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! 

Are ‘Bad Women’ Characters Really the Author? Interview with Laura Sims

By Julie Chibbaro

I was fortunate to share the stage with author and librarian Laura Sims at a local reading event (check out the ongoing Spring Street series), and I happened to fall in love with Laura for this reason: She seemed really humble and genuine, despite the content of her fantastically successful recent novel Looker. She didn’t seem at all like the female stalker at the center of Looker.


I was intrigued by her outward vibe versus her character’s inner evil thoughts/deeds, so I asked her a few questions about how a “nice person” novelist pulls off such an authentic ‘bad woman’:

GLB: You seem like such a nice person. What does it take (i.e., what has to happen inside you) to enable you to write such a disturbed character as your female stalker?

LS: Ha! That’s a great question. My emphasis would be on the word “seem” — I “seem” like a nice person. But am I really? And how “nice” would I be if my carefully ordered life were to implode? One of the things I wanted to explore in the novel was the idea that many of us who seem to be fine and functioning adequately in society may be just one tragic occurrence away from losing our grip on reality and our place in the world. And where do we go from there? How do we react? My narrator obviously has issues that underlie her outsized, inappropriate reactions to misfortune, but she is also an Everywoman, someone who has gotten by pretty well until now. While I do find her disturbing, I also empathize with her — quite deeply. Even when she’s doing Very Bad Things. I’m also fascinated by the idea of women doing Very Bad Things, because we’ve been programmed through the centuries to stifle those urges, even though we have them. It was liberating to let this woman loose on the world, to follow her where she’d go, let her urges take her where they would. Megan Nolan, a columnist for The New Statesman, wrote a great piece recently about Looker and the female gaze. In it she says, “It sometimes feels that in service of basic feminist gains, women have had to assume the role of superior beings: wholesome, sane, moderate. ‘There would be no wars if women were in charge!’ we say, hopefully, alongside other glib phrases. Sometimes I want to scream that women are just as capable of being weird, lazy and violent as men, even if they haven’t historically been able to show it. It doesn’t flatter me to brush over my capability for violence, it dehumanizes me.” I love this, and wholly agree with it. Why should women always have to be so damn nice and well-behaved? And yet, I am a nice woman. And a generally well-behaved one. But I do like to explore the full human spectrum on the page — especially the darker side of that spectrum.


GLB: You came from a poetry background. How/why did you take this leap into fiction?

LS: Well, I started out, as a kid, writing both poetry and fiction, and then sometime during high school I decided I was a poet and became committed to that identity from then on. Then in my thirties, I felt that I wanted to write fiction again. I didn’t begin writing fiction until right after my son was born, but once I’d started it became the focus of most of the (limited) time and energy I had for creative pursuits. I don’t think there’s much of a dividing wall between poetry and prose, though — it seems like more of a permeable boundary. And my writing in either genre tends to be driven by the same things: voice, idea, emotion, atmosphere, and sound. The sound of the line is very important to me, whether I’m writing poetry or prose. In some ways, the novel is just an extension of the poem — it’s a very long poem, and one shaped by elements that don’t regularly appear in poetry, like plot, character, and setting (with exceptions, in both genres). Sometimes it seems like it’s all about the line breaks, and what those do to the words on the page, how they limit you or allow you to expand. I guess, in my thirties, I felt like I wanted to expand beyond the line breaks I had loved and lived by in poetry, and see where that led me.

GLB: As you’ve gone around talking about your books, have any stalkers approached you to confess their inner obsessions?

LS: Thank goodness, no! But I have been interested in the varying reactions to this character, which range from “I totally identified with her” to “I can’t stand her, she’s annoying and narcissistic.” I’m glad she and the book have provoked strong reactions in readers — passionate engagement is always better than indifference!

Laura Sims is the author of Looker, a debut novel. She has published four books of poetry, most recently Staying Alive, and is the editor of Fare Forward: Letters from David Markson. She lives outside of New York City with her family.

We are so fortunate that Laura will be our December guest!

I Don’t Know What T. S. Eliot Was Talking About, or, It’s National Poetry Month!

How odd that National Poetry Month falls in April—the month so famously designated as “cruel” in one of the canonical poems of Western literature (The Waste Land). Is this irony, or whimsy, or just an unfortunate coincidence?

