Marge Piercy is the author of 18 collections of poetry, most recently The Crooked Inheritence and this spring, her second volume of new and selected poems 1980-2010 The Hunger Moon, out from Knopf. She has published 17 novels, most recently Sex Wars. Two of her early novels, Dance The Eangle To Sleep and Vida, are being republished with new introductions by PM Press this fall. Her work has been translated into 19 languages. Her memoir Sleeping With Cats is available from Harper Perennial.
Superstition Review Editor Britney Gulbrandsen conducted this email interview with author Marge Piercy. She says of the experience, "I was honored for the opportunity to interview Marge Piercy. She has accomplished such a wide array of achievements and is truly inspirational. After feeling honored, I suddenly began to feel overwhelmed. What do I ask someone whose writing career has inspired so many? Her poetry is so versatile and honest. I love the everyday subjects she chooses and the way she gives them new meaning. Her memoir, Sleeping with Cats, kept me captivated. The voice was candid, frank. This provoked such a relatable retelling of her story. It encompassed so much of reality. She is a beautiful writer. I want to thank her for her time in sharing with us her thoughts and poetry."
Superstition Review: In the first paragraph of Sleeping with Cats you write, "I rarely remember things incorrectly; mostly I remember clearly or I forget completely." Please explain how, as a writer, you try to overcome this.
Marge Piercy: Why overcome this? I figure what I forget is not emotionally or intellectually important. Of course early childhood events can be forgotten, and the way to get those back is through an exercise I teach in workshops. It is a matter of returning to a specific place and then using all your sense to locate yourself in that place, remembering your own size. Once you have gotten back with your sense lots of things you have forgotten will come vividly back.
SR: Speaking of autobiography you write, "We choose, therefore, only certain events, certain people, certain points of crisis and joy." How do you choose what should be put in and what should be left out?
MP: A memoir is a selection from your life. If you included everything in your life, your memoir would probably take longer to write than it did to live and be incredibly boring. We all spend a great deal of time wasting it. We chat, we watch TV, we listen to music, we doodle, we do endless email, we snack, we snooze. Of everyone you meet, only a selected few truly influence you or engage in a meaningful relationship with you. Of course as brief encounter could be meaningful to you and forgotten the next dayby the other.
Basically a memoir uses some narrative strategy. My memoir Sleeping With Cats is roughly organized by the cats in my life. Other memoirs use specific friends, the cars they have owned or the houses they have lived in, their lovers, their successes or failures. Some memoirs focus on a particular time period. Other focus on a particular obsession, a dependency, an illness, a discovery. Some say, this is how I succeeded. Others say, this is how I failed. Some depict a particular journey, whether physical, psychological, spiritual.
SR: You state, "I love the silence but I fear emptiness." Please discuss the meaning of this quote in your writing and in your life.
MP: Some writers can work in a cafe like Jean Paul Sartre. I have known writers who wrote to music. Others can be put off by voices heard through an apartment wall. I do have good powers of concentration, but I prefer silence. I find silence healing. When I am on the road, I long for it. I hate the ever encroaching noise of TV or musak in public places. But nothing is more boring that what happens on the road sometimes when I am stuck in a motel or hotel room with nothing scheduled until evening. Then I feel my life ebbing away. At home I am always occupied unless meditating. I live in a web of Things That Must Be Done. I write most days. I take part in meetings for groups I am part of. I garden. I spend intimate time with Ira. I feed, brush, play with my five cats. I cook dinner [I am a passionate and eclectic cook]. I see friends. I walk, I use the rowing machine, the stationary bike, the weights. I read. I watch selective TV, usually things on the DVR because I rarely have time to watch when programs are on. I am one of those annoying people who fast forward a lot.
SR: You end each chapter with a poem, except the very last chapter. Describe why you chose to format your memoir this way.
MP: I am a poet. Therefore I included relevant poems.
SR: You write, "I am always discovering new poets and sometimes new fiction writers to delight in. Discoveries come weekly." From all you have read, what pieces of work have been the most influential to your life as a writer?
