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

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 www.catherinearra.com

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: https://billyarrow.wordpress.com/

Valerie Fox Interview: Writers Room

Letters4ZoraPic
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.


MHR:
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 [http://www.neabigread.org/communities/?community_id=2250].

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.

MHR:
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.

 


MHR:
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!

http://www.writersroom.online

 

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.