Catherine Arra

Something to Offer: A Conversation with Catherine Arra

Catherine Arra’s eyes lit up the minute I asked her about her work as a poet. She’s truly passionate about her craft and wants nothing more than to share what she creates with the world. Writing to her isn’t just a hobby; it’s a lifestyle. Something that comes naturally to her. This interview showcases the importance of an artist’s craft in their life.

Willow Singletary: So, when did you decide to write?

Catherine Arra: That’s a great question. I thought about that when I saw it. I never really made a decision to write I just -I’ve always written you know? Even when I was a little girl I used to make up stories and then I’d make up little skits and then I’d divide the parts out to my brothers and cousins and we’d do a little play and I’d make up stories to tell my brothers at bed time. And then- Yeah I guess when I was a young girl/teen I had actually started writing poetry and stuff. And when I was maybe fifteen I learned to play guitar and I started writing songs and lyrics. And it kinda took off. I took off from there and I’ve always been – I used to write poems on my closet wall. Much to my father’s dismay, I did it. So I think I was a natural writer. I think it’s something that I’ve needed to do. It’s a form of expression that’s authentic and necessary for me. So it wasn’t a decision to write, I just write. And then I became an English teacher and I taught writing- I taught creative writing. So, I would always write with my students. And I taught English but then I would also write with my creative writing students. I would do the assignments that I would give them. And I produced a lot of work that way. So I can’t- it wasn’t ever a decision, it was a given that I would write. Like people said when did you decide to make music well I didn’t- It just happened and I did it. Or dance or sing or whatever it is. 

W: Would you say music or writing is more important? Or more of your favorite way to express yourself? Or are they both equal and feed off of each other?

C: I’m not a musician. I’m not a musician at all. I mean just when I was a teenager I played around and I played with some other people. I don’t play anymore. I don’t – I can play the guitar. I can play the flute but I don’t pay anymore. I write pretty much. So definitely writing is the first. That’s what comes first.

W: That’s cool I play the flute too. 

C: Oh cool.

W: Yeah I first picked it up in I think third grade. When did you learn how to play the flute and the guitar?

C: Same thing. You know, you have to go through the flutophone test. Yeah well I passed that and my dad was a drummer and I came home from school that day having passed flutophone even though I couldn’t read music but I could play what they wanted me to play because I learned it by ear. Anyway, I passed. I came home and announced that I was going to play the drums well, my father said no way, why don’t you play the french horn or something. So I had a very strict Italian father and so I said okay I’ll play the flute and I played the flute pretty much all the way through college. And like I said when I was in high school when I was around fifteen tenth grade or so I was a camp counselor and one of the other counselors gave me a beat-up guitar and taught me how to play G C and D and that’s how I started the guitar. And that’s it but I’ve always been writing. Always writing.

W: That’s really cool. What inspires you to write?

C: A feeling usually. It’s a- writing is always motivated by something, some kind of emotion for me. Or some kind of reflection. I am definitely moved by feeling. I don’t sit and intellectually think up things to write about. It’s something- I always like the quote from Robert Frost “a poem begins with a lump in your throat”. It’s like something that you have to put out. You have to say it. And you say it in the best way you can. The most authentic way you can and hope that other people hear it. They look into it because it’s a common experience. So the feeling is what motivates me.  Stuff in the heart, in the gut. Later when I’m editing its an intellectual process you know. And then I apply all the skills I’ve learned as a teacher and a writer to my own work you know. And edit, take out words that the poem doesn’t need or, I listen to feedback from my- other writers, and other poets. Hopefully, come up with something that’s worthy of publication. 

W: What is your biggest obstacle when you write?

C: When I write- time really. When I was teaching and I had a full-time job it was time and never having the time. And I would try to steal time you know. Early mornings or whatever. And at that time I was also married and my husband required a lot of my time. So it’s always like a hungry steal of time where I could find it. I always kept a journal and I would write during school. If I had a few free minutes because kids were someplace else I would write but a lot of times something come through it demands that I write it. But I really did do that sometimes. One of your questions was, how has my life changed since I stopped teaching. I have all the time in the world. I taught for thirty-four years, highschool English. And it’s good that I did because I was never going to make a living writing poetry. And I didn’t want to get tied up with some man who was going to kick me around. So I wanted to be independent and run my own life. And I love teaching. I really did. It was really I felt a call, my life’s work. And it happened to go hand in hand with the writing. I ended up teaching kids how to write or helping them to find their voice in a way and several of my students are published writers now novels and poems. So we hooked and that’s what it’s all about. Not to mention the rest of teaching was good too. I think teachers are agents of change and I took it seriously and I gave it my heart. Now I retired ten years ago and the first thing I set my mind to doing was to do some community service. So I started writing critique groups at my local library and I put my heart into publishing my work. I had all the raw material that I had no time to edit or compile into collections or really do anything serious with because teaching and grading and writing lessons consumed my days. So I set out to do that and in the first year, I published my first chap book which won a contest. I retired in 2012 and the chapbook was accepted in 2013. Came out in 2014. And I have been very fortunate. I’ve stayed with it and I’ve published eight books in that time- no I published seven. The eighth one is out now looking for a home. So it’s what I do now. This is what I do, yeah. That was then this is now so my life has changed a lot since I stopped teaching. And I’m not married anymore and I have all the time in the world and I write my own life pretty much. 

