Patricia Lockwood, onetime ‘smutty-metaphor queen of Lawrence,’ owns the memoir now, too, with Priestdaddy, in KC Wednesday

How foolish to want to write about Patricia Lockwood. In fact, I don’t really want to write about her, would rather read and reread her words. But writing about her — at least until I get to the part where I call her and she speaks for herself — is the only way to put into print three salient facts about or related to the 35-year-old poet and newly minted memoirist before she visits KC this month.

One, she is brilliant

Two, her audience, from her 63,600 Twitter followers to the stuffier echelons of lit culture, is vast by poetry standards. It’s a fame tethered in part to a deeply resonant poem called “Rape Joke,” initially published online and still a ricocheting samizdat powerhouse well after its official inclusion in her first mainstream collection. And it’s a fame expanded by a memorably fulsome 2014 New York Times Magazine profile (headline: “The Smutty-Metaphor Queen of Lawrence, Kansas”) and by various borderline-randy appreciations published in print and online. 

Three, people who undertake the task of interviewing Lockwood or reviewing her work tend to find their prose sucked into her wake, the non-Lockwood writer bobbing up and down and casting about for descriptions and metaphors that might illustrate his subject’s brilliance (sometimes weighed down by their duty to tell you that she is young and photogenic). I just did it myself, and I’m not even James Parker, the estimable Atlantic columnist who last month wrote that Lockwood’s poetry is “like the internet talking in its sleep.” That’s an apt simile, and Parker is clearly a fan, yet it feels reductive, even — especially? — assigned to a poet whose lines are themselves distilled to a fine, weapons-grade powder. (See? I did it again, and truly I did not mean to.)

These three facts are verses in a song destined to be sung about Lockwood whenever she issues a new article, poem or book. Her writing is, even at its most provocative, approachable and deliciously quotable, and she’s not one to be unnecessarily oblique when referring to blow jobs or abortion. Also, she is only getting better.

The latest evidence of her elastic talent is that just-out memoir, Priestdaddy. It chronicles her complex, itinerant upbringing as the child of a man who entered adulthood an atheist and, after marrying and siring kids (and mainlining The Exorcist), became a Catholic priest — a priest different from the rest of the order in ways other than his daddyhood. 

“Every so often, during his rages, my father would yell ‘HOMEY DON’T PLAY THAT’ at the top of his lungs, to demonstrate how much he would not accept the bullcrap of whatever was going on,” Lockwood writes. “No one knew where he had picked it up. Did he stay up late and watch In Living Color after we were in bed? He pointed at us and shouted it, HOMEY DON’T PLAY THAT, like it was one of the commandments. Who was homey? Was he homey, or was it God?”

Priestdaddy, then, is unusually rollicking for a book that addresses faith, marriage (Lockwood married at 21, and her husband’s health figures into the story) and family. I called Lockwood — who spends much of the book staying with her parents and her husband in Kansas City (after the younger couple moved out, they lived in Lawrence before ending up in Savannah, Georgia) — to ask her about it. 

The Pitch: Part of the world you describe in the book — your religious, protected childhood — sometimes seems like something from the 19th century. To what degree do you feel in or out of your generation, your time, your family’s time?

Lockwood: I feel very far out of it, actually. I felt alienated from group movements. But I also feel alienated from the music of my time, the popular TV shows. A lot of times, when you grow up in a circumstance like I did, you weren’t allowed to watch or listen to things because of your parents’ beliefs. Because of my father’s overruling taste, we were not allowed to watch, like, really random stuff — Boy Meets World, Roseanne. Boy Meets World, that’s a Christian-ass show, straight up. But really it was just because he hated those things and wanted to watch his own stuff. So I feel slightly distanced from my own generation, like I’m inhabiting it as a witness. I’m watching people and thinking, like, You like these Kardashians? 

You’re very pungent and sharp-witted on Twitter — enough to make an interviewer a little fearful of asking a dumb question.

I would never make fun of someone that way. When I do these interviews, I’m the one who’s going to say something so fucking stupid that they’ll have to shoot me into the fucking sun. 

Do you catch people doing the opposite, performing for you so that they’ll sound better in your writing?

This is the first time I’ve written about people in my life in this way, but I’ve never felt anyone clam up. And people don’t think so much about poets that everything is material to them. But my mother did perform for me, which was a wonderful blessing that we will enjoy for years to come. 

She’s sort of the MVP of Priestdaddy.

You could see a switch turn on: She got funnier. It was a thing that brought us closer together as it was happening. 

And now that you’re not under the same roof and you’ve written about her family, what are your conversations with her like?

She’s read parts of the book but not all of it yet. Mostly when I talk to my mother, she just narrates various near-miss car crashes, to be absolutely honest. When I live away from her, I don’t end up talking as much to her. It’ll be interesting to get back [for her KC reading].

What about your dad? He seems pretty severe sometimes in the book.

