The Providence Phoenix Interview

Fighting Words

Marge Piercy’s Powerful Poetry and Prose

By Johnette Rodriguez, The Providence Phoenix, Sept., 27, 2002

Marge Piercy’s early novels were to burgeoning feminists like rain on parched flowers, allowing women to lift their faces to the sun and begin to articulate their feelings of frustration and injustice. Her poems were like banners for the movement, proclaiming pride in being a woman, rage at being the targets of man-made laws and man-made attitudes, and a fierce determination to effect change, both personal and political.

Three and a half decades later, Piercy’s writing has lost none of that raw power. The women in her fiction are still drawn with such immediacy and empathy that you often recognize in their life-decisions people or situations you have known. Her poems are still wry and witty in one stanza and gut-grabbing in the next. Piercy has woven strands of her own family history through the poems, most poignantly about her relationship with her mother. She has written about past loves and lovers; her garden and her cats; her progressive political views; her re-appreciation of the rituals of Judaism.

In this year when she turns 65, she published a memoir, Sleeping with Cats; she’s just finished the first draft of a new novel – “it’s contemporary and has to do with American politics”; and she will publish a new collection of poems in March, 2003, entitled Colors Passing Through Us. The following is from a phone interview with Marge Piercy from her home in Wellfleet, Massachusetts.

Q: What kinds of things did you learn when you were writing Sleeping with Cats?

A: Looking at my life was very difficult. I think I learned that I haven’t been as good a person as I’m inclined to think of myself as (laughs). I haven’t been as good f friend, haven’t been as good a person, made a lot of mistakes.

Q: There must have been good stuff.

A: I think I knew most of the good stuff (laughs). I think I managed to forget the bad stuff.

Q: The Art of Blessing the Day is subtitled Poems with a Jewish Theme. Was there a time when you didn’t value those rituals? Was there a gradual turning back to them? Or did they never really leave you?

A: The sense of being Jewish never left me, but when my grandmother died, I rebelled against Judaism as I knew it then, which was Orthodox. I saw the rituals, a lot of them, as very male, for a long time. I think that I became especially re-interested in Judaism after my mother died and I said Kaddish for her for a year. I had no idea what I was saying – I had never learned Hebrew. So I was saying “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” except it was very beautiful. So I began to learn Hebrew and became much more involved.

Q: There’s been such a strong strain of feminism through your writing – do you think women have made gains in the last 20 to 30 years? I n what ways?

A: We’ve made gains by working very hard at it. Rape is generally recognized now as a crime and not a form of entertainment. Battering and child abuse have become much more visible. All of these things existed but they were just accepted as the way things are. Yes, your husband beats you. Yes, the kid next door goes out with bruises all over her back. “Well, they’re her parents, it’s their business.”

We haven’t made much gain in women’s health because the insurance companies prevent it. Most women are still playthings of pharmaceutical companies. You know, we take pills they say are good for us and then we discover that they can kill us. An awful lot of women and children are uninsured. Medicines that people need to survive, especially older people – and, or course, most older people are women – are so expensive in the US that an increasing number of people can’t take the medications necessary to preserve their health, their life.

We’ve made progress in sports. There are a lot more women lawyers and doctors. There are not a hell of a lot more women scientists and there are not very many powerful women in government. There’s a very small minority in the House and Senate.

One way in which things have not improved is body image. The standard required body image for women to achieve or maintain is impossible for 90 percent of the population. The media is so powerful that they are constantly pushing the image of these perfect, skinny blond women which doesn’t correspond to the genes, body structure, or health requirements of most women. And this matters a lot because women are always comparing themselves to these media images. Just about every woman we know is dissatisfied with their body and feels inferior. This is insane. It’s gotten much, much, much, much worse.

Q: What should we do about it?

A: We have to try to counter the media and we have to try to change the media. That’s all we can do. But the diet business and the business of making women dissatisfied with their bodies and spending all this money crap and going under the knife – it all makes billions. We’re standing there with a sign, saying, “It ain’t all worth it.” It isn’t that you can’t counter it; it’s that it’s very difficult.

Q: There’s also been in your writing such a strong strain of political activism and concern. Where are we at now?

A: About to go to war for no good reason except Bush family. We haven’t improved things in Afghanistan except in Kabul and here we are marching off to some other place. We have a responsibility. We marched in there with all t his talk about what we were going to do and we haven’t done it. We fixed up the capital, which is where the correspondents go and the government people go.

I’m very involved in local politics right now. There’s a plan afoot by the selectmen to turn Wellfleet, which is a beautiful little fishing village and art gallery town, home of the Wellfleet oyster, into the garbage-processing facility for five to eight towns of the Outer Cape and to build a huge industrial garbage and waste-processing facility here. They call it compost but it ain’t compost – it’s full of toxic stuff. They’re considering putting this in the middle of a residential neighborhood or right in the National Park. So, we’re opposed to both sites and we’re marching around.

Q: Why aren’t people moving out of their lethargy more quickly?

A: People are very afraid of any controversy. We’ve become very passive spectator types. And when the kids were protesting globilization – quite reasonably – they really got bashed. Plus 9/11 happened, which was ghastly, and everything became very patriotic: my country right or wrong. We’re right to stop terrorism, but the last thing we need is a war in Iraq.

Q: In a time like this, what makes poetry, fiction, personal narrative, art of all kinds important?

A: Because no matter how active you are, you have to know why, you have to know who you are, you have to know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. You have to know what you believe in. You need affirmation of the parts of you that the media doesn’t affirm – the core of you. That’s mostly poetry. As for fiction: you need to know how the stories come out. You need to know what happens that people make certain choices. You have to know what really are strengths and weaknesses played out over time. With memoir and personal narrative – learning how other people conducted their lives, whether their story is “this is how I went wrong” or their story is “this is how I finally accomplished this” – it’s useful to us to look at the meaning of other people’s lives.