Providing a Haven: A Conversation with Marge Piercy
One of my first encounters with the poetry of Marge Piercy was in the previous century, in William Heyen’s forward-looking anthology The Generation of 2000 (Ontario Review Press), a collection of then newly emerged poetic voices whom I value to this day not only because of the poetry I encountered there, but the introductions to the selected work written by the poets themselves, a window into process and purpose. I remember especially Piercy’s poems “Burying blue for Janis” and “The market economy”—the first not so much a bluesy second person tribute to Janis Joplin but an indictment of the way her pain served as medicine to the surrounding “rat race of men,” Joplin’s persona a troubling mixture of passivity and sacrifice that too many other women have had to endure and try to survive. Meanwhile, the second poem operated as a parable of both personal and societal choice: “Suppose some peddler offered / you can have a color TV / but your baby will be / born with a crooked spine…,” the proffering of a Faustian bargain between consumer choice and environmental health that still plagues us today. But as Piercy firmly states in the following interview, “Poems can’t change things.” Rather, it is only through actual work (be it political campaigning or rescuing snapping turtles) that we have some ability to alter the surrounding world. But this is not to say that poetry does not have an important place. I also remember these words from Piercy’s introduction in The Generation of 2000, (which now I realize was an excerpt from her essay “Mid-Game: Making it Better, Truer, Clearer, More Gorgeous,” from her book Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt published by the University of Michigan Press in 1982) about the power of poetry to interrogate not just the surrounding word, but oneself.
“The poem in which you are finding out what you mean as you go may lead you into an insight that you might have preferred to forego. I have in fact figured things out in poems that I then had to apply to my life, to act on.”
This notion of poetry as something that cannot just stay on the page, as something that has to enter one’s life—to be a part of the road going forward, or to change the direction of that road—has stayed with me ever since. Likewise, to me, Piercy is a poet who harbors no romantic delusions about poetry, either its supposed role “to change things” or the even more problematic attitude that it is enough to write (or read) well-meaning poetry rather than to get involved with the world in more concrete and practical ways. It is also an attitude that coincides with Piercy’s voice in the following interview: blunt and unadorned; anti-academic and antiauthoritarian; focused on the national world of politics and environmental issues, but also on the things taking place around her rural Cape Cod home.
In the following interview, we also get a glimpse of the ongoing intensity and sense of purpose of this critically acclaimed writer—in poetry, fiction, and essay—who has been such a strong presence in the literary world since the late ’60s and early ’70s. Born into a working class family in Detroit, Michigan, and educated at the University of Michigan and Northwestern University, not only has she been active as a writer, but she has also been deeply invested in antiwar, feminist, and environmental causes, as well as in issues involving Jewish culture.
And, as a writer, she is as well known for her novels as well as her poetry. Her books of fiction include The New York Times bestseller Gone to Soldiers (a historical novel situated on three continents during World War II), the national bestsellers Braided Lives and The Longings of Women, and the cyberpunk novel He, She and It, which won the 1993 Arthur C. Clarke Award for its exploration of gender role, human identity and artificial intelligence, as well as environmental and economic justice issues. Her nineteen volumes of poetry include The Moon Is Always Female, The Hunger Moon: New & Selected Poems 1980–2010, The Crooked Inheritance, My Mother’s Body, and most recently, Made in Detroit. She is also the author of the memoir Sleeping with Cats and the book of essays Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt. She has also edited the anthology Early Ripening: American Women’s Poetry Now.
This interview comprises two conversations with Piercy, one occurring at the College of Wooster after her reading on April 13, 2016, and the other taking place through the mail after the unexpected election later that year of Donald Trump to the U.S. Presidency. And, after the interview, we are pleased to present four of her new poems. —Daniel Bourne, October 31, 2018
Daniel Bourne: A question I have asked a lot of poets over the years is when and where did you wake up as a poet, when you realized that you saw yourself as a poet writing for the long haul?
Marge Piercy: When I was fifteen several things happened. A girlfriend of mine died of a heroin overdose, which was a great shock. We used to read Poe together. And my family moved from the shack in which I had grown up to a brick house in a more middle class-working class neighborhood where my mother helped pay for it by taking in roomers. I had a room of my own that had a door that shut for the first time. Also, my boyfriend poisoned my cat. Even though we lived in a predominantly Black neighborhood, our next door neighbors were furious that we sold our house to a Black doctor, so he poisoned my cat. And my grandmother died, whom I was very close to. Now, I absorbed from the surrounding culture that you weren’t supposed to write poems about your grandmother dying and how much you loved her, so I wrote these poems about this dead lover, and those were some of the early poems I wrote.