I don’t think he’ll read the book. There’s a strangeness in realizing that you can have kids and you can have an experience with them, a shared memory, that’s completely different from how it happened. It’s difficult for my father to imagine other lives. He’s empathetic — he counsels people — but many of the things he has said to me, you think: If you knew very basic things about me. For my dad, kids were like continuing the existence of the family name. He likes to have them, but I don’t know if he’s ever thought about what I do in a room when I’m alone.

He’s much more lighthearted now that everyone is grown. Among the kids there’s a shared sense of humor. Part of it is about our secret freedom from a person who is a very strong personality. He believes we inherited our sense of humor from him, but that’s 100 percent wrong. We got it from our mother. 

You wrote about Donald Trump’s campaign for The New Republic last year. How have you felt since November?

I have retreated into myself a little. I’ve kept to myself more. The election was a shock on a very primal level: that half of the country, half the people you’re intimate with, found this to be a possible timeline. It’s difficult. I feel more alone and am probably not talking to people who did feel that was a possible timeline. It seems such a fundamental disconnect. Is it something you should bridge? What about the Catholics I know? That’s so strange to me. Trump is so at odds with Catholic thinking, Catholic thinking in its very cell.

The day after the election, I walked outside and I was dressed in, like, this huge sweatshirt, looking like i’d been smacked around, like a haunted wraith. And I passed all these people who seemed happy, and I was like, What is going on? It’s something white people are waking up to, that feeling of walking around going, Is it you? Did you do this? 

How much does completing a book like Priestdaddy reset your agenda?

It’s not a book I ever thought I would write, though everyone I talked to about my childhood told me I had to write a book. It may have opened up a series of possibilities. I could write about going to Ireland with my mom. I could write essays, other books. But there is right now a need to write poetry. While I was writing Priestdaddy, I was not really able to do the work that, to me, feels more essential to a sense of myself. I have that thirst to be doing that again.

How far along are you on the next poetry collection?

I actually have a lot more than I thought — maybe half. With Priestdaddy, you think 350 pages is insane, but a poem can be six words long.

You’ve said you don’t like to talk about your writing process, but has it changed since the memoir?

Do we even have the explanatory power to describe process? It comes more from the fact that you’re worried about getting it wrong, saying something false or facile about something important to you. It’s absolutely a nonverbal animal instinct. There’s nothing more to it than that — you know when something doesn’t work. It’s almost a physical feeling inside of you, an unsettled feeling. You’re working on a poem, working to right — R-I-G-H-T — something in yourself, to bring it plumb, correct.

To begin as I did, in retreat from the sort of home life I had, meant that I never wrote personal things, confessional things, or not in the way that other people did. But in this, it’s all I was thinking about — along with whether I was being fair, being just, getting things right. On Twitter, my absurdity floats free, evokes the body and sex but could be talking about cucumbers or bolts at the hardware store. I’m using things in almost a combinatorial way. The voice in Priestdaddy is more my natural voice, when I’m writing straight. The scenes with my parents were naturally absurd, so they had to be written in a way that conveyed the household as absurd as it actually was. 

Uniquely for someone in your line, you don’t have an MFA. You’re an autodidact who didn’t go to college. How does that affect you as a public-reading, book-touring writer?

On a personal level, I get along with all of the people I read with, in a writerly sense. But it’s strange to do institutional things. I did my first panel at Clemson recently. I was sitting there and I was like, What the hell are we doing? It was like being in a weird zoo. I was just sort of sitting there, maybe a little dissociated. Lectures I don’t feel as comfortable with as readings. 

Part of my function is to observe the strangeness of the writer in the world now. I think it is crucial and useful to have people for whom it remains strange what happens in the academy. And there are pyramid-scheme aspects of writing programs, but I think I’d like to work with students. 

I think I have more freedom. When you’re an autodidact, you get used to following your own trail a little. You read a book and it leads you to a dozen other books, tangentially. I’ve always read obsessively. I’d do that even if I’d gone through however many programs. I’ve followed my own path. You’ll have these huge blind spots, but it does mean that the people you read, you read very deeply. 

My friend Mary was over last night, and we were watching Anne of Green Gables. There was nothing objectionable in those books, so I read everything by Lucy Montgomery and read very deeply when I was, like, 11, and I was saying I thought I knew more about this specific time period, with its mores and manners, than about anything else. I know about World War I from the Canadian perspective because of those books — which is stupid in a way but kind of marvelous. She’s the reason I know who Lord Kitchener is. We miss authors like her, who give so much historic and day-to-day detail.

What’s the deep reading right now?

I’ve been reading Memoirs of Hadrian [a novel by Marguerite Yourcenar about the titular Roman emperor]. I wanted to read something that was engaged in political thinking and philosophy but was removed from our time. I wanted to put myself into the mind of a leader who was not a pile of garbage. 

Is it working?

It gives a long view of a life. It can be good to remember that history is long. It can be good to remember that you’re going to live a long fucking time.

Patricia Lockwood reads from and talks about Priestdaddy: A Memoir (Riverhead Books, $27) at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 10, at Mid-Continent Public Library’s Woodneath Library Center, 8900 Northeast Flintlock Road. Register to attend here.

Categories: A&E