Catherine Pierce’s widely anticipated third book The Tornado Is the World takes readers on a frightening, perilous, and ultimately enlightening excursion as a deadly tornado threatens to decimate a town and its people. The poems in this collection shine a light on human fear and examine our response to danger and possible destruction, but they also move into surprising and unfamiliar territory by showing us what the titular tornado thinks, feels, and wants. Moving deftly between several characters’ points of view—including the tornado’s—Pierce exposes human truths about what we do when our livelihoods are threatened and how we understand the world around us when it is almost taken away.
Pierce answered my questions about the The Tornado Is the World, letting us in on her writing process, the most challenging aspects of writing this collection, and how she shaped the book.
Susan Elliott Brown: The pervading sensation I had while reading The Tornado Is the World was a feeling of imminent danger, not just of the tornado approaching or tearing through a town, but also of violence lurking at the edges of almost every poem, like the foreshadowed death by drowning of a starlet in “In Which I Am Famous,” or the multiple implied plots and escapes in “Heroines.” How do you see danger as a driving force in this collection? How does it move the collection along its arc?
Catherine Pierce: Danger is this book’s engine, I think—it, or the threat of it, propels everything. There’s a line in the poem “The Tornado Visits the Town” that gets at that driving force—the tornado refers to the way that fear “makes life perfect and sharp /as a shattered plate,” and though the tornado is not the most reliable observer, there’s something to its claim here, this idea of fear as a great crystallizer or catalyst. In terms of arc, there’s a trajectory both in the book’s three sections and also in the middle, more narrative section, which chronicles an EF-4 tornado’s impact on a town—both the book and that section open with looming but ignorable danger, then shift into the actual crisis, and then finally arrive at the strange, glowing aftermath of crisis.
The Tornado Visits the Town
The tornado waits to become itself,
slowly turning above the interstate.
Radio words crackle through the air:
major rotation, place of shelter, but also
that was AC/DC with and
so I said Lady, you can keep the ring! and
folks, a donation today will—
This, the tornado sees, is a town
in need. Bankrupt of the fear
that makes life perfect and sharp
as a shattered plate.
So the tornado gathers itself.
Below, a few faces blanch in windows.
Some cars speed up. Some cars slow down.
The tornado dips and loudens,
rises, then dips again.
The tornado is gratified
to see a man cowering in a ditch,
a small girl racing from backyard to house.
Everyone is learning. The radios
are silenced. Then other noises
filter up into the turbulence.
A horse pawing at its stall floor.
A woman yelling In here, Kayla, now!
A litany of apologies: God, I’m sorry
for last New Year’s,
for refusing to visit my mother,
for calling the hunchback “the hunchback,”
for the accident, the spelling test, the six hundred dollars.
A man whispering Spare me, oh God, I’ll make it right.
But the tornado cannot stop. Will not.
The world cannot stop turning, and this minute
the tornado is the world. Cars lift like birds,
trees bullet, everything is collapse.
The tornado has no regrets.
Has no regrets.
Has no regrets.
SEB: You’re able to inhabit the headspace of multiple characters and voices in this collection, from the “Unabashed Tourist” to a protective mother, from a frightened teenager to the tornado itself. How were you able to give voices to all of these different things? What was the biggest challenge of writing about the feelings of the tornado?
CP: The biggest challenge of writing from the point of view of the tornado was trying to maintain some degree of empathy for it. The tornado is the villain of the book, but villains don’t usually see themselves as villains, of course, so I tried to imagine how a tornado might justify its destruction to itself. That was tough at times. In terms of giving voice to all the different characters—some of them, like the mother, or the teenager, are or have been me, at least to some degree, so those didn’t require much in the way of transmutation; for the others I was working under the same principle I followed in writing the tornado—trying to embody them, even the less obviously sympathetic ones, with empathy.
SEB: Motionpoems made a stunning short film of “The Mother Warns the Tornado.” What was it like for you to see this poem made into a different form? Why do you think this particular poem works so well as a film?
CP: It was really staggering and moving for me to see the film—to witness how someone else took such care with these words, and was able to make this new art out what I’d written. I think the intensity of the poem, its inherent drama—it’s about a mother sheltering her son and warning off the encroaching tornado—probably helped to make it particularly suited to the medium, but beyond that, I’m not sure. I do know that the director, Isaac Ravishankara, made a film that’s tremendously active and alive, and I’m grateful for it.
