A Conversation between Ira Wood and Marge Piercy
From PARTI COLORED BLOCKS FOR A QUILT
(University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor)
In the new York Times front page review of Vida eleanor langer says, “Almost alone among her American contemporaries, Marge Piercy is radical and writer simultaneously, her literary identity so indivisible that it is difficult to say where one leaves off and the other begins.” I’d like to start this interview with the question, what has your politics got to do with your infamous passion for cats?
I get on very well with cats. They almost all recognize me. Nothing feels more pleasant to the fingers and palms than the fur of a healthy cat. I like their sensuality and their independence; I see myself mirrored in them. We have our anxieties and our moods and our fierce appetites and our razor sharp curiosity. Often both men and women, but especially men, project onto cats what under patriarchy they have learned to fear in women, which is why cats were burned when the witches were burned all over Europe in the millions. Women and cats were viewed as equally sexual and equally evil. What cannot be broken to obey must be destroyed, by that reasoning. Cats are seen as sneaky. They are considered without loyalty because they have a will and life of their own. But cats form intense passionate attachments and loyalties. I always knew with my old cat Arofa how long I could stay away from home – at what point she would simply refuse food and go on a hunger strike until I reappeared.
Why is sex so important in all your writing?
Well, in some sense that seems to me like the question about why I like cats. Though I suppose that relation might be clear only in my mind. That is, besides all the other reasons I gave you for liking cats, I also like them because I learned a lot about basic mammalian behavior from watching my cats. I’ve learned a whole lot about people by learning what’s basically mammalian. I like sex because it’s one of the ways that people leave off operating so much with forebrain. If I like poetry because it ties all the different ways of knowing and being together, sex does the same thing. It operates from all those different levels of minding. All the way down to the reptillian, father down that that, all the way down the spine. As a novelist, sex has to be important to me because it’s one of those touchstones of character. For me, if I can grasp a character sexually or show a character’s sexual behavior, often I’ve shown you a lot about that character. It’s a way in for me as a novelist and it’s a way in which I can display a character to you and a lot about the kind of relationship between characters. Much that goes on between people can be revealed in the sexual relationship, the power relations, the affectional relations, the aggressive relations, the competitive relations.
A great deal of your writing has to do with pleasure. You don’t resist pleasure? You write about it, and yet you’re political and you’re not ashamed of pleasure. I’ve heard people remark that they didn’t know the two were compatible?
What an extremely peculiar view of the world they must have. The reason I am political is because I want there to be a juster apportionment of the world’s pleasure and less unjust apportionment of the world’s pain. Power per se is fairly uninteresting to me, except as I observe it distorting peoples’ characters. It’s never represented much temptation to me. I’ve never gone after power and when I’ve wielded it in the minute ways that people on the Left occasionally have access to a tiny bit of it, it has been something I’ve always been very happy to share and always felt that was best apportioned by lot. I don’t have a puritan streak in me, although I’m fascinated by all the different ways people are and certainly I’ve written about a number of very moralistic and quite puritanical characters. I think that there is in any of us numerous other people that we never live out, and our opposites are as fascinating as what we are. In fiction you get to live out all those little pieces of you, that never really come into your life at all. I think that I trust and respect our basic biology. I feel respect for the bodily processes and for the essential daily work of life support, a respect I think has been missing in a lot of male writers.
I know you hate it when people ask about influences, but give a real answer for once. You hate it because you think it’s all too academic, the influence chasing, and indicates that only literature begets literature, which only refers to other literature.
An honest answer, huh? All right in the beginning there were the romantics, Byron and Shelly and Keats, and also Whitman and Dickinson. That was the beginning, at fifteen. My earliest passions. Then came Eliot. Then cam Blake and Yeats and Joyce, Joyce and Yeats and Blake, intense and burning passions. I discovered Muriel rukeyser very early, when I was a senior in high school, and I loved her always. Always. Then came William Carlos Williams and Neruda and Vallejo. But all this is a gross simplification, because I was always reading so much. I left out Pope. I left out wordsworth. They were both terribly important. As were Edith Sitwell and Edward Arlington Robinson. I loved Elizabethan lyrics and Wyatt. Just as I put in a lot of time reading fairy tales, tales of all sorts, the basic stories, I put in a lot of time with ballads. Childes ballads and the variations. Ginsberg liberated my imagination at a critical time, 1959. My reading style was heavily influenced by Black poets in the late sixties – not that I imitated what they did, which would have been silly and meretricious, but that they inspired me to figure out how to put my poems across: Sonia Sanchez, June Jordan, don L. Lee.
I want to ask you as I look through the table of contents of Breaking Camp, why it doesn’t seem as organized as the later books. But I’m sure there was an order you had in mind?
