Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! In this latest installment, Jonie McIntire reads two of her favorite poems by prolific writer Marge Piercy. Jonie tells us about the ways she sees herself in Piercy’s writing, the joy she finds in reading these poems aloud, and her experience studying with her hero, Piercy herself, in 2019. Thanks for reading!
Riley Steiner: Why did you choose to read these two poems?
Jonie McIntire: While I am sure these two are not the most celebrated poems of Marge Piercy’s, I have found myself returning to them over and over again. With “Ascending Scale,” I remember the first time I read this poem in Stone, Paper, Knife, that I immediately recognized both of these women in myself. So moved by seeing the loss and desire in someone else that you want to reach out to them, meet their eyes, insist that they are truly not alone, that they need to hold on.
There’s a work ethic in Piercy’s poems, and in the woman herself, that resonates throughout. Not to succeed beyond others, but always to be working hard, to return to a base that is who we are at heart. A constant return to authenticity. We do this work throughout our lives. Go in a direction and hunker down, work hard, succeed, but it’s so easy to lose our way. I think of my own life and how many iterations of woman I’ve been—businesswoman, mother, student, artist. How all of those involved the desire to succeed, the strange obligations and stresses that go with trying to fit into each role in a way that makes your achievements visible. And how that longing to be better and more, to fit someone else’s ideal, is so isolating, such a constant thrumming loss.
This poem also struck me as a lovely metaphor for feminism, for the ways in which women can so easily lose each other in our struggles to make ourselves known and respected. “If I should lose you like a gold earring in a motel bathroom … then we will fail as everyone expects.” We fraction ourselves as feminists, pick our sides and hunker down, claw for scraps of respect and let pettiness pit us against each other, but when we lose our big picture, when we lose each other, we lose. We as women need to be “rooted in the plentitude of love.” It is the only thing that will give us the strength to stand together.
“Eat Fruit” makes me smile. I enjoy the act of eating—the tastes, the smells, the textures, the bitter skins, the pulpy messes. I have messed myself with plums over bathroom trash cans, broken off pieces of cheese irresponsibly large and nibbled through each tight curd. And I have a relationship with fiber which any nutritionist would be jealous of. My poor children get slipped flaxseed and chocolate chip cookies, kale and beet quiche, even chocolate-covered haystacks made of pure Fiber One cereal. I take colon health very seriously.
But beyond the wise words of staying regular, there’s such corruption in this poem, such delicious intrigue. Silliness but patience. This love of being human, of desiring simple things, of accepting your silliness and sloppiness and being absolutely at peace with yourself for it. I love the descriptions of other people—the customs agents and their desires and disappointments, the guy with the salami. I’ve met them. The fruit-smuggler doesn’t resent them, simply understands their role. It’s that patient understanding that strikes me over and over again. Patient understanding of self, of others. And yes, I know the taste of an “extremely sophisticated pear,” and it’s delicious.
RS: What do you admire about Marge Piercy’s work? How did your relationship with her work begin?
JM: To begin with, Marge Piercy never stops working. Just look up her writing achievements. She must write in her sleep. Incredible and admirable body of work. But I didn’t really know about her until I met Gina Mercurio, who used to run a feminist bookstore, People Called Women, in Toledo, Ohio. I had just moved to town to attend the University of Toledo, had just found the bookstore, and mentioned that I liked poetry. Clearly, Gina, said, I needed to read Marge Piercy. She was right, of course. She pointed out some other writers to look into, and they all had their important voices, but I heard so many of my own thoughts in Piercy’s writing. An instant connection with the way she looked at things—sometimes defiant, sometimes resigned, sometimes silly or sexy or angry—but always with this need to understand.
RS: I loved the expressive tone you used while reading both your poems. “Eat Fruit,” especially, seems like it lends itself well to a playful sort of voice. What was your thought process behind reading these poems aloud? For instance, did you already have a pretty good idea of what the poems would sound like, or did you try out different intonations?
JM: I’ve shared these poems a few times. Everyone who knows me well has heard them. I am unapologetic about loving what I love. And they are a joy to read aloud, especially “Eat Fruit.” It has the immediate language, the recognizable situations, and the lightheartedness that works so well spoken out loud. A crowd-pleaser every time. “Ascending Scale” might be a little harder to understand just hearing it aloud. I don’t know. I understood it immediately. Frankly, I don’t care if anyone else gets it or not. I like to read it. Its plea for us to stay together, its love of the woman so bruised and the speaker who wants to help and the you we are rushing to return to. A love poem, really, asking to be shared.
