An interview with Catherine Arra

MHR: The unifying theme of the poems in Loving from the Backbone (Flutter Press, 2015) is loving which through the elements of your craft makes loving elemental. Each piece, imbued with passion, or a dispassionate understanding of love and its complexities is finely wrought. In “He Says” I sense the woman’s power is choice. Her choosing to open herself, or not.  Can you speak to the woman’s power as exemplified in this poem?

Catherine Arra: I believe that everyone’s power is in the ability to understand intent, one’s own intent as well as that of others, and to choose accordingly. In “He Says,” we have a relationship that is stalled. The mating dance, courtship teases and coupling are complete. The sex is great. It’s time for the couple to go deeper into relationship or walk away. The woman is aware of her desire or intent to go deeper. She is also aware of her partner’s ambivalence or intent to keep things as they are between them. She knows he loves her, she understands his fear and her power; however, she will not use her power to hurt him but to challenge them both to grow.

In this poem, I wanted to articulate intent by what “he says.”

MHR: In “One of the Girls” you deftly draw an imaginative narrative that likens otherworldliness into a poem that is very much rooted in the world. What was the emotional impetus for this poem?

CA: The emotional impetus for this poem was a growing annoyance with sloppiness or entitled negligence in relationship. The man in the poem needs to clean out his closet literally and figuratively. He doesn’t see the ghosts of his past relationships or how they haunt the present. He is unaware of the irresolution in himself and between himself and past partners. The woman does; she intuits and mediates between past and present. She once again understands intent.

I feel poetry comes from an otherworldliness. The poet hears, discovers and gives voice to the narrative, or often to silence. She traverses and connects worlds seen or unseen, the past and present, the living and the dead.

MHR: “Premature Snow” is a personification of nature. Most of the poems in “Loving from the Backbone” display nature prominently. How does nature inspire you?

CA: Well first, I’ve never been a fan of winter, though the season has taught me how to hibernate, renew and how to have faith. Nature inspires me in all ways; it holds, moves and continually teaches me. I see myself, all mankind, all creatures as a part of one wondrous, divine organism. In nature I find endless metaphor.

MHR: There is a line in the poem “Sustenance” that reads “the recipe for life on earth.” It seems a fitting phrase to encompass the urgings of these poems.  These poems give vital life lessons without being didactic. It’s as though a grace-filled voice whispers to us, “This is the way.” Do you agree or disagree?

I agree, though my intent in writing is never to instruct but to share or show. For me, poetry is a practice like yoga, of breathing and allowing life to move through me, of seeing, appreciating and assimilating what is. The “recipe for life on earth” or “love that lasts” or a poem that works is a delicate combination that may be a form of grace or prayer.

MHR: There is a languidness in the voice of the poems that shines in a quiet contentment, but in a poem like “Blind Passage,” there is a power surge. Can you speak to this?

CA: “…a languidness in the voice that shines in quiet contentment” What a lovely, poetic comment Clare.

I agree that the voice in many of the poems is sated and serene. The “power surge” you sense in “Blind Passage” is perhaps the strength of vulnerability. To love openly, instinctively, without fearful manipulation and intellectual interference is to love from the backbone. I used the quote from D.H. Lawrence to link the poem to Lawrence’s sustained literary message for mankind to stay connected to the natural world, to his instinctual nature and to understand that sex in the head is not sex at all.

MHR: In the title poem, “Loving from the Backbone,” What gave you the imaginative spark to write of the condition of human love related to reptilian life?

CA: The reptilian brain is the oldest part of the human brain. It controls the body’s vital functions: heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, body temperature and balance. Our sense of smell, hunger, thirst and our hard-wired instinct to mate are rooted in the reptilian brain, which is located in the brainstem and the cerebellum providing a direct connection to the spine that governs all movement. For me, loving from the backbone is to love instinctively, organically, in union with emotion and intellect. It is to love fully and consciously from the oldest, deepest parts of our being.

MHR: These poems are sensual and earthy. When you write about the body it is with a deft and careful hand, as though you are creating brushstrokes for a painting. Do you practice any other art forms or exercise other creative skills? If so, how do you see the interconnectedness with your poetry?

