STARKVILLE • Catherine Pierce tries to start each of her lessons with a question. Something like, but not specifically:
“Would you rather be a shepherd spy – a shepherd who is also a spy, not to be confused with the shepherd’s pie – or a super agent who is a dog but is really bad at math?”
This particular question came from Pierce’s son, Sam. She wrote it down several years ago, along with other interesting questions he’s asked over the years, and posed it to her middle school students in poetry at Mississippi State University at the start of a recent course.
“My questions are getting weirder and weirder. Today was the weirdest yet,” she said. “To their great credit, they just rolled with it.”
The creative spirit that Pierce brings to the class also serves him well when writing. She is the current Mississippi Poet Laureate and co-director of the Creative Writing Program at MSU, where she tries to share her knowledge and love of poetry with others.
“I think poems work best when they come from a place of openness and willingness to try things rather than having to feel like ‘I have to do exactly that, and if I don’t exactly this way, then it does not fit. be good,” Pierce said.
She believes that poets should be “aware of and open to the joys and pleasures of language”.
“At the end of the day, writing should be fun in some way,” Pierce said.
The magic of language
From an early age, Pierce read anything he could get his hands on.
“I’ve always really loved words, whether they’re in poems or not,” Pierce said. “Language, in general, is always something that has been magical for me.”
Pierce grew up in Delaware and lived there until she went to college. In second grade, her class learned haiku, a type of shorthand poetry that originated in Japan.
“I remember being so thrilled,” she said. “It was so fun to be able to make a picture out of words.”
Since then, she has been writing poems and stories.
Her career in poetry and teaching happened naturally.
She majored in English with a focus on creative writing during her undergraduate studies at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania, followed by a master’s degree in poetry from Ohio State University and eventually a Ph.D. from the University of Missouri.
While at Ohio State, she worked as a teaching assistant. Although early in her life Pierce hadn’t planned on becoming a teacher – it wasn’t even on her radar – as soon as she walked into the classroom as an instructor, she knew she wanted to keep doing it.
As a teacher, one of Pierce’s great joys is sharing poetry with students she affectionately calls “poetry skeptics” – those who think they don’t like or understand everything. just not poetry. Or maybe they’ve been told “this is what you have to do with a poem” and feel like they can’t crack the code.
These days, Pierce teaches an introductory creative writing course covering poetry and fiction at MSU, as well as higher-level poetry courses like intermediate poetry and poetry craft.
She and her husband, Michael Kardos, moved to Starkville to work in Mississippi State in 2007. Along with Pierce, Kardos serves as co-director of MSU’s creative writing program and is also a professor of fiction. The couple have two sons, Sam, 11, and Wyatt, 8.
In his classes, Pierce guides students through contemporary poems, separating them to examine from within how language and imagery are used, while reflecting on the many purposes poetry can serve.
In higher grades, Pierce focuses on helping students develop their aesthetic bravery when writing and reflect on their own voices as writers. She helps them discover what attracts them and what style they naturally gravitate towards.
The writing process and inspiration
Between teaching and raising a family, there are days when Pierce is too busy to sit down and write.
“There are days when I plan ahead to prioritize writing, and there are days when I plan ahead and say, ‘This is the day I’m just jotting down student work and taking my kids to the dentist,'” Pierce said.
It’s all about finding the right balance. Giving herself permission to have days without writing helps her focus her attention solely on writing when the time comes.
Pierce found that teaching poetry helped him with his own writing. Class discussions are linked to what she writes and vice versa.
“I try to make teaching a conversation as much as possible,” Pierce said. “We’re all figuring things out.”
Since Pierce moved to Mississippi 15 years ago, the state’s natural beauty has crept into his writing.
“I’m really drawn to the lushness of Mississippi and the intensity of the natural world here,” Pierce said. “Everything is kind of dialed up to 11 in terms of nature in Mississippi.”
On walks with his children and their dog, Roxy, Pierce pays close attention to the seasons, the flowers on the trees, and the birdsong that echoes overhead. From pruning insects to rapidly growing lawns in the spring, Pierce has an eye for nature. But she is particularly interested in weather and climate.
Her third book is titled “The Tornado is the World” and her most recent book, “Danger Days”, is a collection of poetry to “celebrate our planet while bearing witness to its collapse”.
“Like a lot of people who live here, it’s something I’m very concerned about,” Pierce said of the weather, which has increasingly affected his daily life, like that of all Mississippians.
As Mississippi Poet Laureate
In April 2021, Pierce was named Mississippi Poet Laureate. In this honorary position, she will serve as the state’s ambassador of poetry and literary arts through 2025.
“Poetry is for everyone” serves as something of a mission statement for her work.
“My goal is to try to increase access to poetry for Mississippi residents in a way that is meaningful to them,” Pierce said. “I want to highlight a range of poems, poets and writers in general that we have in the state, that we’ve had in the state. We have such an amazing literary landscape here and I think that’s is really inspiring for people to know about it.”
As part of his role as Poet Laureate, Pierce hosts The Mississippi Poetry Podcast. Each episode features a different Mississippi poet — like Aimee Nezhukumatathil or C. Liegh McInnis — reading a poem, sharing what inspired them to write it, and offering advice to budding poets.
Each 15-minute episode is paired with an additional resource for educators and community groups.
“Podcasts are meant to be friendly, fun and lively and to help everyone, but especially the youngest people in our state, see that poetry is written by Mississippians,” Pierce said. “Poetry is for everyone.”
She also writes a monthly column called “Poetry Break”, with the aim of providing people with tools to try their hand at writing poetry.
“A lot of times people feel cut off from poetry or they’re like, ‘Well, that’s not really something I want to try or that’s not something I really should try. I’m not going to be good at this,'” Pierce said. “I think a lot of times all people need is a track to race on. They just need a starting point.”
Pierce is also working with Tracy Carr, assistant director of library services for the Mississippi Library Commission, to organize “poetry walks” for Mississippi libraries where people can come out and read a poem while doing it.
Pierce describes it as “a way to bring poetry into people’s daily lives so that it doesn’t feel like something in a dusty book on a very tall shelf”.
Poetry is everywhere, she says, for those who simply look and listen.
“It’s something that’s right here; it’s for all of us,” she said. “It’s in the garden when we walk around, it’s in the newspaper, and it’s just around.”