Catherine Pierce is the author of several books, including Danger Days (Saturnalia, 2020) and The Girls of Peculiar (Saturnalia, 2012), which won the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Poetry Prize. She is the recipient of a 2019 Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2022, Pierce received an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowship. Pierce’s project, The Mississippi Young Writers Poetry Festival, will be a day-long celebration of poetry that will serve as the culmination of a statewide poetry-writing initiative. In collaboration with the Mississippi Center for the Book, Pierce will distribute a poem prompt to all K–12 schools across the state, along with resources to help teachers incorporate the prompt into classes.
Poets.org: What do you hope for the future of poetry in Mississippi, and what support do you hope future poets laureate have?
Catherine Pierce: I’ve just spent the last few weeks compiling more than two hundred poems by Mississippi K–twelve students into an anthology, and after spending serious time with those wonderful poems, I know the future of poetry in Mississippi is vibrant. Mississippi has produced, or is home to, so many incredible poets, and the next generation of writers is already doing powerful work. My hope is that these young poets will have their voices championed, supported, and shared.
I’ve been very grateful to have the support of arts and education organizations throughout the state—so many people have been generous with their time and have talked with me about plans and possibilities. I hope future laureates, not only in Mississippi, but in all states and cities and towns and counties, get to benefit from that same level of support. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to bring large-scale projects to fruition without the sort of broad engagement I’ve been lucky enough to find. I’m also very thankful for the funding the Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowship has provided. That funding has made possible my own large-scale project—a statewide poetry-writing initiative and youth poetry festival. I hope that future laureates are given the crucial financial support they need to develop their projects and pursue their work.
Poets.org: Has being a poet laureate changed your relationship to your own writing? How so?
CP: I generate lots of poem prompts in this role.I write prompts for a monthly newspaper column,for a supplement that goes along with the podcast I host, and for school visits and community workshops—and, as a result, I no longer have much of an excuse when I feel stuck in my own creative work. I’ve got a stack of prompts right here, prompts that I designed because I like them! Sometimes all we need is a jumpstart, and the more I emphasize that with others, the more I’m reminded of it myself.
I also find myself prioritizing written clarity and conciseness perhaps even more than I did before. I spend a lot of time corresponding with various organizations, schools, etc. and strive in those messages to convey important info as precisely and succinctly as possible. Of course, writing a poem isn’t the same as writing an email, but I think that heightened awareness of effective communication filters into my poetry work as well.
Finally, but maybe least surprisingly, I’m very busy, and I have less time for my own writing these days. When I do find some uninterrupted hours to devote to my own work, I appreciate that time more than ever.
Poets.org: How can a poet, or poetry, bring a community together?
CP: Reading and writing poetry are exercises in empathy-building: reading poems allows us to enter into someone else’s life and fears and joys, and writing poems is a way to externalize our own inner lives. I think that most of us are hungry to tell our own stories, or at least parts of our own stories, but we don’t always have the opportunity to begin that work. When people are given the tools and the go-ahead to amplify their own voices and experiences through poems, and to have others listen, real connection can happen. And sharing poetry also requires a certain openness, not only to others’ lives, but also to our own. I see these benefits of empathy and connection in every workshop I teach, at every level. Community is at the heart of what poetry is and can do.
Poets.org: What part of your project were you most excited about?
CP: I absolutely loved reading the poems from students all across the state last fall, and it was such a thrill to put together the anthology of their work. I’m also very much looking forward to the festival this April—it’s going to be a big, busy, poetry-bonanza day, and I’m so excited for the students to experience it.
Poets.org: What obstacles, if any, did you experience with your project?
CP: I don’t know that “obstacle” is the word I’d use, but the biggest challenge—not surprisingly—has been managing all of the moving parts. Between the poetry-writing initiative, the anthology, and the logistics of the festival itself, this is a multi-pronged project, and making sure I’m managing all that needs to be managed (while simultaneously managing the rest of my life) is a hefty (and evolving) daily undertaking.
Poets.org: Could you speak about your process behind creating the prompts which went out to all K–twelve classrooms across Mississippi?
CP: I wanted the prompt to emphasize for students the importance and validity of their own experiences as subject matter for poetry. Also, because the same prompt was sent to all grade levels, it was essential that it be something accessible to all ages, as well as something that would allow the response’s complexity to be commensurate with the age of the writer. The prompt I ultimately designed asked students to write a poem describing their hometowns, using specific sensory detail and considering how they personally experience that place. The poems we received in response are fantastic—detailed, vivid, sometimes very funny, sometimes heartbreaking, and all individual.
Poets.org: Is there a poem on Poets.org that inspires you and your work with youth in your community? How so?
CP: Oh, so many, but I’ll name just a few. One poem I like to share with young people is Nikki Giovanni’s “Knoxville, Tennessee.”We talk about the richness of the details in the poem, the specificity, and then use it as a jump-off for writing about our own very particular experiences with summer (or another season). Ross Gay’s “To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian” emphasizes for me what community is, and how it can spring up anywhere. And I think about Matthew Olzmann’s “Letter to Someone Living Fifty Years From Now” as I imagine what the world will be like for today’s young people when they’re deep into their adulthoods.Poetry is a place where we can celebrate and mourn and advocate for our astonishing and imperiled planet.