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Tryst Interviews Marge Piercy: Part II

*Note: Our gratitude to Marge Piercy for this wonderful opportunity to engage one of the leading writers and voice of conscience of our times. Part I of Marge's feature can be read in Issue 20: http://www.tryst3.com/issue20/piercy1.html | http://www.tryst3.com/issue20/piercy2.html

Mia: You’ve written eighteen poetry books and eighteen novels, essays, memoirs, anthologies. Have you covered all the topics you’ve wanted to in your books, or are there still some topics you’d like to tackle but haven’t gotten to them for various reasons?

Marge: I always have files and notes on novels I have contemplated but haven't gotten to yet. Some I am sure I never will. I also always have poems that I am not satisfied with and will return to and see if I can fix them. And of course new ideas emerge that I haven't yet imagined.

Mia: Say that you were a librarian or a bookstore owner and a person came up to the desk and asked you to help them choose several books by Marge Piercy, what's the first book, second book, third book...and so on, would you recommend?

Marge: I am not infrequently asked this by people who come up after a reading. I always try to find out if they want poetry or fiction and what kind they like to read, what they are interested in. Then I recommend accordingly. "Oh, you like science fiction. Why not try HE, SHE AND IT." Oh, you like historical fiction, try GONE TO SOLDIERS, CITY OF LIGHT, CITY OF DARKNESS, or SEX WARS..." etc. Someone who is recently divorced, I recommend STONE, PAPER, KNIFE. For someone whose mother has recently died, I recommend MY MOTHER’S BODY. etc.

Mia: How many manuscripts are in progress at the moment, and how many drafts have you shelved in the past that you might resurrect and work on again?

Marge: I have a book on the cultural history of roses that was rejected after three editors were fired one after the other and the whole project was dropped. I have a 2nd volume of selected poems, THE HUNGER MOON which has just been released by Knopf. I have a novel I have begun. I'm about half way into the first draft. I have a nonfiction book that I have given my agent the 1st four chapters because a small press said they might be interested. It's with them now.

Before my first novel was published, I had written six. One of them I resurrected. I think the others are toast. I started a novel a few years ago that I abandoned with 5 chapters written. I doubt I will go back to it. It felt too "made up," too gimmicky.

Mia: How do you organize your poems, and decide which poems will go in a book and in what order? Do you have a theme in mind when putting together a manuscript?

Marge: The books are organized thematically by sections. It is a matter also of noticing if there are too many poems of a particular sort – say, too many nature poems or too many love poems. Sometimes I will realize I need a poem to flesh out the section or add to its coherence and will work on a poem for that gap.

Mia: You’ve written about half of your novel in progress, untitled at this time, two chapters are in this feature. When do you expect to finish the novel and when do you anticipate its release?

Marge: I hope to finish rough draft by the end of the year, then begin revising in 2012. I hope to be done with revisions by the end of that year, probably 4th draft by then. Then it will try to find a publisher which is bound to take months and months.

Mia: Can you please give us a hint of what the core of the story is going to be about? How many characters are there going to be?

Marge: It’s fruitless to talk about a novel in rough draft let alone when only a third is written. It is a three-generational story about Samantha and her grandmother, and Roberta, Emma’s oldest daughter. It takes place 90% on Cape Cod. It is a story about family bonding and hostility, greed, aging and land.

Mia: In your interview with Charlotte Templin, you implied that in writing your memoir, SLEEPING WITH CATS, was more difficult than you anticipated because, “the hardest thing was having to relive old traumas, to revisit old pain, and to remember so many events in my life I would far rather forget.” After having written, SLEEPING WITH CATS, did you experience any kind of emotional fallout, or was it one of exhilaration, a catharsis, or spiritual moment?

Marge: When I finish any project, any manuscript, I have learned to have something in the wings so that I don't experience postpartum depression.

Mia: I have a friend who knew I was interviewing you and wanted me to ask you how she should go about writing a memoir: Do you have any suggestions, approaches, regiments to how she can just get started?

Elmore Leonard once wrote (I’m paraphrasing), “Leave out the boring parts.” How do you decide what to leave out and what to include when you’re so close to your own life story; in other words, how can you tell what will NOT bore the readers?

