Poet, novelist, memoirist, and activist Marge Piercy is the author of eighteen collections of poetry, including To Be Of Use (1973), My Mother’s Body (1985), and The Art of Blessing the Day: Poems with a Jewish Theme (1999). I first encountered Piercy’s writing while researching my doctoral thesis on Walt Whitman and Jewish American Poetry. After reading Made in Detroit, her most recent collection, I was curious about the book’s major themes, such as growing up in Detroit, minority identity, the relationship between mother and daughter, poetry and politics, the natural world, and moral imperatives of Judaism. I recently had the honor and pleasure of conversing with Piercy by email about these and other topics.
The Rumpus: Marge, I’ve had the pleasure of reading your most recent book of poems, Made in Detroit. I found many of themes there that reoccur in your work: family, intimacy, Judaism, activism. Various queries come to mind, but maybe I’ll start with the title, which got my attention, not only because I happen to have been born in Ann Arbor. I was initially very curious about what was made in Detroit. After reading the first poem, which is also the title poem, I surmised that what you, the creator of the poem, were made in Detroit: “The night I was born the sky burned red / over Detroit and sirens sharpened their knives.” When and how did you decide that Detroit would be at the center of the book?
Marge Piercy: I was born in Detroit and lived there my first seventeen years, except for about nine months in Maryland and Baltimore in 1944. Detroit formed me in many ways. Everything was visible, the concentric rings starting with poverty going out to the fancy houses of the wealthy. I was not white as a child. Jews were not white then. After the first couple of years in the old Jewish neighborhood where we shared an apartment with another couple where the husband was also out of work, my father was rehired by Westinghouse and bought a house (asbestos siding, very small but with a yard that had one of those huge beautiful elms that had been planted all over Detroit then) at auction from a bank that had foreclosed on it in a neighborhood that was white or black by blocks. Anti-Semitism, racism, enmities between nationalities, all were out in the open and blatant. If you walked around the city in summer when the windows were opened, you could hear Father Coughlin spewing his hatred from most houses out of our neighborhood, and even some there like the people next door. The Silver Shirts (local fascists) were out on street corners with their newspaper and pamphlets. Detroit gave me a strong sense of my identity and my class-consciousness. I also grew up with African Americans. My parents had racist attitudes, but I couldn’t. My first boyfriend was black and I was beaten for it. His sister protected me when I developed rheumatic fever and went from a strong tomboy to someone who weighed about 40 pounds, was invisible if I stood sideways, and passed out a lot. With my big mouth, I was also in danger from bullies. That background was what brought up into the civil rights movement early on.
We had close friends who had come up from Appalachia and every Sunday we drove out to their tenant farm and they killed a chicken for us. It was some years before we had meat with any regularity. I never saw a dentist till I was 17 and working for Bell Telephone on the long distance switchboard. Detroit had music, two black stations. That was all I listened to—urban blues—and classical music on the CBC from Windsor. I despised white pop music.
Detroit educated me in so many ways. I lost a girlfriend to heroin at 15. She was a street whore whose john had addicted her. I saw the Detroit race riots and remember the tanks coming down the streets, a foreign invasion force, and white people coming into our neighborhood and beat a black man I knew who worked in a drugstore where I sometimes had money to buy comics so bad he died in the emergency room.
I loved the Art Institute and my library, Gabriel Richard, and the main public library and Rouge Park and Belle Isle and the broken down mansions on Grand Boulevard and the trolleys and the river. Hudson’s downtown awed me; it was so huge and had so many parts to it. I worked at Sam’s Cut-Rate Department Store in better dresses, $3.98 and up.
I was in a proto gang and we owned our area. I knew so many kinds of people from a Wyandotte Native American to kids from the projects to kids up from Appalachia to strivers and strains and gamblers and numbers runners. Detroit formed me.
