Poet Of The Week

Catherine Pierce

     March 27–April 2, 2017

Catherine Pierce is the author of The Tornado Is the World (2016), The Girls of Peculiar (2012) and Famous Last Words (2008, winner of the Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize), all from Saturnalia Books. Her work has appeared in Best American Poetry, Boston Review, Slate, Ploughshares, FIELD and elsewhere. Originally from Delaware, she now lives in Starkville, MS, where she codirects the creative writing program at Mississippi State University. On Thursday, April 13, Pierce will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series with Ocean Vuong and Tina Cane.

Relevant Details

The bar was called The Den of Iniquity,
or maybe The Cadillac Lounge—whatever
it was, its sign was a neon martini glass,
or a leg ending in stiletto. Maybe a parrot. Anyway,
in that place I danced without anyone
touching me but seven men watched
from the bar with embered, truculent eyes.
Or I danced with my boyfriend’s hands
hot around my ribs. Or I didn’t have a boyfriend
and no one was looking and my dance moves
were nervous, sick-eel-ish, and eventually
I just sat down. What I remember for sure
is that was the night I drank well gin
and spun myself into a terrible headache.
That was the night I thought I was pregnant
and drank only club soda. That was
the night I made a tower from Rolling Rock
bottles sometime after midnight
and management spoke to me quietly
but only after snapping a Polaroid
for the bathroom Wall of Fame. In any case,
when I finally stumbled or strode
or snuck outside, the air was Austin-thick,
Reno-dry, Montpellier-sharp. I don’t remember
if my breath clouded or vanished
or dropped beneath the humidity. I don’t remember
if the music pulsing from inside
was the Velvet Underground or Otis Redding
or the local band of mustached banjo men.
You know this poem has a gimmick,
and you’re right. But understand: if I wrote
Cadillac Lounge, boyfriend, beer tower, soul
it would be suddenly true, a memory lit
by lightning flash. Who needs that sort
of confinement? If the way forward
is an unbending line, let the way back
be quicksilver, beading and re-swirling. Forgive
the trick and let me keep this mix-and-match,
this willful confusion of bars, of beaches,
of iced overpasses and hands on my hands,
all the films with gunfights, all the films
with dogs, the Kandinsky, the Rembrandt,
the moment the moon’s face snapped
into focus, the moment I learned
the word truculent, each moment the next
and the one before, and in this blur,
oh, how many lifetimes I can have.

–Originally published in Pleiades.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

This poem started from a place of failure. Many years ago, I’d been to this great bar/club in Austin, and I wanted to write about it. I didn’t know what I wanted to say about it, exactly, but I figured I’d just start with the bar itself and see where the poem went. And then I realized I didn’t remember the name of the bar. And also that I couldn’t really remember much of what had happened there—all I had was this vague impression of having liked the place. None of which seemed like a very promising start to a poem. But I started it anyway, letting the failure of memory itself be the focus, which worked fine for a bunch of lines, until the poem stalled out. I wasn’t sure what the stakes were, or where I was going with all of this. Finally I stepped back from it and acknowledged the problem directly—the “gimmick” of the poem. Once I did that, the whole thing cracked open for me and I was able to find the stakes and revise toward them.

What are you working on right now?

I’m working on a bunch of different things, but lately I keep circling back to language, what it can build and what it can take away, how it can act as getaway car or weapon, what pleasures words as individual things can bring us though music and suggestion and echo and memory. The current political climate has prompted me to look even more closely at how language can be utilized and distorted—and also wielded, by everyone.

What’s a good day for you?

An especially good day is a day with either perfect balance or no balance whatsoever—a day where I feel like I’ve attended equally well to all major portions of my life (as parent, poet, teacher, spouse, friend, individual-person-with-a-rich-inner-life, etc.), or a day where I completely immerse myself in one thing, like an all-day family day where we play outside as much as the light will allow, or a day in which I spend many hours just working on my own poems.

So you don’t live in Brooklyn. Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?

I grew up in Delaware, but have lived in Starkville, Mississippi, for the last decade (my husband and I moved there when we got jobs at Mississippi State in 2007). There are a lot of things I love about it: the community of friends and colleagues I’ve found there, the trees that bloom crazily in the spring, my six-minute commute, my students … The town has changed significantly in the past decade, pretty much all for the good (from my perspective, anyway). It’s a small town, so little changes can feel monumental: we’ve got a genuinely fantastic coffee shop now, and the best cocktail bar I’ve ever been to, anywhere, and several excellent restaurants, and none of that was in the town when I first moved there. I’ve also seen a really exciting commitment to grassroots work and progressive change—so many people in my town joining together to support our public schools, to work for local political campaigns, to start volunteer organizations serving both people and animals … I have a lot of love for my town. Though I’ve been lucky in that I’ve loved lots of things about everywhere I’ve lived—Delaware, where I grew up; Pennsylvania, where I went to college; Ohio and Missouri, where I went to grad school; and now Mississippi. Having lived in all of these different places has helped me work toward an understanding of how complex and complicated our country is, and I’m grateful for that.

Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.

I have—a few of my closest friends live or have lived in Brooklyn, so I’ve spent a decent amount of time there over the years. My favorite Brooklyn memories are these snapshots of moments: eating cherries from a giant bowl with two of my best friends in Greenpoint while watching the sun set over the skyline. Seeing my old high school friend’s three-year-old son joyfully ride his bike around a park in Bushwick. Just walking, having no idea where I was going but knowing that sooner or later I’d happen on somewhere surprising and good. Complicated cocktails. I like the sense of possibility I feel when I’m in Brooklyn. I try to keep it with me whenever I leave.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?

I’ve been lucky to land in a state that really champions its artists, and lucky, too, to have friends and colleagues there who are doing the same kind of work and dealing with the same kinds of questions that I am. I also love the way that technology allows our communities to expand far beyond the limits of our own physical locations. I have far-away friends with whom I regularly or semi-regularly exchange poems, and, though I have a standard love/hate relationship with social media, I seriously appreciate how it allows me to cheer on and feel cheered on by people I know only through the virtual poetry community.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

Oh, Whitman, of course. I found Marianne Moore’s precision really startling and wonderful when I first read her. I’ve recently been reading Morgan Parker, who’s knocking me out. And I’m sure there are plenty of people I don’t realize are from Brooklyn.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

I’ve had so many amazing poetry mentors. Gary Fincke, Sandra Kohler, Kathy Fagan, Andrew Hudgins, Lynne McMahon, Sherod Santos, Scott Cairns … and even all the way back to high school, my amazing tenth-grade English teacher, Bill McLaughlin (a.k.a. Mr. Mac), who, when he saw me passing a mix tape to a friend during class, looked at it, said “Velvet Underground, huh?” and then came to class with a Lou Reed tape he’d made us from his own records. All of these people had different teaching styles, different writing styles, different devices and strategies they emphasized, but what they had in common was that they took me (and their other students) seriously. They showed me that writing is a thing that matters, and also showed me that becoming a better writer meant committing to investigating my own work, my default techniques, my go-to weaknesses. They taught me not to settle for what came easily. Their influence is in everything I write, in some way, and also in my teaching.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

I just finished teaching Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things and it was exhilarating even on a reread—the authority and openness of voice, the attention to sound, all that gorgeous Kentucky bluegrass imagery, the way the book so elegantly dovetails grief and celebration …

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

Oh, so many. That list never ends, does it? I’ve never read Proust, which feels like a big omission for a poet. I’ve never read Middlemarch. I’m especially embarrassed to admit that I haven’t read the Inferno, though maybe admitting that here will finally shame me into doing it. And I bought Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend last summer and still haven’t gotten to it (but as soon as this semester is done!).

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

I read one novel at a time, and multiple books of poetry at a time. I usually have one novel on deck for when I finish whatever I’m currently reading, but if I go much beyond one, I get stressed. I used to be a physical book purist, but when I had a newborn, I discovered that I had a hard time balancing a physical book while also holding a sleeping or nursing baby, so I gave digital books a try, and man, I got a lot of reading done during those many hours. And I’ve become less of a note-taker in recent years. I used to not be able to read without a pen in my hand, and with poetry I’m still like that, but with novels or other books of prose now, I find that, unless I’m teaching them, more often than not I’ll just read. I think this is both a positive and negative development.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

I’d like to try a long poem—like a multi-part multi-pager. My poems tend to be on the shorter side, but I’d like to work on sustaining the muscularity and music of the line over a longer space.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

I’ve found that I absolutely love reading and writing in hotel rooms if I’m traveling by myself—there’s something so pure about the space, how there’s nothing else there other than the essentials and a big bed. I settle in with my laptop and whatever books of poems I’ve brought with me, and luxuriate in that expanse of space, time and zero household responsibilities.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

Anywhere my friends are, and anywhere they take me.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate magnolias,
And what I fold tight you unfurl,
For every slanting light holds me as good as holds you.

Why Brooklyn?