Marge: I never worry about that. Writing a memoir takes most of the same craft elements as writing fiction: creating believable and interesting characters [it doesn’t matter if you know them; your reader has to also]; using dialogue well, and most of all creating a narrative strategy. Ira Wood and I wrote as book on this subject called SO YOU WANT TO WRITE: How to Master the Craft of Writing Fiction and Personal Narrative. We’ve been teaching a workshop on memoir for the past 16 years at Omega every August; now at Kripalu in October and sometimes at Rowe and various other places as one time workshops. By working out a narrative strategy you figure out what in your life is relevant to that memoir and what isn’t.

Perhaps you are using some aspect to organizing: every car you’ve owned every place you’ve lived, lovers marriages, certain friends. Perhaps you wish to write about a particular success or failure in your life. Perhaps you want to write about one era. Whatever, it requires selection.

Mia: Besides the satisfaction of having fulfilled a lifelong wish to pen her life, unless someone is “famous” or well known, why write a memoir at all?

Marge: That someone is famous does not mean that their memoir will be useful or honest. That someone’s life was exciting doesn’t mean that the writing will convey that. May Sarton was known as a poet but hardly famous outside poetry circles when she began writing memoirs. Nothing momentous occurs in most of them but they are fascinating because she explored events and interactions with her intelligence and empathy and it all had great meaning in the writing and for readers.

Mia: In your essay titled, “Life of Prose and Poetry—An Inspiring Combination” published in the New York Times, 1999, you wrote:

Poems start from a phrase, an image, an idea, a rhythm insistent in the back of the brain. I once wrote a poem when I realized I had been hearing a line from a David Bryne song entirely wrong, and I liked it my way. Some poems are a journey of discovery and exploration for the writer as well as the reader.

So for you poetry is a journey, self discovery, revelatory. I was struck by the many ‘autobiographical’ elements of your poetry book, THE CROOKED INHERITANCE. I have found that your poetry is composed of snapshots of your thoughts at the moment you’re experiencing some emotion or an impulse and that makes your poetry for me, very immediate and direct; more intimate and personal than even reading your memoir, SLEEPING WITH CATS.

I feel like I really get to see the real Marge Piercy, the person, not just the writer, or the confessor. Sometimes, the tone is ebullient, playful, flippant, sarcastic, hip, riotous…but never without some deliberation even if you were to hear a line from the song entirely wrong. That is, I don’t feel that any of the words were placed there by chance or accident and it’s this conscientious effort to get your thoughts down as accurately as possible that makes me appreciate a book of poems like THE CROOKED INHERITANCE because the poems are without artifice.

To continue, you also wrote:

Poems hatch from memory, fantasy, the need to communicate with the living, the dead, the unborn. Poems come directly out of daily life, from the garden, the cats, the newspaper, the lives of friends, quarrels, a good or bad time in bed, from cooking, from writing itself, from disasters and nuisances, gifts and celebrations. They go back into daily life: people read them at weddings and funerals, give them to lovers or soon-to-be ex-lovers or those they lust for, put them up on their refrigerators or over their computers, use them to teach or to exhort, to vent joy or grief.

I think your philosophy and approach to poetry is what makes your poetry so accessible: people can relate to what you write about; it’s pragmatic and practical enough one doesn’t need Cliff Notes, or a Poetry for Dummies to read, understand and appreciate poetry.

I myself am not fond of deconstructing a poem for academia’s sake and yet, I do like thinking about what a poem is saying. Make no mistake, even in the simplest poems, there are layers and complexities that make me think about what a poem is saying and maybe more importantly, what it’s not saying. For instance, in your poem, “Minor characters”

The people we think are walk-ons
in our major dramas, whose names
leak like tiny grains of couscous
through the sieve of our brains:

people who say hello in the drugstore
asking after our partners or pets
and we have no idea in hell
who they are and a weak smile

[. . .]

then there’s the guy in the woods
practicing with his .45 all
morning and with each shot
he sees your head explode.

You are incidental.

The poem turns upon itself, what started as an observation about minor characters circles back to the “you”; it’s poetic justice, it’s tongue in cheek, it’s brilliant!

In another poem, “Mighty big”:

A little arrogance is a dangerous thing
but a lot of arrogance is fatal
to children and kittens and countries.

To be sure you deserve all you can grab.
To be sure you can get away with it
because you hit harder and are willing

To strike the first blow.

The first line recalls Pope’s, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” But what does it mean, when that line is followed by “a lot of arrogance is fatal / to children and kittens and countries”? Is it the poet’s intention to make light of the tone by including children, kittens and countries all in the same line? Or is there a moral edification when the poem ends on, “The harder you push, the harder what you never bothered to notice pushes back”?