RS: Has Piercy’s work influenced your own in any way?
JM: As I practice writing, I work to get closer and closer to her level of authenticity. I appreciate confessional poetry for its rawness, but there’s too much ego to it—a relishing in shame or defiance. I appreciate poetic forms for their difficulty and mastery, but in reading them I often feel lost or tricked or still hungry. What she does is neither of these, though she writes openly about difficult things and is thoughtful about how they are constructed. She uses these poems to understand herself and the world around her, to argue back and fight when needed, to forgive and show love.
I never feel like she’s written a poem to impress someone. And while that may not seem like a big deal, it’s massive to me. There’s a permission in her poetry that allows us to be imperfect and to love our imperfections. In my own writing, the struggle to write without constant and oppressive judgment never seems to end. Nobody cuts me down as quickly and completely as I do. So the influence of this tireless work ethic and this voice that allows the writer to write, to say anything and everything, is my mantra. I see that I can write about everyday life and write things that are worthwhile, but that doing them with honesty and authenticity will take work.
There’s also a fearlessness in her subject matter. Shame is useless when you are trying to get real work done, so she’s ditched it. That bravery, to write about rape and abortion, about sexuality in its earnestness, to point fingers where they should be pointed, is important to me. I try to pull forth those raw moments in life and work through them with words in a way that remains authentic.
Last year, in 2019, I had the incredible fortune to visit Cape Cod and study with her in her weeklong juried intensive workshop. The lessons were fantastic, and I definitely left with a new outlook on craft, specifically looking at line breaks and titles. Just being selected for it gave me a validation that I was in desperate need of. There were eleven other poets, all incredibly talented and with truly varied writing styles, and we are all still in contact with each other.
One important thing I learned that has helped me immensely is that our heroes are really just human beings. Marge is a tough gal, and she takes a little time to warm up to new people. She doesn’t suffer weakness well, so she can come off a bit harsh. It was funny because, again, I saw so much of myself, how quickly l get frustrated with people and feel awkward. But it also brought out the protector in me a bit. When one of my fellow poets felt slighted or judged, I felt defensive of them. Here we are, all of us in all our levels of success or failure, awkwardness or need, merely mortal after all. Few things give you permission to write and be imperfect like seeing how absolutely normal your heroes are.
One of my favorite moments was when we all read at the local library, the twelve poets sharing the stage with Marge Piercy, and at one point I looked over at Marge, who was watching us read. Her whole face beamed with pride. That smile of respect is like the best drug I’ve ever had. It makes doing the hard work feel worth every minute. By the end of that week, we’d all written more, learned how to edit ourselves better, made some goals to work toward, and knew that ultimately we all wanted each other to be better writers. I have written more, felt better about the quality of my writing, and been bolder sending work out for publication in the past year than in any year previously.
For all writers, it turns out Marge Piercy has the best advice: the strength poets need and use “is rooted in the plentitude of love.” For each other and for our imperfect selves. Oh, and also, fiber…seriously, don’t be afraid of it.
Marge Piercy is the author of 17 novels and 19 books of poetry. A multitalented writer, she’s written work that encompasses a wide variety of genres, including drama, poetry, speculative fiction, historical fiction, nonfiction, and memoir. She’s received four honorary doctorates, and in 1991, she won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in the UK for her book He, She, and It. She lives and works in Cape Cod and continues to advocate for antiwar, feminist, and environmental causes.
Jonie McIntire, author of Beyond the Sidewalk (NightBallet Press, 2017) and Not All Who Are Lost Wander (Finishing Line Press, 2016). She will be releasing her third chapbook, Semidomesticated (NightBallet Press), later this year. She hosts two monthly poetry reading series, Uncloistered Poetry and Art & Performance Poetry, and has been the poetry editor for Springboard, a teen literary journal, for the past three years. The recipient of an Arts Commission Accelerator Grant, she has poems published in journals across the country and even stamped into cement in Toledo, Ohio, as part of the Arts Commission of Greater Toledo’s Sidewalk Poetry series.
Riley Steiner graduated from Miami University, where she studied Creative Writing and Media & Culture. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, she enjoys baking, cheering for the Green Bay Packers, and spending way too much money at Half Price Books. Her creative work has recently appeared in the Oakland Arts Review and Collision.