W: Would you consider writing a selfish thing? Or do you write for other people?

C: I just write because I don’t know. I don’t think about that- I mean do I think about an audience in my writing- am I writing for an audience? That’s an interesting question. I don’t write specifically for other people I think I’m writing to express something that’s in myself and hope that I can express it well enough, that I’m good enough of a wordsmith it will connect with other people. And you get that feedback when you have a poem that’s published. Or an editor says yeah, I’ll take this or a publisher says yeah I’ll publish your book. I’ve never self-published and I always submitted my work to publishers to be vetted through their system. You have to wait, you have to be patient but I think you have little more credibility that way because now with Amazon anybody can publish anything. I’m not a real big fan of that. So I write because it’s just something that needs to be said. And I feel it in my gut and I always believe in the word angels too. That the word angels visit you and they want you to write something. And you’re supposed to do what you’re told. 

W: So you’re saying like, you have something to say and you feel like the world needs to hear it? 

C: I have something to offer. Maybe, I don’t put that much validity on my own- that I have something to say but I have something to offer that I feel is real and I feel is honest and that’s the challenge of writing is, to be honest in what you’re writing. You’re not just imitating, where you’re trying to write something that’s going to “hit” in a certain way or a certain audience or a certain genre. You just write because that is what came through. And I just hope I have something to offer and I know when other people connect to it. Other people come out to hear you read or other people buy your books or you know- does that answer your question?

W: Yeah, it does. Was there ever a time in your life you were discouraged to write? 

C: Not really. Just obstacles, I’ve dealt with obstacles to write. As I was saying a job that required a great deal of time you know, parents that get old and sick and require time. Life! Life is messy. Life requires time and so- I wouldn’t say no. If I was ever discouraged to write it was because I discouraged myself. I told myself- I wasn’t- Why bother? Who really cares? You know I’ve had some negative comments from people like, why do you bother? Or do you really think someone wants to read that? You know, you have to ignore that and just keep doing it but there’s always the Debby Downers out there, the killjoys I call them. They’re going to just- but writing gives me joy. It’s my bliss and at this point no one’s going to take that away. I’ve become fiercely independent and I intend to stay that way. So I’ve never been discourage but there’s been plenty of obstacles to get through even the the obstacles of publishing. You try to get your work out there and have it be accepted I mean- I just finished a new book in January and I had it copied, it’s clean, it’s ready to go. I submitted it to six publishers and so far it’s been rejected by three but that doesn’t mean it’s not good. I know it’s good work. I know in my gut it’s good work and I know it’s clean, I know it’s really tight and it’s edgy, it’s cool I love it. And because I love it I know i’ll get it published. It’s just a matter of patience and perseverance. Finding the right publisher. And a lot of times you know publishers just have X amount of books they can put out a year. And they get you know, a thousand submissions. It’s a screening process and it’s also- you got to do your homework. You got to research publishers to find out what might be a good home. Not just send it willy-nilly out there. Oh I heard of that- Oh I heard of that Rattle I heard it’s really hot poetry magazine so I’m going to send my poem there and they’re going to take it because it’s so good. Now that’s not how it works you know? You’re going to have to say, do I really like the type of poetry that’s in Rattle? Or in this magazine? And like, I write pretty much narrative, lyrical poetry. I don’t write experimental poetry so why would I send my work to an experimental press? Or journal you know? They’re going to reject it. It doesn’t fit their model. It’s important I think that writers do their own work. Before they send their work out there because you’ll be disappointed otherwise. You’re almost setting yourself up for rejection. Yeah, there’s always going to be obstacles to everything in life. And writings no different you know. 

W: I think that’s good advice though- the researching because a lot of times there’s writers and they have that one experience and it’s like- someone tells them that they don’t like their work and they just quit because of that one person. I think that’s good advice that you’re saying you never know what the other person, the other publisher, the magazine is looking for at that point in time.