DB: So you sort of transferred the loss—
Piercy: To this mythical—
Piercy: Yeah, and was able, therefore, to express my loss in poetry. Basically, nothing in my life was the way it was supposed to be. Your girlfriend isn’t supposed to die of a heroin overdose when you’re fifteen, your boyfriend isn’t supposed to murder your cat because your house was sold to a Black doctor. (My parents had acquired it from a bank through a failed mortgage—one of those cheap auctions.) Basically, I started writing both poetry and prose seriously to try and make sense of my life because nothing was the way I was told it was supposed to be.
DB: Looking back over your many books and the many poems you’ve written, was there any point at which you realized you needed to change as a poet, that you needed to be doing something different?
Piercy: Yes. I had written pretty authentic poetry in high school. In Early Grrrl I have some of those poems that I wrote during that time. But when I went to college I was in English Honors. I was given an incredible education in British literature, and I’m probably the only person left who has read some of those things. I read the entire Dunciad and so forth. But at that time the English Department at the University of Michigan was entirely male and they all went around with little black furled umbrellas and they all wanted to be Anglican gentlemen. I learned that you had to write poetry in fixed forms—and that the best thing to do would be to get a Fulbright, go to Europe, and write sestinas about art that you saw. Everything was sort of removed from yourself.
DB: Sounds like the heyday of New Criticism then, basically.
Piercy: Yes, and everything was very ornate, formal, et cetera. But I couldn’t really become an English gentleman. I was the wrong sex, I was a Jew, I came from the working class, I was political. But I tried, and so I wrote all these poems and started winning awards in my freshman year and all the way through. I went to Europe on the Hopwood Award I won. These Hopwood Awards were mostly won by graduate students, but I won my senior year. So I was rewarded for English crap. Then I married a French physicist student who had come over to the States to get his PhD, studying first with one Nobel Prize winner and then another. And I got my Masters at Northwestern, still writing this ornate poetry, but then I left graduate school. They wanted me to stay because I got the highest score on the Master’s exam that anybody had ever gotten there. They said all you have to do is take, you know, Anglo-Saxon, and write a thesis, and you have half the thesis written already on Keats. But I had to support my husband. And besides, I realized I was beginning to get ideas for MLA papers rather than poems.
DB: That’s a great line.
Piercy: Somehow, the whole idea of continuing graduate school and academia—I didn’t think I’d ever do what I was supposed to do, which I was beginning to realize I didn’t know how to do. So, at the time I was working as a secretary for the head of the Sociology department at the University of Chicago, I went to hear Ginsburg with a girlfriend of mine, and it changed my life. Not that I was going to write like him or anything like him, but because he wrote out of his own sexuality, he wrote as a Jew, and he wrote as a political person. And he wrote out of his life. And I realized I was doing that already in high school—I was doing all of those things. So I started doing it again. I started going back to writing in my own voice. So everything changed. Then again, everything changed when I moved to the Cape. I had always lived in the center of cities all my life. But for the first time, I lived in the woods in a village. Well, I started gardening immediately because the hillside was eroding away from the house, so you had to plant it to hold it. So I became the girl with the shovel in one hand and the book on gardening in the other. But you pay attention to the seasons. You live on that land. You pay attention to the tides and the moon. I began to notice nature. I had a bunch of guidebooks and ran around identifying things, walking in the woods and walking in the marshes and so forth. My poetry began to have a lot of nature in it. So, those were the two big changes.
DB: Was your decision to live on Cape Cod a deliberate one, or in some way did you just end up there?
Piercy: I had been gassed a number of times in demonstrations. I had chronic bronchitis. I was told I was going to develop emphysema. I had also smoked since I was twelve years old, or thirteen, in a street gang, and the doctor who was treating me free, the movement doctor, said I would be dead in two years, maybe three. I walked out of his office and I never smoked another cigarette. But I still had chronic bronchitis and I had now caught pneumonia. It went into my lungs and everything. So, I couldn’t stay in New York—pollution was too great. When there would be these warnings, I’d have to drive out of the city and stay out at Montauk Point until I could come back and breathe without dying. So, I looked for a place that we could afford—the people I was with at the time—and where the air was good. And I had been to Cape Cod before, I had gone to Cape Cod to stay with friends, with one of my lovers, because he wasn’t invited to Cuba and I was. I was one of the founders of the North American Congress on Latin America—which still exists and publishes a great magazine. I knew the head of the Cuban mission, and because I was very heavily involved in the SDS regional office and still involved in NACLA, I was invited to go to Cuba. But the guy I worked with in off-campus organizing in SDS wasn’t invited, so we went and had a little mini-vacation on Cape Cod and I fell in love with it, so I thought of it when I had to leave New York for health reasons.
