Ira Wood is not a physically imposing man, but as a wordsmith he is a commanding presence. Wood is the author of a number of novels including his highly touted first The Kitchen Man. His latest book is titled: You’re Married to Her? a memoir that concerns his life with famed poet/novelist/feminist Marge Piercy. Wood was an unknown, 26 year old writer, when he met the much older Piercy. They have been together now for 35 years. I had the pleasure to interview him on my Somerville Community Access TV show Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.
Doug Holder: Welcome Ira.
Ira Wood: Glad to be back in Somerville. I lived in the Somerville, Cambridge, and Jamaica Plain area for a number of years.
DH: So what do you think Ms. Piercy saw in you? She was a well established writer, and much older than you. You were 26, and just sort of floundering around.
IW: Marge had just turned 40 when we met. And she was this incredibly glamorous, older woman. I was a pretty immature guy. But that was back in 1976. I would say by today’s standards men have become even less-mature—I was a pretty mixed-up guy. I was very lucky to meet this very successful novelist and poet.
DH: So that goes back to the question what did she see in you?
IW: I was a nice guy in spite of being mixed-up. But what she will tell you is that men of her own age weren’t very good at getting along with a feminist. She had many relationships with men her own age. She had relationships with men younger then her because they weren’t intimidated by feminism. One of the reasons Marge and I have been together so long is because we are not competitive. When she met her previous husband they were both students. It was very hard for him to see her career take off and not his. That wasn’t the case with me. To be quite frank I didn’t think I would have any career at all. So I was delighted to be her partner. I enabled her to do her writing and traveling. We have been together for 35 years. We have had a remarkable good run and still do.
DH: When we reach a certain age we see our father’s face in the mirror. Your father was not a happy camper. He was self-hating, envious and a work alcoholic. So do you see his visage in the mirror staring back at you?
IW: My father was not a happy man. And I think a lot of people at a certain age grew up and realized that their parents were depressed but not diagnosed in those days. My father never drank. But what he would do was come home after work, have dinner, go right to sleep, wake up and go to work again. I grew up like I was a child of an alcoholic. He was very self-conscious. I see all of his mistakes in life in myself. Part of my success has come through my Buddhist practice. I can see this behavior begin and hopefully I can stop it before it is fully manifested. Marge will often say to me “You are becoming your father.” My memoir You’re Married to Her? was very much about my father. My first novel The Kitchen Man dealt with my mother. But I got so much flack from my family about the first book that I decided not to write about them for awhile. But when I started to write my memoir then I realized that my family is an essential part of me. I teach at the Omega Institute and I find that many people are afraid to write about their family and can’t get past the first chapter. There is a quote by the poet Muriel Rukeyser, and I paraphrase “Yes you have to write about your family but remember it won’t kill them.” It is difficult. Eventually I worked it out with the family. And we are much closer now than before.
DH: Where did you got to college?
IW: I went to the the State University at Albany. It was not the school I wanted to go. I wanted to go to big, expensive, and fancy school. But my dad couldn’t afford it.
DH: You did not look favorably on the academy in your memoir.
IW: I didn’t want to become a teacher. It was never something I wanted to do. Marge and I decided not to teach full-time on the college level. In fact I was very surprised when I was offered a job teaching at a college. I asked them why they chose me. They said because I had written five books. I thought you had to have a PhD. But for writers they are interested in credits. I was always a working writer. For many years I worked in restaurants. I got jobs that allowed me to write. When I lived in Cambridge I was self-conscious about being a writer. Even though I spent five hours a day writing—somehow I felt I wasn’t working. I had friends who didn’t see me in the working class because I didn’t have a job. So that hurt. Then I moved to Cape Cod—everyone on the outer Cape seems to be an artist. You didn’t feel crazy there. I always asked myself “ Who am I not to go to work and just write stories?” But it was easier in the artistic milieu of the Cape. And it wasn’t until I was published and reviewed that I felt that I had the right to do this.
DH: If you hadn’t met Marge Piercy would you be a writer today?
IW: Marge Piercy was my mentor. It was not so much her connections. But if I didn’t meet her I wouldn’t have become a writer. I might have been a lawyer, or a nurse. I was in a crowd of guys who went to nursing school. I probably would have done that and wound up with kids. I would never have had the guts to be a writer. Marge gave me the courage to write.
DH: How long did you live in Somerville?
IW: On and off for 10 years. I lived near Foss Park at one point and other places. Somerville is an incredibly interesting city.
DH: A Somerville writer of my acquaintance Joe Torra wrote a great memoir Waiter. He worked as a waiter until he was fifty and then went on to a teaching career. You worked as a waiter as well. Is it a good job for a young artist?
IW: My first novel The Kitchen Man was about my time as a waiter in a gourmet restaurant. The only problem with being a waiter is that you get out late, and even though you worked your butt off, you could not fall asleep. You were so wired up after the shift that you wound up going to nightclubs and bars after, and not getting home until 3 or 4 in the morning. That eclipsed your opportunity to wake up early and write during the day. So you had to be disciplined. On the job I worked with a lot of artists, opera singers, poets and writers. I learned so much about the arts scene around Boston from being a waiter. I wouldn’t give up that experience for the world. I did it for 3 years. I was writing all the time. It was a dream of mine that I would get notice of my big break when I was waiting on a table. My break came after I worked as a waiter.
DH: You have an addictive personality according to your memoir. You wrote about your addiction to drugs, sex, etc… Why do you think so many writers deal with these issues?
IW: The writer who gets a lot of work done overcomes that. I don’t think John Updike, Marge, or Margaret Atwood for instance—had that problem. I think very successful writers overcome that.