C: Yeah. And you can know to a certain extent. If you’re going to submit to a particular journal, read the journal. Mostly everything’s online now. Go and read the material they’re publishing or read their masthead and you’ll figure out- oh I belong there-I don’t. I mean I have a shot there but there’s no way they’re going to take my work and it doesn’t fit at all with what they’re doing. It’s like I’m a jazz dancer and I’m trying to get into a classical venue you know what I mean? You’ve got to have some reality to what you’re doing. And you go to know what you’re doing. You got to know what your own work is and- So there’s a business. There’s a business to it all too but it’s also big fun. You know, especially now, I’m retired I can just do it with joy and I love working with other writers. I love doing workshops. It just gives me joy. And so does gardening, so does cooking. It’s one more thing that gives me joy. Are you a writer?

W: Oh yeah. I am. 

C: Good. What do you write?

W: Mostly fiction but I have recently started writing poetry a little bit. It’s weird because fiction is something I had to teach myself to do almost because I grew up reading a lot of young adult fiction and things like that and I wanted to be able to produce something like that but I never thought about poetry but-. Since I’ve taken a couple of poetry classes it comes really easily. Almost naturally like you said which is weird.

C: Well maybe you’re being – the angels are telling you something.

W: Maybe. 

C: You know, when I taught creative writing I would divide the year up into thirds. There are always quarters but the first quarter would always be poetry because I thought it was important for students to learn how to use exact language. To learn the poetic devices, to learn what makes a poem a poem and not prose. And then the next quarter was fiction and I would try to transfer that over to fiction because all that detail is what makes good fiction too. All that exact language and lyrical description. You think of the stuff Ray Bradbury has written you know?

W: Right.

C: How beautiful and poetic it is and still really good fiction. So I think all writing goes together somehow and like the third quarter would be dramatic writing so that there would be a little bit for everybody. In the fourth quarter they could do what they wanted, they would make their own project. You know, go back to poetry, go back to another story, or do another one act play. And I think it’s good. You just found out that you like- the poetry is talking to you so stay with it. Do both, you know? I think sometimes you don’t know what a piece is until you start writing it. You don’t know if it’s a poem or its prose so I- I write short prose. I don’t write like novel-length or even four thousand, five thousand word lengths but flash fiction. And sometimes you don’t know what it is and you write it as a poem and okay this is really a piece of prose. It’s not working. It doesn’t even fit into poetic form so you change it. And then it works as a prose piece. I think you have to let the writing tell you what it wants to be too. You got to be that open. To say- I mean you’re the conduit. It’s coming through you but at the same time you have to step back and say well, what does the poem want from me? What does this story want that I’m not giving it? It’s like a relationship. You have a relationship with what you’re working on but you know what? Willow you need to have time for that. You need time and quiet and space. You have to create space for yourself for that. Even if it’s every morning before you go to classes or at night. And sometimes stuff wakes me up in the middle of the night. I get up and I write it down because I know it won’t be there in the morning. I think I’m going to remember it but I don’t. 

W: Which one of your own poems is your favorite?

C: I love all my poems, that’s why I wrote them. I do- I always like the work that is most recent. I can go back to my first chap book and say- there’s a lot of poems in there I really love and I feel that way about all my poems. I have poems that I really love in each of my books. And they’re all different books. They’re all about different topics and life stuff really. I just wrote a poem in January that got published a few weeks ago. It’s about the Ashokan reservoir which is where I live in upstate New York. And I also run this writing group the Stoneridge Library Writers and we’re going to do a poetry reading at the end of this month. So I made a little video of me reading this poem about the Ashokan as an advertisement for the reading so right now that’s one of my favorite poems. And if you go on my Facebook page you’ll find it. It’s right- one of the last things I put up was a little video. And when I had just finished the book on Malayla Einstein and those were my favorite poems and so it just goes around. 

W: You seem to be very passionate about it. It’s enjoyable to hear. Like, every time you talk about it you seem so happy to write.

C: Yes. It makes me happy to create things. Whether it’s a poem or a short story, I’m happy when I said like, flowers coming up out of the ground or when I eat a nice meal. I really like creating things on the physical plane. It gives me joy. And I like sharing with other people. Yeah, I am passionate about it. It’s my love. It’s my love now, you know? I always say this crazy poetry stuff but I’ never going to make a- I’m going to say to you too. Do something that will give you your own money and your own independence. It’s really hard to make it as a writer these days. Do something that will enable you to do both. 

W: Do you have any specific rituals or places you go to, to help you write? Before you write?

C: I just answered this question in another interview. To me, it’s really a practice. You know how you’re going to play an instrument, you’re going to practice it?

W: Yeah.