CA: I enjoy photography and can say that I practice the art of seeing. I often think visually and have a strong visual memory. I nearly became a professional photographer before I decided to become a teacher. I imagine poems with vivid imagery or an unexpected emotional sweep to be like photographs; I see photographs as poems and stories. I also practice yoga and try to live astutely and fully in and through my body. I believe that the challenging work of the artist is to come through the body, to allow the divine in and through, to give it voice and form in everything we do: writing, painting, cooking, gardening, caregiving, working, living, loving, dying. Perhaps this is the art of being a good vessel.

MHR: I read an article recently that stated that what men, heterosexual men, really want is “safe harbor” in a woman. Would you agree with that in your understanding?

CA: I think we all want safe harbor in relationship no matter our gender or sexual preference. We all want to submit to love and to be loved. Relationship requires courage and tenderness. I play with this idea in the poems, “Submission” and “The Gospel of Skies” wherein it appears that the woman submits to the male sex drive and her partner’s need for safe harbor, but in truth, he submits to her. They go together into the mystery, naked and unashamed. What they create together is safe harbor for both, “where they lie side by side in the gravity of breathing.”

Thank you, Clare, for your deeply intuitive reading of Loving from the Backbone and for taking the time to interview me.



Catherine Arra is the author of Slamming & Splitting (Red Ochre Press 2014), Loving from the Backbone (Flutter Press 2015) and forthcoming in 2017, Tales of Intrigue & Plumage (FutureCycle Press). Recent poetry and prose have been published in The Timberline Review, Peacock Journal, Flash Frontier, MockingHeart Review and Sugared Water. A former English and writing teacher, Arra now teaches part time and facilitates a local writers’ group in upstate New York. Find her at

An interview with Bill Yarrow

MHR: The title The Vig of Love is taken from the title of a poem within the collection. Can you explain the title as you understand it and as it suggests the other poems?


BY: Vig, from “vigorish,” is the interest on a loanshark’s loan. Love is a debt, a loan you’ll never repay. The poems in this volume are about the different kinds of interest we owe on the impossible loan that is love. P.S. The Muse is also a loanshark.


MHR: In the title poem, the idea of risk is linked with love. Can you illuminate this idea as it pertains to many of the other poems that also delve into the nature of love in this light?


BY: The poem suggests love is a roulette bet. Sometimes we win. Sometimes we lose. But if we really love someone, we need to invest everything we have. We need to “put down all we’re worth.” The debt idea is made explicit in the poem “A Debt No Honest Man Can Pay” which begins the volume. The betting idea is made explicit in the poem “Wanna Bet?” which opens the last section of the book.


MHR: Do you see yourself as a contemporary absurdist? Do you see yourself as a truth seeker with a capital T? Does truth exist? If not, what responsibilities must a 21st century poet fulfill?


BY: I see myself as someone who writes poems. Nothing more.


Yes, specific truth exists, and general truths exist. Does Capital T Truth exist? No. Not for me.


The responsibility of a poet? To write well.


MHR: You have a couple of poems, that use bullet points to present statements of “truth” that are slant and wry.  What principles link these poems? What are their thematic unifiers?


BY: These “poems” (I’m not sure what they really are) consist of aphorisms or admonitions about love, pleasure, desire, passion, addiction, obsession. Read them with Samuel Johnson’s caveat: “In all pointed sentences, some degree of accuracy must be sacrificed to conciseness.” The title “Asbestos Candlestick” references the poem “The Exit Towards Fire.” The title “Sticky, Indifferent” comes from a phrase in “Liz@Phil,” a poem in Blasphemer


before ten years had passed
their loneliness had hardened

into indifferent sticky rapture
and permanent part-time jobs


MHR: As a poet rooted in the human condition, does man have a chance? And if so, does poetry?


BY: If we are human, we are “rooted in the human condition.” Poets are no different from anyone else. Everything has a chance—man, woman, humanity, poetry, goodness, beauty, ugliness, evil…. How much of a chance? That depends on the individual. And on the individual depends the world. As Emerson said, “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.” The future is the collective us.


MHR: Do you think your poems speak intimately to the reader or does the speaker hold the reader at a distance to instruct? Do you see yourself as a storyteller or a visionary/oracle?


BY: Every one of my poems intuits a speaker. Every speaker is different. None is me. That is, none is wholly me. My poems all tell stories. I don’t think any sane person ever sees himself or herself as an oracle.


