Marge Piercy On Writing Fiction and Poetry

Marge PiercyIn March Knopf  published Marge Piercy’s nineteenth collection of poetry Made In Detroit. Knopf has also recently published the paperback edition of her eighteenth poetry collection  The Hunger Moon.  Piercy’s poetry has been anthologized over a hundred times. She has written seventeen novels, most recently Sex WarsPM press has republished Dance The Eagle To Sleep, Vida, and Braided Lives with new introductions. Last May, PM Press published her first short story collection  The Cost of Lunch, Etc.  The paperback edition of The Cost of Lunch, Etc. will arrive this September with two new stories and an introduction. Meanwhile, her memoir Sleeping With Cats is out from Harper Perennial. Piercy’s work has been translated into nineteen languages. She has given readings, speeches, and workshops in over 470 venues in the U.S. and abroad. She invites you to visit her website at

Mary: Welcome to People Who Make Books Happen, Marge. In January PM Press published your debut collection of short stories The Cost of Lunch, Etc. This month, Knopf is publishing your new collection of poetry Made In Detroit. You’re one of the few American writers I know who excels in writing both poetry and fiction. Could you please start by telling us how, in your experience, the process of creating a poem differs from the process of creating a novel or a short story.

Marge Piercy: Actually I’m not one of the few writers who write both poetry and fiction. There are a number of women writers who work in multiple genres. Adrienne Rich wrote both nonfiction and poetry; May Sarton wrote memoir and poetry; Muriel Rukeyser wrote poetry and biography; Maxine Kumin wrote poetry and fiction; Laura Kasischke, poetry and fiction; Maya Angelou, many genres; Denise Levertov, criticism and poetry; Alice Walker, poetry, fiction, essays. Jane Friedman has written essays and poetry; Margaret Atwood, poetry and fiction; Audre Lorde, memoir and poetry; Sylvia Plath, poetry and fiction; Erica Jong, poetry and fiction; Susan Griffin, poetry and nonfiction. And on and on. It’s relatively common for women to work in more than one genre.  You’ve done the same.

Poems start from an image, a phrase, an idea, a vision.  But novels start with theme and character.  You can’t mistake one for the other any more than you could fail to distinguish between an elephant and a hummingbird. Short stories have a narrower focus than novels. Everything put in has to work toward the common goal of that story. In a short story, everything has to count, whereas in a novel, digressions, the development of minor characters and meanderings of plot are acceptable and may add to the charm.  In poetry every word has to count; in short stories, everything put into it has to work for the story.

Mary: Does the initial inspiration come to you in different ways?

Marge Piercy: Sure. A novel often comes out of an idea, a theme, a subject I’ve been mulling over for years.  Then something happens in the world or in my head that begins to flesh it out. Poems are more immediate, at least in their beginnings. Anything can be the spark that starts the engine of a poem. A poem can come from looking out the window, having a conversation or an argument with a friend, a break-up, a death of a friend or a stranger, a demand from my cat, the morning news, a meeting, a hawk landing on a nearby bush, the scent of a flower, rain after a drought.  

Mary: What influence have your political and religious beliefs had on your prose and your poetry?

Marge Piercy: To me it’s all of a piece. There’s no difference between writing a poem about lost love or tulips than writing a poem about the War in Afghanistan or women’s right to choose. The poem has to work as a poem.  A lot of political poetry doesn’t feeling fully felt or fully intelligent. It’s too often concerned with being politically correct.  
Writing liturgy is different from anything else. I was one of a group of mostly rabbis who produced the Reconstructionist Shabbat Morning Siddur or Or Chadash.  Instead of a striking or surreal or even shocking imagery, you want imagery and language that is powerful and often with strong rhythm but that works for a group to say aloud.  It also has to fit into the traditional place in the service or the siddur and do what it required in that place. Some of my liturgy is widely used in Reconstructionist and Reform synagogues and havurot here and in Liberal prayerbooks in Great Britain.  

Mary: Your forthcoming collection of poetry is entitled Made In Detroit. You were born in Detroit and attended The University of Michigan.  Do you feel that your poetry is in general more personal and autobiographical than your prose?

Marge Piercy: Sure.  In novels I’m often concerned with the road not taken, the choices people make in their lives in a particular period and particular socio-economic and political situation.  I like to explore how choices work out through time. Fiction to me is about time. the vectors that act on someone in a particular place and time.  I wrote one semi-autobiographical novel, Braided Lives, but there’s a lot of different between that and my memoir Sleeping With Cats.. I tried to be as honest as I could about myself in the memoir; there are no such restraints in Braided Lives.