Breaking Camp has the least structure of any of my books. It was my first collection and it’s the only one that really is just a collection of all I’d written up to then that seemed good enough. A lot of it is apprentice work. Basically the only arrangement is moving from the Midwest to New York, from loneliness and a lot of casual and false starts to a commitment that was to endure at least a while, and from the wholly personal to the public fused with the personal. That’s about it. It contains sequences such as the one beginning with “The miracle” and going through “Landed fish,” a sequence about death: the death of friends, of my favorite uncle, death in the newspaper, death of another poet, Bernie Strempek, who I had known in college, the possible ways I could comprehend of assimilating death into my life and going on.
In Breaking Camp, there are many poems about death, but few in the books since then. How do you account for this apparent great interest in mortality and then apparent loss of interest?
One of my closest friends, someone I really loved, died when I was twenty-four and she was twenty-three. For some years afterward I felt a terrible urgency in all close relationships, as if anyone I cared for might die or vanish at any moment. Any disagreement was something that had to be thrashed through at once, because if I or my friend stayed angry, we might never have the leisure, the time, the life remaining to clarify ourselves. I was terrified, too, that I would die before I had done some little of what I felt I had to do. Keats’s sonnets about early death were haunting me then, but I was not precocious. Working out how to do what I wanted to do in prose especially but also in verse took me years and years; then even after I was writing well, what I was writing about was unacceptable and impermissible for social and political reasons. One of the reasons I wrote that elegy for Strempek was not only because I liked him, but because of the selfish fear I had of suddenly dying young as he had – as I mention in the poem I had just been in an automobile accident like the one that killed him – and not ever doing the work I felt driven to create. I think the theme of death faded from my poetry after I began to experience a sense of future, of posterity – not in direct lineage but in my work. First in political work and then in my own writing. I think too that living in the country and becoming heavily involved with the land, the seasons, the cycles has made me move gradually toward seeing death as part of the whole.
Who was Louis sullivan and why did you start the book at his grave?
Louis Sullivan was a very great architect who never got to build most of the building that were in him, as I feared I wouldn’t get to create in public visible form my art. He was defeated by the beginning of the American vision of empire that led us into foreign conquest and made us create bank buildings as temples to money, that Roman design that marked our cities. Right after college I felt very consciously Midwestern and I was searching for populist roots, Midwestern heroes, and some kind of history that led to me. The Chicago anarchists, Emma Goldman, eugene Debs. Sullivan’s books are interesting too, by the way. Toward the end of breaking camp are some of the first antiwar poems I wrote. The two gasman poems are about how little getting high changes the structure of capitalism. “The peaceable kingdom” is a poem I still respect even thought it’s dated to 1965-66, that phase of the war in Vietnam and the Hiroshima day demonstrations we still have every august. Breaking Camp is the only collection that has a number of rhymed poems in it, even a sonnet or two.
Going on to you next book Hard Loving, that is divided into four distinct parts. “Walking into love,” that’s one long poem or six short poems in a sequence. What does the part title mean, “The death of the small commune” ?
Hard Loving begins with that sequence of six poems called “walking into love,” that is, not falling but proceeding carefully and slowly; they were written to someone in SDS I was working with. At the time I wrote the poems in Hard Loving I lived in a matrix of four relationships all of which were equally important to me and all of which were bound up with the political work we were doing. A number of the poems in all of the sections are about the antiwar movement and about being in SDS as well as about personal relationships.
“The death of the small commune” is about the end of SDS and the disintegration of what I consider one of the best schools for organizers that existed in this country, but I wrote it in personal terms because that way I could deal with it, and that way readers could enter it more easily. It’s a poem that I think has touched a lot of people and I think casting it in person terms worked. I was dealing all the way though the book with both the personal and the political and the attempt to fuse them that was characteristic of the New Left. I was dealing with trying to love and live in more open ways and trying to help each other to grow, to reach, to take chances. In “The death of the small commune,” that whole section, I tried to put those innovative struggles in the context of the kind of relationships that I felt were common in the larger society, both exploitative relationships and flimsy bonding, friends who aren’t friends, neighbors who aren’t neighbors. In “Loving an honest man” I separated out the poems to my husband from the others because the imagery was different and because I thought they’d make a better sequence by themselves. The last section “Curse of the earth magician on a metal land” contained my overtly political poems. “For Jeriann’s hands” is one of the earliest poems in which I talk about some of the specific problems of creativity in women. In that case, there is no difficulty in creating but the problem is in finding a place for what’s created in the world afterward. I feel Hard Loving is in my own voice. A lot of the poems I still feel close to, some of the love poems and some of the political poems. “Crabs” I think is marvelous and I’m surprised it hasn’t been more anthologized; it’s the first funny poem I ever wrote.
