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 www.catherinearra.com
2 thoughts on “An interview with Catherine Arra”
I, too, found this book of poems exquisite. They don’t flinch and yet maintain their poecy. This is a terrific interview by two highly gifted poets.
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Thank you, Susan!