Putting Ghosts to Rest with Love: Interview with Catherine Arra

by Kristen Holt-Browning

When I started writing poetry again a couple of years ago, after a decade-long lapse , one of the first people I looked up online was Catherine Arra, my high-school creative writing teacher. I was happy to see that she has continued teaching–and impressed to learn that she has published several books, including her latest collection, Writing in the Ether. I felt like a nervous, eager student all over again as I asked Ms. Arra (I’m still getting used to calling her by her first name!) her thoughts on poetry in relation to prose, and how teaching and publishing interact with and live alongside the practice of poetry.

 

GLB: I’m always interested in why poets choose to, or feel compelled to, write in verse rather than prose. Your most recent book, Writing in the Ether, seems to be a deep exploration of lineage and family history, how generations interact and how their choices continue to reverberate through the years. Why did you want to write a book of poems on these topics? What does verse allow you to do that prose perhaps wouldn’t? 

CA: I think all poets write at least one book that explores their own genesis. Writing in the Ether is mine. I wanted to experiment with writing memoir in a nonlinear manner, and in both poetry and prose. Some content naturally worked better as poetry, other content as prose. For the most part, I allowed the writing to choose its genre.

Originally, Writing in the Ether contained seven additional prose pieces, but this made the book lengthy and difficult to publish. Most small literary presses want collections of poems or short stories, not a hybrid; however, I was determined to keep the mix. Writing in the Ether was revised, resequenced, and renamed four times over four years before it reached its present form.

What motivated me to write this book were specific memories or gaps in memory that haunted me. I wanted to go back to find lost threads, weave them into my history, and put some ghosts to rest—with love. Poetry worked best for the more elusive memories by enabling me to offer essence with narrative, to render people and experiences in a series of dots—much like connect-the-dot coloring books, wherein the dots are connected with lines in order to create a composite image. For me, the dots became a map too, and the poems specific markers, tributes, or prayers. In many ways the creative work of “writing in the ether,” as the title suggests, became a healing process of acceptance and letting go.

GLB: Although you removed some prose pieces, you did retain several of them. I’m not sure if I should call them “prose poems,” or if perhaps “mini-memoirs” ismore accurate. How do you categorize the prose pieces in Writing in the Ether (if you do at all)? And why are these works written in prose rather than a poetic form?

CA: I would place the prose pieces in the genre of flash creative nonfiction, since they range from approximately 400 to 1,500 words. They are nonfiction memoir; and yet they possess the lyrical quality, sense imagery, and compression of statement characteristic of poetry. The six prose pieces in Writing in the Ether didn’t work as poems and needed a more fluid narrative form, with dialogue.

GLB: This is your fourth book. You also have two upcoming books (Women in Parentheses) (Aldrich Press/Kelsay Books, 2019) and Her Landscape: Poems Based on the Life of Mileva Marić Einstein (Finishing Line Press, 2020). You also taught high school Creative Writing for twenty years; now you teach part-time and run writing groups. How did, and does, teaching affect your writing process? How do you find publishers and publishing opportunities as a poet?

CA: All true! I taught high school English for thirty-four years, Creative Writing for twenty years, and I’ve been writing poetry since I was a teenager. As a teacher, I made it my practice to write with my students. I’ve always believed that teachers should model what they teach, to show as well as tell, and to do what they teach. For me, that meant being a reader, thinker, and writer. I usually wrote with my Creative Writing students and completed the exercises and assignments I gave them through units in poetry, short story, and drama. I learned with and from them through the collaborative workshop style of the course. Consequently, I produced folders and folders of raw material.

When I retired in 2012, I finally had the time to revise, edit, and submit that work for publication. My four published books are a blend of old and new material. My forthcoming book, (Women in Parentheses), is a similar blend, while Her Landscape: Poems Based on the Life of Mileva Marić Einstein is entirely new poetry that was written in a burst last winter, though I think Mileva’s story has been inside me since the mid-1990s, when I first learned about her and her life as the first wife of Albert Einstein.

For me, Her Landscape was another challenge, this time to write a book of persona poems based on research.

Now my folders are empty, and I’m writing new poems about wildlife, particularly the deer family that coexists with me. Like the Mileva poems, the deer poems seem to grab me and insist that I write them. I comply, not knowing what will become of them. For now, I’m enjoying the creative surge and ride.

About publishing:

Getting poems or manuscripts published is another type of work, which requires reading literary journals, poetry books and reviews, networking, subscribing to email lists that offer calls for submissions, and doing the research necessary to find small presses and journals that will likely be a good fit for my work.

I strongly suggest joining a good writing critique group for valuable feedback as you move through the stages of drafting and revising, and before you submit work for publication. When I couldn’t find a writing group near me, I started one at the Stone Ridge Library (in Ulster County, NY) and modeled the group after the writer’s critique circle I used in my Creative Writing classes.

No one lives or writes in a vacuum, and it’s important to work with other writers, to test your work on an audience, and to be willing to accept critical feedback. And, finally, it’s important to accept rejection from publishers (there will be lots of it) and to not lose your focus, intent, or your love for writing.

Catherine Arra is a former high school English and writing teacher. Since leaving the classroom in 2012, her poetry and prose have appeared in numerous literary journals online and in print, and in several anthologies. She is the author of Writing in the Ether (Dos Madres Press, 2018) and three chapbooks, Tales of Intrigue & Plumage (FutureCycle Press, 2017), Loving from the Backbone (Flutter Press, 2015), and Slamming & Splitting (Red Ochre Press, 2014). She is a native of the Hudson Valley, where she teaches part-time and facilitates local writing groups.

Catherine will be our featured guest on August 11! 

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