POETRY BREAK | Mississippi Poet Laureate Catherine Pierce

Poetry Break
Catherine Pierce
Mississippi Clarion Ledger

Finding community and inspiration with fellow writers

It’s August, which means it’s almost time for one of my favorite events of the year—the Mississippi Book Festival. On Saturday, August 20th, from 9:00-5:00, the State Capitol and surrounding grounds in Jackson will be buzzing with words and the people who love them. The lineup for this year is truly incredible, and, not surprisingly, I’m especially looking forward to hearing all of the amazing poets who will be part of the day’s events.

Want to make your festival day a poem-y one? Start off the morning with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jericho Brown in conversation with former MS Poet Laureate Beth Ann Fennelly (9:30, Galloway Reception). At noon, consider checking out the Poetry Panel (State Capitol 201H), where I’ll be sharing work along with James Dickson, Saddiq Dzukogi, Melissa Ginsberg, Joshua Nguyen, and moderator Adam Clay, or the Pride and Prejudice panel on gender and identity, which includes poets torrin a. greathouse and C.T. Salazar (State Capitol 201A). You might also want to attend the Grisham Writers in Residence panel, where poets Aimee Nezhukumatathil and January Gill O’Neill will be part of the conversation (1:30, Galloway Fellowship Center).

And if you can’t make it to a particular panel but still want to meet a writer, you can catch them later at the signing tent—which is another fabulous thing about the Book Festival. Panelists’ books are for sale all day at the Lemuria tent on the festival grounds, and each panelist has a scheduled book signing time, during which you can say hi and take home a personalized book (or twelve) as a memento of the day.

To find about more about the day’s panels and events, visit msbookfestival.com.

This Month’s Poetry Break: Beginning with a Line

Writing can sometimes feel like a pretty solitary task, and one thing I love about the festival is how it reminds me of the incredible community of writers out there. In honor of that community, this writing prompt invites us to join a conversation.

If you Google “poem beginning with a line,” you’ll see examples of a technique in which poets open an original poem with a line (always credited!) by another writer. Sometimes the resulting poem is intended to be in direct conversation with the source material; other times the poet has simply found inspiration in those words and wants to use them as a jumping off point.

Start by choosing a line that speaks to you. It might be from a poem, or from a novel, short story, newspaper article, play, movie, or song. You’ll cite your source in the poem’s title (“Poem Beginning with a Line from Toni Morrison’s Sula”; “Poem Beginning with a Line from Poltergeist”; “Poem Beginning with a Line from Beth Ann Fennelly’s ‘Poem Not to be Read at Your Wedding’”). Feel free to be even more specific, like “Love Poem Beginning with…” or “Breakup Letter Beginning with…”

Now see where you end up when you begin with this line. Will you find yourself responding to the source material, or veering off into a new direction? Will the language of the line with which you started influence your own? Stay open and suggestible. Remember, as always, to use specific details and images whenever you can.

Love Poem Beginning with a Line from Back to the Future

Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.
Or skyscrapers, or electric toothbrushes,
or luxury vinyl plank flooring.
We don’t need Twitter.
We don’t need compact umbrellas,
or cable, or spreadsheets, or permission.
We need this kitchen table.
These chipped plates,
my hand on top of yours.
We’re not going anywhere;
we’re already there.

Conversations—both imagined, as in this poem, and in the real world, like the ones that will happen at the Book Festival—can be rich fuel for creativity and connection. Enjoy the surprises that come along with those conversations. 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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