A Conversation with Patricia Lockwood

I barged into the men’s, and felt stares burning
hard like reading or noon, felt them looking
me up and over, felt them looking me over
and down, and all the while just holding their
pens,
    they do it different oh no they don’t,
they do it standing up

It’s a bit uncanny how these lines in “The Feeling of Needing a Pen” a poem in Patricia Lockwood’s new book, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, echo recent criticisms by a handful of discomfited reviewers. “They make me feel like the guy who ruins all the fun,” wrote Jonathan Farmer in Slate, in his review. Adam Plunkett, writing for the New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog, expressed concern that Lockwood was shaping her poems for her avid followers on Twitter, even going so far as to say that her best-known work, “Rape Joke,” is a poem that “probably wouldn’t have been written if Twitter hadn’t been around.”

Much has already been written about these reviews, from Mallory Ortberg’s excoriation in The Toast to Kat Stoeffel’s take in The Cut, in which she recommends that “‘Rape Joke’ should enter the canon forever and be required reading for all U.S. citizens.”

Listen to the sense of terrible captivity in these lines from “Rape Joke”: “The rape joke is that you were facedown. The rape joke is you were wearing a pretty green necklace that your sister had made for you. Later you cut that necklace up … The rape joke is that of course there was blood, which in human beings is so close to the surface.”

Now read these lines from “The Arch”:

… A city
cannot travel to another city, a city cannot visit
any city but itself, and in its sadness it gives
    away a great door in the air. Well
    a city cannot except for Paris, who puts
on a hat styled with pigeon wings and walks
through the streets of another city and will not
even see the sights, too full is she of the sights
already. And within her walk her women …

Lockwood’s poems, I realized as I read Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, are Paris. They have a freedom, an ability to step outside all bounds and territories, to create little worlds woven through with metaphysical conceits, gorgeous and slightly world-weary.

I talked with her over email earlier this week about Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, her experience writing it, as well as her thoughts about critical reactions to the book, and the best use of the word “Plunkett.”

There’s been a lot of talk about the supposed irreverence and suspicion of sincerity in your work. I actually found your poems to be full of empathy, especially for outsiders, like the man in “He Marries the Stuffed-Owl Exhibit at the Indiana Welcome Center” and poor Nessie in “Nessie Wants to Watch Herself Doing It.” Do you consider your work irreverent?

I am irreverent, but I don’t believe my poems are. The fact is that for all my modern vocabulary, I have an old-fashioned tendency to focus on characters—like Edwin Arlington Robinson except with lake monsters, and the thing they shoot themselves with in the end is profundity. Characters in poetry are a test of empathy, really. Can you project yourself into a myth? A mascot? A cartoon, or a waterfall? What is the most unlikely space you can think yourself into, can you look out through those eyes?

When I was reading your book, I kept thinking of it as a primer, maybe for girls, maybe for anyone who feels like an outsider, teaching us how to navigate this difficult world. In the first poem, the speaker is adolescent, witnessing confusing sex acts, and becomes a “homelandsexual,” perhaps as a way to keep safe. The last poem is in the voice of a hypno-domme, completely confident and powerful. Is there a sort of “journey” (ugh, forgive me for using that word) that the reader is meant to go on through your book?

Ordering a manuscript is one of the 12 labors; it frequently kills very muscular people. Sometimes it’s best to follow a rough chronology. I began with the earliest poem I wrote for the book and ended with the latest, so it wasn’t so much that I wanted to send the reader on a specific journey as that I was asking them to walk with me on mine—as I thought my way through a question, and ended on something that sounded like an answer.

Has anyone ever called you a metaphysical poet? I feel like you are the last of the major metaphysical poets; they’ve just been quiet for a few centuries.

I’m totally a metaphysical poet, with a ruff and a tiny pointed beard. Even as a child I was obsessed by the conceit: how to begin it, how far to push it, where its breaking point was. I felt the most nagging sense of incorrectness when the components of my writing refused to work together. Plus the metaphysicals were so dirty—people’s bloods were always having sex inside the same flea, and it was poetry! So yes, let’s say that they have risen up out of their GRAVE in the form of a rude patricia.