“Community” uses the imagery of the Pentagon demonstration of October, 1967, just as “Address to the players” is a covert elegy for Che Guevera. A lot of people who read these poems nowadays never know that subtext. “Morning half-life blues” I actually began in a very crude version when I was sixteen and working at sam’s Cut-Rate Department Store in Detroit. Finally sometime in 1968 I took it out and finished it. “Learning experience” came from the fact that I taught for a year and a half at Gary Extension of the Indiana University when I was living in Chicago. Most of the kids who went to school there were Black and/or working class. We were expected to maintain a flunk rate of about one-third of our classes. I felt as if we were punishing the kids for having attended lousy high schools where they didn’t learn to write or speak standard business English. Pretty depressing. The time of the war in Vietnam I was no longer teaching. But in that poem “Learning experience” I was imagining how I would feel even further complicity with the system if I were still teaching when the universities were being used to determine who would go to Vietnam and get shot and who got to stay on campus and survive. “Half past home” came out of remembering the building that actually described in it, the Home for Incurables that I used to pass as I went to my secretarial job in Chicago every day.
As I look at the dates of each book, I see that 4-Telling came after Breaking Camp and Hard Loving. How did you happen to want to write a book with three male poets?
Well, it didn’t get put together at that point. It had been put together much earlier. Only Breaking Camp had come out. It was conceived of as an enterprise with three editors of Hanging Loose at a time I was publishing a lot in that magazine and I was close to them personally and politically. We did a lot of readings and we hung out together. I think the project started when the publisher of a fancy small west Coast press approached us about doing a book together. He diddled around with the manuscript for a couple of years and finally refused to publish it, unless several of the poems he thought improper were removed. I remember he objected to “Song of the fucked duck” because the title wasn’t ladylike.
You wouldn’t change it, even to get published then? You hadn’t been published much at that point.
I wasn’t tempted. It just seemed so weird. That whole business of what people call four-letter words. It’s a class thing. I was saying ‘fuck’ years before I learned to say “sexual intercourse.” That streetwise emotive language for the simple things of life is the basic urban language for me. Using Latin names for parts of the body and using medical language to talk about body functions seems peculiar. It feels awkward and as if you’re putting somebody on. You’re trying to clean up what you think is dirty by using language that belongs to the laboratory or hospital, because you think the lab or hospital is cleaner than your own bed.
So what finally happened to the book?
By the time we were done with him I had put together Hard Loving, it had been accepted and I was writing the first poems that were going to go into To Be of Use. I was very heavily involved in the women’s liberation movement and no longer as close to the Hanging Loose poems. However, the Crossing Press which was then also called Newbooks accepted the manuscript in late 1969 and by the time the book came out in 1971, I’d been in the women’s movement for a number of years and I’d had some kind of political disagreement with every one of the editors even though Dick Lourie and I became friends again years later. I admire the work of the other poets. I like their work and they have strong individual voices, but I would have been more comfortable by the time the book was finally published in group volume with women such as Mountain Moving Day Elaine gill edited for the Crossing Press that I was included in.
To Be of Use is very purposefully structured. What did you have in mind with the three different sections?
To Be of Use I put together as a book of feminist consciousness. I didn’t include a lot of love poems. By that time I had written some Cape landscape poems, but I didn’t put them in either. The first section begins in exploitation and dependence and goes through the very difficult work of trying to bond with other women, moves through rising anger into fuller consciousness into being able to take action, and ends with a poem rejecting masochism called “Burying blues for Janis.” That’s one of those sequences in which I come up against people’s desire to experience all poems as autobiographical. I remember reading an essay by an academic writer in which “She leaves” was used at length to interpret the rest of the book autobiographically, assuming that in my sweet naiveté as a song sparrow I just warble out the poems and let them fall where they may. Actually, “She leaves” is about she; I wasn’t leaving anybody. It was about the walking out of old marriages that I saw happening a lot. The midsection “The spring offensive of the snail” is composed of poems about what you do after you’ve raised your feminist consciousness but you don’t want to remain there hung and angry in reaction. It’s about rejoining the Left on your own terms, about trying to be with men again and about trying to communicate and work with other women and with men. The last section “Laying down the tower” is one of those state of my own art sequences which I’ve done twice, the second being “The Lunar Cycle.
“Councils” in to Be of Use seems like an odd poem. It’s written for a male part and a female voice. Have you ever read this at a reading with somebody else doing the male part?
Yes, I have. I did that poem a whole lot at one time and I used to get a man to read it with me. It’s just that sometimes it’s so awkward to try to find someone to read it and not ham it up or mumble, that I think I finally gave up on that. But for a while I did it a lot whenever I was reading to mixed audiences.