MHR: There is an exacting sharpness in the language, and throughout we are treated to unexpected word collisions. Do you, as a poet, strive to make the unfamiliar familiar in your language?


BY: Thank you, Clare. I love that phrase “word collisions.” That’s an excellent phrase to describe a lot of what I do in my poems. In Pointed Sentences, my first book, there’s a poem called “Whiplash Marriage.” That title describes my approach and a lot of my work. I’m still smashing sound atoms, still officiating at whiplash marriages of non-consenting words.


I don’t strive to make the unfamiliar familiar exactly. I do solicit the unfamiliar and invite it into my poems. I strive to make the unfamiliar immediate and necessary, accessible and inevitable.


MHR: In the heart of the collection there seems to be a silent hope, which counters the difficulties of answerless questions in many of the poems. I think the balance is finely struck.  Do you sense a light in the darkness?


BY: I appreciate your comment about balance. Darkness is only darkness because there is light. Light is only light by virtue of there being darkness. As Blake said, “Opposition is true friendship.” No, there is no light in the darkness, but there is always the potential for light in the darkness. And vice versa.


MHR: I am immediately taken by the economy of words and clever turns of phrases, even though these poems embody so much more in their cumulative effect. Can you share with us some of your process in facing a blank page?


BY: Thank you, Clare, for that characterization of the poems in this book.

I seldom write on a literal blank page. Mostly, I write on a computer screen. I mention this because the size of a piece of paper sometimes affects or even dictates the length of a poem’s lines. If you are writing in a pocket notebook, you are likely writing in shorter lines than if you are writing in an oversized folio notebook. The reason is because, as you stare at the tiny notebook page, you are thinking in shorter lines, or thinking in longer lines if you are looking at a menu-sized blank journal.

The computer screen for me is neutral. It allows me to experiment with short lines, medium-sized lines, long lines, boxy poems, shaped poems, sprawling poems, prose poems, etc. I can immediately see what something looks like without having to rewrite it in a different form or shape. I can also save all the approaches to or versions of a poem.


My process? I play around. I play around with what things sound like, what things look like, how meaning changes with words in juxtaposition with each other, how meaning changes in a line ending or a line beginning. I’m a sculptor playing with the clay of words, sometimes piling bits on bits, sometimes scraping away dross to get at the essential form.


Sometimes, I begin with an event (“The Secret of Belief”) or a place (“Ajloun Castle”) or a person (John Dillinger / “Noir vs Noir”) or a memory (“The Ogontz Branch”). Sometimes, I begin with a word (“Babble”) or a phrase (“A Debt No Honest Man Can Pay”) or a text (“The Red Wheelbarrow” in “Carlos!”). Sometimes, I begin with a feeling (“Tierra del Fuego”) or a concept (“The Man Whose Wife Lived in His Neck”) or a pun (“Libby, Lottie, and Carlotta”).


Sometimes, the poem just emerges.


For me though, a beginning is just a beginning. I almost never end where I start.



Bill Yarrow


Bill Yarrow, Professor of English at Joliet Junior College and an editor at the online journal Blue Fifth Review, is the author of The Vig of Love, Blasphemer, Pointed Sentences, and four chapbooks. His work also appears in the anthologies Aeolian Harp, Volume One; This is Poetry: Volume Two: The Midwest Poets; and Beginnings: How 14 Poets Got Their Start. He has been nominated eight times for a Pushcart Prize. More information about Bill can be found on his website:

Valerie Fox Interview: Writers Room

MHR: Hi, Valerie. Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions about Writers Room. Briefly, what is Writers Room and what is your affiliation with it?

VF:  Writers Room is an initiative at the Center for Neighborhood Partnerships in West Philadelphia, associated with Drexel University. It’s one of many initiatives there aimed at both connecting different community organizations and at helping individuals.  Writers Room, specifically, offers a regular writing workshop, as well as side-by-side classes in which both Drexel students and others from the community take part. Topics have included War Stories, Memoir Writing, and Poetry Writing. We’re in our third full year of programming.

I’m a faculty writing fellow with Writers Room, as part of my job teaching at Drexel University, and I get to offer workshops, help out with programming, and support the other teachers and our directors in their workshops and special events.

