Patricia Lockwood is a rule-breaker. Her poems slip through the loopholes of grammar and turn their subjects inside-out and outside-in and then downside-out and side-in-up. Those subjects are not the kinds of subjects schoolteachers tell you poems can be about—the cartoon character Popeye as the semantic concept “popeye,” for instance, or a mother who mistook a set of wrenches for her son and “laid them out smallest to largest, and tucked a row of them in at night.” And then Lockwood breaks another rule and publishes these Rubik’s cubes of hallucinatory language in magazines like Slate and The New Yorker.
Lockwood is, I feel confident saying, the only poet in history to be as well-known for popularizing jokes about sexting on her Twitter as she is for writing poems. (Example: “Sext: I am a water glass at the Inquisition. You are a dry pope mouth. You pucker; I wet you.”) But as of July 2013, she’s even better-known for a poem published on The Awl called “Rape Joke,” which provoked a bigger public reaction than any English-language poem has done in a long time (and prompted some truly regrettable responses from people who apparently had not received an education in the subjects of literature or basic social interaction).
I spoke with Lockwood over e-mail about her book Balloon Pop Outlaw Black, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s influence on her writing, and what fame means for poets in the age of social media.
The Rumpus: The most visceral joy of reading the poems in Balloon Pop Outlaw Black is in the language (for me, at least). And the poems themselves are so often about language: words, representations of things, the separation between the representation of a concept and the actual concept it’s trying to represent. Can you talk a little about your enchantment/disenchantment with language?
Patricia Lockwood: I have never been “disenchanted” with language—well, except the times a businessman has talked to me. This has actually happened once or twice. My enchantment is just a side effect of the fact that I have a worm’s-eye view of language rather than a bird’s-eye view, I think. I’m a slow reader, and a compulsive re-reader as well, which gives me a lot of time to observe what the words actually look like, what they look like next to each other, what their component parts are. I’m a slow writer too, so to consider the language itself in my poems, as well as what I’m using to write down the language, and what I’m writing the language on, comes naturally to me. I’m not just obsessed by the vehicle, I’m obsessed by the vehicle of the vehicle. If I’m writing with a pen, I want to include the pen in the poem—though I guess if I’m being honest, I should really write more about the computer, and the keyboard, and what it feels like to touch its hundred abs.
Rumpus: That reminds me a bit of your interview with HTMLGiant last year, in which you said both tweets and poems “repay obsessive thinking-about.” What’s interesting to me is that your poems are often extremely long and complex, and they build on themselves in ways that tweets can’t really do. Is there a difference in the obsessive thinking-about that you use to approach each form?
Lockwood: I write tweets pretty quickly, because the longer you work over a tweet, the worse it is. If the elements don’t arrive at you all at once and lock themselves into place with an audible and satisfying snap, a lot of times those pieces don’t want to fit. I write lines and images quickly for the same reason. The difference is that a tweet is a discrete object, and a poem is a discrete object that is made of other discrete objects. So when you’re writing a poem, most of the time you spend is seeing how all the Tinkertoys you’ve assembled around you fit together and interact, and which parts are moving and which are stationary. That’s where the majority of the thinking-about is spent with a poem for me, whereas with tweeting you’re more likely to see the obsessiveness emerge in the form of resurfacing themes and ideas, subjects that I return to again and again, like a pet pig to its favorite bone.
Rumpus: In that Tinkertoy metaphor, are moving parts elements of a poem that “work” while stationary parts don’t? Or are they just elements of a poem that function in different ways? Could you give me any examples (recent or otherwise) of moving and stationary parts?
Lockwood: Relevant information: I just realized I have never even seen a Tinkertoy! I’m looking it up and I guess it’s Lego, except with a bunch of shitty sticks. A poem is also Lego except with a bunch of shitty sticks, and each stick is called “a line.”
What I mean is this: some parts of a poem are there to provide stillness and some parts are there to provide movement. A long, pinwheeling tumble of language might launch itself off a short, declarative sentence, or a description of the weather, or an abrupt stanza break. The stillness is often in the setup, and the movement is often in the reveal.
Rumpus: I know it’s kind of boring to ask about influences, but—perhaps because I know more about fiction than poetry—I really have no idea who your influences are. Who/what inspired or influenced you, whether that’s other poets or, I don’t know, Popeye?
Lockwood: The only reason it isn’t a boring question is because we all lie about it, and it’s interesting to look at people’s lies. What would an honest answer to this question look like? I don’t even know. The form may have been influenced by writers of serious literature—the German aphorists, say, or Félix Fénéon—but the content is just as likely to have been influenced by Gary Larson or Jack Handey. When I write about a wolf, I’m not thinking of a nature show wolf with blood around its mouth—I’m thinking of a Gary Larson wolf standing up in an apron.
Laura Ingalls Wilder was an unexpected influence. I was reading her books all through the year I wrote Balloon Pop Outlaw Black, and I noticed they were full of these fascinating descriptions of nature’s little twitches, like reins and fishing line coming to sudden life in your hands, and horses rolling on the grass to get the feeling of the harness off them. They were the oddest, most visceral observations, and they ran all through the books. They’re also full of the small elements of civilization—glass and nails and pine boards, now we have to build a door, this is how the latch goes on. Those books are butch as hell, and no one ever notices because they’re supposedly books for girls. You could build up a city from them if the world ended; you could build a house from them if you were alone on your planet, as the mother does in “The Cartoon’s Mother Builds a House in Hammerspace.”
Cartoons were obviously a huge influence, for that book in particular. I still can’t watch cartoons without feeling that someone is writing a visual letter for me in real time. It just looks that way to me; I get so excited. I was watching Gulliver Mickey last night and I found myself doing it again, shouting to my husband, “Look at the calligraphic line!”
