Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Marge Piercy (1936 - )

A Work of Artifice

The bonsai tree
in the attractive pot
could have grown eighty feet tall
on the side of a mountain
till split by lightning.
But a gardener
carefully pruned it.
It is nine inches high.
Every day as he
whittles back the branches
the gardener croons,
It is your nature
to be small and cozy,
domestic and weak;
how lucky, little tree,
to have a pot to grow in.
With living creatures
one must begin very early
to dwarf their growth:
the bound feet,
the crippled brain,
the hair in curlers,
the hands you
love to touch.

from Circles on the Water by Marge Piercy, copyright 1982.

Marge Piercy was born March 31, 1936 in Detroit into a family that had been, like many others, affected by the Depression.  She recalls having a reasonably happy early childhood. However, halfway through grade school she almost died from the German measles and then caught rheumatic fever. She went from a pretty and healthy child to a skeletal creature with blue skin given to fainting. In the misery of sickness, she took refuge in books. She lavished love on her cats. She went to public grade school and high school in Detroit. At seventeen, after winning a scholarship to the University of Michigan which paid her tuition, Piercy was the first person in her family to go to college. Piercy remarks that in some ways college was easy for her. She was good at taking exams and strongly motivated to learn. However other aspects of college life were painful.

She did not fit any image of what women were supposed to be like. The Freudianism that permeated educated values in the fifties labeled her aberrant for her sexuality and ambitions. However, winning various Hopwood awards (the playwright Avery Hopwood, writer of sex farces, had left his fortune to the University of Michigan to be used to encourage good and original student writing) meant that during her senior year Piercy didn’t have to work to support herself. A Hopwood also allowed her to go to France after graduation. Her schooling finished with an M.A. from Northwestern where she had a fellowship.

After a failed first marriage, Piercy lived in Chicago, trying to learn to write the kind of poetry and fiction she imagined but could not yet produce. She supported herself at a variety of part-time jobs; she was a secretary, a switchboard operator, a clerk in a department store, an artists’ model, a poorly paid part-time faculty instructor. She was involved in the civil rights movement.

She remembers those years in Chicago as the hardest of her adult life. She felt she was invisible. As a woman, society defined her as a failure: a divorcee at twenty-three, poor, living on part-time work. As a writer, she was entirely invisible. She wrote novel after novel but could not get published. Piercy remarks that at that time she knew two things about her fiction: she wanted to write fiction with a political dimension (Simone de Beauvoir was her model) and she wanted to write about women she could recognize, working class people who were not as simple as they were supposed to be.

In the 60s, Piercy focused her energy on political reform, working for SDS and even founding a chapter of MDS. Having relocated to the northeast with her second husband, she centered her activity around Boston, eventually moving to Cape Cod – a move which proved beneficial for her health and her writing.

Piercy still resides on the Cape although she travels a great deal here and abroad, giving readings, workshops and lectures. She and her current husband, Ira Wood, have collaborated on a play and a novel and founded a small literary publishing company, Leapfrog Press.

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