POETRY BREAK | Mississippi Poet Laureate Catherine Pierce

It’s August, which means it’s a time of change: summer is ending, even if the temperature doesn’t seem to know it, school is starting, and we find ourselves once again wrestling with the anxiety of a rapidly-increasing surge in Covid numbers. It can be difficult to make room for creativity during times of uncertainty: when everything is shifting around us, how can we find the focus and clarity necessary to write a poem, or to make any kind of art?

But one of the most wonderful things about art is that it doesn’t always have to answer. Sometimes what it needs to do—and what we need to do—is ask. As a reader, I find myself both compelled and comforted when I come across a poem in which I see the poet’s thought process and struggle for understanding right there on the page. Questioning is, to me, one of poetry’s most powerful tools. A poem doesn’t need to offer up all the solutions; sometimes it’s even more important for the poem to consider the questions, and invite its readers to consider them, too.

This Month’s Poetry Break: What We Don’t Know

One of the most famous adages in creative writing, stemming from the idea that our strongest work often comes from exploring the details we understand intimately, is to “write what you know.” But this advice can also feel like a lot of pressure. Wait, we might say, what DO I know? And does what I know warrant a poem? Then we’re down the rabbit hole of anxiety, which, more often than not, leads straight to a blank page.  

For this month’s prompt, we’re going to turn that adage on its head: your job is to write what you don’t know. These days are full of questions. We turn to the experts for things we need answered factually, but sometimes our questions are more philosophical, or sometimes, simply, more full of wonder. For this poem, you’ll be writing a list of things you’re genuinely curious about, aiming for a mixture of concrete and theoretical. Think about questions that concern you and about mysteries that make you marvel. See if you can end on a thought that feels like an important and anchoring one for you, but don’t stress if that seems like too much pressure. What matters is the questioning—and, as always, the accuracy of what you write.

Example:

I don’t know what makes the sky look blue.
I don’t know how many kinds of jellyfish there are.
I don’t know why my sister married Brendan.
I used to know how many feet are in a mile, but I’ve forgotten.
I don’t know why my neighbors keep throwing their potato chip bags on my lawn.
I don’t understand the physics of how jets stay in the sky.  
I don’t know why people won’t be kinder to one another.
I don’t understand how echolocation works.
I don’t know how to repair a garbage disposal.
I’m not sure where to go next.

Go ahead and play with the structure of this poem—feel free to sprinkle in some facts you do know, or to take one of these details and focus on it for two or ten or fifty lines. There’s a kind of exhilaration that comes with being honest about what we don’t understand. Enjoy it! Sit with the mysteries. Revel in wonder. 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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