DB: And so you ended up there in Wellfleet.
Piercy: Yeah. Well, there was a computer co-op owned by a guy I was in an open relationship with at the time, not the guy I went to Cape Cod with— God, another guy! Anyhow, he had a computer co-op and they had rented a house in Truro so I thought I’d try Truro, but it was too expensive and Wellfleet was very reasonable at that time, like an acre for ten thousand dollars, and the house was built by a bunch of stoned hippies for twenty-five thousand.
DB: But your poetry has hardly stayed there on Cape Cod. Was there a particular impetus for your most recent collection of poems, Made in Detroit? Why now, later in your life, a return to the psychic assembly line for an entire book?
Piercy: Well, I have written novels that are about Detroit, and earlier poems about Detroit.
DB: Right, but why this entire collection with such an openly autobiographical title such as Made in Detroit?
Piercy: Because I was thinking about Detroit a lot. The changes, what’s going on there, what has gone on there. I was brooding about Detroit and what’s been done to it and what’s happening there.
DB: Could you talk a little more about that?
Piercy: Well, it’s been gutted by people, the business people, the corporations that existed because of the work force there, which they then abandoned.
DB: So do you feel that in some way the poems that you’ve written recently about Detroit are a way of rescuing it, at least in a personal sort of way?
Piercy: They’re meaningful to some people there, but poems don’t change anything. What they do is—it’s like a dream in a way that you wake up from and you realize things. It changes people’s consciousness, that’s all, if they relate to the poem strongly, or it reinforces their attitudes, their imagination, what they think about themselves in the world. It reinforces what they think but haven’t found the words for.
DB: In the title poem of the collection, you write about “Librarians / my priests promising salvation.” Not rabbis, but priests—which seems to evoke a Catholic framework. Elsewhere though, such as in “There were no mountains in Detroit,” you mention feeling “very Jewish and judged.” Was there a large working class Jewish world around you in Detroit? Basically, I’m just wondering about how you would characterize the connection or disconnection that you had to any religious heritage or culture as you were growing up as well as now. Do you see yourself as participating in a centuries-old Jewish intellectual and spiritual tradition along with also participating in an American literary tradition of some sort?
Piercy: Rabbis don’t promise salvation, so I used priests in that poem. But I am very involved in Judaism. I was part of a group of mostly rabbis who produced a Reconstructionist siddur—a prayer book—for Shabbat morning, Chadash. I have written liturgy used in Reconstructionist, Reform and, in England, Liberal synagogues. I was one of the founders of Ha Ha-yam, a lay group called a havurah that meets on Cape Cod. I’ve done residencies at a number of synagogues and given readings at many more as well as at rabbinical colleges. I was given an honorary degree by Hebrew Union in Cincinnati for my contributions to Jewish culture. I wrote Pesach for the Rest of Us, published by Schocken, The Art of Blessing the Day: Poems with a Jewish Theme, by Knopf, and published poems for the Jewish holidays in many zines. I lead a seder every year for 20–25 people based on my own Haggadah.
DB: In a lot of ways, I think you’ve already answered the next question, but I’m going to ask it anyway. I don’t know if you remember your early poem, “The market economy,” which opens:
suppose some peddler offered
you can have a colored TV
but your baby will be born
with a crooked spine;
you can have polyvinyl cups
and wash and wear
suits but it will cost
your left lung.
Just today I was reading about the case of a paper mill in Arkansas that is allegedly poisoning the same town to which it offers jobs. And this is a story that unfortunately occurs in many places. The vision of your poem here involving this choice between a “market economy” and a deeper, truer accounting of what is ultimately most valuable seems just as pointed today as when you first wrote it—how the choices we’re making and going to make might not be the right ones economically, environmentally, ethically.
Piercy: Fracking. Now we have fracking.
DB: But the question is this: why haven’t you or some other poet been able to write a poem that could actually change things? Do you think your poetry has changed anything?
Piercy: Poems can’t change things. Only by political work do we have some ability to change things. Writing about it is good, it helps people who are pushing, but you have to push yourself also.
DB: Outside of your writing work?
DB: Comparatively speaking, do you think your novels, such as He, She and It, have maybe made more of a social impact than your poetry?
Piercy: No, absolutely not.
DB: That’s interesting. I do recall, though, my colleague Crista Cravens
mentioning during her introduction of you last night how that novel impacted her life, changed her individually.