How do you respond to people who call you a man-hater?
By biting their ankle. Next question.
Seriously. You run into that a lot?
Usually from people who have never read much of my work. Come on, it’s hopeless. I get flak from a number of lesbian feminists because most of my sexual relationships have been with men. Now the truth is, I rarely flirt with men I don’t know. Men are accustomed to a certain burring of sexuality with many women. I used to do that myself to survive when I was much younger, before the women’s movement. I would – not intentionally but unconsciously – create a sort of hidden sense that I found most men attractive, whether I did or not, simply because they would be kinder to me. Since I came to understand what was involved, I ceased doing that, quite consciously, and I couldn’t summon up that kind of behavior today if I wanted to. I don’t tend to smile a lot in situations where I feel on display – public situations. I speak directly and straightforwardly and bluntly, and that lack of subterfuge and lack of middle-class women’s mannerisms is perceived by some men as hostile, just as Black behavior which is simply straightforward is perceived by some whites as hostile.
Unlike some separatists I don’t view men as biologically impaired. I believe sexism is culturally conditioned and that if you change the culture, you will change the kind of behavior which people with the various sorts of genitalia will consider appropriate. What I hate in men is what I consider ugly, brutal, violent, mean behavior – behavior damaging to women, to men they consider inferior, to children, to other living creatures with whom we share our biosphere.
When I write in my novels about how men behave toward women, I am writing the truth out of the characters I have created and a truth I think many readers recognize. To ask that the portraits of all men in my fiction be flattering is to introduce a requirement never foisted on men about the women in their fiction.
Frequently when I go into a place, because I’m a feminist people assume I’m a lesbian. I never correct that silent assumption. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t be a lesbian if I fell in love with a woman again. I believe it is very necessary for the possibility of loving another woman to be open to women, just as the possibility for living chastely without any entanglements has to be open, or there is no sexual freedom at all. But then I’m a pluralist in sexuality as in most things. I want people to make many different choices and flourish in them, and to respect the choices they don’t make in their own lives as well as those they do.
To Be of Use I just heard was going out of print. Is that right?
It will be printed almost in its entirety by Knopf in my new and selected poems, Circles on the Water. I have left out maybe six poems from the whole book and I’m putting the rest in. all the other books I selected about a third of.
One question while we’re on To Be of Use. When we first met you did a number of Tarot readings, but we haven’t read the Tarot in a while. When you wrote that sequence did reading the Tarot have a larger part in your life?
I go through periods in which I read the Tarot a lot. A year and a half ago, I read it a number of times. Anyhow, I probably used the cards a lot more in the early seventies, late sixties than I do now.
What did it mean to you? You’re not a person who has a great mystical side, you’re very practical, pragmatic, political, upfront person. What does that element represent?
The Tarot has always appeared to me to be an incredibly rich treasure of images that have been in Western cultures and particularly heretical Western culture for a long time. I find that contemplating the cards moves those levels of my brain that begin the vibrations that become poems. I also find it a way of contemplating symbolism common in literature and in our culture and thereby trying to encounter my own meanings and penetrate the layers of meaning I the use of imagery and symbols.
Living in the Open was the book just coming out when you and I met. That was my introduction to you, having not known you at all. I read Living in the Open and assumed that everything you said there was you and it scared me quite a bit.
Why did it scare you?
Well, because I didn’t understand what you were saying, “no more lovers, no more husbands, no masters or mistresses, contracts, no affairs, only friends, no more trade-ins or betrayals…you are not my insurance, not my vacation, not my romance, not my job,” that’s heavy stuff to read written by somebody you’re considering getting involved with…
It’s my impression that in the body of your work your novels as well as your poetry, you never define what you would imagine to be the ideal family. I have the impression that you consider friendship more important than family or standing in the traditional place of family?
I am very interested in the voluntary families that people create; not just the communes but the informal social webs by which a great many people survive and flourish. A lot of my adult life I have been trying in one form or another to create alternatives to the nuclear family.
For me the family under patriarchy is at best a workable compromise. At worst it’s a place where people torture each other in intimate ways, where life is wasted in petty tyranny and petty reprisal, in spite that often consists in refusing to do something you want to prevent somebody else from doing what they want, refusing to enjoy, refusing to take chances or permit others to take chances.
Yet I’m a deeply social person. I like being alone. It’s important to me to have space on my own, my space to work, my own room. In my later life I’ve become accustomed to having a study of my own and my own bedroom, whether or not you sleep there with me. But I work alone. When I finish work for the day, I want company. I want to talk. I want exchange, communication, intimacy. We’ve talked a lot about each of our need for intimacy. I guess I feel a lot of family life as it’s lived precludes solitude on one hand and real intimacy on the other.
