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How Patricia Lockwood became indie-poetry royalty

The cult US poet discusses writing, misogyny, and Priestdaddy – her new memoir about life in the hyper-religious American Midwest

The story of Patricia Lockwood’s rise to fame is already the stuff of poetry legend. Brought up in the American Midwest as the daughter of a rambunctious, gun-toting Catholic priest, she found her calling early, devoting herself to writing with a conviction bordering on zealotry.

Despite being a complete outsider, Lockwood managed to ascend through the drudgery of open-call submissions to become the It girl of the American poetry world. In 2013 her first collection, Balloon Pop Outlaw Black, was the US’s bestselling small-press poetry book by a living poet, marking Lockwood as “indie-poetry royalty”, according to The New York Times. Since then, she has only gained notoriety, thanks in part to her presence on Twitter, where her doting audience numbers close to sixty-six thousand.

Today, Lockwood is in the UK for the release of her new memoir, Priestdaddy, as well as her second collection of poetry, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals. Priestdaddy is framed around Lockwood’s experience of moving in with her parents following a health crisis. The move, shared by her husband, becomes a foil for reflection on her childhood and the social, political, and religious environment in which she was raised. The memoir is beautifully written and genuinely funny, but is most notable as an artist’s coming-of-age story – a rare insight into how a young, female poet found her voice.

In person, Lockwood is self-deprecating, straightforward, jovial. She chooses her words carefully but speaks quickly. We meet at the bar of her hotel, lacing our Americanos with thick cream from a sizable ceramic jug – two American ladies in London on a Monday at the end of times.

“The real self is something that can slip out, it’ll find a crack. It’s going to get out somewhere, and it rises” – Patricia Lockwood

Had you written many other books before you had your first collection published?

Patricia Lockwood: Yeah, it was like the fifth. In America there’s a strong contest culture, it’s very difficult to get a book published that doesn’t win a contest. So a lot of times you are just filtering in new poems and taking out older ones and the book really changes as you go, the longer you’re within that sort of circus of trying to get it published. For me it was almost ten years. But the strange part about it is as soon as you have a book accepted they can’t take that away from you. Suddenly you’re a person who has a book. But up to that point there is no guarantee that will ever happen. You’re just working towards this phantasm, and it may never turn out to be anything real. Ten years is a long time, but there are people who go longer than that. In America there’s this whole system where we hypereducate our poets now, but a lot of them still can’t get jobs. There’s absolutely no guarantee – you can get a PhD, you can get a Masters – that you’re ever going to get even a book published. You might eventually, but it’s rough out there.

In Priestdaddy you describe your life when you were unemployed and devoting all your time to writing. Where does that conviction come from?

Patricia Lockwood: It’s totally innate. It’s always been the way I am and it’s focused probably to the point of obsession – you know, I think it does help to have a little bit of an obsessive quality about it. But it’s a basic sort of inertia as well. I’m waking up in my bed, my notebook’s here, I’m just going to move it like four inches to the left, and I’ve started working. So it’s also the least amount of physical effort that I could possibly be expending.

When you’re young you might discover that you’re good with words or interested in literature, but the step from that to actually saying, I’m going to devote my life to writing, is probably not straightforward for most people.

Patricia Lockwood: I always had, for some reason, this very intense internal sense of direction that was just like arrows pointing me at things – like, now you’re working on this, now you’re working on this. So from the very beginning, I always had some sort of project and that’s just what I do when I’m alone. I won’t read trash, I won’t watch TV, a lot of times I won’t even eat.

I’m curious about your writing process: how prolific you are, how heavily you edit.

Patricia Lockwood: What usually happens is that there is some sort of concept that a lot of times is contained in a title. So that is the seed for me, or it begins with a single line. And then from there on it’s just something that I constantly think about, almost like a crush. It obsesses or it takes up your whole mind and when you’re awake that’s what you’re thinking about, that’s what you’re doing. So for the poems in the second book, it was sort of like a recording of a process of me fleeing from my own more staid instincts. A lot of times those were written more quickly, or I would work on them more continuously, so as to create the illusion that they were written in a single sitting. I would say that the poems in the first book came more slowly, and they were probably more edited. So I thought it would be interesting to see what would happen if I were just a little bit looser. What if I let up, just for this book, what would happen?

