Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger
USA TODAY NETWORK
Words matter, but so does sense of place
It’s no secret that I have pretty strong feelings about poetry and all that it can do. So I’m absolutely thrilled to share some big news: this month, I’m launching a new statewide poetry initiative for K-12 students across Mississippi, with help from the Mississippi Center for the Book. It’s called the My Town Mississippi Poetry Project, and is designed to help students experience the joy and accomplishment that can come from writing poetry, and from amplifying their own voices, words, and experiences.
During the fall, students will be asked to write poems describing their hometowns in response to a prompt. Participating schools will select three winning poems per grade, and all schoolwide winners will be invited to attend the first-ever Mississippi Young Writers Poetry Festival in April and will have their winning poems published in the festival anthology. The festival and initiative are made possible by an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowship.
You can find the poem prompt and more details at mspoetryproject.com.
Why a town-focused poetry project? Well, because just like words matter, so do the places that shape us. Place is an endlessly interesting subject for poetry because it’s so individual—the way I experience a town or city or stadium or coffeeshop might be very different from the way someone else does.
Years ago I went to stay with my friend Emily in her Brooklyn apartment. All night, noises floated up from the street below—people laughing, a bottle breaking, sirens, occasional honks. In the morning, Emily greeted me cheerfully. “Did you sleep well?” she asked. When I mentioned the various sounds, she looked surprised. “Huh,” she said, “I guess I don’t notice those anymore.”
The next year, Emily came to visit me in Columbia, Missouri, where I was in grad school, living in a small rented house in a quiet suburban neighborhood. I loved the peacefulness I’d found there—the yard and tomato garden, the hiking trail just down the road—and was eager to show Emily around. We stayed up late talking about our plans for the next day. In the morning, I asked her how she’d slept. “Okay,” she said, yawning, “but it took me forever to fall asleep. I can’t get used to how QUIET it is here.”
This Month’s Poetry Break: The Places That Shape Us
Think about a place to which you’ve had an unusual reaction. For example, a beautiful beach resort might have terrible associations for a man whose marriage dissolved there; a rundown fast-food restaurant might be a source of warm nostalgia for a woman whose first job there taught her about independence and introduced her to her best friend. What’s a place you adore that most people dislike? Alternately, what supposedly cheerful place fills you with dread or annoyance?
Describe that place, using as many of the senses as possible and focusing specifically on elements we might expect to hear described in another way. The turquoise Caribbean sea at that beach resort might look to the man like toxic blue cleanser fizzing in a toilet bowl; to the woman writing about the fast-food restaurant, the sizzle of the fryer might be a cheerful music.
Behind my college dorm,
the headstones rose like
I liked to sit
in the soft green grass
of that place and feel
the breeze whisper. In fall
I’d climb to the highest point
and look down to where
the river unspooled through
the golden trees
a mile away. I came
to know the names—
Tyler, Arbogast, Bratton—
like I knew the names
of people I hadn’t seen
in years, but
Think about the places that have shaped you and how you’ve been surprised by them. And if you want a little more place-based writing, you can always try your hand at the My Town Mississippi Poetry Project prompt! Enjoy taking some time to reflect on where you’ve been and where you are. 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.