American Writer Spotlight: Catherine Pierce

American Writer Spotlight: Catherine Pierce

Have you heard of Catherine Pierce? No? Well, you’re in for a treat! She is truly an extraordinary poet, and one of my personal favorites. If you need some convincing, I have plenty in store with this post. From her wonderful collections to the many reasons why I think her poetry is lovely, you’ll walk away with one thought: where can I find more from this poet? (Don’t worry—I’ll also leave you with five poems to read!)

A photo of Catherine Pierce by Megan Bean
Photo by Megan Bean


  1. Famous Last Words (Saturnalia 2008)
    • What’s truly striking about this collection is Pierce’s breadth of form. She ranges from short and sweet poems to long single-stanza poems; from poems formatted to read like postcards to more traditional couplets and tercets. If you’re looking for a collection that keeps you on your toes, I’d highly recommend Famous Last Words.
  2. The Girls of Peculiar (Saturnalia 2012)
    • Sherman Alexie said it best in a review of the collection: “Pierce knows that we lovely and sad humans are built of want and the memory of want. Each of us is a ‘river burst into flame.’ Read these poems and you will remember how to burn.”
  3. The Tornado Is the World (Saturnalia 2016)
    • This volume may prove to be Pierce’s most interesting collection yet. This is how she describes it in her interview with The Normal School: “[My] collection The Tornado Is the World centers, in part, around an EF-4 tornado that devastates a small Southern town. Poems in the series follow a handful of recurring characters, one of whom is the tornado itself, though the destruction and its aftermath.”

Writing Process and Style

Everyone loves reading about their favorite writers’ process—somehow it makes writers more human and accessible. Here’s what Catherine Pierce has to say about her writing process: “I learned a long time ago that the stakes are wonderfully low for early drafting—no one has to see anything I don’t want to show, so I write a lot of junk, trying to get to the good stuff. If a poem feels like it has a spark of something worth stoking but currently isn’t working at all, I’ll see what happens if I try to completely revamp it—I’ll copy and paste into a new document and hack away, cutting lines, moving stanzas, trying to assess in a clear-eyed way what it’s really trying to do and why it isn’t currently doing that… The strategy I rely on most these days is to read my poems out loud and assess, as honestly as I can, where I get bored. Dullness, for me, is a poetry cardinal sin.” (The Normal School) I absolutely love her last line here—“Dullness, for me, is a poetry cardinal sin”. When you read her poetry, you can definitely tell this is something she lives by. Her poems surprise around every turn, which is part of what makes them so enjoyable. She never quite heads in the direction you think she is when you’re reading her work. Her poem “Without Ceremony” is a great example of that. Here’s the opening stanza, to give you an idea of what I’m talking about:  

“Once, many skies ago, we drove across the ache of Kansas straight to the base of a large mountain. We were nearly engaged. We were close to knowing each other. At the peak I couldn’t breathe and I was elated. A fear with a name and I named it. Hypoxia. Asphyxia. Things we might call a daughter. Later, we played on pinball machines from the ‘30s.”

  The visual jumps in this stanza are almost dizzying—you feel the line “At the peak I couldn’t breathe and I / was elated”. What’s most interesting here, though, is that every line fits. We may be rounding each corner to a surprise, but each surprise fits in naturally. The feeling is right. And that’s exactly what I love about Catherine Pierce—in so many ways you are feeling your way through her poems, like you’re in a mirror maze and every turn reflects back onto yourself.

Five Poems To Read By Catherine Pierce

  1. This Is Not an Elegy via Blackbird
  2. Because I’ll Never Swim In Every Ocean via Diode
  3. On the Origins of the Tornado via The Kenyon Review
  4. Relevant Details via Divas of Verse
  5. On the Worst Day of the Fever via The Colorado Review


Catherine Pierce currently lives in Mississippi where she serves as an associate professor and co-director of the creative writing program at Mississippi State University. She earned her B.A. from Susquehanna University, her M.F.A. from the Ohio State University, and her Ph.D. from the University of Missouri. If you’d like to learn more about Catherine Pierce, you can click here to view her website.

-Alexandria Petrassi

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