SEB: While part II of the collection hones in on the tornado’s arrival, destruction, and immediate aftermath, part III pulls back the lens and examines the world after the tornado. The speakers of these poems bring a heightened sense of understanding to the objects and scenarios they encounter. What do you think remains at stake for these speakers, even after the tornado has passed?
CP: It’s that “heightened sense of understanding,” I think, that ups the stakes for the speakers in the last third of the book—now that the precariousness of life has been made palpable, quantifiable, all its mundane trappings have become more vibrant and remarkable. But it’s hard, if not impossible, to sustain that wonder all the time, and those later poems are also reckoning with that.
An Apologia for Taking Things for Granted
When the finite dimensions of being alive
light up suddenly as they do from time to time—
when the famous movie critic dies, when
the office across the hall is one day humming
with gossip and florescence, the next day dark—
I resolve again to see everything
in Technicolor, to hold each click of a switch,
each pollen-thick day in my hands and know
its true weight. And for an hour, an evening,
I do. The earth trills and glows. The buzz
of the neighbor’s hedge clippers a rich contralto,
the red of the tomato on the counter shocking luck—
how is it that I get to see something that red,
and eat it, too? But soon the walls—speckled
with flung bananas from my son’s breakfast,
scratched by the gone dog I loved—begin
to swell with their own miracles and my heart
begins its galloping, terrified and nearly detonating
with gratitude it can’t contain. The afternoon
is suddenly too gold, too mote-misted
to comprehend. My husband’s question of spinach
or broccoli with dinner is a yawning crevasse
into which I fall headlong—the possibility of choices,
the greens of the vegetables, the crunch, the wonder
of appetite. Yes, I forget my expiring license,
my clicking jaw, but I forget, too, the pleasure
of a meal that is only and entirely a meal.
The insects and lizards and navy blue sky and moon
like a caricature of itself gang up and close in
until everything is blurred and muted, the street
a rinsed canvas, only my blood thudding in my ears.
Of course I wish I could properly worship
the nectarine. Of course I wish I could
give central heating its due. But I’ve learned
my lesson. If I can keep on half-hearing
crickets, at least I can keep on hearing them.
SEB: In “The Tornado Knows Itself,” as well as other poems about the tornado, I viewed the shape of the poem as reflective of the shape of the tornado itself—like a strong, sturdy column. How did the subjects and themes in this collection determine the forms and shapes of the poems?
CP: Oh, I’m glad you noticed that! Generally speaking, I like a fairly uniform line length in my poems. This isn’t for any real reason other than that I find it aesthetically pleasing, and it tends to be how my mind operates as I consider lineation. But in the lineation of this book, in particular in the middle section that chronicles the tornado’s impact, I gave myself permission to be freer and more reckless with my line breaks, and tried to stay attuned to gut-level instincts governed by the voices of each speaker. In writing the tornado poems, for example, I broke the lines sometimes at intentionally odd or jarring places, and tried to keep the line lengths uneven in poems that had to do with the tornado’s instability or the town’s devastation. In the poem you mention, yes, I did want that sturdy, columnar shape there, as this poem is the tornado laying claim to itself, asserting its primacy.
SEB: How was your writing process different for this collection than for your previous collections?
CP: For one thing, this one was more personal. My family and I did have a very close call with a tornado, and I was working in this book to translate the terror of that experience to the page. And yet this book also draws more on persona and narrative invention than my other books, so there’s a balance there. I also wrote and scrapped more for this book than I ever have before—I worked a long time on getting the tone, the characterizations, the movement from one section to the next right, and so a lot of poems I thought I’d include didn’t end up making it through the final cut. There are entire characters—an old man, a young couple, the town’s dentist—that had their own poems and story arcs but got scrapped. Finally, more than in the construction of my other books, I approached the editing and shaping of this one with half of me firm on the solid terrain of logistics (what needs to happen when in this narrative arc? how was this character impacted by that thing? is it time for this image to come back?) and the other half floating in the zero gravity of instinct (what feels right? what emotional beat is needed here?).
Catherine Pierce's most recent book of poems is The Tornado Is the World (Saturnalia 2016); she is also the author of The Girls of Peculiar (2012) and Famous Last Words (2008). Her work has appeared in The Best American Poetry, Ploughshares, Boston Review, FIELD, and elsewhere. She co-directs the creative writing program at Mississippi State University.