POETRY BREAK | Mississippi Poet Laureate Catherine Pierce

Mississippi Poet Laureate
Catherine Pierce

Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger

When you hear the word “poetry,” what do you think about? Creativity? A tortuous school experience? Love? Old-timey language? Electrifying performance? Long-dead dudes writing about rivers? Whatever your personal association is with poetry, odds are that you have one—for better or for worse.

At the heart of my work both as an educator and as the new Mississippi Poet Laureate is my absolute belief that poetry is for everyone. Every person, whatever their age or background or occupation, can connect with poetry and all the pleasures, comforts, and mysteries it has to offer. Like sunflowers or tomatoes, poems come in endless varieties; if one poem doesn’t do it for you, the next one might.

In the introductory creative writing course I teach at Mississippi State, students often admit their nervousness about the poetry unit. “I just don’t get poetry,” they sometimes say. I understand where they’re coming from—how are they supposed to write something that, in their experience, feels inaccessible and remote?

But what I tell them, and what I want to tell everyone, is that you can “get it.” You already do, even if you were looking skeptically at this column. Because at its core, poetry is about paying attention to the world around us and our experiences in that world. It’s about honoring the details of our lives and our own unique understanding of them. Those are things that each one of us can do.

And so, I’m delighted to introduce this new column, Poetry Break. Each month, I’ll offer a writing prompt—a pathway for writing a poem of your own. My hope is that readers will use these prompts as a chance to slow down for a little while, to relax, breathe, and take a moment to reflect. To give voice to their own specific and unique experiences in the world.

These prompts are designed for everyone—grown-ups, families, young kids, students. They’re for those who have been writing poems all their lives and for those who have never considered it. They’re for the adult relaxing with a morning cup of coffee, for the teenager up late, and for the parents desperate for an activity for their energetic first-grader. They’re for all of us moving through the world in our own ways.

This Month’s Poetry Break: The Peak of Summer

As all Mississippians know, July is no joke. The sun is bright, the humidity is 100%, the insects are relentless. But what is July for you? What are your particular associations with this hot, wild month?

For this poem, we’ll use a few questions to build snapshots of July through details. Details help transport a reader into the world you’re describing—the world as YOU experience it.

A couple of other points to keep in mind: 1) Poems don’t have to rhyme! They can if you want, but free verse poems—unrhymed, unmetered poems—“count” every bit as much as rhymed poems. 2) Don’t worry about doing anything wrong. There’s no wrong. This is your poem—it can be whatever you want.

Onto the questions:
What is something you eat in July?
What is something you enjoy doing in July?
What is something you dislike about July?
What is something you hear or smell or see in July?

Here’s an example (remember that your July may be very different from mine!):

July is roadside peaches and fresh watermelon.
July is waterslides and mini-golf.
July is mosquitoes.
July is the smell of burgers and hotdogs on my neighbor’s grill.

Make this poem as long or as short as you wish—four lines, ten, fifty?—and feel free to remix and use these questions however you want. Want to write a poem entirely about all the good stuff there is to eat in July? Go for it! Want to write a poem cataloguing your complaints about July’s enormous insects? Do that! The key, as always, is specificity and accuracy. Use your senses. Write about your version of the world. Most importantly, enjoy. Take a breath. Write your life.

Catherine Pierce is the Poet Laureate of Mississippi and the author of four books of poems, most recently “Danger Days. She co-directs the creative writing program at Mississippi State University.


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