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Marge Piercy is the author of seventeen novels including The New York Times Bestseller Gone To Soldiers; the National Bestsellers Braided Lives and The Longings of Women and the classic Woman on the Edge of Time; eighteen volumes of poetry, and a critically acclaimed memoir Sleeping with Cats. Born in center city Detroit, educated at the University of Michigan, the recipient of four honorary doctorates, she has been a key player in many of the major progressive political battles of our time. Her first collection of short stories The Cost of Lunch, Etc. was published in Summer, 2014, and her nineteenth volume of poetry, Made in Detroit, published in April, 2015.
A popular speaker on college campuses, she has been a featured writer on Bill Moyers’ PBS Specials, Prairie Home Companion, Fresh Air, the Today Show, and many radio programs nationwide including Air America and Oprah & Friends. Her poems are read frequently on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac.
Praised as one of the few American writers who are accomplished poets as well as novelists — Piercy is one of our country’s best selling poets — she is also the master of many genres: historical novels, science fiction (He, She, and It won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction in the United Kingdom), novels of social comment and contemporary entertainments. She has taught, lectured and/or performed her work at well over 400 universities around the world.
“Marge Piercy is not just an author, she’s a cultural touchstone. Few writers in modern memory have sustained her passion, and skill, for creating stories of consequence.”-The Boston Globe
Marge Piercy © 2015. All Rights Reserved
Fiction Editor Penny Perry Interviews Marge Piercy
Novelist. Poet. Memoirist
PP: You are one of the rare few American poets who successfully write political poems that are both pointed and beautiful. How do you achieve this when so many others have failed.
MP: I have been an activist since the civil rights movement, so political action is real to me. I don’t have to inflate my rhetoric to prove I’m political. It’s all real and daily. I know what it’s like to organize, to plan and to lead a demonstration, to write agitprop. I never confuse agitprop with poetry. I’ve done too much of both. It’s a matter of actually feeling it and going into it as you would any other subject. The way it works is the same.
PP: You write a lot about love. Love of animals. Love of people. Love of the planet.
When did you first notice that your love for creatures nature was deeper than other people had. Has your view of love changed over the years.
MP: My cats gave me unconditional love in my childhood, as did my grandmother Hannah. There’s a poem in MADE IN DETROIT about how I related more strongly to animals in childhood than to people. I have loved and do love strongly, love of my friends, of my partner Ira, of my cats, or the land I live on, a love of justice, of equality, of Judaism, of the people I have joined with in fights for those things. So much of love is a matter of actually paying attention to others instead of focusing on yourself all the time.
PP: How has your religious background and being the product of two cultures, Welsh and Jewish shaped your world view?
I don’t have any Welsh culture. the grandmother who was Welsh-speaking died before I was born. My father did not identify as Welsh although I always felt the miners and their kin were kinder than the more English of my relatives. My mother was Jewish; I’m Jewish. My grandmother Hannah gave me my religious education. That was the side of the family I looked like and related to very strongly. I was in no way the product of two cultures unless you include the street culture of Detroit.
PP: How do you rate or see our cultural changes in terms of race from the civil rights movement until now.
MP: Things are better for educated and middle class African Americans. As jobs have been shipped overseas or eliminated, things have gotten worse or have certainly not improved for poor Blacks. They go to jail far more frequently and for longer than whites who break the law. When they get out, they have almost no options for work or survival. The police are as brutal toward Blacks as they were when I was growing up in center city Detroit.
Younger people seem to have far more acceptance of interracial relationships as they have far more tolerance and understanding of same sex relationships and marriages. But that’s all class and education related. There are segments of society that react with hatred and violence to anyone not just like themselves. Some religions still spew hatred of those who are not similar to what they think is normal and right – other religions, other sexual orientations, women whom they view as uppity and transgressive to their narrow outmoded standards. They often try to impose their weird views on schools, on media, on other people. All fundamentalists in every religion are more similar to each other than to us more secular types or types that identify as spiritual rather than sectarian.
PP: How do you see the way poetry and journals like ours might change hearts and minds.
MP: I don’t really think enough people read poetry to make much impact these days.
PP: Your use of image is so powerful. Do you keep a notebook and write down what you see.
MP: Imagery is one of the most individual aspects of a poet. Metaphor comes most directly out of your own core. It comes from how you perceive the world, how carefully you look and listen, how well you remember, how your mind works.
The more precise the attention you pay to the world around you, the more stuff will be in you that rises as real metaphor and simile, expressive, precise, powerful, felt. Anything we truly experience and take in is the stuff of metaphor. Element. Metaphors out of the sciences or medicine are often powerful and fresh. As a poet or a novelist, you are a generalist in the old sense, and you ought to know everything you can. The wider your curiosity ranges, the more interesting metaphors will rise. Memory and observation can be trained to precision and retention.
It is wise to know a little casual geography. It helps you understand a place, the same as knowing the history of a country helps you understand the people. Knowledge as well as memory blend with imagination to produce fresh and powerful imagery.
The best gifts you can give a poet are guides to the natural world, to birds, to mammals, to trees, to wildflowers, to the stars, to rocks, to butterflies, to insects. Using a guide forces you to actually observe carefully whatever you are identifying. Then you may be encouraged to learn more about that bird or that bush. The more you know about it, the more apt it is to prove a powerful image in your work.
Penny Perry has been widely published as a poet, most recently in Lilith and the San Diego Poetry Annual. Her fiction has appeared in Redbook and California Quarterly. She was the first woman admitted to The American Film Institute screenwriting program, and a film based on her script, A Berkeley Christmas, aired on PBS.
A three-time Pushcart Prize nominee in both fiction and poetry, she was born and raised in Santa Monica, the setting for her first collection of poetry, Santa Monica Disposal & Salvage (Garden Oak Press, 2012), available at Amazon via CreateSpace.