In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Catherine Pierce

by Jun 17, 2024

Gold stars against a white background.

You have two poems in Volume 26: “I Wonder if the Guy Who Catcalled Me in the Blockbuster Parking Lot When I Was 15 Ever Thinks About That,” and “Perfection™.” These two poems detail separate events, but there’s a kinship of perseverance in both of them. When crafting them, was there a connection between them for you, or were they created at different times?

That’s interesting—they were written at different times but they both went through a lot of revision before arriving at their final forms, so there’s perseverance in their creation as well as in their subject matter. Otherwise, though, any connection only came through later, as I was putting together a group of poems for submission and thought they might enjoy each other’s company. 

“Perfection™” juxtaposes failure as a child playing games with the adult feeling of overwhelming responsibility for society’s failure. What inspired the braiding of these two times (adult and child)?

Poems for me are opportunities and spaces to sort through questions. I’d hated the game Perfection when I was a kid—so stressful! The time pressure, the buzz, the explosion of pieces… (I’d also hated Operation—a game that buzzes loudly at you if you make a mistake? Where the premise is that you lose if you botch a patient’s surgery? No, thank you!) But it wasn’t until a few years ago, after playing Perfection for the first time in decades, that I really thought about why the game had bugged me so much as a child, and, importantly, why it still did. It was stressful, sure, but so are other games that I enjoy. What was it about this one? Writing this poem from a place of questioning helped me to realize that “I was afraid to fail and so I failed”—and to see how that freezing up that can stem from fear of failure doesn’t necessarily stop in childhood. 

“Fizz” and “buzz” are such accurate words to describe rage in “I Wonder if the Guy Who Catcalled Me…”. What prompted these descriptions? How did this poem take shape during creation and revision?

Ah, thank you—I’m glad you hooked into those words. To me, those verbs get at both the electric energy of rage and the thrill that can come with acknowledging and releasing it. I wanted to suggest the way that anger can feel almost seductive (I always think of champagne when I hear the word “fizz”). 

This poem was one of those rare ones that happen quickly—or at least the language of it happened quickly. The form took quite a while. I’d initially drafted it as a conventionally lineated and punctuated poem—no blank space, no stanza breaks. But it just wasn’t working in that form—it didn’t have the sort of headlong, breathless feeling I wanted it to have. I ended up putting it aside for two years before revisiting it and deciding to play with the way it appears on the page. Once I began exploring the visual space of the poem, the whole thing opened up for me. 

What’s your writing process like? For you, what makes a poem “done?” 

My process is always in flux. I learned a long time ago that I’m not a person who is able to, or even who wants to, write every day. I go through productive times and fallow times, and I’ve become increasingly, though not entirely, comfortable with that ebb and flow. 

When I’m working on a new poem, I do a lot of reading out loud, a lot of staring into the middle distance trying to find the accurate word or phrase. Once I’ve got a draft done—either one that I think is close to finished OR one that I feel has something worth pursuing but that I just can’t seem to crack—I’ll email it to my longtime friend Maggie Smith for her take. Maggie and I have been exchanging poems since our grad school days almost twenty-five years ago; by this point she knows my work as well as I do, so her responses are not only spot-on, craft-wise, but are also wonderfully intuitive in understanding what a given poem is going for—or could be going for. 

I’ve also gotten better over the years at being honest with myself. If I’m not sure about a poem—if it just feels like it’s not quite there yet—I’ll wait on it, return to it over months or years until I feel like I’ve gotten it right. And when I read my poems out loud, I stay tuned in to my own attention—if I feel even slightly bored by any moment of the poem, I know that’s a spot to revisit. 

What themes do you return to in your poetry?

Someone else might be a better judge of this than I am, but: animals and death and apocalypse and wonder and parenthood and longing and carnivals and mountains and weather and boardwalks and memory and trees and insects and Skee-Ball. 

What are you working on now?

I’m currently working on poems that explore ideas of elements—the classical elements of earth, fire, wind, and water; the elements of ancient humoral theory; “the elements” as weather; the periodic table of elements; the elements of language. I’m also working on some essays, on some revisions, and on successfully growing blueberries. 


Catherine Pierce - environmental portrait with water behind.

Photo by Megan Bean

Catherine Pierce is the poet laureate of Mississippi and the author of four books of poems, most recently Danger Days (Saturnalia, 2020). Her work has appeared in The Best American Poetry, The New York Times, The American Poetry Review, The Nation, the Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day series, and elsewhere. An NEA fellow and two-time Pushcart Prize winner, she co-directs the creative writing program at Mississippi State University.

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