Piercy: Well a lot of people talk about my poetry impacting their lives as well. But, I mean, most of the people who read me aren’t in academics.
DB: What did bring you to writing science fiction? Would you characterize any of your poems as operating within or entering the realm of science fiction in some way?
Piercy: No speculative fiction poems. But I wrote my novel Dance the Eagle to Sleep about the anti-war movement and the Weather Underground in speculative fiction in order to keep it from endangering any activists. In general I write speculative fiction to take on larger society issues. It’s a way of changing one or more variables and seeing what happens. It’s a way of saying, if that goes on, this may happen.
DB: Has a poem you have written ever influenced your science fiction writing or something you were writing on in a novel ever sparked a poem?
Piercy: None of my poems ever influenced my novels, whether speculative fiction, contemporary novels or historical novels. But sometimes the activities that are involved in research for a novel generate poems. In Available Light, there’s a section of poems that came out of research for Gone to Soldiers. I can also think of a couple of poems that came from research in France for City of Darkness, City of Light.
DB: A complaint you made about current poetry a few years ago reads: “Writing a well-wrought poem of careful irony and shades of alienated indifference or mild self-pity comes as easily now as rhymed quatrains about meadowlarks and nightingales to an earlier generation who looked out the window and, like us, saw pigeons.” Do you think this irony remains the great cliché of our time? And, how do you talk to younger poets about emotional risk in their poetry?
Piercy: I try to tell them that they don’t have to hide what they’re writing about. That poems that translate into emotional power for the reader are not bad. That you don’t have to read your poems as if they were a grocery list. You’re a performer so perform the poem well.
DB: Is the world any better now in terms of gender equality than earlier in your life and career? What about in the world of literature and poetry?
Piercy: Aging white men still control just about everything. Yes, women outnumber men in higher education, but not in tenured faculty. Many women are lawyers, doctors, judges, college presidents, heads of nonprofits and occasionally of corporations, but body shaming is much worse than it was. Women are held to standards of beauty, thinness and perfection that 95% of the population cannot approach. Almost every woman now hates her body or dislikes some part of it—her nose, her mouth, her breasts, her arms, her thighs, her chin, her vagina—nothing is as good as the images held up to her as acceptable. Every cutback in social programs impacts women more than men, especially single mothers with children. Girls as young as third grade are worried about their bodies and go on diets. Fat shaming has reached a new high. The right to control our reproduction has been seriously eroded and may soon be destroyed.
DB: Going back to the question of environmental concerns, though, would you consider yourself as aware of threats to the environment from early on in your life, or was there a period when you particularly realized the need to be active in this area too?
Piercy: I think when I moved to the Cape.
DB: So that was part of the ways in which you changed as a writer, because of your move to the Cape?
Piercy: Yep, I mean there are a number of changes in my life. After I lived in France I realized how very American I was, whereas I hadn’t realized that before. I thought of myself as sort of cosmopolitan. “Oh, of course I’ll live in France. I can do anything, you know? I’m so cultured I can easily figure…” Well. No. Il ne fait pas comme ça.
DB: Reminds me of Walter Benjamin mentioning that he never felt so aware of his connectedness to Berlin and Paris as when he was in Moscow. Somehow you have to go to some new place to realize your identity.
Piercy: It’s just you realize how your culture has formed you. Both the parts of it you hate and the parts you love. They are in you, and you are a product of them.
DB: Can you recall a particular poem, one of the first poems in which you really attended to the environment and its fragility?
Piercy: I’d have to look at Hunger Moon. But the first book where I know I had a lot of that was Stone, Paper, Knife, with these poems like “Ashes, ashes, all fall down.” That poem comes from what I called my “Elementary Odes,” which is a little glance at Neruda. And “The common living dirt” is a poem that’s been picked up by a lot of people for ecological reasons. Yeah. That was the first book, I think, in which there’s a strong ecological sensibility that begins to develop.
DB: Speaking of Neruda, and as a side note, have you ever translated any poetry, published it?
Piercy: I once spent three weeks translating a couple of poems by Neruda for my own satisfaction, since I disliked the translations I found. Never tried to publish them. But it gave me a lot of respect for good translators.
DB: And was the poem, “Moon of the mother turtle,” written there on the Cape too?
Piercy: Of course! They don’t rescue too many snapping turtle babies in Manhattan.
DB: No, no. But you could have done that while living elsewhere.
Piercy: But I lived in the center of cities until I moved to Cape Cod.
DB: I guess that is an example of my own being limited by my own experience. I just don’t associate snapping turtles with the Cape.
Piercy: Oh yes, we have all sizes of them, and other kinds of turtles too.
