Marge Piercy is known for many things. She’s a novelist, a memoirist, and a poet. She’s an activist, a feminist, and a thinker. She’s a trailblazing author of speculative fiction; William Gibson called one of her works, 1976’s Woman on the Edge of Time, the birthplace of Cyberpunk. But even her ardent admirers might not realize the 79-year-old scribe is a native Detroiter.
Piercy’s origins got a bit of a boost last month, with the publication of her 19th collection of poetry, Made in Detroit. Just as people across the United States seem ready to give the Motor City a second look, for this book Piercy consciously chose a title that alludes to her provenance.
She was kind enough to speak to us from her home on Cape Cod, talking about Detroit, poetry, feminism, and sci-fi, between fussing over her four cats.
Metro Times: Your childhood here has been described as “strained.” Can you talk about that?Marge Piercy: In some ways it was very rich and in some ways very difficult. I was born in the old Jewish section [around 12th Street and McGraw], in an apartment that my parents shared with another couple because everybody was out of work. But when my father was rehired by Westinghouse he didn’t want to stay there, so we moved into a neighborhood by Livernois and Tireman that was sort of black and white by blocks. I went to Sherrill Grade School, which was predominantly African American. So I always grew up with black kids. My parents were racist, but I couldn’t be; it wasn’t reasonable or my experience. But in those days I wasn’t white because I was a Jew. Jews weren’t white then. Everything was “Jews and blacks.” Father Coughlin spouting from the radio. It was the Silver Shirts, the fascists, on the street corners with their pamphlets and stuff. On one hand it was very beautiful because we went to Belle Isle and Rouge Park and there were all those elms in those days. These huge elms, so that even the poor neighborhoods had these beautiful trees in them, lined all those dilapidated mansions on Grand Boulevard, so there was all this green in the city. And there was always music. When I was growing up there were two black stations I listened to. I hated contemporary white pop. The urban blues was what I listened to, and also the classical music from across the river.
MT: You weren’t a big reader as a child?Piercy: I was a tomboy with little interest in school until I had the German measles and rheumatic fever. You couldn’t see me if I stood sideways. I was pale blue and I fainted a lot. I then got very good in school and began to read an enormous amount. And afterward I could no longer do hardly anything. I couldn’t do the things I had done before. It wasn’t until I was 12 or 13 that I could win any fights again.
MT: [laughs] Was there a lot of street fighting in those days?Piercy: Yes.
MT: Do you have any memories of the 1943 riot?Piercy: Yes. It was terrifying. I was in one of those afterschool programs that social services puts on and we were all there. I remember we were painting little plaques as cherries or something and suddenly the mothers started coming. First the black mothers and then the white mothers and us in-betweens. They were taking the children home and saying, “Don’t say anything. Don’t speak to anyone.” I didn’t stay home. My father was out of town. I don’t think my mother had any idea how serious it was so I just went out. I remember the tanks coming into our neighborhood. They were an army of occupation. They were terrifying. These boys, basically, with rifles looking at all of us like we were animals. I saw a group beat a black man I knew who worked in the drug store where I used to buy comic books when I had a little money. I saw them beat him and he was taken to the hospital and later died.
MT: You wouldn’t be allowed to roam that freely today.Piercy: It’s so weird, the people who are getting into all sorts of trouble, and the police took their children in the back of a squad car, because they walked to the park alone. I went all over the place alone. At 12 years old, I was babysitting until two in the morning for people who worked in a nightclub. I went there by myself, babysat, and then came home alone. You learned to take care of yourself. I think it’s a great pity. I don’t think they learn to take care of themselves in the same way that I did. I mean I fought off two rape attempts by the time I was 15. The world is harsh reality. Then, when you find out, what does it do to you? The world is not a gentle place, and with what’s happening in the country, most kids are now doomed to a life that is now less than their parents’ and grandparents’ by now.
