Interview: Peter Mladinic Author of Knives on a Table

Interview conducted by Nolcha Fox

Within the enigmatic corridors of literary intrigue, we stumble upon a character straight out of a gritty urban novel, woven with the threads of existential dread. Peter Mladinic, a product of the New Jersey streets and a survivor of the tumultuous '70s, embarked on an academic odyssey that culminated in the acquisition of his MFA in Creative Writing in the year of shadows, 1985. Yet, beyond the veneer of academia, a more obscure narrative unravels.

As the professor emeritus at the forsaken New Mexico Junior College, Mladinic's tale takes a somber turn, as if the shadows themselves have taken residence in his psyche. It is not merely the craft of words that preoccupies his thoughts; it's the murky depths of moral dilemmas that suffuse his very essence.

Ascending to the role of president at the Lea County Humane Society, Mladinic emerges as a fervent advocate for those who dwell in the periphery – the voiceless, the forsaken. This interview, now etched into the enigmatic pages of A Thin Slice of Anxiety, plunges deep into the abyss of his existence. Here, we peel back the layers of his being, unveiling a profound empathy that sets his heart ablaze and leaves us, the readers, questioning the essence of our coexistence.


NF: Tell me about your personal writing journey. What drew you into writing?
PM: What drew me to writing was that I lived in close proximity to three very good bookstores in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I started writing poetry in 1973, shortly after moving to that city to attend the U of Minnesota. I began taking upper level lit classes, but mostly it was my own reading that got my writing started. I bought an anthology of contemporary poetry, then bought single volumes of poets from the anthology.
NF: How has your life experience informed your poetry?
PM: I often write about home, different places I’ve lived, also places visited. I grew up in a suburb of New York City, in New Jersey, and often my poems are either set there, or include images of things there, and sometimes stories based on people from there. I spent a year in Viet Nam, and four years in the U.S. Navy, and those are influences, but all in all my life was and is quite average. But people, places, and things from my life do indeed find their way into my poetry. I’m comfortable with the idea that poetry is art, and art is a reflection of life.
NF: What brought you to New Mexico?
PM: I came to New Mexico in 1990 to teach English at the local community college, and taught for 30 years, till my retirement 3 years ago. I’d never been close to New Mexico before coming for a job interview. I was fortunate to travel throughout the state shortly after moving here. I like the state very much. To me, it’s somewhat low key in comparison to its neighboring states. I think it was the writer, Tony Hillerman, who said New Mexico has so many hiding places. That idea appeals to me.
NF: How do you approach writing? Do you write every day or as the ideas strike?
PM: It’s a rare day when I write nothing. I write almost daily. And I have no formula for writing, although I do believe in process and in practice, and, of course, that reading is essential for writing. But mostly it’s a matter of mood, for me. Finding the right subject will often evoke the mood I need to immerse myself in that subject. That’s no guarantee a good poem will come of it; sometime yes, but others no. Some poems come quickly, and when that happens, I intuitively know they are finished; other poems evolve, and some take years to finish.
NF: Now I’d like to talk about your book, Knives on a Table. Many of your poems reference Schaeffer. Who is he, and how did he become a character in your poetry?
PM: Years ago, many years ago, I created, came up with the Schaeffer persona, which was liberating, a way of stepping out of myself for a while, and getting some objectivity for a topic. Then, Schaeffer disappeared, for decades. And then, I’m not sure why, but I resurrected him, took him out of the metaphorical mothballs. I haven’t written a Schaeffer poem lately, but I can’t predict the future.
NF: How did you choose the poems in this book?
PM: In part, the choice of the poems was based on what my publisher wanted as far as a page length for a book. One criterion for me was that all the poems I chose were originally published in journals. Actually, there’s only one that isn’t, I’m pretty sure. I tried to include the best poems I had when I submitted the manuscript.
NF: You have a real talent for anthropomorphizing or changing images into something else entirely (for example, “Box,” “Hospital,” and “To My Shrink”). Please talk about how you developed that skill.
PM: I think of myself as having an associative mind: one thing leads to another that may or may not be related logically to the original thing. That process of association comes naturally; it’s certainly not forced. So, I often bring in things that are not logically connected, and they are surprises to me, not things I planned to include when the poem began, in a poem such as “Box” and “Hospital.”
NF: Some of your poems (“GI,” “Blind Man Diving,” “A Child Being Born”) deal with a heightening of the senses. What is your experience with that?
PM: All three of those poems were written quite differently. “GI” was originally part of a longer poem; “Blind Man Diving” took years to write and at one time I almost scrapped it; “A Child Being Born,” the most recent of the three came from an idea I got watching a documentary about the war in Vietnam on YouTube. “GI” is all true, a memory from my own experience in Viet Nam. As for the heightening of senses, I try to keep in mind the W.C. Williams dictum, no ideas but in things, and also that in poetry I must “show it,” whatever it is.
NF: The majority of your poems deal with loss or death. How has writing helped you deal with/heal from personal loss?
PM: Writing poetry is cathartic for me. Many of my poems are…depressing, but I’d like to think, depressing in ways readers can find interesting and relate to. My own life has its ups and downs, but no more than, say, the average person’s life. Knives on a Table is not cheery! The first part came very slowly, draft after draft; the second part was sort of an emotional burst. I edited the second part a little, but most of it came very quickly to the page.
NF: Some of your poems (such as “The Tylenol Murders,” “Shreveport Phone Booth,” “Bobby Greenlease”) are based on actual, sometimes violent, crimes. What ideas and messages do you want to convey to your readers?
PM: I want to convey that good and evil are in the world, joy and sadness, pleasure and pain. To say we can have one without the other is, for me, a denial of reality. I am a romantic by nature, but I live in the real world, because it’s the only world I know, and, of course, the world of dreams.
NF: Please tell me a little bit about your upcoming book, Voices from the Past.
PMVoices from the Past includes more persona poems, along the lines of “Bobby Greenlease” and “The Tylenol Murders,” though I can think of one persona poem in which the speaker, a woman sells real estate, is pretty much a straight arrow, law abiding, very different from the woman speaker in “Tweakers,” which is in Knives on a Table. Most of the poems in Voices from the Past are about people and places, in that way similar to the poems in Knives, but also a bit different.
NF: What are you writing now?
PM: Today I wrote a poem called “Eternity’s Not All It’s Cracked Up to Be,” and I had a lot of fun with it. I think it’s finished, I was in the mood. Recently I wrote a poem that is a sequence of short imagistic little poems, hoping they all come together as a whole. I’ve written sonnets and poems with end rhyme, and would like to again, but time will tell. I don’t limit myself as to what I write, and often, like today, I surprise myself. I hadn’t planned this poem, it just came to me, and to me, it worked.
NF: Do you have any new projects in mind, and if so, what are they?
PM: I have two manuscripts of poetry out to different publishers, and one I’ve had for a while, and the other recently finished. I’m trying to find a home for them, and to keep submitting poems I feel stand a chance of getting published. I feel very gratified when I open an email and learn a poem is accepted. That feels very good, in part because along with acceptances come rejections. I must first satisfy myself, then an editor, then a reader. I write for pleasure, and to be read.

End of Interview 

Nolcha Fox has written all her life, starting with poop and crayons on the walls. Her poems have been published in Lothlorien Poetry JournalAlien Buddha ZineMedusa’s Kitchen, and others. Her three chapbooks are available on Amazon.