What do you make of Adam Plunkett’s review of your book, in which he expressed concern about your new poems being too crowd-pleasing and social media-ready?

I’m the absent-minded type, so I’ve always felt more detached and curious about reviews than personally affected by them. You know when your dog looks at you with its head cocked to one side, half “… go on” and half “I used to be a wolf”? That’s how I look at reviews. My main feeling about the Adam Plunkett review was that it had gotten the whole conversation off on something of a weird hairy foot, and led it down a path of reviews of reviews, and reviews of reviews of reviews, which eventually seemed to travel farther and farther away from the actual work.

In a strictly poetic sense it was delightful, because the name Plunkett is so euphonious, and if you wanted to pretend to be mad about the whole thing you could bellow PLUUUUNKETTTT! at the darkening sky while ripping your shirt open to the waist and shaking your fists at the clouds. That’s not an opportunity I’m ever going to pass up.

Did you have a particular audience in mind when you wrote Motherland?

Oh no, I never have an audience in mind. Or rather, the audience is the same as the one you put on shows for, in your room, when you’re a child engaging in the deepest and most private kind of play. It seems like the whole world you’re playing for, it seems like the eye of God up on the ceiling, but it’s really your own consciousness distributed among dolls. It couldn’t be anything else.

Were you surprised that some men (NOT ALL MEN) felt alienated by certain poems in your book? What is your response to that?

I was surprised to see these sudden dark hints that my poems might be “difficult for men to access” because such a large part of my readership and so many of my visible supporters have always been men, from the very beginning. When BPOB first came out, I had a stock of about 100 books that people could order directly from me and I’d draw in it for them and write a little message, and I’d say 75 percent of the people who asked for them were men. The people who published those supposedly difficult poems were men, often men at the helm of very traditional institutions. The characterization just didn’t seem particularly accurate—not to mention that it didn’t give men any credit for the fellow-feeling and sensitive readings I’ve always gotten from them.

So hold up, this is interesting, let’s take it all the way. I think these responses are less about alienation and more about vulnerability. The part of us that reads poetry is a reflex part. Men read poetry with their reflexes the same as women do—they put themselves in your trust, they put their bodies in your hands, you tap the right place and the leg kicks. Or the pupils dilate. Or the hackles rise, and something flies out of you on a flock of little red nerves. To feel power shift out of your body is uncomfortable. It makes you feel that it was never yours to begin with. That’s the whole point; that’s the subject here; and maybe what we are seeing is that it is more difficult for men—to recognize that they’re in someone else’s hands, to recognize that they’re at someone else’s mercy, when the author’s touch feels different, when the poems are these poems.

I read that Laura Ingalls Wilder was an influence when you were writing Balloon Pop Outlaw Black. Did she come into play at all with Motherland? Who or what else influenced these poems?

“What would happen if one writer told the truth about her influences? The world would split open.” I will say that I did watch the entire run of Star Trek: TNG for the first time ever when I was smack in the middle of writing, and that HAD to have had an effect. You might actually be able to see a point in the book where I start to wonder what it might be like to have sex with Worf. A slight pivot, a swivel of the eyes toward the question: would his cum kill you.

You said in an interview with Hazlitt: “The problem with me is that I can write individually, sentence-to-sentence, very well.” But you’re now working on a memoir for Riverhead. How is that going?

It’s exhilarating, really. There’s so much space, there’s so much room to play with form, you take a greedy breath and it just keeps going—the lung of it seems infinite. And there’s always some corner of it you can sit in and rearrange and dab paint on when you feel stuck. That’s not true of poetry. When you’re stuck with a poem, you’re stuck. Go to the turtle races and put all your money on the slowest one, because you’re not getting anything done today. But a big book gives great shelter.

Molly Minturn’s poems and essays have appeared in Boston Review, the Toast, the Indiana Review and elsewhere. She lives in Virginia.