I like thinking about poetry without overestimating its importance, or that it has to divulge a secret or some cosmic answer; that it satisfies me on some level via sensorial perception or moral relevance is poetry to me. Anything else that is trying too hard is not pleasurable.

On that note, now that I’ve subjected you to a mini review of your poetry, if I might ask you to indulge me, how would you summarize your own poetry? What are some of the ways that your poetry is different than what some of your peers are doing these days?

Marge: Quite an essay. There are a huge number of poets writing today and they cover an enormous range of types of poetry and subject matter and attitude. I find much in common with a number of them. I’d say if I had to pick out one of the things about my poetry it’s range. I write about love marriage, Judaism, nature and ecology, politics, cats, gardening, the weather, mythology, history. I even write a number of funny poems.

Mia: I just have to discuss your poem, “To Be of Use” because it is one of my all-time favorite, favorite, favorite poems! To me, "To Be of Use" sums up one of your lifelong beliefs—to champion not only the common, honest working person and the work itself, as well, the social implications of efficacy: One cannot feel “useful” unless there is a genuine appreciation to be needed by others. By the same token, the poem seems to be saying that to be needed is not necessarily “useful,” one must also work to produce something “clean and evident” worthy of the labor that is done well, and with pride.

The last two lines of your poem, there is a symbiotic relationship that I just love and nails the poem for me:

The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

As a reader approaching that poem, I would ask, what is work that is real? The answers are all there in the poem. One could apply the work of the poet as “common as mud” but if done well, it cries for an ear to hear it, and a reader to appreciate the poem. To quote Whitman: “To have great poets, there must be great audiences too.”

Where did this poem come from? What were the circumstances surrounding your life at the time you wrote it?

Marge: I wrote the poem in 1972 and don't remember the genesis. I do remember I worked it over very, very carefully before I let it out. I would think it came out of my working class background and my respect for work. Necessary work includes agriculture, manufacture, service, artistic production. It does not include hedge funds and literary critics.

Mia: GONE TO SOLDIERS is a 770-page novel with eight major characters and two minor characters and is set during WWII. I can see it was a monumental undertaking. Did you have any idea it would take seven years to write? How many years were spent researching for the book?

Marge: I often start my research for the next novel while polishing the one before it. It is also the case that while there is a lot of preliminary research before beginning to write, there is also much research that turns out to be needed during and after first draft, 2nd draft, 3rd draft, etc The database for GTS was 7 times as long as the novel.

Mia: You dedicated SOLDIERS to your grandmother, Hannah:
“who was a solace to my childhood” and “a storyteller”

for the moment when she learned that of her
village, none and nothing remained

Do you mind telling us a little about what happened to your grandmother and to her village? Have you written your grandmother’s story and if so, what is the name of the book(s)?

Marge: Soon after the war, she learned that the shtetl she was born in and where she grew up with her father rabbi and her mother, also a storyteller, was gone. The SS had slaughtered every woman, man, child and baby. I have written about this in various essays. I have written many poems about Hannah. Bits of her are in various characters.

Mia: I thought the way you had the Table of Contents set up was ingenious as it helped me to easily follow the full development of each of the characters. How and why did you decide whose story you would tell first and in what order?

Marge: I often shift around various beginnings. I have done this in several novels. The beginning is the most important part of any story. Even in my memoir until the 4th draft it began differently

Mia: Jacqueline Levy-Monot is the only character in SOLDIERS in which you used 1st person point of view, whose story was incredibly effective. The rest of the characters are narrated in third person. Why did you decide to use Jacqueline in first person?

Marge: She was writing in a diary until she is taken prisoner. Using first or third person is often a matter of gut feeling but sometimes that feeling is wrong Mary in THE LONGINGS OF WOMEN was written halfway through first draft in the first person. I realized it wasn’t going to work that way and rewrote everything in the 3rd person. In Braided lives I started out in 3rd person and switched to first.

Mia: Even though the disclaimer states SOLDIERS is a work of fiction, your inclusion of so many historical locations, dates and persons such as Alan Turing, Jacqueline Cochran in your novel gives the story a feel of authenticity. Are any of your characters based upon one or two real people you knew/know in life?

Marge: Characters seldom work if based on one person. It’s the 3rd or 4th time you encounter a constellations of characteristics that you begin to understand. With the historical characters in GTS as well as in CITY OF DARKNESS, CITY OF LIGHT, I tried to be true to their reality and from the feedback I have received, I believe I succeeded. My brother was in the Marines in the Pacific. I lived through the Detroit race riots and remember the tanks and soldiers invading the predominantly African American neighborhood where I grew up.