Colleagues I work closely with are Rachel Wenrick, Kirsten Kaschock, and Carol Richardson McCullough. We have a motto: Together, we are creating a shared story.

MHR: What are some of the ways Writers Room meets the creative community’s needs in Philadelphia?

VF:  Writers Room provides a space for writers to write and share work. A close-knit group attends monthly workshops, and special events are offered throughout the year, as well as one-on-one consultations.

A one-off workshop last year, for instance, was called Portraits through Time and combined writing and drawing.  We’re planning one for winter focusing on recording oral histories.

Can you highlight events that Writers Room have marked you personally as transformative?

VF: I find that all my interactions at Writers Room are energizing. Carol has said about Writers Room: “that’s where the magic happens.” Writers come here and find a place where they are inspired to share their stories.

We also see the delight in the writers’ faces when they see their work in the anthologies and chapbooks we make together. Writers appreciate the challenging classes, the feedback from fellow writers, and the wonderful diversity and energy of this place. Seeing the positive impact of the younger (“traditional”) college students and community writers working together never gets old.

Seeing the seriousness and growth within our group reminds me why I write, too—to express myself, but also to reach and be read by an audience, to connect with others.

Our recent festival focused on Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston was incredibly gratifying and touched the lives of many hundreds of people.  It was part of the NEA Big Read program; more information on that here [].

Our workshop members took part in numerous discussions and workshops. Additionally, we took the festival into many branches of the Free Library of Philadelphia, sharing Hurston’s work with both adult reading groups and kids. For the kids, we were able to share the picture book, about Hurston’s early life. The festival also included panels, a dance performance, a zine-making workshop, and more.

Can you talk a bit about relationships that develop through the interactions in Writers Room?

VF: These and other events are a catalyst for collaboration amongst teachers and students, as well as groups and departments associated with Drexel. For instance, I’d been working on some collaborations with artist Jacklynn Niemiec (who also teaches at DU), and doing workshops with her at Writers Room has led to further collaborations and an energizing of my teaching practice overall.


How can someone become involved?
VF: Our website lists events, and anyone from our area is welcome! For special events, like the Letter Press workshop last month, space may be limited, so it is important to reply or fill out a form as requested to ensure there is a spot for you for in cases like this.  If you are interested in getting involved, please to our website and sign up for announcements, or drop us a line!

Our website!


Valerie Fox
Valerie Fox
‘s books include The Rorschach Factory, The Glass Book, and Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets (co-written with Lynn Levin). Much interested in collaboration, she has published many poems and stories with Arlene Ang. She is also part of group of Philadelphia artists combining dance, word, and visual arts in projects known as “Variable Space.” She has published in Juked, West Branch, Hanging Loose, Painted Bride Quarterly, Apiary, Sentence, Mead, and other magazines.

An Interview with Tyler Sheldon

Thank you for agreeing to do this interview for MockingHeart Review, Tyler. I really enjoyed First Breaths of Arrival, your chapbook from Oil Hill Press. Can you tell me a bit about the genesis of the chapbook? How long was it in the making? How did you envision the collection?

TS: Hi, Clare and MockingHeart, thanks for having me! My chapbook began as a desire to collect my Plains poetry–my poems of place–into a cohesive unit with a large underlying narrative. I wanted to tell the story of my upbringing, and of my observations of Kansas–how it shapes the way I think, and my interactions with nature and individuals. Since around 2012, I’d been drafting and revising poetry along these lines, trying to be respectful of my place in the Midwest and my heritage there. I’d grown up around Kansas poets (my father, William Sheldon, is one, and so were several family friends), and so when I began in poetry it was both the most natural and most urgent direction to take.

I started First Breaths of Arrival while working on my Master of Arts in English at Emporia State University, and I knew I wanted it to be a shorter collection. It grew in tandem with my MA thesis, which focused on Kansas poetry (specifically that of William Stafford, Harley Elliott, and Steven Hind). As my collection grew more cohesive, I approached Oil Hill Press; editor John Jenkinson worked with me as I pared it down, replacing some poems with ones that fit better. Oil Hill released the chapbook to the world in May 2016, the day I graduated with my MA.