C: If you don’t you’re going to get rusty. I practice yoga. Probably three or four times a week. It’s a practice and writing is a practice. You’ve got to do it regularly. I’m not saying you gotta get up. It’s like a grind. You gotta get up and write for two hours every day but I try to write in a journal everyday. Just to- It’s like doing yoga. It’s just staying flexible. And if I can’t, I can’t because life requires that I do something else at that moment. I try to write every day and if I don’t write I try to do work on something every day. You’ve gotta stay with it. Yeah, you can’t just wait till like the word angels bite ya in the ass. “Write this down” you know? It’s not going to happen. So, I just finished a workshop at Poetry Barn. Which is online. It’s in the Woodstock area. And it’s really great. You should check out some of the courses there. Really good teachers teaching artists and I just finished a workshop on retelling fairy tales. And it’s great because the workshop gave you prompts and ideas. Gave you some background, gave you some poetic models and then said try this. And I’m really good like that. If you give me a seed I’m going to plant it somehow and I just got five new poems this month out of just that. It’s very generative, yeah. You just gotta sit down and say “Oh, I can’t do this, oh I can’t retell that,” Just put your pen down and see what happens. You know, Just start writing. I always said to my students and I’m going to say this to you. Writers write. They don’t think about writing they write. They don’t talk about writing, they don’t go to a writing group and say, “Well, I was thinking about-” No they put down their pen on the paper and they write. Musicians play they play their instruments. Writers write. Dancers dance. Teachers teach. You gotta do it. Yeah, it is a passion. 

W: Do you have any exciting projects you want to talk about?

C: Well, right now my biggest- what’s at the top of my list is my newest book. It’s called “Solitude, Tarot, and the Corona Blues” It’s a combination of twenty-two poems that I wrote through the pandemic. Being in pandemic isolation so that was solitude. And then I’ve always been fascinated by the tarot deck. Specifically the major Arcane of the tarot deck. And it kinda fits into my background with English and art. So I wrote twenty-two persona poems in the voice of those cards. So the Sun card I wrote as if I were the sun and that was just an intellectual exercise I gave myself through the pandemic. I was alone all the time. And I just finished it. I just pulled that all together. And that’s the book that I submitted to six places and has been rejected by three. This ones going to be tough because I want to the tarot is a bit esoteric and I want to also have the images with the cards. I’ll find a way. So right now that’s my biggest goal is finding a home for that and that’s a process. We go through the publisher where they eventually put it to their format. Six by nine format and that changes all your line breaks. You learn a lot each book you publish. That this is going to be in a six-by-nine format so I don’t want a line that goes clear off the page. It’s not going to work. I’m going to have to restructure it later. And it’s a process you know. A book can be accepted and not hit the market until a year later after you go through that process. 

W: Do you think this is the most difficult it’s been to get a book published? Or it’s just another-

C: It’s the same. It’s the same as the other ones really. It took me a long time- in 2018 I wrote a book about Malayla Einstein who is Albert Einstein’s first wife. It’s called “Her Landscape” and I did a lot of research for that book- read biographies on her, read biographies on Albert Einstein and I wanted to tell her story because she was really just shafted by Albert. I mean she was a brilliant scientist, helped him a lot and then after he became rockstar famous he kinda ditched her for his first cousin. It’s a woman’s story and she was miraculous for her time period. Anyway I wanted to fall into her life and I just read and read and read. And read her letters and then I was- I think it was in the month of March I wrote thirty-five poems. They all came out at once and then I got the editing started because I sounded like her, you know? I was like Malayla. I was- just stepped out of the early nineteen hundreds. That book took a long time to find a publisher. And finally Finishing Line Press took it. And they published it. You just gotta keep going you gotta keep trying. My other book on my – my first full length book is called “Writing The Ether” and it’s basically a poetry as memoir. It’s very autobiographical. And I had one person say to me, “Oh who’s going to want to read this about your Life? Who’s going to want to read this? That’s what I’m talking about Debby Downers you know? And I said everybody- I grew up in the sixties with immigrant grandparents and everybody has a story that other people can connect to. And this is really about going back through the woundings of growing up in a- and trying to look at them and heal them. And move forward with love. So that’s really essentially what the books are about. Even though it’s about my father telling me, “No daughter of mine is going to play the goddamn drums,” and you know, that’s a story in there. You know, about that obstacle too and you know, and someone did say that to me but eventually, Dos Madres picked up the book and said this is a beautiful book about your mamas and papas and we’re going to publish it. And they did a really good job with it. And they just published my last book which was just a love poem. A long love poem to a deer. About a deer that I like. So everything’s different. As I say, what moves you love. Love is what moves me. That’s really what it is. 

W: So, those were all the questions I had for you today. 

C: Yeah. They’re great! That was a lot of information. 

W: I wanted to say thank you for taking the time out to do an interview with me and I really appreciate it. I enjoyed your answers. I think it made for a great interview.

C: Well, it was a pleasure meeting you.

Catherine Arra’s answers held a lot of information and teaching moments which could be due to her background in teaching. As she said she has something to offer and I believe everyone can grasp that in this interview.