MT: The way that you take a look at social justice through your writing and your poetry and fiction, is that something that Detroit helped to shape?Piercy: Detroit formed me. Detroit gave me my political consciousness, my class consciousness. Detroit made me.
MT: I have to say that I generally do not like contemporary poetry. It has a lot of lyrical excesses and lacks the plain-speaking voice that I would like to hear. But with your poetry, I can feel somebody is talking to me and not trying to speak in riddles.Piercy: That’s why I don’t win any prizes. Or rarely. But people use my poems. There’s a poem of mine called “To Be of Use” which has a long history or being read at memorials for activists, union people, radical lawyers. People use my poems at weddings. The things that people put on their refrigerators, put up over their computers. People use my poems, which is what poetry used to be like.
MT: That’s a good way of saying it. What happened to poetry? Was it the poetry establishment?Piercy: Academia. People do not write theses on my poetry. Poetry has to be something that you explicate. It’s very dense and very difficult and you get to write a thesis on it and you get your Ph.D. Also, it’s part of what happened to all the arts in the United States: The money that was poured into it by the wealthy was intended to make it no longer dangerous to them. But there’s a lot of poetry that people relate to. Poetry isn’t centralized in New York. It’s not centralized where the prize givers are. If you go into Mexico, the poets that people relate to there are ones that mean nothing in New York. But they mean something to the people there. Poetry is very regional now. Very decentralized. And of course, it’s also gone into the bars and so forth where you have slam poetry contests and so forth. And that’s all very oral.
MT: In addition to you antiwar stance you are well known for your feminism. These days, it seems I can’t turn around without someone commenting on the intersection of feminism and science fiction. There was something called “The Transformative Justice Science Fiction Reader” from the 2012 Allied Media Conference that put together a syllabus that includes your book Woman on the Edge of Time, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and Octavia Butler. It would seem that you are one of the pioneers of putting those things together. How did that magic happen?Piercy: I always read science fiction, so I’ve written about three books in speculative fiction.
MT: And it was just natural that your interest in social justice would find its expression in that kind of a world?Piercy: Yeah. Isaac Asimov said that all science fiction is “what if,” “if only” and “if this continues.”
MT: One of my friends said to take a poem like “Barbie Doll” and take the message of that poem and stack that up against a new generation of feminists who don’t necessarily have the same objections to the objectification of women.Piercy: The poem is about body shaming. If you can be at home in your body, why not feel sexy? But the whole notion of there being a very narrow range of female acceptability is tremendously destructive. I have no trouble with the younger women, except when they want us to get out of the way.
MT: [laughs]. Do you see a lot of that?Piercy: I don’t get much of it, but a lot of the women my age do. And I thought the slut walks were great. I didn’t have any objection to them. I think they called attention to that judgmental thing of a woman is attacked and it’s her fault. I thought they were pretty good for that.
MT: You have several historical novels ranging from the gilded age of New York to Paris during the time leading up to the revolution. How much research goes into a book like that?Piercy: A lot. Usually the database is six or seven times as long as the novel. With Gone to Soldiers, the research took me so long I had to actually take a gig at a college because I ran out of money. I don’t like to teach college. I like workshops. You come in and you’re not trying to do anything else and you do as much as you can and you get to go home and go back to work. Teaching is inimical to creativity because you’re putting out. I like to listen to people.
MT: These days, what kind of little poets and magazines do you think are interesting?Piercy: The ones I’m published in. I like Third Wednesday out of your area [in Ann Arbor]. I really like that magazine.
MT: Do you think that poetry plays a different role with the rise of the Internet and everyone being online?Piercy: Yeah. If you Google me you’ll find at least a thousand of my poems on the Internet. Nobody pays for them anymore. It certainly gets out to people.
Marge Piercy’s Made in Detroit (192 pp., $27.95 in hardcover, Knopf) is available at better booksellers.
Michael Jackman is managing editor of the Detroit Metro Times.Email [email protected]