Poems come out of everyday as often as they come from memory – which after all is experienced in and influenced [or distorted] by the present. They may come out of my own life or what I observe of others.  They may come from watching the news or reading a newspaper. They may come out of a sign viewed glancingly while traveling by car. They may come out of something good or horrible happening to a friend.  I don’t really divide my poetry into poems about me and poems about everything else.

Mary: Please tell us more about Made In Detroit.

Marge Piercy: Among other attributes, it’s the most striking of all my books. The cover is amazing.  It’s a photograph by Lori Nix, whose work I much admire. She and her partner create surreal dioramas and she photographs them.  

The first section is about growing up in Detroit as it was then and in my family and what has become of that city.  The second section, Ignorance bigger than the moon, goes through a year and my interactions with nature. The third, The poor are no longer with us, contains political poems. The fourth, Working at it, is comprised of my poems relating to Judaism.  The fifth, That was Cobb Farm, are poems mainly of observation of our lives, some narrative. The last section, Looking back in utter confusion, consists of ruminations on my loves, my marriage, my body, friendships, cats, mortality. Like the first section, it’s quite autobiographical.  

I feel Made in Detroit is a very strong collection of the best of my poetry of last several years.  Of course there are some funny poems, like “Let’s eat in a restaurant” about how fussy Americans have become about food.

Mary: The short stories in The Cost of Lunch, Etc. are wonderfully conceived and beautifully crafted. What prompted you to write short stories? Have you been writing them all along and not publishing them, or is this a new form for you?

Marge Piercy: When I started writing seriously after college, I wrote short stories as well as novels. But when my novels finally began to be published, serious novels in those days could be lucrative. I needed to support myself so I wrote only novels for decades. But serious novels generally don’t pay much these days for all the work that goes into them, two or three years minimum; and at my age, New York editors aren’t interested in me or my work.  Therefore, I’ve returned to my earlier love: the short story. I can easily get my stories as well as my poetry published and out to people. Short stories perform far better than pieces of novels. Some of the stories in Lunch are ones initially written many many year ago, although most of them have been revised or entirely rewritten. Most of the stories are new, ones I’ve written in the past few years. I’ve found I really enjoy writing short fiction and I intend to go on doing so.

Mary: You and your husband, the novelist and essayist Ira Wood, have written an excellent guide for aspiring writers entitled So You Want To Write: How To Master The Craft of Writing Fiction and the Personal Narrative. What is the single most important thing anyone who wants to be a serious writer should know?

Marge Piercy: If you want to write short stories, read short stories. Don’t read a book about writing short stories.  Of course I exclude our book, which everyone should read, obviously!  But do you want your appendix taken out by someone who studied The Way of the Surgeon or somebody who studied medicine and has taken out as many appendices as possible?

If you want to write science or fantasy fiction, read in that genre. Don’t try to invent the wheel. Learn how people in the genre that interests you have solved problems – or haven’t.  Sometimes you learn as much from books that have failed as from those that wow you. Learn to read like writer, meaning observing as you go how those writers use dialogue, how they pace, how they characterize, how they indicate time, etc.

Mary: Can you please tell us what you’re working on now and what we have to look forward to from you in the future?

Marge Piercy: I’m giving readings from Made in Detroit at universities, bookstores, festivals, and libraries. Some Knopf arranged, some I did.  I have two books in production with PM Press: one is a book of essays with some relevant poems called My Body, My Life.  It’s part of their Outspoken Author Series. It’ll be out in the fall. So will the paperback edition of my first and only book of short stories, The Cost of Lunch, Etc. It has an introduction I wrote and two new stories. Since the book came out, I’ve written three new ones but the third is in a collection of Jewish Noir that won’t be published until after Lunch, so it couldn’t be included. I have been writing a lot of poems.  I’ve been working on my hagaddah as I do every year before Pesach, adding a couple more poems, taking out some prose.  At the moment I’m doing research on Hannah Senesh for an essay I’ve promised for Linda Stein’s traveling art exhibit on women heroes of the Holocaust.  We’ve also trying to shovel out from this incredible winter.

Mary: Thank you, Marge. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you today.

Marge: A pleasure always to chat with you.

Join this  People Who Make Books Happen conversation with Marge Piercy. You are warmly invited to leave a comment. People Who Make Books Happen is where the experts hang out.

For writing advice; course syllabi; resources for Women’s Studies, Women’s Visionary Fiction, Women’s Visionary Film, Women’s Visionary Poetry, and Advanced Composition and more information about writing and teaching, you are invited to visit my Educators Page.


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