MHR: Landscape, place, specifically Kansas is featured strongly throughout and your treatment of it is done with a deft hand.  The poems tell us much about Kansas in what is said of it, in descriptions. Can you speak to the poem, “In Kansas,” and tell us a few things that are not said? Maybe lines or images you cut out of the poem? There are also “ghosts” and ancient people in this landscape. Can you speak to this how you drew them in as a poet?

TS: I’m glad to know the treatment of landscape and place is done well! Poems throughout First Breaths deal with the state and its landscape in various ways–“For Kansas Poets” links the landscape to its residents in behavior and thought. “In Kansas” deals specifically with unique Kansas imagery: the Hutchinson salt mine, for instance, is now a museum housing such artifacts as the costumes from Star Wars and Gone With the Wind. As you mention, there are several unsaid pieces of that poem, including Kansas’s influence on poetry at large, and how I learned to be (somewhat) adult while living there.

The line “throw clove cigarette butts into the street” speaks to a pastime I shared with my wife, whom I met in Kansas and was then dating. We’d go for late-night cruises in my Nissan or her Ford coupe, smoking clove cigars and sometimes stopping for take-out. More than that, though, this line hints at possibility; the disparate activities in the poem are examples, suggesting that in Kansas, much more opportunity for exploring oneself can be had. In a way, then, the whole poem is about unsaid truths or opportunities.

The “ancient people” of the Kansas landscape are integral–I’ve long been fascinated with Kansas history and its people. My father collects Native American and Paleolithic artifacts on the Arkansas River as a sort of compelled hobby, so I had early exposure to the evidence people leave of their lives. Former Kansas poet laureate Denise Low discusses her own Native ancestry in several collections of her work, and her explorations fed my fascination with the ghosts of our state. Addressing these through writing felt like both the best fit and a way to contribute to what is very much a place-centered poetic tradition.

MHR: Throughout the collection. there are the interrelationships of men and boys, specifically the speaker of the poems and his elders–father, grandfather. The relationships are drawn very realistically and finely. The notes of coming into manhood are struck purely. I especially loved the poem “Mountains.” Not that it matters to the poem’s truth, but how much of your family history plays into this poem’s narrative? It’s quite colorful. Also, can you speak to the metaphor of “mountains” as you employ it in this poem?

TS: Thanks for noticing the relationship focus! It’s there on several levels–for example, “My Father Teaches Me to Shave” is a true account, and if altered at all from factual happening it would be by my fallible memory rather than any poetic license. My father and I wrote “For Kansas Poets” together over a period of about two weeks, comparing drafts and working them gradually together into their current sonnet form.

“Mountains” is interesting in this regard, as during the time when my grandfather was telling me stories of his father, my own dad was there in the Suburban with us as we drove into the Rockies. So, in a way, four generations of the Sheldon family were present for Grandpa Bob’s stories. His father Hubert Sheldon really was a surprisingly good boxer, a baseball player, and a liquor store owner. And with him, people really did know not to mess around.

In the poem, itself, those mountains work on a surface level–they provide scenery, and context for the conversation that’s the backbone of the poem. They’re also metaphors, I suppose–as we went deeper into the mountains, up to Grandpa’s mountain cabin, we went deeper into family history, with its complexities and intrigue. Another trip to the Rockies is probably due at some point, as I’m sure I still have a lot to learn.

MHR: I think we really covered a great number of interesting points about your eloquent collection. Thank you! The only follow-up question I would ask is if you would speak to the metaphor of a mountain as it relates to a man as a figure/a mountain in a boy’s or young man’s life.

TS: I suppose that mountains have a certain place in boyhood, and probably manhood, as structures that inspire awe. To say, “I’ve been up there,” and certainly to say “I’ve been up there with my father and grandfather” is a point of pride for me–those visits to the mountains gained status as a tradition over time and influenced me. The mountains became a symbol of proving oneself in nature, though in my situation they were a sort of middle-landscape. I wasn’t roughing it, out there in a tent hunting for sustenance, but I did learn a bit from my grandfather about building powder rifles, and how to shoot properly, throw knives with accuracy, cut firewood, tend a stove, and so on.

I’d say those activities are inextricable from being in the Rockies, at least for me–I’m being a bit glib, but you can’t necessarily practice target shooting when you’re in a suburban neighborhood, for example. So yes, mountains have a place in my boyhood and very young adulthood, and one that I remain proud of.


