette Parish, Louisiana. You can order your copy of City of Hey Baby at Finishing Line Press: www.finishinglinepress.com.

Coming in One Week!

Happy Thursday, MockingHeart friends.

We hope you’re staying healthy and relaxed this week, as much as is possible in these unprecedented times. Just sending a note about some great new material coming to Beats, the MHR blog, on January 15th.

On that day, keep an eye out for an interview between MHR Associate Editor Denise Rogers and poet Patrice Melnick! Patrice will discuss her book City of Hey Baby, new from Finishing Line Press, and it’s a conversation you won’t want to miss!

With new and excellent work always in the offing, we’re proud to be a literary magazine you enjoy! Thanks, friends, for your excellent work in the world.

Tyler Robert Sheldon, Editor-in-Chief

Last Day to Submit!

Hi, MockingHeart Review Friends,

I hope you’re healthy and happy on this last day of 2020, and the cusp of the new year we’ve been looking forward to for so long! Today is also the last day to submit to the Winter 2021 issue of MHR.

Until 11:59 PM Central Time today, feel free to send us your work–we’ll be glad to view it! Remember too that this issue’s theme is Recovery.

If you’ve already sent your artwork or poetry our way, thanks very much! We’re looking forward to experiencing your creations, and we’ll get back to you before long.

Be well, and as always, thank you for your excellent work in the world.

Tyler Robert Sheldon, Editor-in-Chief

Interview with a Poet: Clare L. Martin

Editor’s Note: MockingHeart Review recently sat down with poet and MHR founding Editor Clare L. Martin to discuss her new manuscript; poetry’s role in our difficult present; and other timely topics. Valuable insights followed! Take a look at them below.

Tyler Robert Sheldon, Editor-in-Chief

——

MockingHeart Review: Hi, Clare. So good to talk with you again! A lot’s been happening this year, and on top of it all, you have a new manuscript coming into the world: Black Horse, Night. Could you talk a bit about the genesis of this collection?

Clare L. Martin: Throughout my career as a poet, and for as long as I can remember, I have dreamed of horses and written about these dreams. As a teenager, I was lucky to own two horses, Nacona and Kody. Nacona was my first horse. She was a pasture horse all her life until my parents bought her for me. She was around six years old and was incredibly gentle. We were deeply connected, and I loved her. I had her for about two years, then she colicked and had to be put to sleep. I wasn’t informed or allowed to see her to say goodbye. Since her death, I have been grieving her in my dreams and writing about her. She is a powerful muse. 

In all three of my books, readers will find “horse poems” and horse imagery. I’ve often dreamed of The White Horse which to me signifies spiritual ascension, growth, and the Imagination. These dreams are impactful on my creative work. I had so many horse poems, that I decided to collect them and delve into the spiritual significance (to me) of horses. 

I’ve been in therapy for almost three years. My therapist raised horses and has worked in Equine Therapy. Through her encouragement, I have been going into focused meditation to write new horse poems. The manuscript is not just for horse lovers. I would say that the poems are for humans interested in connectivity with the spirit, imagination, dreams, and deep symbolism that I have discovered through my dreamed and lived experiences with horses.

MHR: Sacrifice, loss, and grief play a large role in these poems, as in “Red Mare,” which ends on a quatrain: “We tie her / to a stump and feed her / in pieces / to the hungriest child.” I’ve included the full poem here:

RED MARE

She is thin as a whisper.  She is whipped 
by skeletal men
who swing her from the moon: 

back and forth, 
back and forth.  

Oh, how the horse amuses! 

Its antics 
splinter the day.

She must not be forgotten 
for her name is 
            Calamity—

We tie her 
to a stump and feed her 
in pieces 
to the hungriest child.

…How do the poems in this manuscript function in relation to our current world, where these themes also seem so prominent?

CLM: Sacrifice, loss and grief have been themes throughout my work as a poet. So many of these poems were written before the pandemic broke out. I’ve been quiet on the poetry front since the outbreak of 2020. It’s only very recently, here in the start of winter, that I’ve been able to return to words. I’ve directed my creativity, or more accurately, creativity has directed me during this horrific time, towards making music and cooking as outlets for what is inside of me. 

Grief and loss, death, love, and beauty are my greatest themes. I am not alone in this. I hope to magnify these themes in Black Horse, Night. I don’t know what else to write about. 