Friendship is my paradigm for the good relationship. If you like someone, you will also love them better. If you love without liking, there’s a chill at the core of it that easily turns into possessiveness, jealousy, competition.
What were you doing when you put Living in the Open together?
A lot of the poems in Living in the Open were of the same age as the poems in To Be of Use. A number of years had gone by between Hard Loving and To Be of Use when I had trouble finding a publisher for the Tarot poems. An editor interested early on had involved Lucia Vernarelli in making woodcuts for the poems. When that deal fell through, I felt obliged to honor the commitment. That made finding a publisher hard. But I held out the more personal poems from To Be of Use as well as the poems rooted in the Cape landscape that I’d begun to write in 1971. The first section of Living in the Open was mostly composed of poems about the Cape. The first poems were written in New York, among the few I wrote while I was ill. The others form my earliest exploration of the Cape. The middle section’s title, “The homely war,” came from a long poem about why as a feminist I still have relationships with men; the poems in that section are about trying and failing and sometimes enjoying my connections with other people. The last section, “The provocation of the dream,” is about the feminist vision. Living in the open is the first of my books that I did with Knopf and it’s the first one I think is totally pleasing physically. All the poetry books I’ve done with Knopf have involved a real cooperation with my editor, Nancy Nicholas, and with the design people. Virginia Tan has worked on all four of my books at Knopf and I’m deeply grateful for her patience. In every case, I’ve been quite firm about what I wanted and it’s taken several attempts for me to feel that the cover was doing what it needed to do for the book.
What a strange title for The Twelve-Spoked Wheel Flashing?
That’s my solar book as my lunar book is The Moon Is Always Female. It’s built around the sequence of a year, each season as an emotional as well as a literal season. The seasons of political ferment and activity, the seasons of loving and friendship, the seasons of the land. It’s the wheel of the sun and The Twelve-spoked Wheel Flashing is the wheel of the year which turns but doesn’t return to the same place, which is an image that’s haunted me for a long time: the wheel that turns but doesn’t return.
What was that strange story about the cover of The Moon Is Always Female?
I had given the book that title in manuscript, The Moon Is always Female, and Nancy Nicholas, my dear editor at Knopf, didn’t really like the title, and we were quibbling about it at the same time I kept talking about wanting either a cat in the moon or a cat jumping over the moon. The first sketches for the cover displeased me, lacking cats and moons. I think it was probably Virginia Tan herself who found the brush and ink drawing that came from and old Chinese scroll, and there was the cat in the moon and some Chinese lettering which when translated said “The moon is always female.” So Nancy gave up and said, so be it. So there was the cover and I got my title.
The country comes up again and again in your poetry, yet your novels seem to be based in the city, no?
I grew up in center city Detroit, although there were short periods of my childhood spent outside the city. But the great bulk of the first thirty-four years of my life was spent in cities. After I left home when I was seventeen, except for my college years in Ann Arbor, a small pleasant city, I lived in urban centers. I don’t think I spent more than four days at a time out of the center-city until 1969, when I spent a month on the Cape working on dance the Eagle to Sleep. We spend two days a week in Boston a fair amount of the year now, after all. I think probably what you’re getting at is that I have written more fiction based in the city, whereas more of my poetry for the last four books is based in the country. I guess the themes of caste and class that interest me are at their harshest and clearest in the city in our society, and thus I tend to use that setting to explore those themes.
I never knew you when your life was completely based in the city. Have you changed?
In New York I used myself as pure instrument. Even though I believed in mortality certainly because I had lost people close to me and kept losing friends who died or were killed then, nonetheless I treated myself as a totally renewable resource. I slept little, smoked heavily, pushed myself. I didn’t consider my body as something that had to be protected or conserved. I thought my energy inexhaustible. I would get up at six, write for four hours, go to three political meetings and a demonstration, make forty phone call, cook supper for a gang of ten and dance all night and get up the next day and do it again. So I thought. In that extremely political, even overly politicized environment, I tended to treat myself as a tool, which is partly the way I was treated by others. When my health broke, when I came to the end of my energy and had to face my limits, I learned to live in a different way. I had to learn to live so that I would last. I had to learn to be gentler, easier, quieter, to be a political person and go on living my life in a useful manner but to survive my own commitments. I think I probably told you the way I learned about the B vitamins was by passing out on Broadway and getting stepped on and then discovering I was anemic. That was after an operation where I lost a lot of blood. I’m a nutrition nut now.
Take you yeast,, take your vitamin E, take you C!
I had to learn to live in the world in a more careful and healthier way. Of course I’d destroyed my lungs by smoking plus the help of all those nice gasses the government used on us in demonstrations in the late sixties and early seventies. Almost coughing to death, choking on my own lungs, you might say impressed me. I almost died. It left me with a violent allergy to tobacco – a bloody nuisance, but even a little tobacco smoke makes me rotten sick – enough and I’m sick with a fever in bed for a week.