MP: Influences are a matter of adolescence and young adulthood. All American prosody is born from our great queer granddaddy Walt Whitman and our eccentric grandmother Emily Dickinson. The novels of Simone de Beauvoir influenced me early because they combined political savvy with serious writing about women's lives.
SR: In your poem, "To Have Without Holding" you write, "to love consciously, / conscientiously, concretely, constructively." The use of alliteration here is beautiful. How do you manage to incorporate so many poetic techniques in your work without bending or morphing the content of the poem?
MP: The poetry workshops I teach, including the juried intensive poetry workshop every June here in Wellfleet, are craft workshops. Most of poetry cannot be taught, but craft can. I have written probably 1,500 poems or more. You learn. After a while what you had to do consciously at first, you do as a matter of course. But when a poem doesn't work, you go back and consciously call up elements of craft to make it work.
SR: The last few lines of your memoir read, "As do we writers, saying with our life's work, Remember. Remember us. Remember me." This ending has such a lasting impression. How do you choose the perfect ending for your work?
MP: Closure is very important to me in fiction and in poetry, although of course not as important as beginnings. Beginnings determine whether anybody will ever bother to read what you have written. If the beginning doesn't grab the reader, they will never bother with the rest. Endings are important because that's the final impression left with the reader. If an ending doesn't satisfy us, we may dismiss the experience of the poem or novel or memoir. If it has been moving enough, we may forgive the writer for that final disappointment or lack of guts or conviction or imagination. Maybe, maybe not. I always rewrite the beginnings of novels many times, but sometimes I change the endings also. He, She and It had a different ending until it had been sold and I was making my final revisions.
SR: Your poetry covers such a wide array of topics. Where do you get your inspiration?
MP: Poems start from an image, a phrase, a dream, the day's news, conversations, events, the landscape, a great fuck, a fight. I might read an article in Science News and it prompts a poem. I might read something in the newspaper or on the computer, where I get most of my news like everybody else. It might start with a letter from a friend who is sitting in the dark freezing because the power is out and the natural gas has been diverted from Taos to Dallas to heat the fans of the Super Bowl. Maybe Torah study was particular stimulating. Maybe one of the cats demands my attention in a new amusing way. Maybe something in daily life strikes me as funny. Maybe I look out the window and watch the wild turkeys and the male is spreading his fan trying to attract the hens and they go on eating and ignore him. Maybe the coy wolves kill a dog some idiot has let out at night and I try to save him and can't. There is no such thing as a poetic subject. There are only the things and events you pay attention to and those you don't.
SR: In "At the core of loving, fear" you write, "I fear the government, lightning, car crashes. / I fear food poisoning, fire, coyotes. / I fear war, the hatred of women, of Jews. / I fear blindness and cancer and ticks." This is a compelling list. Please discuss why you are drawn to lists.
MP: Lists are one of the many ways to organize. When I am talking about what I call pattern poems in workshops, lists are one of the types I talk about.
SR: You have had such an incredible writing career—17 published novels, 17 published books of poetry, a riveting memoir, various readings, workshops, and lectures. What is your advice for aspiring writers?
MP: Actually eighteen poetry books. The Hunger Moon: new and selected poems 1980-2011 has just been published by Knopf. The reason people call me prolific is simple: except for workshops and occasion residencies, I don't teach. Teaching takes away from writing. I don't live in academia. I am very much out in the world and I have had what is called an interesting life. My friends are not primarily writers or academics. I know many different sorts of people and interact with them on a daily and weekly basis: house painters, painters, shellfish farmers, fisherman, a bank manager, politicians, engineers, wait people, people who run B&Bs, a lighthouse docent, a carpenter, a financial planner, graphic designers, journalists, nature writers, etc. I think it helps writers to have jobs where they interact with a wide variety of people and have to listen to others. I think having some knowledge of how extreme circumstances reveal what people are capable of, both for good and for bad, helps a writer. But the primary advice for apprentice writers is to read and read and read and read. When you're young, it doesn't matter if you imitate. You're still finding out who you are and trying on different masks. When you figure out who you are, you will find your own style.