Antiwar, Feminist, Environmentalist, Cat Lady: Marge Piercy Visits MU

On Friday, April 15, respected novelist, poet, and memoirist Marge Piercy filled the auditorium in McGuffey Hall with her commanding presence. Piercy is the author of seventeen novels including the New York Times Bestseller Gone to Soldiers, nineteen collections of poetry, and most recently a critically-acclaimed memoir entitled Sleeping with Cats. To an audience of all ages, Piercy read a series of her poetry encompassing social commentary, family relationships, cats, and sex.

In her introduction, Ann Fuehrer of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Program referenced Piercy’s history as an activist in the antiwar, feminist, and environmentalist movements, which have influenced her writings greatly. “She would say she identifies as a cat lady, after our conversation at dinner,” Fuehrer joked.marge piercy

Piercy began the reading with what she referred to as “the oldest poem I read regularly,” entitled “To Be of Use.” It was familiar to the older generations of the audience, but most of all to Piercy herself—she barely glanced down at the text in front of her, instead looking around at the audience.

This was the case with most of her poems—it is more truthful to call Piercy’s event a performance rather than a reading, given the emotion and confidence with which she read. Throughout the night, she played with the audience’s emotions, reading light-hearted poems interspersed with more tongue-in-cheek poems centered in social commentary. Amongst all the laughs, Piercy would also get serious, with poems contemplating friends passing away from AIDS during the 1980s epidemic, grief, and poverty.

The common theme throughout most of Piercy’s poetry is what it means to be a woman: “The Scent of Apple Cake” and “Our Never Ending Entanglement” ask the question what it means to be a mother, while “Contemplating My Breasts” and “Tracks” amongst others confront the experiences and various roles of being a woman.

During the question and answer portion following the reading, an audience member asked Piercy the quintessential question: what in your life has deeply influenced your writing? Her response was riveting: Piercy grew up in a primarily Black neighborhood in Detroit and witnessed the first race riots in the 1960s. She was a member of a gang for a while, and she had dear friends die of heroin overdoses and AIDs. These experiences throughout her life have had a profound effect on her activism, which has in turn shaped her writing.

The last person from the audience to address Piercy did not have a question, but instead a heartfelt story. He told her, and the audience, how nineteen years ago his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, and Piercy’s poem “On Guard” was what brought them through the tough times.

Her response? “I’m so glad I could help you.”

This reading was sponsored by The Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program, the Department of Global and Intercultural Studies, Department of Family Studies and Social Work, the Women’s Center, the Humanities Center, and the Creative Writing Program.

Marissa Lane
English Department Ambassador