Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Catherine Pierce

In Catherine Pierce’s third collection, The Tornado is the World, fantasies of escape and the inescapability of natural forces, the everyday domestic and the apocalyptic, compete with and complicate one another. Characters fantasize about imaginary vacations or contemplate leaving town forever, and also experience small, daily moments of joy, guilt, and gratitude. But through the entire collection, the tornado looms, either as an impending disaster or one they have (or haven’t) survived.

The tornado is much more than an event in these poems; it exists not only as a force that changes those it encounters, but also as a character in its own right. Pierce humanizes the tornado, but humanizing it makes it that much more frightening, adding intelligence and desire to the tornado’s destruction. In “The Tornado Collects the Animals,” the tornado poems reach perhaps their strongest melding of tenderness and terror in the final stanza: “The tornado will wrap them tight,/ It will make sure the poor things/ know what it is to be held.” The human world is at the heart of these poems—people go about their lives both before and after the tornado cuts its path through them—but the poems remind us that a world in which tornadoes exist is a complicated, fraught place. As Pierce writes in “Holy Shit,” “We mean we know this place/ is profane. We mean/ we know it’s sacred.” The Tornado is the World grapples with the question of how to embrace the beauty of the world in the knowledge of how heartbreakingly fragile that world really is—and how to live our everyday lives without becoming paralyzed by that knowledge.

Catherine Pierce is the author of three books of poems: The Tornado Is the World (forthcoming in December from Saturnalia Books), The Girls of Peculiar (Saturnalia 2012), winner of the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Poetry Prize, and Famous Last Words (Saturnalia 2008), winner of the Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize. Her chapbook, Animals of Habit (Kent State University Press), was published in 2004. Her poems have appeared in a number of magazines, including Issue 22 of Memorious, and have been included in The Best American Poetry in 2015 and 2011. She generously answered questions about getting into the mind of a tornado, working within a series, and changing as a writer over time.

There’s an interesting tension in The Tornado Is the World between daily, domestic life and the destruction of that life by the tornado. The tension seems to come to a head in “An Apologia for Taking Things for Granted” as it confronts the impossibility of constant, ecstatic appreciation of the world. How do you see this collection balancing these ideas of the quotidian and the underlying awareness that the everyday is really finite?

When it comes down to it, there’s nothing at all quotidian about the quotidian, of course, and that’s part of what this collection is trying to get at. In other words—what a total miracle, that these things happen daily. That every day, if we’re lucky, we wake up, get dressed, maybe go to work, maybe wrangle kids into eating breakfast, maybe pet a dog, maybe drive past some skyscrapers or cornfields or vistas, have some conversations, and then go to sleep and do it all again. And it’s always, of course, when that everyday gets interrupted, or is threatened to be interrupted, that we cherish it most and really see it for what it is. That’s the tension at the core of this book, I think—that awareness of how flimsy everything we take for granted really is, but also the awareness that if we don’t take some of it for granted, it’s possible to be paralyzed—by fear, by gratitude, or, most likely, by both.

The book is sectioned, with the bulk of the tornado poems sandwiched in the middle (although they also spill over into the first and echo a bit through the third). What was your guiding principle of organizing this collection? 

I ordered and re-ordered this book so many times. At first I tried spacing the tornado poems throughout the book, but that detracted from the narrative arc I was trying to construct. Then I had the book in nine short sections, alternating between tornado poems and non-tornado poems, and that was just really fussy. Finally, I stepped back and tried to think about the most natural way of structuring things. Once I accepted that the tornado poems—the ones that tell the story of the town—all needed to be together, it was easier to structure the rest of the book. The poems in Section I are the ones that felt somehow “pre-tornado” to me—or maybe “pre-disaster”—and the ones in the third section are the ones that felt like the speaker had come through something and was on the other side of it now. Tornadoes show up a bit in both the first and third sections, but there I hope they function more as foreshadowing or aftershock than as part of the actual story of the middle section.

So much of the collection is also based in the idea of escape: the vacation poems, the checkout clerk thinking of leaving town, another speaker trying to outrun a linear narrative. How does the idea of escape interact with poems rooted in place in a town beset by a tornado? What is it about escape that makes it so attractive?