There is nothing that happened in the novel that is not historically accurate to the times

Mia: Unlike so many historical books I’ve read on the Holocaust, what SOLDIERS does convincingly is make you live these people’s lives by transcending that fictional boundary into hyper-reality. The only other book I’ve read that ‘wounded’ me as deeply was The Diary of Anne Frank when I was about the same age as the author. I was deeply affected, almost to the point of being traumatized. I confess, after I finished reading SOLDIERS I became depressed, despondent for days thereafter. How did you (or did you) keep from bouts of depression, anger, despair yourself when writing, researching this novel?

Marge: I learned long ago when writing WOMAN ON THE EDGE OF TIME that when I finish work for the day, I must let go. I must live in the present until I return to work. It’s a necessary discipline for sanity.

It is weird to be answering so many questions about GTS when I’ve written so many novels since then, including two historical novels, CITY OF DARKNESS, CITY OF LIGHT and SEX WARS. I mention them since you seem primarily interested in those as opposed to my contemporary novels of speculative fiction.

Writing GTS did affect me of course. That and saying Kaddish for my mother the year after her death [and of course every year on her yarhzeit] brought me back into Judaism. I have remained committed.

Mia: You end SOLDIERS on this line: The End of One Set of Troubles Is But the Beginning of Another. Where did this line come from and what does it mean?

Marge: I wrote it. Of course I was thinking of the changes that WWII brought afterward: the Cold War; women being sent out of good jobs back into low paying service ands and back into the home and urged to procreate and be feminine; the creation of the CIA and the military industrial complex; our having a huge and expensive standing army and being constantly at war; our sense of being the policeman of the world and being always the most powerful and correct in whatever we do. The Arab-Israeli conflict. Consumerism. Celebrity obsession.

Mia: Which one of your three (four?) life-long quests–"to write, to love and be loved, and to be free"—do you feel you have attained? Have you added any other quests to that list?

Marge: Yes to all, although freedom is severely limited by things in this society that impact on me as well as everybody else who isn't filthy rich. Also by the difficulty of making a living. Also by health issues. As I get older, there are more of those and they sometimes prevent me from doing what I want and like to do. I have been fortunate in finding my bashert in 1976 and being able to live with him since 1980.

Mia: It seems to me you’ve at least fulfilled the goal of writing, but to love and to be loved, and to be free—I think cats are the embodiment of those goals, but at the same time, I tend to think cat people are loners and/or lonely, exiled in some ways, even though they may feel loved and are capable of great love, can they ever be free and freed from what?

Marge: That strikes me as pure and utter bullshit. I have five cats, a partner, several close friends and many, many acquaintances and less close friends. I am politically active, active in village life. I communicate every day with other people. I think such notions are due to myths about cats. People used to write that cats were solitary. In the wild, only male cats not accepted by a sorority are. Cats like lions naturally live in sisterhoods with a male and usually also a backdoor lover who also fathers kittens. My cats divide up in tight pairs but also socialize across those pairs. They are extremely affectionate, all of them, often with each other and always with us. But of course my strongest attachment is to Ira Wood, my bashert.

Mia: I want to end the interview on this beautiful line from your essay, Life of Prose and Poetry: “I find out where I am going when I finally arrive, which may take years.” What is the secret to success for a writer to have a happy and fulfilled life? Where do you go from here?

Marge: Success is an illusion in this society. The object is to have friends, to love and be loved, to live in a place that nourishes you, to do work you find meaningful, to try to make the world a better place for having lived, to be kind to humans and the others with whom we share this planet, to try to become and stay healthy.


Copyright © 2011 Marge Piercy

Marge Piercy has published 18 poetry books, including WHAT ARE BIG GIRLS MADE OF, COLORS PASSING THROUGH US, and most recently, THE CROOKED INHERITANCE, all from Knopf which has released her 2nd volume of new and selected poems, THE HUNGER MOON: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS 1980-2010. She has written 17 novels including WOMAN ON THE EDGE OF TIME, HE, SHE AND IT, THE LONGINGS OF WOMEN and most recently SEX WARS in Harper Perennial paperback now, as is her memoir SLEEPING WITH CATS. Schocken published PESACH FOR THE REST OF US: How to make the Passover Seder Your Own, and Leapfrog brought out SO YOU WANT TO WRITE, now in its 2nd enlarged edition. A CD, LOUDER WE CAN'T HEAR YOU YET, contains her political and feminist poems.