Lyric Essentials: Jonie McIntire Reads Marge Piercy

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.

Jonie McIntire reads “Ascending Scale” by Marge Piercy

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.

Jonie McIntire reads “Eat Fruit” by Marge Piercy

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.

Further reading:

Visit Piercy’s website
Read a feature about Piercy in Moment
Read Piercy’s essay for the New York Times‘ Writers on Writing series

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.

Further reading:

Visit Jonie’s website
Purchase Beyond the Sidewalk from NightBallet Press
Read a feature in Toledo City Paper about Jonie’s work with

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.

Lyric Essentials: Kristin LaTour reads “Teaching Experience” by Marge Piercy

Sundress: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Kristin LaTour, whose full-length collection What Keeps Us Alive was released from Sundress this fall, reads “Teaching Experience” by Marge Piercy.

Kristin, before we dive into “Teaching Experience,” can you tell us a little about Marge Piercy? Where did you first come across her work?

Kristin LaTour: I first read a couple of Marge Piercy’s novels in a contemporary lit class in college in the early 1990s. Then I found her poetry when I was browsing a bookstore. I loved it. It was lyrical free-verse, something I hadn’t encountered in much of my reading or education up to that point. It spoke to me, my values of feminism, religion (even though we are not of the same religion) and finding meaning in daily life. I went to the local bookstore and bought every book of hers that was out at the time, and then every book after that.

Sundress: Are religion and feminism prominent themes in Piercy’s work? And, I’m assuming she taught at some point, is education also a reoccurring theme?

Kristin LaTour: Religion and feminism are pervasive in Piercy’s work. Her Judaism and concerns for women also come into her novels, although the feminism more so. She also writes about the environment, science and the intersection of politics with all of these. Her writing reminds me of Margaret Atwood, another feminist/environmentalist/humanist writer.

Education does come up now and again in her poems. It is usually brutally honest. She has a poem about how awful it is to go to colleges to give readings and stay in dismal dorms and have few people attend her readings. I can’t recall the title of that poem. She has another about the pointlessness of MFA programs, and that was long before the explosion of low-res programs. It’s titled “For the Young Who Want To” and includes the line: “The real writer is the one who really writes.” I thought a lot about that poem before applying to an MFA program, and it made me remember that a degree wasn’t going to turn me into a poet, and really, I’d have to be aware to stay true to my own voice and not become just like my mentors there. Piercy isn’t a formal academic, but she has lectured and given workshops at hundreds of colleges and conferences. She teaches in the best way, without all the trappings of a bureaucracy. I envy that.

Sundress: Being able to teach without the trappings of bureaucracy is certainly a privilege, or at the very least, extremely lucky. How do you feel about “Teaching Experience” as an educator?

Kristin LaTour: From the teacher side of me, especially when I teach developmental writing classes, the first part of this poem makes so much sense. The students don’t want to be there. I do everything I can to engage them, but usually all is for naught with the majority. And the second half, yes, that too makes me nod my head. When I have a student one-on-one we get more done, and the energy levels off in both directions. I can relax, and the student opens up. Also, teaching something like roasting a goose is much more fun than teaching writing, at least the fundamentals. Plus, we get to eat the goose. Commas, not so much.

From the student side of me, I get it too. Sometimes the things we are supposed to learn aren’t exciting. We go in with bad attitudes and shut down our receptors. I listen better in small groups than in large ones, like classrooms. Being a student who taken many poetry classes and workshops, there’s also the point that you can’t write poems from nothing. One has to have lived life to get all the nuances of it. We can’t expect high schoolers to write the same poems as people in their 50s. Both can be great poets, but they are different based on their experiences.

From me as a fan of Marge Piercy, I want to shake the students who wouldn’t give her every ounce of their attention. And I want to go on a nature hike with her. I also know I have students who have loved taking class with me and would say the same thing to students who get bored in my classes. “Pay attention! Open up!” And those few who gotten to know me outside of class know that teaching goes on outside of my classroom. So does laughter. And sometimes tears. Hopefully for good reason.

Sundress: I remember helping out in secondary classrooms during my undergrad, it made me laugh to hear her list her students, especially the one“pricing my clothing piece by piece”—I’ve met that student, the one staring intently at you but obviously not listening to a word you’re saying. And yet, the poem overall, is moving and inspirational; while listening to this, I picture this speech being given to poetry grad students. Stylistically, how does “Teaching Experience” compare to Piercy’s other work?

Kristin LaTour: This poem is much like her other poems as far as style and form go. Like I said, her work showed me how free verse narrative poems could work.