Regardless, as we slide toward the end of National Poetry Month, here are a few of the poetry collections I’ve been reading.

In Whereas, Layli Long Soldier takes as her starting point President Obama’s 2009 signing of a Congressional resolution of apology to Native Americans. Long Soldier adapts and evokes “official” language, that of contracts and proclamations, to precisely document the reality of being a dual person, both American and Native American. Long Soldier’s careful language underscores the reality of inhabiting multiple languages, and thus multiple worlds. As she writes, “I am a citizen of the United States and an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, meaning I am a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation — and in this dual citizenship, I must work, I must eat, I must art, I must mother, I must friend, I must listen, I must observe, constantly I must live.”

Donika Kelly’s Bestiary includes a series of love poems addressed to various mythical creatures. The whole book is mesmerizing, but it is these poems in particular that I keep rereading. It isn’t easy to breathe freshness into and around these old beasts, but Kelly does just that, as in her “Love Poem: Chimera,” which I’m sharing here in full:


I thought myself lion and serpent. Thought

myself body enough for two, for we.

Found comfort in never being lonely.


What burst from my back, from my bones, what lived

along the ridge from crown to crown, from mane

to forked tongue beneath the skin. What clamor


we made in birthing. What hiss and rumble

at the splitting, at the horns and beard,

at the glottal bleat. What bridges our back.


What strong neck, what bright eye. What menagerie

are we. What we’ve made of ourselves. 

Finally, in Tears and Saints, first published in 1937, the Romanian intellectual E.M. Cioran presents hundreds of aphoristic passages on mysticism, music, the nature of pain, the politics of sainthood, and, yes, tears. I’m including the book here because its language is undeniably poetic—piercing, musing, associative. Two of my favorite passages are: “The dead center of existence: when it is all the same to you whether you read a newspaper article or think about God,” and “The poor maidservant who used to say that she only believed in God when she had a toothache puts all theologians to shame.” Tears and Saints mystifies and electrifies—and that makes it poetry, as far as I’m concerned.

All three of these books are doing the essential poetic work of, as Eliot writes in The Waste Land, “mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.” Whatever the reasons for April being designated National Poetry Month, I hope you’ll check out these books, and much more poetry, throughout the year.

One Futurist Speaks: Interview with Writer William Lessard

by Julie Chibbaro

Bill’s stuff makes me laugh. You can’t say that about all his work, since he writes in various styles, but Lessard is an expert in writing the absurd in a way that somehow makes sense.


Take this, from his piece entitled: “Alternate Careers for House of Cards’ Frank Underwood” published in McSweeney’s:

“There are two kinds of pain. The sort of pain that makes you strong, or useless pain. The sort of pain that’s only suffering. I have no patience for useless things.”
— Frank Underwood, D.D.S.

“There’s no better way to overpower a trickle of doubt than with a flood of naked truth.”
— Frank Underwood, Junior Plumber, Fred Smith Plumbing and Heating Company

“Nobody can hear you. Nobody cares about you. Nothing will come of this. Why don’t you let these nice gentlemen take you home?”
— Frank Underwood, SVP Franchise Development, Uber

“I’m the only person who believes in you, Peter, but maybe that’s one too many. The hot water will open up your capillaries. The aspirin you just took will make your blood thinner. It’s up to you, Peter. Oh, and if you do decide to take the coward’s way out, cut along the tracks, not across them. That’s a rookie mistake.”
— Frank Underwood, Volunteer, Samaritans 24-Hour Crisis Hotline

First published in 2015, this piece now has a particular creepy relevance after the #metoo movement, during which actor Kevin Spacey (who plays Frank Underwood) was implicated in sexual abuse.

I wanted to get underneath what drives Bill Lessard to write the way he does, so I dug in and asked him a few questions (which he so graciously answered):

GLB: You write poetry, articles, book reviews, interviews and creative nonfiction. You’re also a PR guy. Do those things conflict with each other in any way? Do they get mixed up in your head, or do they feed each other?

WL: I do a lot of things. Sometimes it gets mixed up in a bad way. But most of the time confusion is what I need. There is a cult of solitude around creation, especially for writers. Going to a farm in Vermont might help some people. But the rest of us need stress and deadlines and everyday life. What I do for a living feeds directly into my work. I’m not just a publicist, I’m a tech publicist, which gives me a front seat to the fundamental ways our lives are changing. Reading most new poetry these days you would never know it was written at a time when people are walking around with supercomputers in their pocket. I don’t know if it’s because these writers are just writing things that will get them published in prestigious magazines or they aren’t going deep enough in their work.



