Earth, you terrify me—you are fierce green
and honeysuckle, you are herds of wild ponies,
and you are leaving, always. Is it any wonder
some days I look at my laptop instead of out
the window? Every time I glance up
there you are, quaking me with your fern fronds
and silver frost.
As its state’s poet laureate, Catherine Pierce colors Mississippi with sharp and haunting prose. The author of four books and the co-director of the creative writing program at Mississippi State University, Pierce is one of the Deep South’s preeminent voices in poetry, often writing about its natural beauty (and natural disasters).
She also writes occasionally about horseshoe crabs, the beach and Funland. That’s because Pierce is a native and part-time Delawarean.
Her poems run the gamut from razor-tongued observations of ecological collapse to sad and dulcet reflections on childhood memories. Her 2016 book The Tornado Is the World was inspired by a real-life disaster tornado super outbreak that saw 175 tornadoes devastate the South in April 2011. The storms caused 324 fatalities, 3,100 injuries and $10.2 billion in damage. Pierce and her young family were almost among the victims.
Traveling north on their way to Delaware, the Pierces were forced off the road by impending stormy skies and into refuge at a Days Inn off a highway in Alabama. Taking shelter in the lobby bathrooms, they heard guests yell, “It’s out there. It’s coming.” “The power went out, and people [were] screaming,” Pierce recalls. “I mean, I really, really thought we were going to die.”
The tornado barely grazed past the Days Inn and completely flattened a gas station farther up the road. Surviving the ordeal intact with her family, including her infant son, provided a creative wellspring about motherhood and mortality for The Tornado Is the World.
“With empathy, dazzling insight and dexterity, Pierce sings in the voice of the tornado and the terrified,” notes poet and professor Simone Muench in a book jacket blurb.
The Tornado Is the World, as well as Danger Days (2020) and The Girls of Peculiar (2012), all earned Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters poetry prize honors for Pierce, while her debut, Famous Last Words (2008), won the Saturnalia Books poetry prize.
As Mississippi’s ambassador for poetry, Pierce works to bring the power of words to the people. She pens a monthly newspaper column called Poetry Break for The Clarion-Ledger and Hattiesburg American newspapers and hosts the Mississippi Poetry Podcast, bite-sized interviews with Mississippi poets.
“It’s all part of my work to show people that poetry is something that is alive right now,” she says. “It’s a living art.”
Pierce is spearheading the My Town Mississippi Poetry Project, a statewide initiative for K-12 students designed to help them experience the joy and accomplishment that can come from writing poetry, and from amplifying their own voices, words and experiences.
“It’s all part of my work to show people that poetry is something that is alive right now. It’s a living art.”
“I think poetry has this mystique about it for a lot of people,” Pierce reflects. “I think, in a way, that’s what makes a lot of people feel like, I can’t access this. This isn’t a thing that I get. It’s not a thing I can do.
“It’s not that I want to demystify poetry. I don’t,” she continues. “I think poetry is mysterious. I think that’s one of the wonderful things about it, is that it can be a mystery in some ways. But that doesn’t mean it’s off-limits. I think it’s more that anybody can try to dive into a mystery and swim around in there and try to figure things out.”
The Wilmington native, who splits time between Rehoboth Beach and her home in Mississippi, appears in countless journals and anthologies, including The Best American Poetry, American Poetry Review, The Nation, Ploughshares and The Southern Review. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Ecotone, The Rumpus, The Millions, Cincinnati Review and River Teeth.