The week of June 7, 2015

The supreme wit of Patricia Lockwood, Twitter’s poet laureate

By Miles Klee

From the New Yorker to Weird Twitter and just about every literary blog in between, poet Patricia Lockwood has tickled many a famously fickle fancy. Among people who’ve read her, you don’t hear a word any less than awed. Other writers—a crowd that even in an age of supportive blurbing and digital backslapping is not exactly known for a deficit of ill will—often gush without embarrassment. If you want to run for president of her fan club, you’ll have to get in line behind some 52,000 other people.

What is it we so adore about Lockwood’s wit, which arrives via sext or shattering one-liner or Balloon Pop Outlaw Black and Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, two collections of sneaky verse? Perhaps that it feels like talking to a stranger at a very strange party, some person far beyond what’s hopelessly boring in one’s own life. But I’d better stop here, lest praise run on for pages. Lockwood’s better on her own terms.

There’s so much to admire in your published work, but I wonder if you could tell us about the unwritten poem—or non-poem!—you’d like to write somewhere down the line? The one that maybe seems just out of reach.

I’ve said this before, but: a novel from the point of view of the Giant Rat of Sumatra. Others have tried it, but I’m going to give him an inner life.

“People always talk about how you used to see poems in the newspaper, and how this is an indication that people in the past loved poetry so much they ate it for breakfast. Well, the newspaper is bigger now. It’s your newsfeed, or your timeline, or your dashboard.”

Being the Poet Laureate of Twitter (if someone hasn’t called you that yet, then congrats to me on being first) opens you up to reactions and critiques that fall far outside academic or “literary” spheres. What sort of benefits and drawbacks do you see in this circumstance? What kind of response has most surprised you?

The benefit is that you hear from people reading your work in real time, people who might not have had traditional access to writers in the past. A letter to the author is instantaneous; the post office is right at your fingertips. It means that a teen in Toledo can send me a picture of her cat sitting on my book, and I can see it two seconds later. This carries with it a certain sense of permeability, a sense that your seclusion is not quite what it was, but when I think about what it was like to be young, and reading poetry, and filled with that fierce longing to be in contact with the people who made art … it seems worth doing, at least for a while.

The response that most surprised me was probably when the official Baconator account started tweeting at me with some frequency, in a disarming yet disturbing human voice that made me picture a burger talking. I couldn’t tell if he wanted to be friends or if he wanted me to eat him or what. It was mysterious, but I didn’t mind it at all, actually—if “the Baconator won’t stop talking to me” were a problem that I could encounter in the academy, I would join it immediately and with no second thoughts.

Has the Internet, aside from providing greater access to writers, also widened the audience for poetry itself, or just allowed it to coalesce differently, maximizing the potential for influence? I don’t mind saying that work like yours has helped inspire me to try my hand at the form—if only as a way of procrastinating on the next novel. Do you get that a lot? I imagine quite a few people must tell you things like, “I didn’t know poetry could do that.”

People always talk about how you used to see poems in the newspaper, and how this is an indication that people in the past loved poetry so much they ate it for breakfast. Well, the newspaper is bigger now. It’s your newsfeed, or your timeline, or your dashboard, and with a little cultivation, you’re likely to see more poems in there than you ever did in the Saturday Evening Post.

“Reputation is largely a concept that I associate with the movie Grease.”

From my vantage point, it does appear that more people are both reading and writing it, perhaps out of a sense of enlarged possibility. The genre expands; the genre contracts. I do think we are seeing a period of expansion. A number of people have said the same thing to me—that they are trying their hand at a form that previously seemed closed or forbidding, simply because they realized that the police weren’t going to stop them.

I’ve noticed a related phenomenon at my readings, too. No matter what I read, whether it’s essays or short humor sketches or chapters of the memoir, people approach me afterwards and say, “I really enjoyed that poem that you read.” They think, well, she’s a poet, so what she’s reading must count as poetry. That gets me where I live. I love that.

2013’s “Rape Joke” is maybe the lone instance of a poem going viral—though if I’m wrong about that I hope you’ll correct me—and part of what I find so interesting about the piece is its foreboding sense of that exact phenomenon (“… you’re asking for it to become the only thing people remember about you”). How do you view the power and perils of reputation, either on the Internet or in publishing?

Quite a few slam poems and performances have gone viral. I would certainly count those.

I always thought of it as more wry than foreboding. It was a serious observation, but it was also something of a joke—why not include the probable future of the poem in the poem itself? Why not include the sure knowledge that if someone interviews you about the poem years in the future, that’s the line they’re going to quote? In other words, why not let this be the way that you tell people that you are a witch with a psychic mind?

“Write from your life, and let the art float a little above.”

So if I get a reputation for that, that’s all according to plan. Otherwise, I don’t think about it much. Reputation is largely a concept that I associate with the movie Grease.

I’m glad you mentioned slam poetry, because it occurs to me now that the Internet effectively puts the visual and oral poetic traditions on equal footing. Are your poems ideally read aloud, or does the (web)page accomplish something the voice can’t?

My first book was written largely for the page—there are poems in there that couldn’t be successfully read aloud by an auctioneer. Morgan Freeman could maybe do it, but it would be hard for him. In the second book, I set myself to write poems that could actually be performed. The skills, for me, are different. If I’m thinking about how a line looks, I’m thinking less about how it sounds. If I’m thinking about how it sounds, I’m thinking less about how it looks. I tend to switch back and forth between the two modes, so expect my next poetry collection to be all about a cockroach that learns to type, I guess.

Many readers identify a strain of subversion in your poetry, and it’s true one can be delightfully wrongfooted by their sexual surrealism. But rather than fully inhabit some ideology, it seems to scorn any possible allegiances. How can art be both about and bigger than social politics?

The allegiances of my family, in my childhood, were frightening to me—so much so that I became more comfortable taking a step back and observing the way others formed allegiances, shared vocabularies, group mindsets, and various patriotisms. That was my formation, and that’s the way I still work. I think one solution is to write from your life, rather than from your head, or your ideals, or your voting hand. Your life partakes of your planet, your continent, your country, your race, your gender, your class, your sexual orientation, and your position in the social hierarchy, but it also floats a little above them. So write from your life, and let the art float a little above.

Finally, a wild-card question. What would make the best topic for a poem: David Lynch’s hair, a factory that makes “Exit” signs, or time-traveling dinosaurs?

David Lynch’s hair
Aliens fuck in the wheat
Bald spot: crop circle

Illustration by Madeline Gobbo