Marge Piercy has written 15 novels and 17 books of poetry—many of them concerned with feminism, politics, and Judaism—during her 50-year writing career. The 74-year-old Piercy lives in Cape Cod with her husband, Ira Wood, but she’ll be in Knoxville this weekend for poetry readings at the University of Tennessee and Temple Beth El.
You’re speaking about the “poetry of Jewish identity.”
I’m doing two readings, one at the university, that will be very mixed. There will be poems about my family, some markedly Jewish poems and some not. Then the night before I’ll be reading at Beth El synagogue, and that will be far more Jewish. I’ll be talking then some about writing liturgy.
Are you practicing?
A practicing Jew?
Yeah. I don’t keep kosher. I’m a reconstructionist. But I observe the holidays. I observe Shabbat.
In the Jewish poems at the end of The Crooked Inheritance, there’s a lot of tactile, sensual imagery, which seems sort of striking for poems about religion.
I’m not a Christian. I’m not an ascetic. I don’t reject the body. Judaism doesn’t. We live in the world. One of our commandments is “tikkun olam,” to repair the world.
You’ve been an activist all your life on social issues. How are poetry, activism, and Judaism connected?
Poets are human beings, with the same duties as any other citizen. We’re citizens, we have to be active. We’re responsible for our government. We’re responsible for the environment. We’re responsible for the lives of children and old people and so forth. It seems obvious that that would enter into poetry. The idea that there’s something unusual about that is a modern heresy. You couldn’t have explained it to any poets up to this century. You couldn’t have explained it to Shelley or Byron, you couldn’t have explained it to Pope or Dryden, you couldn’t have explained it to Catullus, you couldn’t have explained it to Homer, for that matter.
Where do you think that comes from?
I think it has to do with the control of culture by those who like the way things are just fine.
How is your activism tied to Judaism?
Everything’s of a piece. All of my life, I write poems about the garden, I write poems about my cats, I write poems about politics, I write poems about Judaism. I write poems about love, I write poems about sex, I write poems about a lot of things. It’s all part of being together.
It all fits together.
I’m a whole human being. I don’t compartmentalize.