Are you a more productive writer now since you moved to the country?
Vastly. Less interruptions. I can control interruptions better. And since we’ve been in a relationship, I’ve become more productive.
Have you become more productive since you’ve become older and more experienced? For instance, the two of us can sit down at our desks at 8 o’clock and you will leave your desk at 12 have two or three pages to every one I might write. Is that something that I can look forward to with age?
If you consider it something to look forward to, yes. It is the case that a certain kind of mastery comes with experience. You have to have something to look forward to, right? There are lots of problems difficult for the apprentice writer which an experienced writer doesn’t think about anymore. You simply solve them, they are in your repertoire of easy solutions, and the problems that provoke you are other. I think there is a constant dialectic between what I can do and what I aim toward in my poetry, beyond what I know how to handle already. There are periods when I am pushing myself and periods when I am exploiting what I can do. Those kinds of epicycles go on, they move forward, you don’t return to the same place. Living in the country put me in touch with the land and with the seasons. You know living here you pay attention to the moon. If you want to go oystering, those sweet treasures of the local oysters, you have to watch the tides and the moon, and planting you watch the moon. I’ve become much more regular in my period since I’ve lived here. Paying attention to the moon aligns you. We’ve often noted how people in the city think it’s nice weather if it doesn’t rain. Well, if you’re growing things, and it doesn’t rain, it’s a disaster. We depend upon our well for water. We’re constantly aware of how much it’s raining, what the weather is, how cold, and how warm and whether there’s likely to be a frost. We’re aligned to the weather and the seasons and the climate in a very direct way.
I’ve never been to a poetry reading of yours where you didn’t read some political poems or try to talk to the audience about political issues. Now I know most poets ordinarily get nervous before a reading, but you must get doubly so because you’re going to be looked at as trying to talk to them about something political as well. Do you have any fear before poetry readings, a purely political fear as well as nervousness about reading?
Well, I worry about whether I’ve chosen the right poems for the right place. I worry about whether I can reach people. We had the experience of being in a small college last week in the south where we had supper with the faculty and they kept saying, The kids here are all born-again Christians, and they’ll eat you alive, and I felt that they were trying to make me afraid, as if they were daring me to reach the students.
It was incredible though that they were telling us stories before the reading that seemed like college had gone back fifty years, but your readings were so well attended, there were so many people who came up to you afterward, that I think that that really shows that you’re right. I think that I would always tend to make my program fit what I thought the audience was. But you don’t do that, you make the audience fit you, what you want to say, and you always seem to find people out there for whom you express, and for whom your poems give voice to their ideas. I see it time and time again.
But it’s not true, Woody, that I don’t try to reach the audience. I’m not going to change my politics but I did no overtly sexual poems that night. I decided that that was probably not going to work there. There are some audience where I’ll do poems like “Snow in May” which is a poem I really love, one of my best lyrics from The Twelve-Spoked Wheel Flashing, but it’s also a poem where there’s cocks and balls. I didn’t do any poems there with overtly sexual events or even imagery in them because I felt that if I did that they wouldn’t hear anything else. Not that I change the politics or read less feminist stuff. There’s other places where you do overtly sexy things and then the audience gets on you side and you can hit them with the politics. You try to play them. There are places where you can do a lot of the economically political poems and men like that and then you start doing the feminist poems and you have to work to get them across; you’ve bought them with the others. You have to set the feminist poems up in the program. I’m not going to omit them, I’m not going to ever not say what I’ve come to say, but I’ll do more or less love poems or sexual poems or nature poems as I judge the audience.
People have asked you but you always decline; how come you never read fiction?
I have on occasion when there is no other way to do a gig I want and they insist on it but I write my poetry to be read. Poems are arrangements of sounds and silences and they go very well aloud. Fiction makes me feel that, in being a little bit of an actor playing different roles, I feel as I am hamming it up or not hamming it up enough. The performance seems separate from the writing.
Do you think this is true just for you or have there been fiction writers you’ve enjoyed hearing?
I remember hearing toni Morrison read powerfully and Alice Walker and Dorothy Parker, years ago, and Grace Paley reads wonderfully. If I wrote only fiction, I would doubtless read my fiction, but since I write poetry and that’s for reading aloud, it always seems to me that it’s like working twice as hard to read the fiction aloud, plus I don’t write many short stories. It’s always a problem trying to pull a piece to read out of a novel, some little excerpt that works on its own. I remember trying it in the very late sixties and early seventies and having trouble managing to stop and start the excerpt and not have to explain for twenty minutes and then read for five minutes.