I like how this poem starts out with a command a metaphor. This is what teachers are told to do, and how a lot of teachers feel, at least once in a while. After the first two stanzas of metaphor and imagery, the poem gets more narrative, but by the third stanza, I trust that this is a poem, not just a story. I also like the line breaks in the 6th stanza. “I could show you how,” sets up a little mystery, makes me curious to know what she can teach me. The break that ends with “bones” is creepy. Then the last image brings in an element of environmentalism, another passion of mine as well.

The last three lines inspire me as a poet. Since Piercy’s poems were my first big inspiration for writing, having her teach me about poetry. And there’s the irony, that she can be in a classroom and not get through to students, face-to-face, but little me in Ashland, Wisconsin, is learning from her.

Sundress: If you could tell her students to read Piercy, to take that time to sit and read and learn from her, other than this poem, which ones would you recommend?

Kristin LaTour: I’m going to stick to Piercy’s older work since we’ve been focusing on that. In her 1992 book, Mars and Her Children, I’d like to look at “Softly During the Night” for a lesson on the environment. The poem is a simple one about an overnight rain that gives way to a cloudless morning, but the last two lines strike me. The leaves on roadside bushes hold drops of water that “bear witness to what came and left/ furtive as if it took instead of giving.” Our relationship with the natural world is complex. We take from it, and it gives to us, but there’s something more here. There’s a symbiosis that we don’t always understand. And Piercy leaves us wondering with her just what it takes from us.

Going back even further to her 1977 book The Moon is Always Female, which was the second of her books I read, there are two poems I think teach lessons. For a protest poem with some lessons on grassroots action, I like “The Low Road.” The poem starts with how “they” can take a person and torture her, and how there’s nothing the solitary person can do to stop “them.” But the rest of the poem grows to a couple fighting their way out of a mob, three people forming a “wedge,” a “dozen make a demonstration,” and finally ten million can make a nation. Together, as a group, we can make a lot of progress in the world.

The last poem is “For Strong Women.” Obviously this is a feminist poem, but it’s message is rousing and moving. The first five stanzas start with the phrase “A strong woman” and then develops what she does. She works, takes abuse and keeps going, doesn’t let others tell her she can’t accomplish a task. She deals with physical pain. The last stanza starts with the idea that a strong woman is comforted by those who love her for her strength and her weakness. The last three lines are a raising of fists and a kick to the chest at the same time. “Strong is what we make/ each other. Until we are strong together,/ a strong woman is strongly afraid.” I don’t know if Piercy meant the “we” to be just women, or both women and men. I like to think of it as both. Pierce was writing in the time when Roe vs Wade was new, and here, almost 40 years later, we are dealing with women’s health clinics closing, being attacked by men with guns, rape culture, and a continuing struggle for equality in many aspects of society. We all need to learn to come together and be strong for women and other marginalized groups.

Sundress: How do Piercy’s novels compare to her poetry? Which novel would you first recommend to those who like her poetry?

Kristin LaTour: Piercy’s novels are also very feminist, environmentalist, and she also varies from historical fiction to sci-fi/speculative fiction. The first novel I read was Braided Lives. While I grew up in the 1970s and ’80s when abortions were legal, I felt deeply moved by her writing about young women’s sexual lives and the freedom and danger that came with having relationships with men. I had never read anything so explicit and honest about young women’s sexual lives and it resonated with me like someone had turned on a light in a dark room. I loved He, She, and It a sci-fi novel that blends feminism, the pros and cons of artificial intelligence and religion. She’s never a one or two-dimensional writer. Everything comes to a full life. While I haven’t read either of the novels in years, I can bring the characters and settings up in mind easily.

Comparing the two based more on content isn’t as easy. Her imagery in both is vivid. Her wit and opinions come through in both. She’s honest, not holding anything back. I really admire that quality. I hope in my own poems I do the same. I can’t even say what novels I’d recommend based on her poetry. All of them, really. If you are a fiction reader and want to get into her poetry, I’d start with Mars and Her Children. It’s a good overall starting point. If someone wants to explore a more linear set of poems, Twelve-Spoked Wheel Flashing moves through the seasons, but also has a foot in Judaism, the image in the title coming from the story of Ezekiel. Her newest book, Made in Detroit, touches on much of Piercy’s life, and readers will find a lot there to enjoy, from friendships between women to gardens to cats. Well, you’ll find cats in all her books of poetry. Lots of cats.

Kristin-LaTour-polka-dot-author-photo-255x300Kristin LaTour’s first full-length collection, What Will Keep Us Alive, is available from Sundress Publications. Her most recent chapbook is Agoraphobia, from Dancing Girl Press (2013). Her poetry has appeared in journals such as Fifth Wednesday, Cider Press Review, Escape into Life, and Massachusetts Review and in the anthology Obsession: Sestinas in the 21st Century. She teaches at Joliet Jr. College and lives in Aurora, IL with her writer husband. Readers can find more information at