MHR: I’m always struck by your command of the line—its weighty power, and how different stanza formulations can elicit vastly varied ethos and pathos. “After Naomi Shihab Nye’s How Long Peace Takes” is a series of conditionals, often in single lines, like this one: “If the star burns out, neglecting her children[.]” Can you speak about your perspective on composing a poem?

CLM: If I am lucky to have an inspired line, I start with it and go forth on a blank page or document, making notes and “freewriting.” Freewriting is my most common technique to write new. I like writing by hand which affords a different process and perspective. The mind connects with the hand and there is a different energy. Keyboards are alright, too. I’m faster. I might miss something, though. 

The shaping takes time. I prefer revision to writing new. There’s always a breakthrough when you make meaningful marks on a blank page. Breaking that placid place, like breaking through a perfect sheet of ice, is a relief to me and refining the work is where the skill and craft come in. 

I was mimicking a technique of Nye’s with that poem, but I made it my own. I would suggest this to new writers and those who want to experiment. In fact, I consider all my work experiment and welcome the freedom of a blank page to “go there”—a nameless place in the self. 

MHR: Among the many goings-on in your life, you’re an avid swimmer, and you have a keen love of the Arts and Arts-related advocacy. How does your life inform your work, and vice versa?

CLM: Swimming is my sacred time. Being able to meditate while swimming has saved my life too many times to count. I’m employed at an arts nonprofit, and I’m able to draw on years of volunteerism in arts programs and my teaching artist history to assist the organization. I’ve found that since I’ve been employed, much of my energy is directed toward the technical work of communications and programming. It’s harder to be the poet I am but not impossible. 

My focus of late has been to revise the manuscript and if I’m lucky, write more poems for it. The poems are calling out to me. Hopefully, I will be able to sustain the work. I don’t have a timeline for the manuscript. It will be ready when it is ready. 

MHR: Some poems in Black Horse, Night interweave hope and defeat, a classic but curious mix, and we see it in “Alpha and Omega,” which I’ll include here. Nacona, the poem’s character, is broken (metaphorically if not in the sense of horse-breaking) in a world that is breaking around her—and yet. Could you talk a bit about this piece?

ALPHA AND OMEGA

Nacona, a dull Quarter Horse, 
is kept in a pasture 
filled with junked tractors, 
rusted cars, and snake-filled tires. 
She is never ridden
until the last year of her life.  
She is first and last. 

The genesis of dream fire. 
I beg you, understand— 

I am akin to her.  
I breathe her rust-colored hide, 

her sweet-feed breath, mud-musk, 
and the spray the groom 
uses to gloss her coat and repel flies—

Even now, I sleep 
on her outstretched 
             flank in summer grass.   

CLM: This is a recollection of Nacona, my first horse. So many poems are obsessively about her. The poems draw from actual memory and from her visitations in my dreams. There are other horses that appear in my dreams and in the manuscript. Their nobility and grace are deep inspirations. 

The impetus for so much in my life comes from the fact that I needed to see her, place a hand on her carcass after she was put to sleep by the veterinarian. From what I was told, she was pulled (she fought because of her pain) to a small stretch of chickenshit trees and injected. It took three or four days before a backhoe was brought to the property to be able to dig the hole for her body. I begged my mother to see her, and my mother wouldn’t let me go. I believe my mother was trying to protect me, but it instigated a lifelong grieving process and heartache that continues to this day. 

MHR: When the world gets back to something approaching our pre-COVID “normalcy,” what’s the first thing you’ll do? How would you guess your writing and perspective might shift, if they do?

CLM: I hope that my poems are relevant in a contemporary COVID world. I am not sure if we will survive the pandemic. Sorry to be so disheartening. It’s just a reality right now and I feel like I don’t have the luxury to imagine a post-COVID world with me in it. I’m very frightened. 

I hope that my poems are desired after all we’ve been through. I have no idea how my writing will change because of COVID. So much grief in these past several months. Why would someone be interested in poems that long for a dead horse?

MHR: In terms of your writing: what comes next?

CLM: In terms of writing, I’d like to spend as much time with this manuscript as possible and create new. I’d like to spend time honing each line and perfecting the work. I can’t let it go and I can’t move from it without giving myself over to it fully. 

MHR: We first met in-person at the release reading of your collection Seek the Holy Dark (Yellow Flag, 2017), and our involvements with the writing community have played a role in our friendship since then. In this isolated and often digital world, what might be the best ways for folks to keep their connections strong?

