Marge Piercy Poet, Novelist, and Activist For A New World

Becca Anderson, author of The Book of Awesome Women Writers, has written a new post for her blog “The Blog of Awesome Women”.

Marge Piercy is best known for her nearly twenty volumes of poetry and her novels, including Small Changes, Woman on the Edge of Time, her cyberpunk novel He, She and It, and her sweeping World War II historical novel Gone to Soldiers, which was a New York Times bestseller. She has received many awards and prizes as well as four honorary doctorates, but the road there was not a smooth one.

She was born in Detroit in 1936; her family, like so many others, was affected by the Depression. Her grandfather Morris was a union organizer who was murdered while organizing bakery workers. His widow, maternal grandmother Hannah, was the daughter of a rabbi and was born in a shtetl in Lithuania; Piercy describes her as having been a great storyteller. Piercy’s father went through a period of unemployment but managed to find a job working with heavy machinery at Westinghouse.

Piercy remembers having had a fairly happy early childhood. But halfway through grade school, she almost died from the German measles (for which no effective vaccine existed until the 1960s) and then caught rheumatic fever; this illness transformed young Marge from an attractive, healthy child into a thin and bluish-pale youngster given to fainting. She turned to reading for comfort, following in the footsteps of her mother, an avid reader whom Piercy credits with making her into a poet. But as she grew into more independence, they clashed fiercely, and Marge left the family home and started college at age seventeen; this was made possible by a scholarship she won that paid her tuition at the University of Michigan. She was the first member of her family ever to attend college.

Though the academic work was not exceptionally difficult for her, life as a 1950s college student was far from comfortable in a personal sense for Piercy, whose ambitions and bisexuality were seen as “unwomanly” in a time when conformity was a huge expectation. But she persisted, and in 1957, she won the Hopwood Award for Poetry and Fiction, which greatly improved her financial situation during her senior year and enabled her to travel to France for a time following her graduation. She went on to earn a master’s degree at Northwestern University, where she had a fellowship. She was briefly married to an Algerian Jewish French particle physicist, but the union did not last, in part because of his traditionalism. He was unable to understand how much her writing mattered to her. Afterwards, she lived in Chicago and endured very tight financial straits.

While endeavoring to develop herself as a writer of poetry and prose, she worked at all sorts of part-time jobs, ranging from art modeling to low-paid part-time college instructor gigs. She remembers this time as the hardest years of her adult life; fifties society judged her as a failure just for being divorced, and she felt completely invisible as an author, writing novel after novel but receiving only rejection slips. Piercy has said that, like Simone de Beauvoir, who was a major influence, she desired to write fiction that integrated aspects of the political. She wanted real women to be seen in her narratives, people from the working class whose inner lives were not encompassed by a simplistic surface view.

She wed a computer scientist in 1962; it was an unconventional open relationship that by turns enriched and complicated her life. Later, her novels at times explored polyamorous relationships and communal living; Small Changes (1973) and Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) were ahead of their time in this regard. The couple lived in Cambridge, San Francisco, and New York, eventually settling in Boston; Piercy made frequent visits to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she was part of organizing the group that would become the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). She had been active in the civil rights and antiwar movements for some time and became a significant voice for feminist concerns in the SDS and the New Left movement, as well as contributing to the growth of environmental thought.

Her first book of poems, Breaking Camp, was published in 1968. In 1971, she was poet in residence at the University of Kansas at Lawrence; later that year, she moved to Cape Cod with her husband. On Cape Cod, she wrote 1973’s Small Changes, which Myrna Lamb of the Washington Post called “groundbreaking,” and then Woman on the Edge of Time (1976). Piercy has stated that there was a change in her writing and poetry following the move—gardening became a part of her life then, and leaving behind urban environments may have resulted in an experiential shift. She did some teaching stints at other colleges in the following years. Her second marriage ended in the late 1970s.

With Woman on the Edge of Time, considered a classic of speculative fiction as well as of feminist literature, Piercy broke into the traditionally male field of dystopian fiction, but fused the novel’s dystopian aspects with a contrasting futuristic utopia in the frame of a time travel story. She later wrote that the genesis of the tale was that she “wanted to take what I considered the most fruitful ideas of the various movements for social change and make them vivid and concrete.” William Gibson credits this work as the origin of the cyberpunk genre; it is often compared to such classics as Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, as well as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Piercy later tackled the dystopian genre once more with He, She and It, set in a world where ever-expanding megacities have brought about ecological collapse. Again, the human dimension makes the story approachable, as the main character seeks to recover her young son; mystical elements of Judaic tradition, such as the golem, are also intertwined with the narrative.

In 1982, she married Ira Wood; they have written several books together, including the novel Storm Tide and a nonfiction text about the writer’s craft. In 1993, they started Leapfrog Press, which publishes an eclectic selection of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. They sold Leapfrog to new owners in 2008.

Piercy is author of nearly twenty volumes of poems, among them The Moon Is Always Female (1980, considered a feminist classic) and 1999’s Early Grrrl and The Art of Blessing the Day, as well as eighteen novels, one play in collaboration with her third (and current) husband Ira Wood titled The Last White Class, one essay collection, three nonfiction books, and a 2002 memoir, the amusingly named Sleeping with Cats. Her most recent collections of poetry include The Crooked Inheritance (2006), The Hunger Moon: New and Selected Poems 1980–2010 (2012), and Made in Detroit (2015). She lives on Cape Cod with her husband in a home she designed.

Never doubt that you can change history. You already have.

Marge Piercy


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