Mississippi’s Poet Laureate serves as the official state poet, creating and reading appropriate poetry at state occasions and state agency activities and represents the rich cultural heritage of Mississippi. In 1963, Maude Willard Leet Prenshaw was named the first Poet Laureate of Mississippi, then a lifetime position. Starting in 2011, the Governor’s Office, in partnership with the Mississippi Arts Commission and Mississippi’s other cultural agencies, instituted a four-year term for the state’s poet laureate, starting with Natasha Trethewey, who served from 2012 to 2016.
Catherine Pierce is the current laureate, whose term will expire in April 2025.
On April 15, 2021, Governor Tate Reeves selected Catherine Pierce to serve a four-year term as Mississippi’s Poet Laureate.
An English professor at Mississippi State University, Catherine Pierce co-directs MSU’s creative writing program and has published four books of poems and a chapbook.
Originally from Delaware, Catherine Pierce made her home in Mississippi in 2007 when she joined the faculty at Mississippi State University. Her conviction that “poetry is for everyone” drives her to amplify poetic voices and develop opportunities for others to experience poetry.
She is the author of four full-length poetry collections including Danger Days (2020), The Tornado Is the World (2016), The Girls of Peculiar (2012) and Famous Last Words (2008), all from Saturnalia Books. A chapbook, Animals of Habit (Kent State University Press), was published in 2004. Pierce’s work has appeared in well-known publications such as The Best American Poetry, American Poetry Review, The New England Review, Ploughshares, The Southern Review and The New York Times.
Pierce received a 2019 Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and two Pushcart Prizes in 2019 and 2021. Each of her most recent three books won the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Poetry Prize; Famous Last Words won the Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize. Her work has also been recognized with two Literary Artist Fellowships from the Mississippi Arts Commission.
Pierce 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.
Position Criteria and Expectations
The Mississippi Poet Laureate is an honorary position, and the selected individual must meet the following criteria to be eligible for consideration:
- Be either born or domiciled in Mississippi at the time of nomination;
- Possess a body of quality works;
- Have works widely published in books, anthologies, literary journals or magazines by recognized, reputable publishers; (please cite sources in bibliography);
- Reflect the essence and unique cultural heritage of Mississippi;
- Be available to travel and actively serve in the state;
- Be available for a personal interview with the Poet Laureate Selection Committee (if selected as a potential finalist).
1. To serve as the official state poet, creating and reading appropriate poetry upon state occasions and state agency activities;
2. To represent the rich cultural heritage of Mississippi;
3. To help identify Mississippi poets, write poetry, promote literacy and the literary arts by attending events and speaking with schools and organizations
4. To serve as the Honorary Host of the NEA’s Poetry Out Loud initiative in Mississippi;
5. To serve as a Mississippi Arts Commission Teaching Artist
Selection Process and Panel
Nominations are reviewed by the Mississippi Poet Laureate Selection Panel, an advisory council consisting of representatives from the state’s cultural agencies and professionals in the literary community. After reviewing nominations, the Selection Panel convenes to interview the finalists and submit a list of persons qualified and eligible for the position to the Governor’s office. The Governor considers these recommendations in making the final selection. In addition to a widely-published poet from Mississippi and a professor of literature from a Mississippi university or college, members of the panel include representatives from the following organizations:
- Mississippi Arts Commission (chair)
- University Press of Mississippi
- Mississippi Humanities Council
- Mississippi Department of Archives and History
- Mississippi Library Commission
Mississippi’s Past Poet Laureates
Beth Ann Fennelley – 2016 – 2021
Natasha Trethewey – 2012 – 2016
Winifred Hamrick Farrar – 1978 – 2010
Louise Moss Montgomery- 1973 – 1978
Maude Willard Leet Prenshaw – 1963 – 1973
Photo credit of typewriter image: Tom Joynt.