I just got back from a trade show where a client of mine was demonstrating technology that allows you to do real-time motion capture right from your iPhone. I am not saying we all have to become Futurists, but the ability to mirror one’s face onto a character on the screen seems to warrant poetic investigation. Being a person whose job is to pitch tech to the media also reminds me that using common objects in our work makes it relatable. We are all Pop artists, or should aspire to be. All writing, even the most challenging work, is about communication.

GLB: You ran the Cool as F*** series in Brooklyn for the past few years. Now you host readings for visiting writers and writers who can’t make it to New York. Why do you do this?

WL: Hosting, like being an editor, which I also do, gives other writers space. After getting words down on the page the best way you know how, it’s the most important thing writers can do. It is an act of love. And it creates the community that writers need to get outside their own heads, meet other people and road-test their own work. I can’t tell you the number of times I have gotten insight into something I’ve been struggling with after reading it in front of a crowd. That’s the kind of gift that a series like yours gives people. I view hosting as returning the favor. It’s also a great excuse to meet folks and get hip on writers coming up.

GLB: How does humor/irony play into your work?

WL: Humor gives me access to subjects I find hard to approach any other way. It’s also a way to keep myself and the reader entertained. Taking oneself too seriously is a major problem for a lot of creative people. It makes them unpleasant to deal with. And it gives their work a one-dimensional quality. Humor also allows me to access the humanity of people I despise. A few years ago, I had some poems in Hyperallergic based on samplings from a tech-bro podcast. When a friend of mine sent me the link to the podcast, initially, I wanted to punch those guys right through the screen, but after seeing the absurdity in what they were discussing, and after starting to make fun of it, I was able to get beyond my initial asshole reaction and create something fun and hopefully worthwhile. I also didn’t hate these guys anymore. Reprogramming our worst inclinations is art’s function.


William Lessard has written for such venues as McSweeney’s, Hobart, Brooklyn Rail, Hyperallergic. He is the President of PR with Brains.


A Year of Reading Like a Writer: Looking Back, Looking Ahead

by Kristen Holt Browning

When Julie first asked me to blog for the Get Lit website, I had no idea what to write about. Every week, Julie or Flora give their insightful exchanges with authors both local and far-flung, or Ruta provides great behind-the-scenes peeks into the book publishing world. What could I offer? Well, I read (a lot). And I write (a little). And so, from that banal observation, Reading Like a Writer was born.

This year, I committed to reading beyond pleasure—that is, while I still read for story and character and language, I also read to answer these questions: why did the author choose to write this poem/chapter in this way? What does it mean that the author chose to use this word, this image? Does it work? Why not, if it doesn’t?

Perhaps surprisingly, this didn’t turn reading into homework. I never felt like I was forcing a novel or book of poems under a literary telescope, or dissecting text merely for the sake of exposing its linguistic or structural innards. Rather, it felt like a deeper, fuller mode of reading: when a narrative kept me engaged, I thought about why. When a poem made my heart beat a little faster, I considered how the poet’s choices created that effect in me.

I also committed to keeping a book log (Logging Books, Logging Memories). As I glance through it, there are two or three novels there that have already disappeared from my mind. But others remain: for example, I am still thinking about, and deeply affected by, Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers (Empathy for the Reader).

In addition to keeping a book log, I’m also still reading a poem a day (Poetry Every Day). A daily practice of reading at least a couple poems has inspired my own writing in notable ways: for one thing, I often use compelling lines or phrases from a poem I read in the evening as the basis for some free-writing the following morning.

So, if you’re looking to adopt some new literary practices for your New Year’s resolution, might I suggest: write down what you read, and read a poem every day.

Finally, a word about the future direction of this series:  I’m obviously not the only reading writer here in Beacon. Going forward into the next year of Get Lit, I’d love to add more voices to this column. What are you reading? What have you read recently that inspired or influenced your own writing? Comment on our Facebook page or tell me at any of our upcoming Get Lit events this year, and I’ll share your recommendations and thoughts in upcoming columns and posts!