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:


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 

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?


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

Our Fall 2020 Issue is HERE!

Hi, MockingHeart Friends!

Our new issue is now published, and you can take a look at it here! We hope that you enjoy these excellent works of art and words–and that, even in so tough a year as this one, you might feel inspired to create as well. 

For those impacted by our world’s current crises, please know that our thoughts are still with you, and will be going forward too. Have a fulfilling weekend, friends. Thank you for all the excellent work you do in the world!

Tyler Robert Sheldon, Editor-in-Chief

Interview with a Poet: John Warner Smith

Editor’s Note: MockingHeart Review recently sat down with poet and educator John Warner Smith, the current Poet Laureate of Louisiana, to discuss poetry, teaching, and the roles of the Arts and education in our tense, rapidly changing world. Valuable insights followed!

Tyler Robert Sheldon, Editor-in-Chief


MockingHeart Review: Hi, John. Good to talk with you! We last spoke in person back in January—how has 2020 been for you so far?

John Warner Smith: It’s been a challenging time, to say the least. Thankfully, I’ve managed to stay safe and healthy. I started the year expecting a very busy schedule of readings. I managed to do several of them virtually but my work as poet laureate has been much quieter than I had hoped. I was awarded a fellowship by the Academy of American Poets to conduct poetry workshops in several high schools in the Delta parishes. I was hoping to begin this fall, but that will probably be pushed back with a change in delivery format.

MHR: Due to the Covid-19 pandemic it’s been a while since our country operated under normal conditions. Could you share a bit about whether (or how) your work and writing life have shifted during the current crisis?

JWS: I miss reading in-person. I really love those moments when I have a poem in my hand and the audience is waiting to hear what it says. I can feel a poem when I look into the eyes of an audience. I could read all day! I’ve done a number of virtual readings, but I don’t get that rush. I’ve also shared more of my work on social media.

MHR: You studied with Terrance Hayes and Tracy K. Smith. Could you speak to how their work has influenced your own?

JWS: I participated in workshops that Tracy and Terrance led at the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshops. Terrance later taught me at Cave Canem. I cannot say enough about Callaloo and Cave Canem. The retreats took my writing to another level. Poetry had just discovered me. I was under the spell of it and not fully understanding why. More than anything, Tracy, Terrance, and the many award-winning black poets whom I was blessed to be taught by helped me to figure it out. I often think about those quiet moments when I sat alone trying to compose a poem for one of the Callaloo or Caven Canem workshops. I knew that I could never be as talented as the workshop teachers but I wanted to present a strong poem, knowing that their feedback would make it stronger. They made me want to keep writing. In time, I found my voice.

MHR: You credit Smith with helping to see poetry as “becoming,” which is a beautiful sentiment. How can we understand that idea in our current time, where political and viral forces threaten our world? What are we becoming, and how does poetry fit?

JWS: Robert Frost said, “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.” Only when it is melted has a poem become a poem. When, through the spontaneity of its own making, a poem surprises me in meaning, I know that it is a poem. Tracy helped me to expect that magic to occur through constant revision, through rethinking what a poem is saying and doing from a reader’s perspective. That happened in a poem titled “Crossing,” that I wrote at the beginning of my journey with my father’s battle with Alzheimer’s. Tracy’s feedback not only helped me to write a better poem; it helped me to see my father’s mind differently and to appreciate the wonder and delicacy of it in spite of the disease that was killing it. That became the first poem that I published in a major literary journal. I might add that Dr. John Gery, the chair of my thesis committee at the University of New Orleans, also helped me to view poetry that way.

The political and viral forces are real threats but poetry can be a bridge to our common humanity. It brings us together to appreciate the full range of emotion and feeling possible in us, in spite of our differences. I write poems about race in America with that in mind.

MHR: Your work contains so many striking images and phrases. “Zydeco on Dog Hill” stuck with me, not just for its somber subject matter (among which a man is murdered), but for the imagery that represents it:

           his wide brim 
fedora suddenly seen 
whirling in a herd of flamingos 
and a pool of whiskey-warm blood.

What types of poetic conventions most fit your style of writing? Moreover, how might poetic conventions help us understand an ungraspable world?

JWS: I’m a prose poet at heart. Much of my poetry tells stories. “Zydeco on Dog Hill” is all fiction, but I borrowed from pieces of real life events. I’ve danced to Zydeco and I’ve been to Dog Hill in Lake Charles, Louisiana, but I don’t have a cousin name Gladys whose husband stabbed her lover in a Zydeco club. It’s all imagined.

My grandfather Andrew was the father of my early childhood. When he was a young man with a wife and three young children, he spent time in prison for killing a man in a card game. I remember the story that my grandmother told me about seeing her father walking through the sugar cane field the next morning to tell her that her husband had been jailed. My grandmother’s brother, J. Warner, whom I was named after, died at a young age from a tragic stabling that took place outside of a nightclub in Lafayette. Somehow, those images helped to build a poem about a character who didn’t exist in real life. The poem tells an imagined story but it also speaks to the dark side of human nature that is never told in a funeral mass. In myth and imagination, we can discover truth about who we are — the shadow side of human nature that we never speak about or admit to ourselves. In truth, I could have been one of the three men in the poem—Gladys’ husband, her father, or Jo Jo, her secret lover whose fedora ended up whirling in “a pool of whiskey-warm blood.”

MHR: In much of your work you discuss the violence that affects black communities, from police and elsewhere. Your poem “Why Being a Black Father in America Today Frightens and Angers Me” distills a part of that experience in plain terms:

I am a father and grandfather of black boys
born and living in America,
doing honest work,
not committing crimes,
not hurting people.