I want to talk about theme. You are always writing poetry during the time when you’re writing a novel. A novel takes two or three to four years to write, and you will at the end of that time have a book of poetry ready because so many poems get written while you’re writing a novel. Do they criss-cross, the themes of the poetry and the novel?
Yes, sometimes I’ll be aware of a poem which is also the same germination as the novel. I can think of a couple of examples. “The sun” that ends the Tarot sequence “Laying Down the Tower” in To Be of Use is the same vision that was the beginning seed of Woman on the Edge of Time; and the poem “The curse of the earth magician on a metal land” is the same vision which was a the beginning of the germination of the seed for Dance the Eagle to Sleep which is a phrase taken from that poem. Those are the most obvious examples, and in fact I took the title Braided Lives of my most recent novel from the poem, “Looking at quilts.” But there are less obvious relationships also. I have a whole sequence of poems about choice that you can follow from book to book about what it means to be able to choose in your life. The poem “For Inez Garcia” from Living in the Open is concerned with what it means as a woman to revenge oneself on a rapist. What is honor from a woman’s point of view? Honor has been defined from a male point of view. What does it mean to choose not to endure having been raped? That’s one of the first poems in which I think I am concerned with choice in the ultimate sense. I notice the same theme in “For Shoshana-Pat Swinton” from The Twelve Spoked Wheel Flashing where in a political and historical context I’m asking once again what it means to choose to acquiesce in decisions on the part of the government you feel to be wrong, or to resist, to cooperate with punitive and politically repressive grand juries or to resist. Of course, that’s centered on a political fugitive, as Vida was to be. “A gift of light” circles around the same questions. Those same concerns occur in “In Memorium Walter and Lillian Lowenfels” in which I am talking about two people who lived very political lives and who were friends of mine, and it’s a celebration of their choosing to remain so alive and so political into old age. In “Memo” from The Moon Is Always Female the poem deals with the choice of resistance rather than suicide and despair, and in a number of the Lunar Cycle poems I’m concerned with those ultimate decisions. Of course you could say that my novels follow through lives the effects of such decisions. In “Right to life” the choice is whether or not to have a baby. In “The sabbath of mutual respect” it’s the free choice of love object.
As a poet and fiction writer, I think you’re really lucky. I’ll write a novel over the course of two years and at least 100 small but significant things will happen to me during that time, an automobile accident, a political meeting where I’m enraged, I’ll put on and lose twenty pounds; all these things and I have to fight myself not to put it in but to stay on course with the fiction. But you as a poet can use these things to feed you in very specific ways. Do you do that? Did you store them up or write them all out?
Sometimes I respond to things immediately with a poem about them and sometimes I respond to something that happened fifteen years ago with a poem about it. It works both ways but you know that little translates directly. We’ve gone through this experience of your saying who is that poem written about, and I say well, it’s not really about anyone in particular. It’s sort of an amalgamation of two or three people and things I was thinking about and so forth. Certainly my autobiographical impulse has primarily played itself out in poetry rather than in fiction. But when I see reviewers as they want to do especially with women’s books looking at one or another of my books and making up a sort of narrative which the poems are supposed to express, that makes me feel like banging my head on the wall. It’s amazing how naive they assume you are. Everything you say just gushes from you freely and the order in the book has to have some relationship to your life, where there usually is little. I will put together love poems in a sequence they may have had their irrelevant genesis in three different relationships, and somebody will analyze the sequence in terms of some personal autobiographical trauma. It makes the angels throw up.
Two Christmases ago when you asked me what I’d like as a present, I said that I’d like some reference books. You thought about that as you usually do and you cam back with a thesaurus, an English grammar, a dictionary of foreign terms in English and three Peterson’s guides, one to trees and shrubs, one to wildflowers, one to birds. How come the Peterson’s guides? I’ve heard you recommend field guides to other young writers. Could you elaborate?