CLM: Call people. Have conversations, Ask people questions. Be interested in their lives. Give friends your attention. Be hopeful. Be kind. Spend time with good children if you can. 

MHR: And this is always the big point of discussion, seemingly—you’ve helped many folks find their creative footing. What advice would you share with writers, and readers of this interview, who are just starting out in their craft?

CLM: Of course, read. Look at the blank page as freedom, or as a sheet of ice that you break through with your pen. Seek out other creatives, in groups online or maybe one day, in person again. Meditate. Go out in nature. Take care of your inner self and body. Live to feel alive. Silence the internal editor. Free-write. Be kind to yourself. Cut assholes out of your life. 

——

Clare L. Martin is a poet, artist, singer-songwriter, and seer-woman. Crone, her book-length poem, was released by Nixes Mate Books in 2018. Clare’s second collection, Seek the Holy Dark, was the 2017 selection of the Louisiana Cajun and Creole Series by Yellow Flag Press. Her debut collection of poetry, Eating the Heart First, was published by Press 53. Clare’s poetry has appeared in Thrush Poetry Journal, Poets and Artists, and Louisiana Literature, among others. She lives and creates in Youngsville, Louisiana.

Coming Soon!

Happy Monday, MockingHeart friends.

A new week is upon us! With submissions now open to artwork and poetry (send your work! Tell your friends! Shout it from the roo…well, you get the idea), we’re also looking forward to more great material on Beats, the MHR blog.

Keep an eye out tomorrow for an interview with Clare L. Martin, poet and MHR Founding Editor, in which we discuss a new manuscript, the present moment, and other concerns.

With new and excellent work always in the offing, we’re proud to be a literary magazine you enjoy! Thanks, friends, for your excellent work in the world.

Tyler Robert Sheldon, Editor-in-Chief

Submissions are Open!

MockingHeart friends! Happy December.

It’s that time of year again–though it’s still Fall, here at MHR we’re beginning to anticipate the coming of Winter. Submissions are now open for the Winter 2021 issue of MockingHeart Review! You can submit from today until December 31st.

As you might have seen, our theme for this upcoming issue (MHR 6.1, for the numerically inclined) is Recovery. Give this theme some thought, and when you’re ready, send your poetry and/or artwork our way! We look forward to experiencing it.

And coming soon to the MHR Blog: An interview with poet and MHR Founding Editor Clare L. Martin. Clare and I will be discussing her new manuscript; poetry’s role in our difficult present; and other timely topics. You won’t want to miss it! Keep an eye out for more info.

We hope you’re staying healthy, happy, and inspired. Keep on creating, friends–and as always, thank you for the excellent work you do in the world.

Tyler Robert Sheldon, Editor-in-Chief

Pushcart Prize Nominations!

Hi, MockingHeart friends,

We at MockingHeart Review are proud to announce this year’s nominations for the Pushcart Prize:

“Mayme Hears the Bones of Planets Fall,” by Cheryl Unruh

“My Grandfather’s Old Photos,” by Andrew Maust 

“Eins, Zwei, Drei, by Megan Culp

“About a Friend, Found Hanging,” by Chelsea Logan

“Something in the Air,” by Michelle Reale

“The Automatic Door at the Grocery Store Lets the Bull Moose In,” by Aaron Sandberg

Congratulations to these poets, and many thanks to ALL of our MHR contributors for your excellent work in the world–it’s a privilege to read and publish your creations. Here’s to another great MockingHeart Review year!

P.S. – More information about the Prize and Pushcart Press can be found here.

Tyler Robert Sheldon, Editor-in-Chief

One Week until our Winter Reading Period!

MockingHeart Friends! It’s been a while. I hope you’re well, and that you’ve been able to take some time for self-care in this latter part of our difficult year.

Just to pass you a note–our Winter 2021 issue will be open for submissions from December 1-31, 2020, with a planned February 1, 2021 publication date! Take a bit of time to reflect and create–we’d love to see your work this reading period!

Our Winter 2021 theme is Recovery.

As I write this, COVID-19 has taken some 258,000 lives in the United States alone. The hardships are many. But with recent news of multiple vaccines under development, recovery may finally be on the horizon. As the country strives to get the pandemic under control, consider that recovery means different things too–social, personal, or political healing, for instance. Winter is often conceptualized as a time of recovery. Think on these ideas, and when you’re ready, send your creations to MockingHeart Review!

