Patty Wittnebert Tomsky
Spare Change News
Women’s History Month is upon us. March is also the month named after Mars, the God of War. One of our foremost literary goddesses of anti-war is a woman who lives in a tiny village on Cape Cod and has been writing strong, powerful works of fiction and poetry for five decades.
Marge Piercy has been a fresh and honest voice in the discourse of feminism, historical fiction, science fiction, and poetry. Her poems and novels are fearless and infused with strength and verve. Her activism — for women’s rights and toward eradicating war and social injustice –is legendary. Piercy’s latest of her 16 books of poetry, “The Hunger Moon: New and Selected Poems, 1980-2010”, just came out in paperback. She also just reissued two acclaimed political novels, “Vida” and “Dance the Eagle to Sleep”.
Spare Change News sat down with her to discuss the changes she has undergone as a woman and as an artist over the years, and to talk about what’s next for this dynamo.
SCN: I just learned that I can be a bully when pushed into a corner. What did you learn about yourself recently? Did you have an “aha” moment about something in your history?
MP: While I was writing my memoir, “Sleeping with Cats”, I realized that I wasn’t nearly as nice a person as I thought I was (laughs). There’s nothing like honestly examining your life to reach new conclusions about yourself! I had thought of myself as being a better friend and a better person than I was in truth.
SCN: If you could tell a young woman something about your experience of being a woman that would help her on her journey, what would it be?
MP: The friendship of other women is very important throughout your life. It’s very important to have that support and many women give it up for a relationship. Also, never sacrifice parts of yourself – your religious ideals, anything like that. Of course, in every relationship we are changed. But some changes can be dangerous and even fatal.
MP: Do you read the newspapers? How many times does a man who is out of work come home and kill his wife and children and himself? Women need to have an independent existence and protect that. The best love affairs don’t smother.
SCN: Your poems and novels often describe a heroine just “coming into her own.” Do you remember a point in your life when you first came into your own? What did you do with your new knowledge?
MP: When I was 15, several things happened. My best friend died of a heroin overdose. My grandmother, who was the only source of unconditional love in my life, died. We moved from an asbestos shack in a working class neighborhood into a larger house in a lower-middle-class neighborhood where my mother started renting out rooms. I had privacy for the first time — the first room of my own with a door that shut. So I was able to try to use fiction and poetry to make sense of all of the contradictions in my life. The way things were supposed to be had nothing to do with the way things actually were. The second pivotal moment was when I was in college, I had to give myself an abortion. I became very ill and almost died. After that, I knew I was strong and brave and I had confidence that I could do what I had to do.
SCN: I just learned how to rock climb this summer and find it incredibly exciting — not to mention the prospect of talking to one of my poetry idols on a humdrum Friday in March! What is exciting to you about your life today? The world today?
MP: The world today appalls me. Listening to all these old men and middle-aged men like Santorum pushing women’s rights back into the dark ages. Watching the real wages of people pushed down to so much less than they were 40-50 years ago so that people have to work three times as hard to make a living. Watching the gap between the one percent and the 99 percent growing larger and larger. The Occupy movement was great but now they need to get out of their tents and start real organizing. The fact that people are finally protesting excites me. People have to understand that during the Civil Rights and Vietnam Anti-War movement, it wasn’t the Supreme Court that changed things — we filled the streets. High school women came out, college women came out.
SCN: I was blessed to read your great book, “So You Want to Write”, that gives direction to beginning writers. In light of the recent electronic book revolution, or in light of changing modes of delivering fiction and poetry to consumers, can you give some additional timely advice to a young person just starting out in the literary world?
MP: Publishing online is just as good as a paper publication but these days you have to take responsibility for pushing your own work. Publishers don’t do much, so you have to get out there. We (Piercy and her husband Ira Wood) ran a publishing house for ten years. The other advice I have is to get out of academia. It used to be that you would read the resume of a writer in the 50s or 60s and you’d read that they worked on a lobster boat, they worked to stop a plague in Afghanistan. Now, it’s they went to University of Iowa then to the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, and now they are studio teaching in Arkansas. When we live in different places and get more experience in life we enrich our voices as writers.
SCN: In your novel, “Sex Wars”, you fictionalize the life of Victoria Woodhill, the celebrated spiritualist who was the first woman to run for President. In this Presidential election year, do you believe we will see a woman run? And when will we see a woman win the Presidency?
MP: I don’t think we will. This country is so much more sexist than many others. Ageism and sexism here are rampant. Women over 40 aren’t supposed to exist in this country unless they have had 800 different medical procedures.
SCN: And if you are pretty and over 40 they call you a “cougar.”
MP: Then I am a cougar. My husband is 13 years younger. SCN: Awesome! Good to know!
SCN: Your poem, “Barbie Doll”, an artful expose of the shallowness of America’s ideal of women, has been widely anthologized and is arguably one of your most famous poems. Have things changed since you wrote that poem? In a world of Kardashians and hip-hop songs that have women singing about “hoes” when singing about their sisters, what do you see the role of a young feminist in these difficult days?
MP: Pick out what issues move you. No one can tell you what they are.
SCN: I’m in awe of your stamina and your prolific output. How do you keep producing so much quality work? Maybe you can describe a typical day to the rest of us slackers? MP: First of all, a simple explanation—I chose writing and artistic endeavor over security. I write full time and sometimes I make enough to live and sometimes I am scraping by.
SCN: I think that’s awful that someone like you who has produced such great work would have to “scrape by.”
MP: I do OK. I chug along. And my stuff coming back in print through PM Press means a lot to me.
SCN: Is there something you’d like to leave us about yourself that few people know? MP: I think it’s very important that as a political person, you live in a way that you can write your life. I enjoy whatever I can and what I don’t enjoy, I change. I taught myself to make changes. I love my six cats, my garden, and my friends. It’s important to figure out what’s good for you and what’s not good for you (chuckles). And I ain’t talking about Romney and his two Cadillacs.
For an online sampling of Marge Piercy’s work, go to http://www.margepiercy.com/
PATTY WITTNEBERT TOMSKY is a freelance writer.
This girlchild was born as usual
and presented dolls that did pee-pee
and miniature GE stoves and irons
and wee lipsticks the color of cherry candy.
Then in the magic of puberty, a classmate said:
You have a great big nose and fat legs.
She was healthy, tested intelligent,
possessed strong arms and back,
abundant sexual drive and manual dexterity.
She went to and fro apologizing.
Everyone saw a fat nose on thick legs.
She was advised to play coy,
exhorted to come on hearty,
exercise, diet, smile and wheedle.
Her good nature wore out
like a fan belt.
So she cut off her nose and her legs
and offered them up.
In the casket displayed on satin she lay
with the undertaker’s cosmetics painted on,
a turned-up putty nose,
dressed in a pink and white nightie.
Doesn’t she look pretty? everyone said.
Consummation at last.
To every woman a happy ending.
–Marge Piercy (Copyright, Alfred A. Knopf)