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’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 KristinLaTour.com.