Autumn 2000

Being Marge Piercy:
An Interview


Marge Piercy appeared as the Walt Whitman Birthplace poet in residence June 2000 to teach a master class and read at the West Hills home of the Good Gray Poet. This interview is reprinted from the e-magazine Fall 2000 issue.

Marge Piercy, the nationally-known poet of womanhood and compassion, conscience and spirit, began her tenure as poet in residence at the Walt Whitman Birthplace in West Hills NY with a message as challenging as it was simple: political poetry is alive and well in America.

"The idea that political poetry is somehow inferior is heresy," said Piercy in an interview the day of her Master Class at the Whitman birthplace, which took place in the beginning of June. "Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth - they would never have understood that position."

Given Piercy's origins in a Detroit ghetto during the latter part of the Great Depression, perhaps that sentiment would not sound so surprising - origins that, as she describes them, meant that "if you were at all observant you learned a lot about class, sexism, racism, anti-semitism. It was a raw place, a place with a violent labor movement. Everything was very out in Detroit."

That was then. These days, one might point to a host of accomplishments for the writer - NEA grants, major literary awards in poetry and fiction, and teaching posts at such distinguished locations as Indiana U, University of Kansas, Holy Cross, UC-San Jose, U Cincinnatti and the University of Michigan - as an indication that Piercy might have mellowed...or at least led her to have found a station in life which would allow her to put her drive toward political utterance aside.

Or perhaps, the lulling effects of the lovely home she inhabits on Cape Cod - with its fresh water marsh, mixed oak and pine woods, and a vegetable garden complete with fruit trees, grape vines, and flowering bushes.

Not hardly. For Marge Piercy, it's all one when it comes to politics. It is to be found in every human subject, "whether you're writing about toenails or art," she maintains. "In general, all works written in words contain politics." Whereas a poem is only viewed as political if it is conrtrary to the viewer's position, she argues, "if you identify with the wolf, Little Red Riding Hood is a very different story to you."

Fairy tales aside, this is a poet who puts her philosophy of political activism into practice. Piercy is deeply involved in such regional programs as Roots for Choice, a woman and child health agency on the Cape. "Roots of Choice deals with issues that impact women, especially health," she says. Among them? Access to choice. Clinical services for those who can't pay for them - including "abortions, contraception, followup, domestic violence and abuse."

But as a potent voice on the national cultural landscape, Piercy sees herself firmly embedded in the "third wave" of the women's movement. The third wave? First, she notes, came the Suffragettes. Then came the 60's Women's Movement. And now?

"The Third Wave is a movement of young people, with more emphasis on sexual liberation, and on acting up," says Piercy. "I like it, it's very rebellious. They don't see any reason they have to dress in male drag to be heard."

These days she is also drawing on her sense of multi-faceted personhood - with interests in everything from reading and editing manuscripts to work on a memoir (the writing of which she describes as "hell to write - it's like eating bricks for breakfast.") Then there is her ongoing work on novels and poetry. "A novel isn't an essay," says Piercy. "It is people in time and history. A chance to explore people's lives in a fictive way. Poetry is much more directly out of my own life."

Shifting from one modality to the other, she says, has its advantages. It means for one thing that "you don't get writer's block."

And the multi-faceted approach is one that she argues women are well suited to. "Women are expected to be multi-task oriented in this society," she says. "shopping, writing, working, dealing with best friends, operations, children. It is men who ask you how you can do two things at once. I think they feel the need to specialize more."




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