Poetry Break | Mississippi Poet Laureate Catherine Pierce

Poetry Break
Catherine Pierce
Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger

Challenge yourself when poems get comfortable

Our oldest son is a longtime fan of the TV show American Ninja Warrior, a program in which athletes compete to make it through incredibly difficult obstacle courses. Over the years, at playgrounds and in the backyard, he’s taught himself how to do all kinds of things that make his unathletic mother marvel: climb ropes, scale terrifyingly tall structures, launch himself from rung to rung like an acrobat.

This last move, called a laché, is his favorite, and he’s very good at it. A middle schooler now, he’s been practicing this move since he was seven. I have videos of him as a second grader, swinging on the PVC pipe my husband hung from a tree in our backyard and then, at just the right moment, releasing, flying through the air, and landing a perfect grip on the next length of PVC hanging four feet away. He’s worked hard at this feat, and now when he does it—he can go five feet, even six—he makes it look effortless.

Not long ago, we decided to surprise him by combining a visit to cousins with a session at a gym near them, one that specialized in the sort of obstacles featured on the show. He was thrilled, ready to work on those lachés in a real facility. But when he and his dad arrived, though there were all kinds of impressive and complicated obstacles set up, there were no laché bars to be found. “We rotate the obstacles regularly to keep it interesting,” explained a gym worker.

Our son was disappointed but gave the other obstacles a try. He worked on the Cliffhanger, a precarious series of suspended ledges from which athletes hang by their fingertips as they make their way across. He worked on the Wingnuts, a beast of an obstacle that requires swinging side-to-side from one narrow hanging grip to another. Because the laché bars weren’t there, he spent his time working on brand new obstacles and developing brand new skills.

“How was it?” I asked when he got home that night. “It was amazing,” he replied. The limitations had turned into opportunities. 

Poems are a lot like American Ninja Warrior obstacles. (Bear with me on this.) Sometimes, if we’ve been writing poems for a while—even just a few months—we start to become comfortable with certain approaches and styles. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s great to feel increasingly at ease with our work. But just like at the gym, rotating in new challenges to our writing can help us break through to something we didn’t even know we could do.

This Month’s Poetry Break: Rotating the Obstacles

What’s something you never do in a poem? Maybe you never rhyme, or never write about yourself, or never use humor. Choose something that you usually avoid when writing a poem—it might have to do with the poem’s style, or form, or topic, or something else entirely—and then write a poem in which you do that thing.

Think of this as an exercise in the most literal sense—you’re stretching your brain, making your writing skills stronger and more flexible. It may feel clunky or awkward, and that’s okay! The idea is to give yourself permission to try something new.

Examples of Possible Obstacles

  • Avoid rhyme? Write a poem that uses couplet rhyme—the last words of every two lines rhyme with each other (night / fight, alligator / percolator, etc.).
  • Regularly use rhyme? Write a poem in free verse (unrhymed, unmetered verse).
  • Never write about nature? Write an ode to your favorite tree.
  • Never write angry poems? Choose something that makes you mad and go for it!
  • Think love poems are sappy? It’s time to get romantic.

The possibilities are limitless—there’s no end to what we haven’t tried. Have fun stretching your mind and your skills, and seeing what you can do when the course gets switched around. Enjoy the exploration. 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


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