Something We Carry

By Karen Ott Mayer  |  Photography courtesy of Megan Bean, Mississippi State University.

Mississippi’s Poet Laureate Catherine Pierce inspires with her own brand of creative style.

When she was only nine years old, Catherine Pierce encountered the idea of poetry for the first time.

“I remember the teacher wrote a snippet on the board from E.E. Cummings and I thought, ‘What is that?’” she recalls.

Pierce asked her mother if she could check out a poetry book from the library and from there came sparks that ignited a lifelong passion for crafting words.

Appointed Mississippi’s Poet Laureate in April 2021 by Governor Tate Reeves, Pierce hopes to continue sharing her personal messages about poetry across the state while helping to dispel a few misconceptions about the art.

Growing up, Pierce was a self-confessed bookworm, but she also believes one particular element lent to her early interest in words and language.  

“My parents let me read above my comprehension level so I think that I felt comfortable not always understanding what I was reading,” she explains.

Later in college, she vacillated between English and theater, eventually choosing English because it seemed more practical.

Originally from Delaware, Pierce made her way to the South, first to Missouri where she earned a Ph.D. from the University of Missouri, then to Mississippi where she began teaching at Mississippi State in 2007. Altogether, she has spent 20 years in the classroom. Her husband, award-winning fiction author Michael Kardos, also teaches and co-directs the creative writing program at the university.

When Pierce first arrived in Mississippi, she was taken by first the heat, then the people.

“I remember how friendly people were and how much I liked my students who were always more than willing to try new things or experiment,” she says.

Pierce has been writing essays for the past few years, exploring the difference between prose and poetry.

“Poetry is slow and careful,” she says. “Essays are a different kind of process and I lose track of time when writing because of the stronger narrative thread. I find it interesting to see the different ways the brain works.”

She draws great inspiration from the natural world, with her recent works incorporating themes about climate change and humanity’s impact on the planet. Her most recent book, “Dangerous Days,” was released in October by Saturnalia Books, earning Pierce the 2021 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Poetry Award.

Helping others understand poetry is her mission, both in and outside of the classroom.  “We don’t have to know everything. We can allow for space to question.” Like many others, her questions only grew in 2020 as she found herself hibernating with her family.

“2020 was about trying to find time to do anything as we were all together in this space and there was no space,” she says. “At the same time, we really got to know each other even better.”

Time, she recognizes, is always the challenge. Despite a list of books and publications — many stamped with awards and recognition — she readily admits to chasing questions about her own habits and work.

“I think about what it means to be a writer who is not writing,” she says.

And in the end, her pragmatic sense and acceptance of the process itself, reassures her.

“We all need these fallow periods when our creative soil needs nutrients and to be regenerated,” she says. “Even when not writing, we’re still accumulating observations.”

When listening to Pierce talk about poetry, it’s clear she may be the best qualified for her new role as the state’s poetry ambassador. Even those who have little experience with poetry or tense up from memories of English class will find her reasoning contagious.

“My belief is that poetry is for everyone and everybody can connect with poetry,” Pierce says.

Pierce believes our world and busy lives have never needed poetry more. “Poetry requires us to slow down and to really look at things. Fear, a tree, whatever. We have so much happening today in our fast lives.”

More importantly, Pierce explains that everyone can access poetry because there’s no judgement or right or wrong when reading a poem.

“I think there is this fear that if you don’t understand a poem, somehow there’s failure,” she says. “When reading a poem, let it wash over you, uncover you. Just sit with it.”

For Pierce, poems are meant to be read more than once, as each time we find new or different meanings. The beauty lies in the interpretation.

“Many of us may feel like there’s a code to crack, or an equation to solve a poem,” she says. “But this isn’t math. When we look at it this way, we take the pressure off that somehow we’re failing to understand it.”

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