Poet Catherine Pierce on Danger, Tornadoes and Playing With Words

Poet Catherine Pierce visits CU Denver Creative Writing for a reading and signing on October 17.
Poet Catherine Pierce visits CU Denver Creative Writing for a reading and signing on October 17. Megan Bean/Mississippi State University
Catherine Pierce recounted one of her first memories of poetry in an interview with Superstition Review in the spring of 2017: She remembers a cursive lesson from the fourth grade, copying down passages and lines from the chalkboard, including a quote from e.e. cummings. “Reading it was a revelation,” she says. “I’d no idea that you could play with words that way — or any way.”

Pierce has been playing with words — both in that way and many others — for some time now. Her work has been seen in prestigious journals; she was named an National Endowment for the Arts Creative Fellow for 2019; and her fifth book, Danger Days, is coming next year. She currently serves as co-director of the creative writing program at Mississippi State University.

We caught up with Pierce in advance of her appearance in Denver on October 17, the guest of the University of Colorado Denver’s creative writing program and its literary magazine, Copper Nickel.

Westword: You're coming to share your work at the University of Colorado Denver’s Tivoli Student Union —what's your plan in terms of what you're bringing to read, and what are you most looking forward to in terms of your visit?

Pierce: I’ll plan to read mostly from my most recent book, The Tornado Is the World, since students will have read that, but will also bring along some newer work to share. I’m looking forward to every single aspect of my visit, honestly. I love talking with students and meeting folks, I so admire the creative writing faculty at CU Denver and, as a bonus, Colorado happens to be my favorite state. So I’m very much looking forward to all of it.

You grew up in Delaware, and live and teach now in Mississippi. How did Colorado become your favorite state?

I first visited Colorado when I was 21 years old, and was blown away by the mountains, the stars, the crisp, bright air — I felt like I'd found a place I'd been looking for all my life. Since then I've traveled back many times, and always feel at home when I arrive. I've never visited during the fall, though, so I'm really looking forward to experiencing a new season in Colorado.

Let’s talk about your last book. The Tornado Is the World is this fascinating pastiche of perspectives, including that of the tornado itself. What were the challenges of perspective-switching like that? What was it like to write from the point of view of a cyclonic force of destruction?

It was a really interesting exercise in narrative for me, and it was a thrill to play with characterization and plot development — two things I don’t usually get to do a lot of in poems. To write from the tornado’s perspective, I tried to imagine how a tornado might justify its actions to itself: What version of reality is the tornado subscribing to that compels it to wreak the destruction it does? It was exhilarating, and a little scary at times.

Was it easier to write a collection around such a tight and specific focus? I'd imagine that would be both restrictive and freeing at the same time.

Yes, definitely both restrictive and freeing. In some ways, it was very liberating to be working on a project with a sustained narrative arc — I felt like I had a track to run on, so to speak, and that focus absolutely helped me maintain the project’s energy. At the same time, I was aware that there was only so far I could take this particular narrative, which is why the tornado poems proper only comprise the middle of the book’s three sections. The two sections that bookend it certainly have some thematic echoes and, I hope, amplifications, but I wanted to make sure the book as a whole felt expansive rather than narrow, and so it was important to me to include that breathing room.

So why a tornado? Why that town and those people? Where did all that come from for you?

I’d always been fascinated by and terrified of tornadoes because of how it feels like they have agency — they’re these individual forces that feel almost intentionally capricious in their destruction. Then in April of 2011, the South experienced one of the biggest and deadliest tornado outbreaks in history. On April 27, the worst day of the outbreak, I was traveling with my husband and our infant son, and we had a close call with an EF-4 tornado that hit the town we were in. That experience, and the devastation we saw as we drove out of the area the next day, fueled this book.

How do you define yourself as a poet? I ask this understanding that it's a completely unfair question whose answer may well change day to day. So maybe: What sort of a poet are you right now?

Right now I’m a poet interested in challenging and surprising myself. It’s important to me that I don’t default to a certain style or technique just because it feels most comfortable, and so I’m trying right now to consciously set myself tasks — write a series of Very Very Short Poems, write past the ending of a poem to arrive at something brand-new — in order to keep myself open and attuned to a full range of creative possibilities.

I saw that one of the poems from this collection, "The Mother Warns the Tornado," was made into a short film by Motionpoems last year. That must have been an incredible experience, to see your words come to life in a way that poetry doesn't often get to do. Was it also sort of terrifying?

It really was an incredible experience, and it had the potential to be terrifying, because the films are entirely the works of the filmmakers, with the poems as primary text and nothing else; it’s a relinquishing of control, which is always nerve-racking. But Isaac Ravishankara, the filmmaker who made “The Mother Warns the Tornado,” made such a gorgeous, scary, moving film, and completely captured the emotional heart of the poem. I was awestruck the first time I saw it, and I could not be more grateful to him for what he made. Also, how cool is it that one of my poems now has a version with CGI?

You've had work appear in
Best American Poetry more than once, among many other honors — an NEA grant, most recently. How do you see the role of awards and prizes and titles and the like in the business of poetry these days?

Awards and honors offer wonderful validation: Someone external to you has said, hey, this thing you’re doing matters — and I don’t know any person who doesn’t need to hear that sometimes. I know that winning the NEA last year certainly made me feel braver and more energized as a poet. The downside, of course, is that not winning this or that contest or honor, especially in a digital landscape so primed for spreading congrats far and wide, can erode confidence and raise anxiety about not being far enough along, not having accomplished enough. What I tell my students and myself is that the work matters most: Do the work, love the work, find joy in it. If a prize of some sort follows, what a fantastic bonus, but if it doesn’t, the good work will still be there, mattering.

Who are some of your poetic heroes? How do you see their work coming through in your own?

It’s always in flux — I’ve found inspiration in so, so many poets’ work that I hesitate to list them for fear of leaving out someone important — but I so admire poets who take risks in their poems, who make imaginative leaps and manage to carry a reader with them without worrying about hand-holding. Some folks I’ve been returning to lately are C.D. Wright, Terrance Hayes and Lynn Emanuel, for this reason, but there are so many.

What's one thing you've always wanted to write a poem about but just haven't found the right way to do it yet?

Form tends to stump me more than subject matter — I can usually find my way to writing about the subjects I’m most drawn to — but I haven’t yet been able to pull off a long, multi-page, multi-section poem. I try, and then end up cutting and cutting and cutting. Someday, I hope!

Your forthcoming book, Danger Days, is due out next year; what sort of danger does that book encompass? Between tornadoes and now this next book, do you consider yourself something of a poetic thrill junkie?

The title comes from a meteorological term used to describe a day where the heat and humidity combine to make the temperature feel like 105 degrees or higher. The book deals a lot with climate change, and so it’s an apt title, but I also liked how that phrase might evoke other kinds of danger we’re all living with on a daily basis these days. So I wouldn’t say I’m a poetic thrill junkie — more that I’m drawn in writing to wrestling with my own fears and trying to build something from them.

Catherine Pierce will read her work as part of CU Denver Creative Writing’s Copper Nickel Reading Series at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, October 17, in the Tivoli Student Union’s Zenith Room. Find out more here.
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Teague Bohlen is a writer, novelist and professor at the University of Colorado Denver. His first novel, The Pull of the Earth, won the Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction in 2007; his textbook The Snarktastic Guide to College Success came out in 2014. His new collection of flash fiction, Flatland, is available now.
Contact: Teague Bohlen