Marge Piercy was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, and lived with her parents in a working-class neighborhood. Her Welsh father, Robert Piercy, repaired heavy machinery for the Westinghouse Corporation. Her mother, Bert Bernice Bunnin Piercy, was the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Russia. Piercy had one sibling, her half-brother, Grant. Piercy was raised in the Jewish tradition by her grandmother and mother. Her 1999 publication The Art of Blessing the Day reflects that connection to her Jewish roots.
Political activism was a part of Piercy’s family history. Her maternal grandfather, a labor organizer, was killed while attempting to unionize bakery workers. During adolescence, Piercy had a stormy relationship with her mother, but later said her mother made her a poet. Storytelling was a part of what Piercy termed her “family culture.” Her Jewish heritage, the poverty of her childhood, and a bout with German measles and rheumatic fever that left her a thin and sickly child set Piercy apart from other children. In her loneliness, she turned to books and cats. Later, she became an avid storyteller, inventing elaborate action plots that helped her establish relationships with the neighborhood boys during her junior high school years.
After graduation from a Detroit high school, Piercy entered the University of Michigan on an academic scholarship. She performed well scholastically, motivated by her native curiosity and intelligence, but she rejected the cultural conformity of the 1950’s. Her views on sexuality and politics were outside the social mainstream. Her semiautobiographical novel Braided Lives (1982) recounts the conflicts of her 1950’s university experience.
Piercy completed a master’s degree at Northwestern University in 1958 and later married Michel Schiff, a Jewish physicist. The couple settled in France but later returned to the United States. Eventually they separated, and Piercy moved to Chicago. She held several part-time positions, ranging from secretary to college instructor, began working in the Civil Rights movement, and continued to write. Piercy called those Chicago years the most difficult of her life. Her friends and allies in leftist causes were not supportive of her role as a writer. Publishers rejected her manuscripts for being too radical, too feminist, or too political. In addition, she sought to create what she termed “valid art,” a poetic voice authentic to her experience. However, during the 1960’s, the accepted academic poetry was more elaborate and formal, employing literary allusions far removed from the colloquial style Piercy preferred. Thus, only a few of her poems had been published by 1970.
She married Robert Shapiro in 1962. During the 1960’s, Piercy joined the Ann Arbor chapter of Voice, a movement mounting opposition to the Vietnam War. She became a founding member of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and later worked with a leftist organization, the North America Congress on Latin America (NACLA), which researched the activities of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and its connection to other social and political power structures within the United States. However, Piercy did not find support for her writing efforts until she joined the women’s movement.
Eventually, the stress of urban living, participation in violent protests, and respiratory complications resulting from Piercy’s long-term smoking prompted her relocation to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in 1970. The move benefited Piercy’s health and creativity, but her relationship with Shapiro gradually deteriorated. After their divorce, Piercy married Ira Wood. She and Wood settled in a small cottage in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. The couple founded the Leapfrog Press in 1997, publishing poetry, fiction , and nonfiction. Beginning in the 1990’s, they taught writing workshops. Piercy’s years on the Cape are responsible for her love for nature and gardening—interests reflected in her poetry. She has...
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