And please pass the word along! If you know an artist or writer who’s been considering the brave act (for it is a brave act) of putting their work out into the world, we’d be thrilled to hear from them.

Finally: If you haven’t yet taken a peek at our splendid Fall 2020 issue, please do! Several excellent pieces await you therein. You’ll come away feeling inspired!

Thanks again! Keep up your excellent work in the world, and we’ll see you soon.

Tyler Robert Sheldon, Editor-in-Chief

Interview with a Poet: Ted Kooser

Editor’s Note: MockingHeart Review recently sat down with Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry Ted Kooser to discuss his new collection Red Stilts (Copper Canyon, 2020), the process of writing, and the state of our tense, rapidly changing world. An excellent conversation to read on this crisp Halloween!

Tyler Robert Sheldon, Editor-in-Chief

——

MockingHeart Review: Hi, Ted. Good to talk with you! When we last spoke, your new book Red Stilts was just coming into the world. I’ve enjoyed so many of the poems therein, and as in other collections, here you shed light on the potency of “small” moments, showing them to be larger than one might first think. Could you speak a bit about the genesis of this new collection?

Ted Kooser: I try to write every morning, and I have no greater plan.  It’s enough work for me to have one poem to concentrate on, and concentrating on that poem excludes everything but itself.  I write a few promising poems each month, and many not so good, and many, many bad ones, laughably bad.  Given time I can see which stand out as stronger than the others. Those I submit to literary magazines, where some get accepted for publication.  If by the end of a year’s writing I have eight or ten poems that have found publication, that’s a good year for me.  And eight or ten years of that, and I’ll have what may be a book of poems.  I never plan, but since my life and personality are reflected in my writing, the overall direction of my life is an organizing influence.

MHR: This new book emerges into a year stricken by vast social upheaval, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and other concerns. How has 2020 been for you so far?

TK: On New Year’s Eve this year, many if not most of us will be happy to put 2020 behind us forever, don’t you think?  That’s probably enough said…. But I will say that I pray that I will live long enough that our country will be reunited under wise leadership.

MHRRed Stilts chronicles memorable moments, only some of which are overtly happy—I think first of the poem “Mother and Child,” where the two characters engage with “one / of those red, blue, and yellow / plastic play sets”—and we see that in many instances, color is of vast importance. In “Raspberry Patch,” a “black-and-yellow spider” and “white and blue butterflies” tend to their busy lives, and “the old garage lifts a yellow cuff.” What role does color play in your writing, and in your life around that work?

TK:  I have enjoyed drawing and painting since I was a little boy.  I love looking at the world, and trying to catch things I see with a sketch, and I sketch both in words and in line and color. My notebooks are full of both kinds of those sketches.  At times when I’m not either drawing or writing I feel awful, as if I’m throwing my life away. 

MHR: Family is a very important thread through the poems in Stilts. “An Overnight Snow” resonates strongly, wherein you hear “a word or two, muffled, back and forth between / my father and our next-door neighbor, Elmo Mallo, / who was out shoveling [snow], too.” When writing about family (and people in general, if you like), what do you find yourself focused on most? And in your estimation, what people-centered moments lend themselves best to a poem?

TK:  Readers seem to prefer poems in which there are people. I don’t think that’s a considered preference, but I feel it there.  I write a lot of poems about inanimate things, and though I delight in writing them they’re never as warmly accepted. As to writing about people, over the past twenty-five years or so the poems I’ve been happiest with are those in which I stand aside, invisible, and observe one or two people who are oblivious to me looking on.  The poem you mention is an example of the type; others are the one about the man at the bulletin board in the grocery store entryway. the one about the man coming out of the bakery, the woman standing in the rain talking to the two men in a truck, and so on.  Take the most ordinary moment, say a man flicking an ash from a cigarette, and describe it carefully, and everything out and around it will drop away and it will seem bathed in a remarkable light. I try to focus on things to the exclusion of everything else. If you look at some part of the world through a cardboard toilet paper tube, what you see gains in interest and even importance.