Interested folks can buy Tyler’s chapbook, First Breaths of Arrival, by emailing him at, or by emailing John Jenkinson (Oil Hill Press publisher) at


Tyler Sheldon


Tyler Sheldon is an MFA candidate in Poetry at McNeese State University. He earned his MA in English at Emporia State University, where he taught Composition and received the 2016 Charles E. Walton Essay Award. Sheldon’s poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has appeared in journals throughout the US and in Canada, such as Quiddity International Literary Journal, The Dos Passos Review, Coal City Review, The Prairie Journal, and others. His chapbook First Breaths of Arrival is from Oil Hill Press (May 2016).

A MHR Conversation: Robert Okaji

A MockingHeart Review Conversation with Robert Okaji, author of If Your Matter Could Reform (Dink Press, 2015)


MHR: Hi, Robert. I am glad we have this opportunity to talk to one another about your new chapbook, If Your Matter Could Reform.  I have a few questions which I hope will illuminate us.

RO: Thank you, Clare. I’m thrilled that you asked.


MHR: The first poem is “Wind” which introduces us to the ethereal voice that has a calming effect but also the authority and power to speak the deepest questions that you explore in the book. I love the wind motif that blows in and out of poems, like a wind.  What does the wind signify to you and what can we learn, formally, from paying attention to your use of it?

RO: We share our lives with the wind, yet are able to see it only through its effects. We can’t touch it, but we feel it. It has no voice, but we hear it through various vessels – leaves rattling in trees, wind chimes, discarded bottles, the vibration of it slamming against the house’s siding. Wind is a force, a carrier, and like poetry, like words, has the capacity to affect us in almost subliminal ways. There always seems to be an undercurrent, something pulling us towards the unsayable. There are no definitive answers. The wind is an open-ended question.


MHR: “Ashes” is breathtaking The last line made me gasp: “Scatter me in air I’ve never breathed.”  I won’t make assumptions about the emotional impetus of this poem, which is written in first person, but can you recall when composing the poem, the formation of that sentence, or was it something someone actually spoke?

RO: My mother had expressed a desire to be cremated, to have her ashes scattered in the Pacific, but later changed her mind. I asked myself how I’d like my earthly remains disposed of, and decided it would be most pleasing to have my ashes released somewhere I’ve never been, perhaps in the Jetstream (again, the wind motif), to move along strange paths, dispersing and mingling and covering more ground than ever possible in life. Hence the line.


MHR: “Rain Forest Bridge” is another lovely piece. Did you personally traverse such a bridge? I’m curious. If so, where? Is there something that is not in the poem that you would like to share about it?

RO: I have not crossed such a bridge. A poster, or wall hanging, served as the impetus of the poem. That, and the memory of a novel I read when I was about ten years old, in which a scene of the difficulties of walking across such a bridge for the first time apparently made a big impression on me. Such is the power of language!


MHR: All of the poems have a spirited, imaginative, reflective tone with language that approaches mystical writings. Please answer this questionnaire: In addition, or because you are a poet, would you also say you are a mystic, a philosopher, a metaphysician, or all/none of these?

RO: None of these. I’m primarily a reader, observer and inveterate questioner, and to a lesser extent, a thinker, whose influences and interests lean ever so slightly towards Eastern philosophy.


MHR: You have a longer-sequenced poem, “Earth’s Damp Mound” in the chapbook. In part III, “The Bowl of Flowering Shadows” the exploration of the unseen is most prominent. This statement contains the question which frames the whole work and give us its title: “So which, of all those you might recall, if your matter could reform and place you back into yourself, would you choose?”  Have you thought what your answer might be as a human being/poet?

RO: I’m much better at asking questions than answering them, but assuming that my matter would be reforming, and taking that experience into account, my reply would probably be framed with sensory elements – odors, sounds, colors, touch, tastes – rather than words, likely in the form of food (Asian/Southwest fusion) and music (Edgar Meyer on the bass).


MHR: Thank you for taking he time to talk with us about If Your Matter Could Reform, and best wishes from MockingHeart Review for many more words written by you.

