A community conversation with Mississippi’s poet laureate, Catherine Pierce
- by Kevin Cole
Catherine Pierce recalls her first impressions of Mississippi when she arrived at Mississippi State University in 2007: “I was so aware of the physical landscape. I was stunned by the intensity of Mississippi. Everything felt big and full of life. The heat, the humidity, the storms, the animals, the birds, and the flowers. I was delighted. It felt deep – like the place made itself known.” Pierce has written a lot about storms. In 2016, she authored a collection entitled, The Tornado Is the World, where storms leave “chickens plucked naked, goats in bedrooms [and] trout silvering the cotton fields.” One reviewer wrote of Pierce that she “likes to toy with fear the way it toys with us.”
Currently the poet laureate for the State of Mississippi, Catherine Pierce is the featured guest for a unique and very special two-day residency program in Bay St. Louis on July 13 and 14, 2023. This visit is part of a partnership initiative between the Hancock County Library System (HCLS) and The Arts, Hancock County, under the auspices of Mississippi State University.
Mississippi’s poet laureate serves as the official state poet, creating and reading poetry at state occasions and agency activities, and representing the Magnolia State’s rich cultural heritage. The Mississippi poet laureate program began in 1963. The Office of the Governor, in partnership with the Mississippi Arts Commission and Mississippi’s other cultural agencies, appoints the position holder to a four-year term. Pierce’s term expires in 2025.
Going back to her earliest childhood memories, Catherine Pierce recalls the fun that she experienced hearing and reading “the little bit edgy” poems by Shel Silverstein, which she now reads to her own children. But it was the first time in fourth grade when her teacher wrote on the board a work by E. E. Cummings that the poem blew her away. Thereafter, the written word was never the same for “Katie,” as she prefers to be called.
Later in high school, Pierce discovered her first contemporary poet, Joy Harjo, the three-term American poet laureate and acclaimed writer and musician, who moves fluidly between prose, poetry, and song. Harjo has been described as a magician and master of the English language, who teaches us that the opposite of love is not hate, but fear.
When she dons her academic cap, Catherine Pierce, Ph.D., is a faculty member of the English Department at Mississippi State University, where she is co-director of the school’s highly touted creative writing program.
It is easy to understand Pierce’s four-year gubernatorial appointment as the state’s chief advocate for the literary arts. She is quick to promote poetry as a living, vibrant art form. “I believe everybody has the capacity to write poetry,” claims Pierce. “Writing can help us use our senses to connect with our world. Poetry can help people amplify their own voices. In my own writing it helps me sit with my own questions, worries, and feelings. Poetry does not necessarily need to provide answers. Sometimes it is simply enough to explore questions.”
Pierce’s more recent writings are ultimately rooted in the natural world. Place creeps in and often becomes more nuanced. “Poetry can allow us to slow down, to reflect… to have quiet time. Poetry can provide opportunities for us to swim around and contemplate important subjects,” she says. “It can also help people celebrate our world and be grateful. Don’t worry about not understanding. You don’t have to unlock the poem.”
Pierce is quick to note that poetry can also be a lot of fun. “I want people to leave feeling excited!” she said. “People should feel that poetry is not off-limits for anyone.”
Catherine Pierce is the author of four full-length poetry collections including Danger Days (2020), The Tornado Is the World (2016), The Girls of Peculiar (2012), and Famous Last Words (2008), published by Saturnalia Books. A chapbook, Animals of Habit (Kent State University Press) was published in 2004.
The Community Conversation with Mississippi’s Poet Laureate is sponsored by the Hancock County Library System in conjunction with The Arts, Hancock County, and 100 Men Hall. The event will take place at 100 Men Hall, 303 Union Street, Bay St. Louis, on Friday, July 14, 2023, from 6:00 - 7:30 pm. The event is free and open to the public and will feature Pierce in a casual, fun, and informal setting where she will engage with audience member questions, provide insights on writing, and share musings from her time as poet laureate. The writer will also read from some of her notable and award-winning poems. Books by the author will be available for sale with Pass Christian Books providing the full collection of the author’s work. Attendees will have an opportunity for book signing and photos with Pierce during the event.
Additional details for the event at 100 Men Hall, as well as the entire itinerary for the two-day poet laureate residency in Bay St. Louis, are available ONLINE.
In addition to the Friday event at 100 Men Hall, Catherine Pierce will also be the featured guest at the Hancock County Library System’s monthly Authors & Characters program on Thursday, July 13, 2023, which will be held for the first time ever at the Bay-Waveland Yacht Club, from 11:30 am to 1:30 pm. RSVPs are required for the luncheon program, as space is limited. Persons may register for this event by calling the Bay St. Library, (228) 467-5282. Registration closes on July 6.
The Authors & Characters program is made possible through the generous support of the Library Foundation of Hancock County.
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