Rumpus: Your recent poem “Rape Joke” blew up in a way that poetry supposedly can’t do anymore, and that cemented your status as one of the foremost poets of your (our) generation. How do you even deal with that? Is it a different experience seeing the Internet version of success for a poem as opposed to the print version of success, like publishing a poem in The New Yorker, which you’ve done more than once?
Lockwood: “Foremost poet of a generation,” ahahaha!
How do you deal with it? It is good, if you find yourself in this situation, to have a sense of humor. There’s something inherently funny about being suddenly pretty well-known for writing a poem called “Rape Joke.” If I had known that that was going to happen, I would have put it in the poem as the punchline.
It’s absolutely different. When I had my first poem in The New Yorker, I got a letter, on nice stationery, from an older gentleman in Texas, thanking me very kindly for my contribution. The stationery had a picture of an urn printed at the top. A Grecian urn? Probably. It ruled.
On the Internet, no one has stationery, but they can all write letters to you anyway. When “Rape Joke” appeared, I got dozens and dozens of e-mails from women and girls telling me their own versions of it. I got bizarre hate mail insulting my haircut, because the poem appeared alongside a picture. Also, because of the venue, a lot of people who weren’t poets read it, which meant that I heard from comedians and journalists and sportswriters and college kids. It felt exposed in a really interesting way, not just because of the subject matter, but because poets just aren’t used to attention.
Also, because it was the Internet, I had a better sense of its reach, and who was reading it. People could respond to it instantly on Twitter, and they did. There was a brief period where the words “devastating” and “powerful” were being tweeted at me like a hundred times a day, which was a surreal experience if you’re at all familiar with the typical offerings of my Twitter account.
With The New Yorker, the actual success lies in getting the poem accepted by the magazine. Crossing that hurdle doesn’t mean that anyone will pay especial attention to it once it’s printed, however. When it comes to the Internet, the initial hurdle is lower, but the success a piece enjoys can be exponential.
But the thing is, no person anywhere is sitting in their room and thinking, Ahhhh. Yes. I am well-known for my poetry, unless it’s a crazy person. Early on, poets resign themselves to the fact that no one will ever read anything they’ve written, and that acts as a circle of protection when people actually do. You don’t really believe it, so it’s easy to keep working.
Rumpus: When you say that “poets resign themselves to the fact that no one will ever read anything they’ve written,” do you mean specifically because they are poets, or do you think that’s true for most writers in general? Because clearly you are well-known for your poetry, or at least for that one poem. Having the words “devastating” and “powerful” tweeted at you a hundred times a day is more attention than most writers ever get, poet or not.
Lockwood: I may be more oblivious than most, but I think I’m just taking it for what it is: the sort of surge of sudden interest that the Internet makes possible. If you exist for a long enough time on the Internet, you’ll lead lots of different lives there. You’ll become known first for one thing, and then, if you’re lucky, another. Creative life on the Internet is long, and made up of a bunch of bright intense bursts. Eyeballs all turn your way at once, and then they turn away. This all may add up to a certain kind of fame, but I think a better way of looking at it is that you just become part of the Internet’s furniture. People sit on you, people lie down on you and cry, people let their dogs put muddy paws all over you, people forget you in favor of another couch, people discover you again.
Don’t ask me to push this furniture metaphor too far or things…will get…insane.
Rumpus: If I could ask a little more about this particular poem and the phenomenon of Internet attention…the flip-side of creating this vital/viral poem that resonates with so many people is that it also reaches people who, as you put it, “barf all over their keyboards at you.” You wrote that anyone can expect that when writing about the topic of rape, but did you expect that level of vitriol? Is there a way in which you feel like you know the poem is doing its job when people get that angry?
Lockwood: Part of the purpose of a poem like this is to take the target out of yourself and put it up on the wall. It’s a method of distancing, of detachment. So if people shoot arrows, they go into the target, not into your chest. They don’t hurt you anymore. Making an object out of your suffering allows you to be objective about it, and that objectivity allowed me to find the comments funny, or bizarre, or even interesting.
I didn’t think much about the reaction I would receive because I had no expectation that the poem would be read so widely. Ninety-nine percent of the comments were wonderful. Even some of the really bad ones were worth their weight in contemplation, such as the one about how a girl drinking in the presence of men is like a person smearing herself in berry juice and salmon oil and walking out into grizzly country. I mean…you just…that’s outsider literature, practically.
I don’t subscribe to the notion that a poem is doing its job when people get angry, no. The idea of a poem “doing its job” is a really foreign one to me. It’s not a kitchen implement, that either works or doesn’t. It’s not a machine whose function is to manufacture human reaction, and if it manufactures enough of the right kind of reaction then it can be judged successful. It’s a place that goes onto the map if people return and return to it over a long period of time. Its job is to be there, for the people who want to come to it.
Rumpus: I love the concept of weird online comments as outsider literature. I feel like that could make the Internet a little more bearable.
To move on to a new topic…you have a new book coming out soon! My sources (your tweets) indicate it’s called Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals. When will it be released, and can you tell us a little bit about it?
Lockwood: It’s coming out in June 2014—I just got the galleys, actually! The title is currently misspelled on the spine as Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexulas, which has a nice Dracula/Chocula element which I can’t help liking. We’ll fix it, but not without a pang of regret. Fare thee well, Homelandsexulas! Lisa Hanawalt got to do the cover, same as my last book, which made me so happy; she is the greatest.
Post-gender fuck poetry. Animal puberty. Countries going down on other countries. Pronouns assigned at random, marriages between all things. No one even wants poetry to sound like this, but now it does.