 If Your Matter Could Reform is available from Dink Press:



Robert Okaji lives in Texas with his wife, two dogs and some books. He is the author of the chapbook If Your Matter Could Reform (Dink Press), and a micro-chapbook, You Break What Falls (Origami Poems Project). His work has appeared in Boston Review, Prime Number Magazine, Mockingheart Review, two Silver Birch Press anthologies, Hermeneutic Chaos, Kindle Magazine, Clade Song, Eclectica and elsewhere. Visit his blog, O at the Edges, at



Susan Tepper talks with us about ‘dear Petrov’

MockingHeart Review’s Founding Publisher and Editor, Clare L. Martin, connected with MHR contributor, Susan Tepper, for a one-on-one interview about Susan’s stunning new book, ‘dear Petrov.’ 

We hope you enjoy the interview and are intrigued enough to get your hands on Susan’s new book. We highly recommend it.



CLM:  Hi, Susan.  Thank you for agreeing to do this interview for MockingHeart Review’s “Beats” blog. My first question begins with the beginning. I want to ask you about inspiration. When did you first encounter the voice of the woman in ‘dear Petrov’ and begin writing her?

ST: Clare, the female narrator appeared to me on a June day in 2015.  I sat down blank at the screen and she popped herself in.  I often feel we writers are doing the work of the ‘so-called dead poet’s society’—in that we are channels for writers who have passed on to wherever they go.  I don’t say this lightly.  It’s my belief system that Mozart, for example, wasn’t born a genius but carried his musical abilities over from an earlier lifetime, then expanded on them, plus received help from other great musicians who’d passed away.  This makes total sense to me.  It’s how art keeps growing and evolving.  This passing along of knowledge, or coming to the artist and banging on the walls until the voice is heard by the one currently doing the work.  There is nothing worse to the artist than to think when they are gone it’s all been for naught.

CLM: What is it that led you to set this in 19th century Russia? Were you interested in the historical period? Can you enlighten us a bit about your initial process and any research you undertook?

ST: Before I took up the writing life, I was an actress from the age of seventeen.  I had the great opportunity of acting in several Chekhov plays, and I think I’ve read them all.  Plus, the Chekhov stories.  The time period in which he wrote his plays and stories, and the Russian settings, probably lodged into my unconscious mind.  When a method actor takes on a role, the point is to inhabit both character and setting and their history.  So it was undoubtedly brewing for some time, and when my female protagonist in ‘dear Petrov’ said (wrote) the name of her lover, in the very first piece, it came out as Petrov.  If I were to really dig deep, into my own recesses, I would say that Russia came out due to my experiencing one of the coldest, darkest, most forlorn winters imaginable, just prior to the writing of this book.

CLM: There is so much that can be said about a woman oppressed in this book. Can you speak to the different kinds of oppression that this character experiences?

ST: My female protagonist (who isn’t named in the book) is one of the loneliest women I’ve ever encountered.  She lives in a remote part of Russia, and the man she loves is a career soldier who mostly isn’t around.  That wasn’t particularly unusual for those times.  Career soldiers fought in their homeland as well as in wars of other lands.  Often they were gone for years.  When Petrov did make an appearance in the book, it was generally lacking in what my narrator needed and desperately longed for.  I truly don’t know why she put up with him.  Or, as many reviewers have suggested, whether Petrov actually did exist, or was a conjured up creation to fill her emptiness.  If you are a believer in solipsism, then this would be the ultimate solipsism—a glimpse into all that is missing, except you.

CLM: The woman is not voiceless. We are reading her words. They might have slipped away if you had not written them. Can you tell us how it channeled through you? Does it still come to you now?

ST: Yes, it was most definitely channeled to me.  It could come to me again if I sat down again with her.  But I won’t.  Her story is finished.  She decided.  She dictated and I typed.

CLM: Are there aspects of her voice that you identify with?

ST: Einstein was a believer in parallel universes.  I subscribe to that same theory.  Perhaps while I am living as Susan Tepper, I am also this woman living in late 19th Century Russia during a time of war.  Perhaps she broke through to me.  It wouldn’t be the first time.  In another of my books ‘What May Have Been’ I wrote the voice of the artist Jackson Pollock.  People were stunned that Pollock’s voice came through a woman.  I was also stunned.  It just happened.  Because it was effortless, the way the woman came effortless in ‘dear Petrov.’  It required no effort on my part.  So, yes, I identify with all that she says and feels.