I think it was Issac Babel who talked about city Jews and how alienated we get from the land. He felt that you had to learn your own landscape and put roots down and learn names and somehow acclimate yourself. I remember being impressed by that, when I was reading a lot of Babel when I was twenty. But I would also answer it from a totally other angle which is that just as politically when there is no vocabulary for discussing your situation, when you’re a woman before there is language of feminism, trying to understand what it’s like to be a woman, you have no concepts, no vocabulary for even understanding your own situation. Similarly, in the natural landscape, you don’t begin to observe until you have some vocabulary, some set of criteria to apply, some kind of grids to put down. People who have never done bird watching at all don’t know what birds look like. They have no idea of the relative size. They have no way of looking at the different kinds of birds that are in their landscape or what they are doing there. To understand why a warbler has one kind of beak and a finch has another kind of beak. Why the different kinds of ways of flying happen: the darting flight, the soaring flight, the hovering flight. You walk through a field and there’s nothing in it. If you begin to look at wildflowers, you begin to see how every two or three weeks the whole field changes, the succession of bloom, and then you begin to look at the individual flowers and see how they are put together and the way the leaves are attached. Once you begin to identify trees, you begin to know how wet or how dry a spot is, how windy or how protected, what kind of climate, and you begin to expect what kind of animals live there and what they eat. You begin to understand the landscape. Until you begin to analyze the landscape, you are not experiencing it. I’m sure I make mistakes like any amateur, but by god if I say Fowler’s toad, I have identified a Fowler’s toad in the landscape or at least suppose I have. I don’t use details decoratively, or I may use them decoratively also, but I also use them truthfully in the sense of responsibility toward the landscape People who like natural history sometimes relate to my poetry, because it’s truthful in that sense. It’s responsible in that sense.
I’ve asked you this many time, but how did you get that way? I mean you grew up in Detroit, you lived in New York, Brooklyn, San Francisco, Paris. I have lived in less urban places than you have. Where did you come to love nature so much? How did you develop that interest?
My mother who was a child of the slums, of extreme poverty, taught me to love natural beauty. She grew a lot of flowers in a tiny urban yard in Detroit. We had a lush backyard for the tinyness of it, for the extreme industrialization of the landscape. Because of the depression in Detroit, there were holes in the development, in the urban landscape, where nature still existed. It was an interesting landscape that I grew up in. I’ve tried to suggest it in a couple of my novels, something of the Gary in Going Down Fast and the description of the landscape to the south of Detroit, down river, in The High Cost of Living, that section where Bernie and Leslie go. In spite of the industrial development, there were pockets in the neighborhood when I was growing up where there were still pheasants and rabbits, at the same time that it was intensely industrialized and there were street gangs. It was a strange combination. Of course enormous rats lived in the alleys where we spent a lot of time. Travel to me was always intensely exciting and for a working class kid, I got to travel a lot. My father drove all over Michigan to repair heavy machinery, and in the summer and sometimes even when I was in school, my mother and I would go with him. We stayed in those sort of cheap hotels a commercial traveler would go to, but some of them had charm for me – for instance, I remember the vines on the porch of the Winona Hotel in Bay City, which were full of Isabella wooly bear caterpillars, of which I was inordinantly fond. Still am. My mother couldn’t drive and we didn’t have the car anyhow, so we’d just sort of walk around and amuse ourselves as bests we could. There are specific smells that to this day I associate with certain industrial landscapes in Michigan. It was a pleasure to escape from school and Detroit and home.
We also went regularly to Cleveland, where some of my mother’s widely scattered family lived. Also Pennsylvania, where my father’s family came from, a small town in coal mining country, where I could get off into the woods easily. I was always attracted by trees and hills, anything semi wild. The low ridgy mountains with their forests, company towns, and the mines hollowing them out from within had a powerful affect on my imagination.
But as an adult, you didn’t have much contact with nature until you moved here?
That’s an understatement. Except for one period of three or four months traveling around Greece, the closest I got to a tree was in central Park when we were mounting antiwar demonstrations. Look, I think sometimes the kids who didn’t get to see that much in their childhoods that wasn’t ugly and grim but who were made aware, usually by their mothers, may value the healing and integrating power of wildness and nature more than people who grew up with a lot of grass and trees. Think of Lawrence and his mining town. The way he writes about flowers and birds and turtles always gets me. I like it much better than when he writes about sex in people. It’s much less self-serving (You don’t want that orgasm, Frieda, really you don’t) and rooted in empathy.
You use that word a lot. It’s a value word for you.
But mostly when I’m talking about fiction. It’s the prime quality of a novelist. How you enter other people’s experiences from the underside or the inside.
Why are you a poet anyhow?
What else should I be, like dead? Poetry is a necessity to me. Even when I have no access to paper or pen or silence, I make up poems. I make up poems for our cats. I say little poems when we’re in bed together. I make up little poems for you sometimes when I’m in the kitchen. I say poems to the peas and the day lilies. I make up poems for the houses on the street in Cambridgeport. Those aren’t meant to be great or public poems, just the little responses, the little grace notes of thanksgiving and praise and cursing during a day. They have some slight relationship to the real writing, which is infinitely more intense, concentrated, reaching out to channel far more reality. The little poems of the day are simple, but sometimes in them comes a seed, a flash, that real word that summons real work. The happier I am, the better I work. Out of pain, intense work is produced but often later on, when my actual state is quiet delight.
Often I imagine in different and better times not have to be political. I can even imagine, when I am at the bottom of a long uphill grade, doing something besides writing novels, although I doubt it. But I never imagine living without poetry.