Rumpus: Would you say that the link between poetry and politics in your work was established in those early years in Detroit? Did your need for poetry later on stem from a sense of being “other”—marginalized—as a Jew, and being witness to racism, prejudice, and bigotry of all kinds? Would you also say that Made in Detroit is more autobiographical than other books? One autobiographical aspect would be the poems about the relationship to your mother. In one striking poem, the speaker addresses her mother and her Jewishness comes into play:
Oh mother running an old vacuum
back and forth on a threadbare rug
while my retired father supervised –
if you had the wings of the robins,
jays and cardinals you fed daily
out of the window you’d have flown
to some garden of peach trees
and peonies, a garden of roses
and tomatoes red as lipstick:
a garden where you could sit
on cushions and cats would circle
your feet purring your Hebrew name.
Piercy: I have written a great many poems about my relationship with my mother, even before the book My Mother’s Body, containing the first section of poems dealing with my mother and my relationship with her. Every poetry book I have ever published since 1978 has poems about her.
From the first, when I was fifteen and we moved into a house where I had a room of my own, unheated but with real privacy—I was upstairs with the tenants who rented the two larger bedrooms—I began to write to try to make sense of my life. There were always political poems even when what I wrote was yards of rhymed poetry. I think all my poetry books have at least one section of autobiographical poems. This one focuses mainly on my childhood and adolescence in Detroit.
Rumpus: It’s interesting that you perceive the political having always been in your poems, even the early ones. Could you say more about that? Do still have any of those early poems?
Piercy: No. All my early poems were lost when I was in France. After heavy rains in the neighborhood where my parents lived then, their basement flooded often. All the papers I had stored there were destroyed.
Rumpus: What a loss. Speaking of floods, there is a progression of the book from the city of Detroit into the natural world—from the urban unto every manner of vegetable, flower, fruit, and animal: “The garden is oppressing me / with its rich bounty that is so / many debts to be paid” from “But Soon There Will Be None.”
Piercy: I live now very close to the natural world. We grow 90% of our own vegetables, can, freeze, dehydrate. Since I moved to the Cape in 1971—having always lived in the center of cities before that—I became much more attuned to and much more interested in the natural world and the world of gardening. I began to observe the phases of the moon, the tides and what washed up then and now and how it has changed. The butterflies that visited my flowers. The trees, the wildflowers, the bushes that grew in all the open places and in the woods and on the dunes. I began to collect guides to birds, to butterflies and insects, to trees, to rocks, to stars, to winter tracks and animal scat. I became much more observant of the world around me, much more involved in it. Our house is on a cul-de-sac with one other house that is unoccupied all but a few weeks in the year. We live in the woods on the edge of a marsh. We share or land or are visited by possums, moles, voles, mice, wood rats, deer, foxes, coywolves, raccoons. We have a large bird population from summer visitors like hummingbirds to year-rounders like chickadees and wild turkeys.
Each section has its logic. For instance, the nature section is organized around the natural year. And the Jewish section is organized by the Jewish year, a lunar year that begins in the early fall.
That was how I organized the book. My poetry collections are always organized in a particular way. Mars and Her Children is organized by the colors of the spectrum.
Rumpus: The section with the poems about Judaism is titled “The Late Year.” The first poem in that section is “Working At It”:
I like Rosh Hashanah late,
when the leaves are half burnt
timber and scarlet, when sunset
marks the horizon with slow fire
and the black silhouettes
of migrating birds perch
on the wires davening.
Returning to the idea of being “made” by a city, do you see yourself as making a kind of Judaism through the poems themselves? Your book Art of Blessing the Day seems to open space for a progressive, democratic, self-defined Judaism. In my doctoral thesis, I wrote about how Walt Whitman’s style and ethos informs those poems. Would you say that the poems in Made for Detroit come from a similar desire to reinvent or reimagine Judaism?
Piercy: I’m Reconstructionist, which is a part of Judaism more open to meditation and Kabbala and very egalitarian, very rainbow-ish. So I’m simply part of many people who have been remaking Judaism to make it more open to all kinds of people and re-examining rituals, holidays, mitzvot, etc., to find if they still have meaning in contemporary life and how to make them more meaningful. What I am working at is trying to be a better person, trying to live up to my religion’s ethics.
Rumpus: In closing, what advice would you give to a young potential poet—a girl or boy some place in the world, who feels like an outsider and writes poems in their room?
Piercy: Read, read, read. Don’t imitate but see what works and what doesn’t in poems. Look at the craft. Read old poems and new poems, recent poems and poems of right now. Experiment. Learn to revise.