MHR: Because the book is so full of compelling snapshots I shouldn’t be this definitive, but “The Dead Vole” contains the moment that hits me hardest, even now. Holding this creature, this “dab of thunderhead gray,” the narrator muses: “even such a miniscule being, I thought, / ought to weigh something in death, / a little more than itself.” Leaning into that metaphor, what do you suppose death signifies? And importantly, what does (or should) it signify in our current moment?

TK: I am the narrator, Tyler. I never speak in a voice other than my own. Years ago, I wrote some dramatic-monologue-type poems but I haven’t written one for years. But to your question: I don’t think I have a good answer for you.  In poems like the one about the vole I am myself trying to work out what death means. I’ve been working on that all my life, it seems.  A few years ago the honors group at our university asked me to give a “last lecture,” what I would say if I were abut to die. I told my wife I didn’t know what I was going to say and she said, “Ted, it ought to be easy. You’ve been giving your last lecture all your life!”

MHR: Nature is always close by in your work, and in Stilts, even poems that aren’t about the natural world still keep it in the periphery. I think of “Applause,” the closing poem, wherein a girl finishes a performance: “At the close of her piano recital . . . the clapping keeps leafing down.” As in this poem, we often invoke nature to describe our lives. Why do you think this is so? What are we humans trying to say?

TK:  I don’t know that I’m making a statement. I don’t intend to be.  But I’m happy to be small part of the grand natural order and I suppose that shows.

MHR: Surely a lot of folks would like the world to go back to the pre-COVID world, but we’ve all made adjustments under the assumption that it’ll be a while. To that point, you mentioned in a recent letter that your writing practice has shifted somewhat. Now that things in the world are so different, what are your plans? And what should your readers keep an eye out for next?

TK: Earlier I suggested that I didn’t plan beyond the poem right under my nose. I really don’t know what’s to come, and I have no plan other than to keep writing.  I do have more time at home now, and I like that.  It’s a blessing to me when there are no invitations to go somewhere and do something. I’ve written a handful of poems about the pandemic, but I don’t like them much.  They have a topic, and having a topic is to have an agenda.  Agendas are poisonous. If tomorrow morning I find myself writing about an acorn, that’s what will concern me.  

MHR: Lots of writers have rituals around their work—William Stafford’s pre-sunrise couch writing with toast, the music so many of us put on when we compose a poem or an essay, and so on. Do you have a writing ritual of sorts?

TK:  As I said earlier, my routine is to get up early, four or four-thirty, and to sit with my notebook and coffee, hoping that something good will happen. Often what I write is silly, or goofy, or cheesy, or stupid, but unless I’m sitting there ready I’ll miss the good one when it flies past. Kate DiCamillo, the wonderful writer of books for young people, was asked at a conference I attended why she wrote so early in the morning and she said that she wanted to get her writing done before the critical part of her brain woke up.  I thought that was a fine way to explain it.

MHR: And before we adjourn, I should ask—what advice would you share with writers who are just starting out in their craft?

TK:  Read, read, read!  Reading is how writers learn to write.  When I was still teaching I told my grad students that they ought to read a hundred poems for every one they try to write. I have never seen a poorly written poem that couldn’t have been made better had the author read more poetry.

——

Ted Kooser has served as Presidential Professor at the University of Nebraska, and as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004 to 2006. He won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, has received four Pushcart Prizes, and has authored many books, including fifteen poetry collections and numerous chapbooks. He edits the long-running and widely syndicated column American Life in Poetry.

Coming on Halloween: an MHR Interview with Ted Kooser

Happy Friday, MockingHeart friends.

I hope you’re healthy and relaxed this weekend, and that you’ve had a chance to read some of your favorite literary work! We’re a bit biased, but our favorite recent work includes the excellent Fall 2020 issue of MockingHeart Review. If you haven’t yet taken a look through its pages, you can do so here.

We have plenty of exciting material coming soon to Beats, the MHR blog. This Halloween, keep your eyes peeled for a special MHR interview with the inimitable Ted Kooser! In it we discuss the recent world and his most recent book, Red Stilts, out this year from Copper Canyon Press.

Kooser served as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004 to 2006. He won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, has received four Pushcart Prizes, and has authored many books, including fifteen poetry collections and numerous chapbooks. He edits the long-running and widely syndicated column American Life in Poetry (from which he will retire in December of this year).

We look forward to sharing this excellent conversation with you! In the meantime, keep on reading and creating. Thanks again, friends, for your excellent work in the world.

Tyler Robert Sheldon, Editor-in-Chief