POETRY BREAK | Mississippi Poet Laureate Catherine Pierce

Poetry Break
Catherine Pierce
Mississippi Clarion Ledger
USA TODAY NETWORK

Don’t fight distractions; embrace them

We’ve all experienced it: you’re talking to a friend, or telling a co-worker a story, or (as has happened to me more than once) making a point to a classroom full of students, when suddenly—poof!—you’ve lost the thread of what you were saying.

Maybe you got sidetracked by an interesting detail. Maybe someone walked by with a slice of pizza and you remembered you hadn’t eaten lunch yet. Maybe your prom song came on the radio and you were transported instantly back to your high school gymnasium for a few seconds.

Whatever the reason, chances are that as soon as you realized you’d strayed from your point, you apologized, slightly rattled by your unintentional dip into distraction and determined to stay focused from here on out.

But it’s hard, isn’t it, to stay focused all the time? Especially when the world is full of so many wonderfully and terribly distracting things, and especially when our minds are full of memories and associations and hopes and fears and phone numbers from thirty years ago. It’s a wonder, honestly, that we ever manage to stay on track.

Something I love about poetry is that it gives us permission to follow the thread of our own thoughts. A poem doesn’t require an outline; in fact, some of the most dynamic and surprising poems are the ones that revel in their own sidetracking, the ones that start with a crocus and end with a circus elephant. It’s the getting there that’s fun, and that can ultimately be most meaningful.

This Month’s Poetry Break: Welcome, Distractions!

Begin by writing about an early memory—something small, like eating a plum or waiting at a car dealership. Set a timer for three minutes and begin jotting down your thoughts and recollections. You can write this in prose form or with line breaks, with full sentences or fragments—whatever feels most natural. 

Now the fun part: when the timer goes off, look up. What’s the first thing you see? A coffee mug? A cardinal? Your cat’s food bowl? A jacket slung over the back of a chair? Whatever it is, let your writing now be guided somehow by that object. In other words, change course and see where you end up. Keep writing. In three more minutes, look up again. What do you see this time? How could it lead you somewhere interesting?  

Do this a few times and see where these distractions take you. And remember that part of welcoming distractions is flexibility—while the timer and the objects you see are meant to guide you, feel free to change the rules, or to ignore them completely once you get started. Be flexible with your poem’s structure, as well: you might return to your opening memory at the end of your poem, or you might move into a totally new direction. The key is to be open to association and see where you end up.

Example:
I don’t remember what the plum tasted like,
only that I must have enjoyed it
because I put the pit in my mouth
and swallowed. I didn’t choke. I was three.
There were so many miracles then.
Now, too—like my dog, small and black,
curled against me like a furry comma.
And my coffee, cold, in the mug
I got for my college dorm room
twenty-five years ago. I’m glad I’m still here.
I’m glad I got to eat that plum
and then remember it.

Distractions can lead us to vibrant memories and experiences. Our day-to-day lives may not always allow us to follow where our distractions want to lead, but a poem can. Take a little time today to explore your own mind. See where you end up. 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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