A Look at Marge Piercy: a Feature Poet at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival

Marge PiercyThe Boston Globe  summarizes the artistic importance of the poet and novelist  Marge Piercy, who will be one of the featured poets at this year’s Massachusetts Poetry Festival: “Marge Piercy is not just an author, she’s a cultural touchstone. Few writers in modern memory have sustained her passion and skill. . . .”

That cultural touchstone is a phenomenon you will not want to miss when she appears at the May 2-4 festival in Salem. Piercy is not just a poet with 17 volumes to her credit (see a list of her poetry), she has also published an equal number of novels.

Piercy’s Background

The Poetry Foundation describes Piercy’s family as working class and one hard-hit by the Great Depression. She was the first in her family to attend college. Her background is also described this way: “During the 1960s, Piercy was an organizer in political movements like the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the movement against the war in Vietnam, an engagement which has shaped her work in myriad ways. Perhaps most importantly, though, has been Piercy’s sustained involvement with feminism, Marxism and environmental thought.”

What others are saying about her poetry

Here are a few quotes to tell you what others are saying about her work:

“Like a lightning rod, she brings large energies to ground. . . .” ~Jane Hirshfield

“I always appreciate her unique mixture of common sense with uncommon joyful insight. She’s political and sensual, astute and wild. . . ” ~Joy Harjo

“.. . Marge Piercy proves that modern poetry can be both passionate and perceptive, well-structured and inventive.”

“Piercy has the double vision of the utopian: a view of human possibility – harmony between the sexes, among races and between humankind and nature-that makes the present state of affairs clearly unacceptable by comparison.”
–Margaret Atwood, New York Times Book Review

Interview with Piercy

We asked Piercy a couple of questions for this story. Here are her answers:

Who had the most impact on your writing when you were a beginning poet? In what way?

I began with what turned out to be the origins of American prosody: Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.  At fifteen, they both moved me.  The sweep and power of Whitman and the intensity and imagery of Dickinson got to me.  I began reading poetry widely but started with them.

What convinced you that you had to be a poet?

Desperation and opportunity. For the first time in my life I had a room of my own with a door that shut.  Even though it was unheated, I had privacy.  I turned to poetry in an attempt to make sense of my life and deal with my loss and confusion. I had three deaths: my grandmother Hannah who had given me my religious education and unqualified love; my girlfriend, who died of a heroin overdose, and my sweet cat who was poisoned by my boyfriend when we sold our asbestos shack to an African American family. Although the area was predominantly Black, our block was white and his family was furious.  Nothing in my life was the way TV and school told me it was supposed to be. I had witnessed more violence than most kids my age who didn’t grow up in the ghetto.  Our family had little money and less education and iI didn’t seem to fit in anyplace.

What do you think is the most exciting development in poetry today?

Since so few people read, a return of poetry readings.  I also like the immediacy of on line journals and the opportunity on some sites to hear/see the poet reading a poem or two.

What emerging poets do you find interesting? Why?

Elizabeth Bradfield; Tarfia Faizullah; Shana Ritter; Joan Michelson, George Longenecker; and though they are certainly not new at publication, Marilyn Kallet and Maria Gillan, who deserve more attention than they’re receiving. All of these poets write work that moves me and is original and powerful.  Each of them is very different than the others and would probably be surprised to be put into any group together.  

What are you most looking forward to at the Mass Poetry Festival?

Reading to a appreciative audience and hearing other poets, some of whose work I’m not acquainted with.

One of her poems

To give you only the slightest taste of her abundant and powerful poems, here is one of her early poems:

The tao of touch

What magic does touch create
that we crave it so.  That babies
do not thrive without it.  That
the nurse who cuts tough nails
and sands calluses on the elderly
tells me sometimes men weep
as she rubs lotion on their feet.

Yet the touch of a stranger
the bumping or predatory thrust
in the subway is like a slap.
We long for the familiar, the open
palm of love, its tender fingers.
It is our hands that tamed cats
Into pets, not our food.

The old woman looks in the mirror
thinking, no one will ever touch
me again, never.  Not hold me.
Nor caress the softness of my
breasts, my inner thighs, the swell
of my belly.  Do I still live
if no one knows my body?

We touch each other so many
ways, in curiosity, in anger,
to command attention, to soothe,
to quiet, to rouse, to cure.
Touch is our first language
and often, our last as the breath
ebbs and a hand closes our eyes.

You must not miss the chance to see Piercy at this year’s festival!