Catherine Pierce's most recent book of poems is The Tornado Is the World (Saturnalia 2016). She is also the author of The Girls of Peculiar (Saturnalia 2012) and Famous Last Words (Saturnalia 2008). Her poems have appeared in The Best American Poetry, Boston Review, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, FIELD, and elsewhere. She co-directs the creative writing program at Mississippi State University.
“What Words Could Do,” an Interview with Catherine Pierce
This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Crawford Pederson. Of the process he said, “I liken Catherine Pierce’s poetry collection The Tornado is the World to the best bag of Halloween candy I’ve ever received, a mix of sweet, sour and savory treats that only left me wanting more. Her poems are engaging, lyrical, and incredibly smart. I am very glad I had the privilege to interview such a talented poet.” In this interview Catherine Pierce talks about metaphors, tornadoes, and epiphany catalysts.
Superstition Review: The first poem in The Tornado is the World is titled “Disaster Work” and is a real gut punch. Why did you decide to begin your collection with this poem?
Catherine Pierce: “Disaster Work” wrestles in a very direct way with the question that’s at the heart of the book: how can we live our day-to-day lives without collapsing under, or being repeatedly road-blocked by, fear? We manage it somehow, but it requires a constant negotiation, even if that negotiation isn’t always conscious. So that poem seemed like an apt starting place for this book.
SR: I really enjoyed the poem “Beach Town,” which addresses the notion of metaphor, specifically in the lines, “But the beach town/ sorry, is not in the business of metaphor. /The biplane is a biplane. The shell is a shell.” This is such a beautiful way to invite the reader to think about literal versus figurative language. This poem seems to instruct the reader to stop trying to find meaning in the mundane. Could you discuss your use of metaphor and symbolism in the collection and how it changes between individual poems?
CP: “Beach Town” is a poem concerned with what metaphor can do for or to us. I’m intrigued by the dangers of metaphor—how do we limit ourselves if we’re always trying to see past what’s in front of us to something “better” or more meaningful? That said, I’m also, of course, a huge fan of the device and frequently rely on metaphors to crystallize an image or idea. I suppose that’s what I think the best metaphors do: clarify rather than obscure. And so throughout the book (and in all of my poems), that’s my aim, regardless of whether I’m trying to embrace or complicate what metaphor can do.
SR: I find the titles of your poems incredibly pertinent and in most cases, indispensable. Your titles do a great job of inviting the reader in and supplementing the material. What is your process for titling?
CP: I think titles can be a tremendously useful tool in the way that they allow for the laying out of essential information right from the outset, should the poet want that. I frequently use that strategy because then I’m freed up in the poem itself to make more leaps and to do less hand-holding. Every once in a while I start a poem with the title, but usually the title comes after I’ve written a draft and am thinking about what else the poem needs, or what might need to be underscored somehow.
SR: There are two symbols in The Tornado is the World that really stick out to me: the tornado and the ocean. Why were these two very different symbols featured so prominently in this collection? Could you talk a bit about your current fascination with these two natural occurrences?
CP: They came about pretty organically from my own life. I live in Mississippi, where we usually have at least a few terrifying nights of tornado weather every year, and I spend time every summer in the beach town of Rehoboth, Delaware, where my family is from. I started writing the book immediately following the huge tornado outbreak of 2011—I was traveling that day with my husband and our infant son, and we happened to be in Cullman, AL when an EF-4 tornado hit that town. It was the most terrifying experience of our lives. Soon after that, we were up in Rehoboth, where everything was in full summertime vacation mode—gleaming ocean, white-bright sun, bustling boardwalk. The way that this safety, this happiness, this abundance contrasted with the tornadoes and their devastation was really striking, and that tension—between safety and destruction, joy and fear—became central to the book. It also led me to explore an idea that I’ll discuss more in the next question, about the pressure we can feel to have revelations or become somehow different while on vacation.
SR: There are four separate poems that share the same second person point of view titled “Imaginary Vacation Scenario's 1-4.” I enjoyed these poems and found myself drawn in. Where did the inspiration for these poems come from?
CP: Earlier you referenced the poem “Beach Town,” which (in addition to calling out metaphors!) deals with the problem inherent in vacations: they’re often pitched (by commercials, by movies, by ourselves) as epiphany catalysts, as if once you finally find yourself on the beach (or in the mountains, or in the strange new city, etc.), something significant will be different. You’ll make that change you need to make, you’ll become somehow more open or more peaceful or more fun, you’ll figure out the answers to Important Questions…but that’s a lot of pressure on a week or a long weekend (or a year! a decade!). So in the Imaginary Vacation Scenario poems, I gave myself permission to create escapes that actually work in this way for the “you” of the poems. The titles, though, underscore the implied failure of these vacations: they’re able to be so successfully transformative precisely because they’re imagined.
SR: What made you want to become a poet?
CP: I don’t remember having a moment when I thought Now I want to become a poet! But I do remember certain moments when the possibilities of poetry first opened to me. One that stands out from childhood: in fourth grade, every morning our teacher would put a short quotation on the board and we’d write it down in cursive. One day I walked in and an e.e. cummings quote was up there. (I think it was this one.) Reading it was a revelation; I’d had no idea you could play with words that way (or any way). And then in high school—by which time I was writing plenty of bad poetry—I read Joy Harjo’s In Mad Love and War, which was the first book of really contemporary poetry I’d ever read. Then, too, I was just knocked flat by what words could do. An accumulation of moments like those led me gradually to doing what I do now.
SR: Do you ever worry about the accessibility of your poetry?
CP: Not really. I do think my poems tend to be pretty accessible. I try to make sure that the poem is making all the connections I think it needs to make and that I’m not being abstruse either through laziness or coyness. Beyond that, I tend to trust the poem (and its readers).
SR: Could you describe your writing process?
CP: I work best with an uninterrupted expanse of time for writing, in order to allow for all the inevitable sitting and staring, false starts, reading, reading aloud, email and news and social media checking, subsequent resolve to stop checking email and news and social media, more sitting and staring, and more false starts. If I have, say, two or three hours of time that I can set aside for writing, then I feel like I have the space I need to break through all of that to the work itself. I’m not an every-day-for-whatever-time-I-can-steal writer—the strategy that’s working best for me these days is to use the first part of my week for class prep, administrative duties, emails, etc., so that I can set aside some chunks of hours later in the week for my own writing without feeling like my attention is being divided.
I usually work on a draft until I feel, on a gut level, like it’s working, and is as good as I can make it. I have two barometers: 1) I read a new draft out loud and see if my attention flags anywhere; if it does, I rework those parts. 2) After I close the file to go on to the rest of my day, I gauge how excited I feel to reopen it later that night or the next morning. Am I itching to open it up and engage with it again? If so, good! Am I thinking, eh, I’ve got some emails to return, I’ll do that first? If so, then something’s probably off somewhere, and I try to return to the poem with an eye toward what the larger problem might be, and then dismantle it accordingly. I also deeply value feedback from trusted reader-friends (like poet and old grad school friend Maggie Smith, with whom I’ve exchanged poems pretty much weekly for the past 15 years).
SR: What does your writing space look like?
CP: These days I don’t really have a designated writing space. I often work in my office on campus—big window, tall bookshelves, desk messy with papers and books and pens and various things I need to file, pictures of my family, artwork my sons have made. Or I work at my kitchen table—big windows, messy kitchen, dishes in sink, table totally clean and clear of everything so as to allow myself a small illusion of control. And sometimes I work on my back porch—pollen-covered table, noisy squirrels and birds and neighbors’ lawnmowers, soft air. I can work most places as long as there’s no music or conversation nearby—but good light is always a plus.