One of the things that makes a tornado so terrifying is that it’s really hard to escape it. Even if you’re able and willing to get the hell out of Dodge, by the time you get a warning, it’s too late. Once the sirens are going off, it’s on the ground. And even if you’re a weather-watcher and see a full day in advance that things are likely to get hairy, you can’t outrun it—tornadoes are usually spun off by big, wide weather systems, and if you start driving, odds are decent that you’ll get yourself into a worse situation rather than a better one. In a way this echoes other parts of our lives—this idea that escape, however appealing it might be, isn’t always possible. So the book, as you point out, includes poems about vacations, tourism, running away, and in most of those poems, those potential escapes are also, essentially, failures. In the “Imaginary Vacation Scenario” poems, the “you” does get to experience the relief of escape, but that relief is always undermined by the premise of the poems—the “imaginary” that’s right there in the title. The Unabashed Tourist poems are playing on this same idea—here you’ve got this narrator whose quest for change through adventure leaves her wanting again and again, and whose blustery confidence in her guidebook-level understanding of place is at best absurd and at worst potentially tragic, as when she wishes a tornado on herself and her fellow diner patrons. So it made sense to me to have these threads weave together in the book—there’s plenty to want to escape, but actually enacting that escape is never easy.

Some of my favorite poems in the collection are from the point of view of the tornado; these poems combine a kind of terrifying tenderness with unbridled need/desire. Why was it important to make the tornado a character rather just an event for this collection? How does one get into the mind of a tornado?

The tornado-as-character actually came before any of the rest of this book. I’ve long thought of tornadoes as essentially sentient—unlike hurricanes or blizzards, they’re these singular, discreet entities, and to me that’s what’s most frightening, how it always feels like they’re making decisions about where they want to go and what they want to wreck or spare. So I started trying to figure out what might fuel something—or someone—like a tornado, what might motivate it to that kind of destruction.

Many of your poems are part of a series of poems (tornado poems, vacation scenarios, etc.). Do you set out to write in series, or is it more the result of recurring obsessions? What does working in series add to your writing that’s different from writing poems that stand on their own?

I do really love writing in series—for me it’s about the chance to explore multiple dimensions of a larger idea, to really burrow into something deeply but also to stay rooted in the lyric poem. The shorter series in the book—the vacation scenarios, the Unabashed Tourist—were a chance to play with a premise in a sustained way. Because in the tornado poems that comprise the second section I was telling an extended story, working with recurring characters, narrative arc, etc., I think of those poems less as a series than as a small book on their own, albeit one that’s supported and textured by the poems in the first and last sections. I had no idea how long that section was going to be when I first started writing those poems—at first I did conceive of them as a relatively short series, but as I kept being compelled by the tornado and the town, I realized that my exploration of this was going to be bigger than my original conception.

“The Mother Warns the Tornado” was turned into a short film for Motionpoems last year. What is it like to see a poem come to life that way? What surprised you about the experience?

Oh, it was amazing. Isaac Ravishankara, the director, made such a harrowing, beautiful film. I think what surprised me most was how emotionally affected I was by the film—I mean, I’d written the poem, so it wasn’t like I didn’t know what was going to happen. But the film completely caught me up in its tension and urgency, and I felt my own heart beating faster as I waited to see how it was going to end. (He also managed to work in some truly remarkable special effects, which is not something we poets get a lot of…)

The voice of this book is significantly different from your last collection, The Girls of Peculiar—more adult, looking outward or forward instead of backward. It made me think of how Louise Glück has said she “swears off” ways of writing after finishing a collection. Are you consciously changing the way you’re writing, or is it more of an organic change? In what ways have you changed as a writer through the course of three collections of poems?

I’d say the change has been organic, but not unconscious. I wrote the book I wanted to write, and while I wasn’t intentionally setting out to change the way I was writing, I was aware of that difference as I was working, and was glad for it. This book’s subjects are different from my other books, and so the voice is different, too (though I do think there’s some overlap there).

Not surprisingly, the ways I’ve changed as a writer over the course of the books dovetail with the ways I’ve changed as a person. I’ve followed my obsessions and fears and loves and ways of thinking, as I think most writers do, and the poems have followed from that. I’m glad I wrote The Girls of Peculiar when I did, because I’m not convinced I’d be able to write it now. Same with Famous Last Words, and especially with The Tornado Is the World. It’s just coming out now, but I started writing it in 2011, not long after my first son was born, and there’s a rawness in the book that was completely organic and that I couldn’t manufacture if I tried.

And finally, what are you working on now? What is the next project for you?

I’m working on my fourth collection, which is maybe currently called The Bravery Convention, or possibly Here in the Future We Are Always Watching Ourselves. I wrote out a pretty academic description of what the book is doing, but it felt too stilted for this interview, so I’ll say that it’s currently about language and desire and love and greed and how place can function as both escape and excuse, and how words can solidify into power. Also Makeout Point.

In short: I’m still following my obsessions, and trusting they’ll lead to something.

Interviewer Christina Rothenbeck is an English instructor at Louisiana State University. She is the author of the chapbook Girls in Art (Dancing Girl Press 2012). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Pittsburgh Poetry Review, Sugar House ReviewBone Bouquet, and Reunion: The Dallas Review, among other places. She holds a PhD from The University of Southern Mississippi and an MFA from West Virginia University.

For original poetry, fiction, art song, art, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.


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