An Interview with Catherine Pierce
By Connor Overton
Catherine Pierce is the author of two books of poetry:The Girls of Peculiar(Saturnalia 2012), winner of the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Poetry Prize, andFamous Last Words(Saturnalia 2008), winner of the Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize. Her poem "Relevant Details" and "Heroines" appeared in Pleiades issue 34.1 and can be found here.
Why do you write? What got you started, and what continues to drive you?
Like, I suspect, many writers, I’ve written for as long as I can remember. It was my parents’ influence that got me started—they read to me, they were readers themselves, and they encouraged me when I started trying my hand at writing (they even listened, rapt-or-pretending-to-be-rapt, as I read them long chapters from the elaborately plotted horse novel I wrote in 6th grade). And I write now, as I wrote then, because that process of creation and revision is endlessly interesting to me. It’s tremendously satisfying, chipping away at a poem until it takes its best shape, arriving—finally!—at an ending that feels Exactly Right after coming up with a bunch of endings that are wrong, wrong, wrong. And, of course, there’s the way working on a poem allows me to enter a world that isn’t necessarily my own and, when things are going well, to stay there for a short time while everything else sort of fades into the background. In terms of drive: I’m very grateful to be a part of the community of writers currently working. There are so many amazing poets and fiction writers and essayists and playwrights producing work right now, and I’m constantly inspired and challenged by them.
Your poems in Famous Last Words, like those in The Girls of Peculiar, are full of longing and angst, but Famous Last Words has more experiments with formal constructions and tends to use the first person, while The Girls of Peculiar uses the third person and prose. How do you think your style has changed and grown from your first book Animals of Habit to your most recent writing?
Hm. I think both books play a bit with both form and address—but yes, there’s certainly somewhat of a shift from Animals of Habit to The Girls of Peculiar. I wrote Animals of Habit, a chapbook, while I was still in grad school, and one of my key goals at that time was to write less autobiographically. I very much wanted to break out of myself and the limitations of writing only about my own experiences, and so I looked for other frameworks for those poems (like the love poems to abstractions, which also appear in Famous Last Words). By the time I was writing The Girls of Peculiar, I felt much more comfortable writing poems that drew from autobiography but weren’t beholden to it, and I’m continuing that exploration in the poems I’m working on right now. In writing The Girls of Peculiar, I also became particularly interested in the power of the line itself—it was important to me that those poems strive for economy of language and muscular syntax, and so I tried to eradicate any extraneous connective tissue.
In your book Famous Last Words you have three major “sets” of poems: Love poems, Imagine Poems, and Famous Last Word poems. The Girls of Peculiaris also a linked series.How does the process of writing linked project poems differ from your standalone poems?
I do frequently work in series (The Girls of Peculiar includes a short series about different cliques of high school girls, for example, and also a series on superstitions). Writing these linked poems is a way for me to explore different facets of a subject. In all of these cases, I wasn’t done writing about a particular idea (like the power of superstition), but the individual poems themselves had reached their natural conclusions. Writing linked poems lets me prolong my engagement with a topic that feels to me particularly fertile and dynamic. It’s also an excellent way to get past that feeling of blank panic that can happen when I sit down to write a brand-new poem: if I know I’m starting on the next poem in a series, I’ve at least got a proverbial track to run on, which makes getting started a bit easier.
Many, if not most, of your poems have fictional qualities. Do you care about the distinction between poetry and prose? Why do you choose poetry as your medium?
One thing I regularly tell my students is that you can lie your head off in poetry. Your poems’ speakers can be completely invented or entirely you or partially your third-grade nemesis. I tell them that their allegiance in writing a poem isn’t to the literal truth, but to the truth of the poem itself, and that their responsibility as poets is to find the mode of address, the details, the voice that will allow them to write the most compelling poems. So that’s one thing about the genre that appeals to me—the freedom it affords its writers in terms of subject and identity. I also like the way that poetry allows for the imaginative leap, the way a poet can connect two seemingly disparate ideas or images and trust the reader to make that jump. I think frequently of Lynn Emanuel’s piece “Why I Am a Poet,” from her book The Dig: “In poetry you just give the instructions to the reader and say, ‘Reader, you go on from here.’ And what I like about poetry is its readers, because those are giving people. I mean, those are people you can trust to get the job done. They pull their own weight. If I had to have someone at my back in a dark alley, I’d want it to be a poetry reader.” I like this idea of providing the crucial ingredients and then trusting the reader with the poem itself.
Are you working on anything new and could you tell us about it?
The book I’m currently working on (tentatively titled The Tornado is the World) centers around an EF-4 tornado and its impact on a small Southern town. The poems follow a handful of recurring characters, including the tornado itself, though the destruction and its aftermath. It’s been an exciting challenge to work on poems that are largely lyric but that are focused on conveying, when pieced together, a cohesive narrative. I’m hoping to finish work on this book in the next year.
Read her poems "Relevant Details" and "Heroines" here.