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Poetry that Travels through Place and Time

An Interview with Poet Catherine Pierce
Catherine Pierce (photo credit Megan Bean)

This interview is the third in the Crooked Letter Interview Series hosted by Prairie Schooner’s Southern Correspondent, James Madison Redd. On October 2nd, 2012, he met with poet Catherine Pierce at Mississippi State University. The following is an excerpt from their meeting.


Catherine Pierce is the author of two books of poetry, The Girls of Peculiar and Famous Last Words and a chapbook, Animals of Habit (Kent State 2004).


Redd: Many of the poems in your latest collection are concerned with travel. Fellow poet Beth Ann Fennelly says that The Girls of Peculiar “offers all the pleasures of travel, but the places we travel here are ones only Catherine Pierce could guide us to.” I think of the poem “Narrative Theory,” for instance. Why are you drawn to this type of writing?


Pierce: Travel is an important part of who I am. There’s a sense of displacement we get when we travel that’s crucial in terms of understanding our place in the world. I think it’s important to feel unsettled sometimes by location. It’s dangerous to feel like you always fit in where you are, because you don’t always fit in. Sometimes you have to leave your comfort zone. Doing that helps you consider where you are, why you are where you are, and if you are in fact where you want to be. Travel and all those questions that travel brings up provide some really rich ground for poetry; poetry comes from those places of conflict. While I was studying abroad in England when I was twenty, I did go to Italy. I backpacked there for three weeks, which is where the poem “Narrative Theory” comes from. “Narrative Theory” is a poem about being a tourist. The speaker thinks the experience of going to Italy will be a particular way, but then those expectations are thrown back in her face when she realizes, “No, it’s not like that. This is not a movie I’ve seen. This is not a story I can tell.” I’m trying to convey that idea in the poem’s ending: “In Venice I thought the clouds were mountains / in the distance and made a note of my foolishness. / Later I realized they were. I was in Italy once / and thought I could tell my own story.” You might not be able to tell your own story because you might be getting your own facts wrong. The poem’s ending comes from an experience I had. When I was in Venice with my friend, we saw these clouds, and commented on how much they looked like mountains. We might as well have said they looked like polar bears or space ships or something. When we saw them again the next day, we realized we’d been seeing the Alps; we’d had no idea they were visible from Venice, so we just assumed we hadn’t seen what, in fact, we had. Your sense of the world can be incorrect, and that’s an interesting place to draw from for poetry.


Redd: I think of your triptych “Desire: Three Girls” and how each of those girls are shaped by a particular place. Would you talk about that?


Pierce: The first section of “Desire: Three Girls” is Mississippi, 1958, the second section is Pennsylvania, 1961 and the third section is Maryland, 1964. You have these three different girls, all exploring the idea of desire from the perspective of childhood or early adolescence. The places function as different lights through which to filter that idea of adolescence. In “Mississippi, 1958,” I was thinking about the way desire can feel like a physical place. So you’ve got “the air is wet and bright,” there’s the “moss-drenched oak”… these sort of heavy, luxurious-feeling things. I wanted the place itself to feel like desire, and to feel suffocating. In the “Pennsylvania, 1961” part, I was thinking about how far away places that we’ve never been can feel, and how New England, especially during the time of the Kennedys, could feel, to a young Pennsylvania girl bent on proving her maturity, like a distant Wonderland. Although “Maryland, 1964” doesn’t mention it in the title, I’m imagining the poem set in a kitschy beach town like Ocean City. As a child and an adolescent, when you’re on the beach, it feels like a whole new place, an other place. You’re different in this place, because you don’t have to be who you are in your own town.


Redd: We’ve talked a lot about real places, actual places you’ve traveled to, but Peculiar is an imagined place. There’s that poem “A Short Biography of the American People by City” that goes into detail about all of these imagined places. What goes into constructing an imaginative landscape?


Pierce: All of those town names in the poem are real places.


Redd: [Laughs] Is that right?


Pierce: Yeah, they’re all real. I found this list of unusual city names. There are towns called Surprise, Unusual, and Peculiar. Yes, there is a Blue Ball, Intercourse, and Climax. Those three towns are all in Pennsylvania, and the first two are very near each other, near where I grew up. People must have had a sense of humor in naming those. Hot Coffee is in Mississippi. I love thinking of what names represent and how they impact our interpretations of things. This is sort of a fable poem. I let the town names lead me to what these places might be like and what the people from these places might be like. It was a lot of fun to do because it let me move into the world of fiction in a way, let me deal just a bit with character development and setting. Though of course you deal with these things in poetry, too. Even writing a biographical poem, you’re still dealing with character development: how are you representing this person on the page? What sort of details are you choosing to give and what are you choosing to withhold? Anyway, it was a lot of fun to try and craft a bit of a purely invented narrative in that poem.


Redd: You can’t really talk about place without talking about time. Girls of Peculiar, more than traveling through place, travels through time. These characters are communicating between different places in time. I’m thinking of that poem “Postcards from Her Future Self.” In that poem there are two different places. But the places are two different times. How do you see the relations between time and place in writing?

Pierce: I often imagine going back and speaking to a younger version of my self, offering advice: “Don’t worry about this thing; worry about this thing instead.” There’s another poem called, “Dear Self I Might Have Been,” that’s not a postcard poem, but functions in a similar way: going back and speaking to an earlier alternate version of one’s self. I like to imagine that there are all of these parallel worlds. So if you hopped over here, you would be in one version of your life. If you hopped over here, you’d be in that version. I like to imagine the interplay between those worlds, that there is an interplay between those worlds, that people can have those conversations, can offer advice, wisdom, and support to their other selves. It’s a comforting thought.




A winner of the Mari Sandoz / Prairie Schooner Prize for the short story, James Madison Redd’s fiction was nominated for Best New American Voices. His fiction, poetry, and reviews have or will appear in Fifth Wednesday, Thumbnail Magazine, Subliminal Interiors and Briefly Noted.