Patricia Lockwood first came to readers’ attention as both a poet and a Twitter character, known for her deadpan humor – “@parisreview So is Paris good or not” – and for his surreal “sexts”, which depict sex as a genre of performance art, often involving cartoon characters or animals. (“A teenage turtle takes extreme pleasure in putting its head in and out of its shell very slowly while a rat watches” is an example; “I play Whac-A-Mole and all the moles let me hit them They rise to meet me, they desire nothing more than to be this” was another.) Lockwood’s memoir, “priestfatherwhich was released in 2017 and won the Thurber Award for American Humor, tells the story of her childhood as the daughter of a Lutheran minister turned unconventional Catholic priest. The book also chronicles Lockwood’s nine months of adulthood, when she and her husband, Jason Kendall, went to live with her parents at their Midwestern mansion. His first novel,nobody talks about itwhich was extracted in the new yorkertells the story of a woman who lives a lot online, in what she calls “the portal”, until she is brought back to the real world by the birth of a niece with Down Syndrome deadly genetics.
We first spoke last October, on Zoom, as part of the New Yorker Festival 2021, and then again, in January, to catch up on what had happened in the months that followed. Lockwood spoke to me, on Zoom, from his room in Savannah, Georgia. One of his three cats, Fenriz, who Lockwood gave CBD to help ease the stress of the pandemic, occasionally howled in the background. The following interview, which has been edited and condensed, is based on our two conversations.
You are a writer of many genres and forms. When you start writing something, what comes first to you, the idea of what you want to write or the form in which you would like to write it?
It’s neither. It’s a kind of sentence. It’s sometimes a one-liner, almost approaching a joke or a short vignette. I start with that, and it becomes clear pretty quickly, I think, what I want it to be. Obviously, “Nobody talks about that” was going to be a novel, because I needed to tell lies in it. Obviously, “Priestdaddy” was going to be a memoir, because it was about my priest father. Poetry is poetry; trials are trials. So you know pretty quickly what something is.
The first unpublished book you wrote was a novel.
Yes, yes, old school.
So, is this the first genre that it occurred to you to write?
Well, I wrote poetry long before that. I knew that there were contests of varying legitimacy and quality to which a book of poetry could be submitted. I don’t know how I knew that. But I was still working on one, and the pages kind of came and went. And that goes back quite a way – I mean back when I was about fourteen. Granted, at sixteen I had what I thought was a book at the bottom of the stove, like a bubbling witch’s cauldron.
I don’t really remember a time when I wasn’t just working on poems but on larger projects. And it’s strange because I also knew then that I could invent characters, but I couldn’t happen anything to them. I could see these people, but I could never imagine situations. It was kind of how I felt in my own life. I understood that I was a figure standing in a particular place with all the space around me. But I didn’t understand how people got from point A to point B, how they made decisions about anything, how they knew what they wanted to eat for lunch.
But, yeah, when I was about nineteen, I started writing a novel. And I wrote it very quickly, and I talked about it in interviews as a pride to have written it so quickly. It was called “The Story of Opposable Thumbs,” because that was the kind of title people used back then, and I thought it sounded really good. I think you could probably identify a lot of the themes that I use now in the book. But it was terrible. It was world class excruciating.
So what happened between that and what you wrote next to not make yourself atrocious?
I mean, maybe some parts weren’t so atrocious; maybe the punishments weren’t so atrocious. But here’s the thing: I felt there had to be some incest in there, because it was just something that was going on at the time. So this novel was, by definition, going to be atrocious because it had this incest plot. So probably the main thing that contributed to me not being terrible is that I just deleted incest.
Well, assuming you’re not going to re-dig and rework it…
I could. Never say never. After you have a debut novel that’s been critically acclaimed — which, for some reason, “Nobody’s talking about” — you freak out a bit about what you’re going to do next. So if I can’t find anything, maybe I’ll rework the incest novel.
Do you feel like your style changes from genre to genre? When you write a poem, do you kind of put your hat on I’m a poet now—
Hats off, yes.
Wig! It’s totally a wig. What’s weird is that I feel like I do. I feel like my sound is different from genre to genre, and I also feel like my sound is different from era to era, but I still bump into things that I wrote, even when I was a kid, and I sound exactly the same. It’s weird. The only difference, I think, is that I have what I would say is my church tone, and then my “Saturday Night Live” tone. And I kind of have to figure out how much of each to incorporate.
When you started writing poetry, what gave you the idea? What made you think you would be a poet?
I mean, who knows why people have this grand idea, right? You have to be a little megalomaniac. I think it probably has to do with LM Montgomery’s lesser-known masterpiece, “New Moon Emily“, as well as the following “Emily climbs.” They were two books about some kind of deranged girl with very dark hair and skin like moonlight – it’s been pointed out many times – who has something wrong with her brain that makes her write poetry all the time. She experiences something called “the flash”, which is a moment when the veil of heaven is torn apart and shows her a glimpse of what is beyond. And I thought, why not take her as a role model? I am also very pale. My hair is rather dark. I think I can do it.
Also, I felt that I understood the poems because they almost always involved some sort of turn, this line that slips away and makes a movement that isn’t even mechanical but looks like the movement of a human form that turns around and reveals something. I thought I could do this. I have this trick – and I identify it as something I got from my mother, who used to play puns. I think I recognized at the time that it was a language skill, but I didn’t respect it as much as I should have until much later.
How did you discover LM Montgomery’s books?
I am not sure. I want to say, “Anne of Green Gablesis making its way into the hands of many girls. “Emily of New Moon” much less. I think I had a tendency to read rabbit holes, so if I read “Anne of Green Gables” and recognized something in there, I would search for anything I could find by that person. If she mentioned a book, say, in one of her journals, something like “The story of an African farm“I would look for that and it would lead me to anything. I found a copy of “The loved oneby Evelyn Waugh, when I was very young. How did I recognize the quality of these things? But there’s something almost tangible, so I went for the touch. It was obsession, I think, and a kind of stubbornness to track down those people I was interested in.
Were you reading poetry at the time?
Yes. In fact, I had a very good book that my uncle gave me. He was my art uncle, and, one Christmas, he gave me this book of fantastic poetry that was, like, poems inspired by great American works of art. There was William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, all the big players. I had read poetry before, always in anthologies, and what I could find in the library or on the shelves at Barnes & Noble.
Rilke was very tall to me – I just imagine these huge angels, as tall as cathedrals, and the arches are their wings. And one of those angels is reaching up a toe and poking your forehead with it. I had Stephen Mitchell’s translation of “Duino Elegies.” And I think I already had the vocabulary for someone like Rilke. It was a broader vocabulary than what I was applying it to, which at this point in my life was a more localized and restrictive religious mindset. But the ideas and the words, I always saw the words. I saw shapes in words, and I saw pictures. And it made sense to me from the start. Again, maybe something about his turns and object uses. He just felt like a very congruent spirit to me. And he had a huge influence in terms of penetrating the flesh in there; it always feels like someone is about to receive arrows in a poem by Rilke.