“I always had, for some reason, this very intense internal sense of direction...I won’t read trash, I won’t watch TV, a lot of times I won’t even eat” – Patricia Lockwood

You wrote a lot of Priestdaddy when you were still living in the rectory with your parents. Do you write differently in different places? Do you need to be in certain places to write certain things?

Patricia Lockwood: Absolutely. Part of the reason that a lot of Priestdaddy is in vignettes is because it was so fucking loud in that house that I could only concentrate for brief periods. It really did affect the shape, and a lot of the more serious chapters were written after I moved out and was living in my own house, so you really feel there is more depth of reflection there too, because I had some silence for the first time in eight months. I wish I could communicate to the readers how loud it was, and how overpowering and constant the wall of sound was. And when I think about it, it was always like this for me. So I must have figured out some way to go off and be alone and have some quiet to myself, where I could think. Or maybe because I liked the quiet I fled to that place, and figured out that what you do in the quiet is think and reflect and ultimately write.

The environment you describe in Priestdaddy is extremely misogynistic. And it’s a surprising approach, to describe it with humor and levity. In fact it’s remarkable, to be faced with that and to not take it personally. 

Patricia Lockwood: It’s been part of the air and waters of my household from the very beginning. But I think that that probably influences some of the observational style, because if so much of what you’re hearing is this denunciation of the female and the female body, then you sort of float out of that body a little bit. You begin to consider yourself as just a mind. But you’re going to find a way out. The real self is something that can slip out, it’ll find a crack. It’s going to get out somewhere, and it rises. And for me it became something that looked, and that listened.

A lot of articles about you say that the poetry in Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals could just as well be tweets. I wonder what do you think about that?

Patricia Lockwood: I hate that! Or they ask if the process of composition is different. Or do you ever have to decide whether something is a tweet or a poem. I mean that’s true, that happens, but at the same time I think anyone who’s used both methods or has written both things understands it’s pretty different. Although it is true sometimes that I won’t tweet something because it’s kind of good, you know, and I’m like, oh I’m going to save that.

How do you feel about the way you are written about and presented in the media?

Patricia Lockwood: It’s strange. I mean, you feel that you’re a person, and then you realise that there’s a narrative about you that gets set really early on. What I didn’t realise is that it continues in that original setting, I thought that perhaps it would change. But what helps with that is just never reading any of it. So, any of the profiles that are written about me I’ll look at them with one eye, because it feels strange to be written about. Or it feels a lot of times that it has nothing to do with me, which, you know, it doesn’t, in a way. But I do think it’s different because of the Twitter thing, that I’m perceived to be much more of an internet poet or like a cool young poet than I actually am. If you really look at my work a lot of it is very difficult, you know, it’s certainly not this sort of internet poetry that people think of when such a thing is called to mind.

I was wondering about that, if the Twitter fame translates into a readership for the poetry.

Patricia Lockwood: It absolutely does. And that’s been really heartening to see. Because I think it’s unusual for people to come to poetry at a later age when they haven’t read any before. And maybe in the past it was not so easy to arbitrarily encounter something, whereas on Twitter you’ll be scrolling down the timeline and you can just click a link to a poem and read it even if you’re a person who doesn’t necessarily do that. If it’s true that books teach readers how to read you, I think it’s also true that if people read your work in another medium and they resonate with your thought process or with your sense of expression, then they can read the poems, absolutely.

Do you think that being active on Twitter is good for your process as a poet? In the sense of always looking for interesting things to say and share.

Patricia Lockwood: I think that’s always true, that when you have a project, when you have a poem or a book you’re working on, you’re looking at the world through a lens that is sifting what might be useful for that particular thing. And I think Twitter functions in the same way. So you’re living your life, but you’re also thinking, would that be a good Tweet? That is very much the same process.

Interview has been edited and condensed for length. Priestdaddy and Mother Fatherland Homelandsexuals are available to buy now