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Rhyme and Reason : Noted Poet Marge Piercy Mixes Art, Politics

August 28, 1987|PENELOPE MOFFET

This fall you will taste carrots you planted, you thinned, you mulched, you weeded and watered. You don't know yet they will taste like yours, not others, not mine. This earth is yours as you

love it . . .

--From "Digging In" in "Stone, Paper, Knife," a 1983 collection of poems

by Marge Piercy

A poet and novelist, Marge Piercy has sequestered herself in a house "on a marsh" near a small Cape Cod township since 1971. There she writes, raises vegetables and fruit in an organic garden, which she tills with her writer-husband, Ira Wood, and lives with four cats and a variety of wildlife.

Sometimes she leaves home to visit friends in Boston, or to give an occasional reading around the country.

But for the first time in more than a decade, the acclaimed writer will give a Southern California reading of her work on love, politics, family and nature at the Laguna Poets' 15th annual poetry festival this weekend.

In her Saturday appearance, Piercy, 51, said she may also read a chapter of her just-published ninth novel, "Gone to Soldiers." A narrative about World War II, it was hailed (by Times critic Carolyn See) as "a landmark piece of literary prose . . . an amazing feat of research, a wildly audacious gesture."

The performance begins at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Laguna Moulton Playhouse. Tickets are $10 and include admission to the festival's second night, featuring Southern California poets Michelle T. Clinton, Nan Hunt and Julia Stein. Sunday night's readings will begin at 8 p.m. at the Laguna Public Library.

Born in "center city Detroit," Piercy began writing at age 15, "when my family moved into a house where I had a room of my own, with a door that shut and privacy for the first time in my life. I started writing fiction and poetry, and I never stopped," she said.

After studying English at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., she worked at varied jobs in many cities--including Boston, San Francisco and New York--before moving to Wellfleet, Mass., to recover from chronic bronchitis.

Living on the Cape, Piercy said she has "learned to relate to nature and the landscape in a very vital way I never had before. . . . There is a tendency for people who live in cities to think (cities) are more real."

On the Cape, however, "You mix with a wide variety of classes and ages, . . . and you can see the impact of decisions that are made or not made other places (in the effects of) acid rain, plastic tampons washing up on the beach, the sewage." she said.

In her fiction and poetry, Piercy has mixed the personal and the political side of her life--she is an active member of the Massachusetts Council for the Arts, and has worked with women's, civil rights and anti-war groups.

She said she has found, however, that "there's enormous pressure, enormous prejudice against political poems" in the United States.

"There's this great, weird heresy in our culture that art can't deal with politics," she said, and yet: "If a war comes, it comes to you; if there's Strontium 90 in the milk, your kids get it. . . . I think the poems about nuclear power plants are no less powerful than poems about losing your lover. Anything that's part of human life, you can write a poem about it."

Piercy has taught workshops and at writers conferences, but prefers to avoid teaching because: "I think it's the opposite of writing. Trying to balance students and their enormous demands--and the demands universities expect of people now--just strikes me as a mug's scheme (for a working writer)."

So it is not surprising that she is happiest being home and writing, exploring her sense that "all things are related to each other, all things are part of a whole . . ."

"I'm not quite sure where the boundaries of the self stop. I find the self a very artificial construct, and I think my poetry shows that. . . . I see myself as a collection of minerals and salts and various things, (but) I think people influence each other very strongly. We all contain, within ourselves, the previous generations--and places have selves, too."

In Laguna Beach, she will read a mix of older and more recent poems, including pieces from "Available Light," her 11th poetry collection, due out through Alfred A. Knopf next spring. That book, Piercy said, is about "the light that is available for examining your life" and contains poems drawn from her Detroit youth, recent trips to Europe, life on the Cape, death, loss and meditations on religion.

Piercy's visit continues the Laguna Poets' 15-year tradition of bringing in well-known writers to headline the annual festival.

Last year, New York poet and essayist June Jordan was featured. In other years, Pulitzer Prize-winning poets Galway Kinnell, Carolyn Kizer and Gary Snyder have come to town. The Poets, whose roots reach back to 1959, also feature weekly Friday night readings at the Laguna Beach Public Library.

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