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
www.poetrybay.com 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.
"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."