STARKVILLE, Miss. — Catherine Pierce tries to begin each of her classes 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 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 jotted it down several years ago, along with other interesting questions he’s asked through the years, and posed it to her intermediate poetry students at Mississippi State University at the beginning of a recent class.
“My questions get weirder and weirder. Today was like the weirdest one yet,” she said. “To their great credit, they just rolled with it.”
The creative spirit Pierce brings to the classroom also serves her well while writing. She’s Mississippi’s current 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 as opposed to having to feel like ‘I have to do exactly this, and if I don’t do it exactly this way, then it’s not going to be any good,’” Pierce said.
She feels poets should be “aware of and open to the joys and pleasures of language.”
“Ultimately, writing should be a pleasure in some way,” Pierce said.
From an early age, Pierce read anything she could get her hands on.
“I always really enjoyed words, whether they were in poems or not,” Pierce said. “Language, in general, is always something that was magical to me.”
Pierce grew up in Delaware and lived there until she went to college. In second grade, her class learned about haiku, a type of short form poetry that originated in Japan.
“I remember just being so delighted with it,” she said. “It was so much fun to be able to make a picture out of words.”
She’s written poems and stories ever since.
Her career in poetry and teaching happened organically.
She majored in English with a creative writing emphasis during her undergraduate studies at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania, followed by an MFA in poetry from Ohio State University and, eventually, a Ph.D. from the University of Missouri.
During her time at Ohio State, she worked as a teaching assistant. Although early in life, Pierce didn’t plan on becoming a teacher — it wasn’t even on her radar — as soon as she stepped 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 just don’t get poetry. Or maybe they’ve been told “this is what you have to do with a poem” and feel as if they can’t crack the code.
These days, Pierce teaches an introductory creative writing class covering poetry and fiction at MSU, along with upper level poetry classes like intermediate poetry and craft of poetry.
She and her husband, Michael Kardos, moved to Starkville to work at Mississippi State in 2007. Along with Pierce, Kardos serves as co-director of MSU’s creative writing program and is also a fiction professor. The couple has two sons, 11-year-old Sam and 8-year-old Wyatt.
In her classes, Pierce walks students through contemporary poems, pulling them apart to look within at the ways language and images are being used, all the while thinking about the many purposes poetry can serve.
In upper-level classes, Pierce focuses on helping students develop their aesthetic bravery as they’re writing and think about their own voices as writers. She helps them discover what they’re drawn to and what style they naturally gravitate toward.
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 the writing, and there are days when I plan ahead and say, ‘This is the day when I am just grading student work and taking my kids to dentist appointments,‘” Pierce said.
It’s all about finding the right balance. Giving herself permission to have non-writing days helps her to focus her attention solely on writing when the time comes.
Pierce has found that teaching poetry helps with her own writing. Class discussions link with what she’s writing and vice versa.
“I try to make teaching as much of a conversation as it can be,” Pierce said. “We’re all figuring things out.”
Since Pierce moved to Mississippi 15 years ago, the state’s natural beauty has crept into her writing.
“I’m really drawn to the lushness of Mississippi and the intensity of the natural world here,” Pierce said. “Everything is sort of dialed up to 11 in terms of the nature in Mississippi.”
On walks with her kids and their dog, Roxy, Pierce pays close attention to the seasons, the flowers on the trees and the birdsong resonating overhead. From the size of the insects to the rapid growth of lawns in spring, Pierce has an eye for nature. But she’s 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 also bearing witness to its collapse.”
“Like a lot of people living here, it’s something that’s on my mind a lot,” Pierce said of the weather, which has increasingly affected her day-to-day life, as it has the lives of all Mississippians.
In April 2021, Pierce was named Mississippi’s poet laureate. In that honorary position, she’ll serve as an ambassador for poetry and the literary arts in the state through 2025.
“Poetry is for everyone” serves as a mission statement of sorts for her work.
“My goal is to try to increase access to poetry for people in Mississippi in ways that are meaningful for them,” Pierce said. “I want to shine a light on 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 incredible literary landscape here and I think it’s really inspiring for people to know about that.”
As part of her 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 for aspiring poets.
Each 15-minute episode is paired with a supplemental resource for educators and community groups.
“The podcasts are intended to be friendly, fun and lively and to help everyone, but especially younger people in our state, see that poetry is being written by Mississippians,” Pierce said. “Poetry is for everyone.”
She also writes a monthly column called “Poetry Break,” with a goal of providing people with tools to try their hand at writing poetry.
“A lot of times, people feel cut off from poetry or think ‘Well, it’s not really something that I want to try or it’s not something that I really should try. I’m not going to be any good at it,’” Pierce said. “I think a lot of times, all people need is a track to run on. They just need a place to start.”
Pierce is also working with Tracy Carr, deputy director of library services for the Mississippi Library Commission, to put together “poetry walks” for libraries in Mississippi where people can walk outside and read a poem while doing so.
Pierce describes it as “a way to get poetry out into people’s everyday lives so that it doesn’t feel like something that’s in a dusty book on a really tall shelf.”
Poetry is everywhere, she said, 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’re walking, it’s in the newspaper; and it’s just around.”