DB: I guess I was thinking of sea turtles.
Piercy: Yes, the Ridley turtle nests there. There’s a whole group of people who look out for them and count them and protect their nests and so forth.
DB: Your poetry is indeed filled with animals. Besides a lifelong fascination and kinship with them, do you feel that by writing about animals you are writing about the human as well? Are you writing about animals in that way, or is it more a matter of individual animals having stories in their own right as do humans?
Piercy: Yeah, animals have stories in their own right. They have strong emotions. They have a whole life distinct from ours.
DB: So when you write about them you’re basically just observing them in the way that you observe the people that surround you?
Piercy: Yeah. And with empathy.
DB: And with empathy. Would you mind talking a little bit more about the bond you have with the crows around your house?
Piercy: When I first came there I sacrificed part of a leg of lamb to them, and they understood that this was a gesture to them. Plus, at that point in time, across the marsh there were guys shooting at them. I provided a haven for them where they could teach their young to fly and so forth, which is a big thing because, like raptors, their young stay in the nest quite a while until they’re actually bigger than their parents, because they haven’t gotten rid of any of their fat because they’re not flying yet and burning any of it up. So the day that they teach their young to fly, the young don’t want to learn. The parents have to really kick them out of the nest and it’s very raucous. It’s hysterical. And they do that on our land, it’s where they nest. They understand that I protect them. If they’re very hungry, they tell me, and I’ll put out cracked corn, and they’ll warn me if anything they view as danger comes. When they’re mobbing owls, they also always yell at me.
DB: To come help.
Piercy: Like I should come chase the owl! Which I don’t do.
DB: Do you feel some sort of antipathy towards owls now, because of your bonding with the crows?
Piercy: No, not at all. They’re beautiful, too.
DB: You had mentioned that you might even walk out on your property with a gun and that doesn’t bother them?
DB: But if someone else might have a gun then they might sound the alarm?
Piercy: Yes. And the reason I have a gun is that I live at the end of the road. In winter there’s no one around, plus some people fantasize that if you’re famous you’re also rich, and Woody travels some, so I feel much safer if I have a gun. I’m not afraid of guns, I’ve handled them for years.
DB: And your crows are your posse out there, too.
Piercy: Yes, but not at night. At that time they’re all asleep.
* * *
DB: Just a couple more questions, which I’m asking a few months later, after the November 2016 election. Among all the other changes that the Trump administration has tried to implement, including a war on news media coupled with the acceptability of “alternative facts,” there is also the threat to eliminate the NEA, the NEH, and other governmental support to culture and art here in the U.S. (Not to mention the attacks on independent science in the EPA or the NSF.) Do you have any thoughts about the possible aftermath of such a destruction of art support?
Piercy: It eliminates the possibility for many writers and artists of all kinds of getting support that is not dependent on working at a university. It strips away the possibility of getting support for noncommercial projects. And taking away funding for PBS is a particular blow to parents of all income levels and all over the country. Many parents depend on programming for children without ads that urge them to demand toys their parents can’t afford, programs that have educational content when often pre-schools are not available or affordable. Having had a grant at a critical time from the NEA and having served twice on grant panels for them and having served for many years on a state grants panel for the humanities and even longer for the arts, I know how important these grants are and how much more open to minorities and women and controversial topics these agencies are. When you compare their grants with Guggenheims or Fulbrights or Pulitzers, you see how much more inclusive and open-minded these grants tend to be.
DB: As one who has fought for—and hopefully seen—increased justice and freedom in social, environmental, gender and other terms—do you see what is happening now as a significant setback or just part of an ongoing cycle?
Piercy: What’s happening is a significant disaster. We are almost past the tipping point for preserving a planet fit for human and most mammalian life. Trump is eliminating any funding for climate change research and programs. He is gutting all I care most about–programs that feed the hungry, heat for those who can’t afford to stay warm otherwise, the elderly who depend on Meals on Wheels. The protection for our land, the refugees fleeing life-threatening wars and societies. Destroying the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts will cause a lot of preventable disease and hardship. He is eliminating any support for art and science while vastly increasing an already bloated military budget. Who is he going to go to war against? China? North Korea? He plans to strip away affordable health care from those who can’t afford the insurance—which would have included me for all my earlier life, so that’s very real to me. His appointee to the Supreme Court will push women back into the dark ages of back alley abortions or do-it-yourself abortions as well as taking away cancer screenings and contraceptive coverage for women who are not well-to-do. I was once totally dependent on Planned Parenthood for any health care, and so are many women today. Just about everything he is proposing is a disaster for most of us: human, animal, and vegetable alike …
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