CLM: The woman’s horse features in the book.  What, for you, does the horse signify?

ST: Well, first of all, I grew up around horses, cows, and other animals.  Their spirituality always amazes me.  Animals are leagues ahead of humans when it comes to loyalty and unconditional devotion.  So after the first story, it became clear to me that my female protagonist was living without a male companion.  The second story, Floods, was a breakthrough.  And that’s when the horse presents.  Her love for the horse and what he symbolizes for her was quite heartbreaking to me.  He is her sole companion about 99 % of the time.  Without her horse, well, I can’t imagine.

CLM: There is a sentence in the book that reads, “My time here must be more than lines.”  Is this the perilous predicament of the writer?

ST: Yes, I believe it is.

CLM: I loved this book and will return to it often. There is a consistent flow. What was the length of time that it took to write, up to publication? Did you write the pieces fluidly and then break them, or were they always short prose pieces?

ST: When I start something, I generally write every day.  Unless I’m travelling, then I never write.  So I started the Petrov stories in June and wrote one or more a day.  I did revise them.  Some have been previously published in journals and zines, and when I realized I had a book length of them, I did go through and revise here and there.  For me, revision is usually some descriptive lines added.  The structure of each piece, and what it was about, came out in the first drafts.  They were always in the short form that you see now.   So, all in all, the book took me about three months to complete.  Thank you, Clare, for loving the book!

CLM: Do you work on several writing projects at once, or work singularly on one work at a time?

ST: It depends.  I often work on long fiction (full length novels) and cap the writing off with a poem.  It isn’t an intentional choice, just happenstance.  If I’m in a mad writing whirl, I’ll often go to other work that isn’t, in my opinion, ready to be presented to the world.  And I’ll work on that.  I think doing alternating repertory theatre (a different play a night) makes it easy for me to switch from different characters and themes.  It’s the best thing in life, this writing we do.  It shapes my life into a big bowl of happy.

CLM: I think of the phrase “a body besieged.” Could this be an apt description of the female narrator? Could this be the soldier’s predicament, too? Or, all of ours?

ST: That’s an interesting concept but I don’t have the answer.

CLM: Can the woman define herself apart from Petrov? Is this what she is trying to do; delineate herself in the world, apart from his dominance?  Will she become one with nature, which features prominently in the book?

ST: I don’t think she can define herself apart from Petrov.  He is some underlying condition in her.  I think he’s her fevers and chills.  Or a fantasy perhaps to keep herself sane.  I don’t know exactly why he’s so relevant to her.

CLM: For a long time, some of the only writing women committed to paper was in letters, diaries, and personal journals. How does this feature in ‘dear Petrov’? Is the page freedom, as this kind of writing seems to suggest?

ST: These pieces in ‘dear Petrov’ were never meant to be letters.  They are musings, at best, or a glimpse into this woman’s psyche.  I don’t think freedom exists anywhere in any form.  Freedom is an illusion.  My book ‘dear Petrov’ is illusory, as well.  It doesn’t ask anything from the reader.  It doesn’t take anything either.  It just exists the way nature does.  It either calls to you or it doesn’t.

CLM: So much of this book conjures mystery. Can you speak to the importance of mystery in literary writings, how it impacts you as a writer and reader, even if the book is not classified as a mystery?

ST: Clare, I think fiction and poetry must contain some surreal elements if it is to be really good work.  The best poets know this by instinct.  And surreal elements suggest mystery, because anything in art that’s surreal is not realism.  It’s a distorted realism, a heightened realism.  That’s what I’m drawn to as both a fiction writer and poet.  I want my eggs scrambled, not discernible on the plate.

CLM: We kindly thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. And congratulations on a fantastic work of art.

ST: Clare, talking with you here has been an act of pure joy.  Thank you for having me, and for your loving support of ‘dear Petrov.’



 About MockingHeart Review Contributor Susan Tepper

Susan Tepper has been a writer for twenty years.  ‘dear Petrov’ (Pure Slush Books, Australia, 2016) is her sixth published book.  Stories, poems, essays and interviews by Tepper have been published worldwide.  Her column ‘Let’s Talk’ at Black Heart Magazine runs monthly.  FIZZ her reading series at KGB Bar, NYC, has been sporadically ongoing for eight years.