When so much of America must necessarily doubt that these admirable traits are enough to keep them safe, is true equality possible? How can education and the Arts help to that end?

JWS: Equality is indeed possible. It’s the obligation and responsibility of every generation to resist any and all attempts to make race the defining factor in any person’s pursuit of freedom and happiness. The problem is deeply rooted in our county’s history of slavery and the caste system that grew out of it, a system that still exists and manifests itself in incidents of police killings of young black men.

My mother grew up poor in the Jim Crow South. She became pregnant with me when she was fifteen years old. I was not a candidate for long life. Education was my ticket out of poverty, but it has not been my ticket out of the brokenness of the American social, economic, and political systems that create and maintain two societies of haves and have-nots. The root problem is deeply spiritual, and deeply etched into the bones of America. I doubt that we will ever have a period of “Enlightenment” that will reverse the still-prevailing worldview that I am “less” because my skin, hair, and facial features are not “white.” But it’s my responsibility to do whatever I can to call out the hatred and hypocrisy and to love those who practice and speak it.

Arts can build awareness of that challenge, but I doubt that it can cure the problem. My white neighbors can read my poems day and night, but inviting me to a party or learning about my experiences with bigotry and racism can’t make them not see or treat me as “non-white.” My latest collection, Our Shut Eyes, speaks directly to that challenge.

MHR: You’re a caring and pedagogical writer, as anyone who’s heard you read can testify—and you direct Education’s Next Horizon, a Louisiana nonprofit organization. Could you talk a bit about the organization?

JWS: ENH was created thirteen years ago to advocate public education reform. We’ve tried to be a voice for change. I’d like to think that we’ve done some good, although Louisiana still has miles to go in improving education outcomes, particularly for children of color and children with disabilities. Unfortunately, due to our inability to raise funds in recent years, 2020 will be our last year as a non-profit education reform organization.  But I’ll continue to speak of educational inequity through my poetry.

MHR: As a Louisianan and a poet invested in education, what vision do you have for public education in our state? And finally, how might we get there?

JWS: That’s a big question. The short answer is that we have to invest considerably more in high-quality early care and education for poor families and children. If we invest early and wisely, we can build stronger families and children who are prepared to succeed. When I was a child, public Pre-K and kindergarten were not available to black children. I was raised by a grandfather who was illiterate and a grandmother who had an eighth-grade education. A black Baptist preacher and his wife started a kindergarten program for the black children of Morgan City. I attribute whatever academic and professional success I achieved later in life to that act of love and kindness. I entered first grade knowing numbers, the alphabet, and words that I didn’t know existed. It was the most important educational experience of my life.

Years later, I was one of five black students who integrated an all white junior high school in Lake Charles. I was spat on and degraded, but academically I stood toe to toe with every white student there. No matter how meanly they treated me, they couldn’t take the “I” away from me. I grew from being a little black boy in a housing project to becoming the first black man to be poet laureate of Louisiana. I owe much of that to a black preacher and his wife giving me a strong start. That’s what we need in Louisiana, a stronger start for poor children.

MHR: What are you currently working on, and what are you reading?

JWS: I have made a shift since the pandemic. I’ve worked on my forthcoming poetry collection, but I haven’t written a single new poem since late March. One day in April, I opened up the laptop and saw a story that I started writing long before poetry discovered me. So, I wrote a novel and a novella, and I am halfway into a memoir. The writing cost me many hours of sleep and I might not get any of it published, but it enabled me to stay grounded and sane amidst the craziness of the pandemic, racial unrest, and the politics of Trump. Currently, I am reading Caste / The Origins of Our Discontents, the award-winning book by Isabel Wilkerson. The book has deepened and broadened my understanding of race in America.

MHR: What advice might you share with poets and writers who are just starting out?

JWS: Read, read, read, and write with purpose.


John Warner Smith is the Poet Laureate of Louisiana. He is the author of several poetry collections including Muhammad’s Mountain (Lavender Ink, 2018) and Spirits of the Gods (ULL Press, 2017), and his poems have appeared in Ploughshares, Callaloo, Antioch Review, North American Review, Quiddity, The Worcester Review, Kestrel, Bloodroot Literary Magazine, American Athenaeum, Transition, and other literary journals. Smith earned his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Orleans Low-Residency MFA Program, and he teaches English at Southern University in Baton Rouge. Since November 2007 he has directed Education’s Next Horizon, a statewide non-profit organization dedicated to reforming public education in Louisiana. 

Celebrating Five Years of MHR!

Hi, MockingHeart Friends!

I hope you’re well and healthy today. This is just a note to mark a special occasion–this month, MockingHeart Review is celebrating its fifth year! We’ve loved being a venue for so many talented poets, and more recently for talented artists as well. And we’re glad that you, our readers and contributors, enjoy the work we do in the world.

And we’re still going strong! Coming soon to Beats, the MHR blog:

  • An interview with Louisiana Poet Laureate John Warner Smith! I recently sat down to talk with John about his work as a poet and educator, and his latest literary journey. It’s a conversation you won’t want to miss.
  • An interview with Grand Coteau poet and Arts advocate Patrice Melnick! Denise Rogers, our Associate Editor, will be talking with Patrice about her new poetry collection.

…And of course, our Fall 2020 Issue (MHR 5.3) will go live on October 1st! Its many excellent pieces will dazzle and amaze.

Until then, have a great Labor Day Weekend! Thanks again for your own excellent work in the world.

Tyler Robert Sheldon, Editor-in-Chief