A Conversation With The Hilarious, Irreverent Midwestern Author, Patricia Lockwood
Here are two things that are mostly true: Catholic priests don’t have children, and internationally celebrated poets don’t make absurdist sex jokes on Twitter.
The existence of Patricia Lockwood, daughter of a Kansas City priest and currently 65.5k followers deep on social media, disproves both. Her unconventional path to the pages of The New Yorker, a collection with Penguin Press and an appearance on The New York Times’ Notable Books list has captivated critics and journalists for years, who run her internet one-liners (e.g., “@parisreview So is paris any good or not”) alongside quotes from her free verse. But in her new memoir, “Priestdaddy,” Lockwood finally shows how she came to her odd niche in the modern poetry cannon.
It involves a “fiscally irresponsible dad who won’t wear pants” (who also happens to be the leader of multiple Midwestern parishes), an emergency eye surgery, a bankruptcy and the surreal, hilarious, elliptical writing we’ve come to expect from a mind like hers.
I talked with Lockwood over email about poetry, parody and her beef with The Tao of Pooh.
So, first, I have to tell you: I left a copy of this book in a McDonald’s dining room by accident, and I had a hell of a time explaining that I was not reading Catholic erotica over my six piece. Tell me how you settled on this (perfect) title and this (perfect) cover.
I love that you call it a McDonald’s “dining room.” That feels very Midwest to me, and tells me that I should share with you this picture of a St. Louis parade from my childhood:
That was in Bridgeton. The saddest Grimace!
“Priestdaddy” is the private, in-joke title that my husband and I always used when we talked about my hypothetical memoir, years and years before I ever dreamed of writing one. We particularly used it in moments of poverty, like when we had overdrawn our bank account and couldn’t afford, say, ramen noodles. “Just get cracking on Priestdaddy,” [my husband] Jason would whisper, “and you’ll be rolling in those noodles for the rest of your sweet, sweet life.”
The cover I only saw when it was finished. The whole time I worked on the manuscript, I envisioned the finished book being totally black, with a white square at the top. Very graphic, to the point of being nonverbal. When I saw Helen Yentus’s design, I actually gasped. It was the opposite of what I was expecting.
So the title of this book refers to your father, who became one of the few married Catholic priests in existence because of a loophole in Church doctrine. It occurs to me that that’s similar to some of the narratives I’ve heard about how you’re an exception, too; that while a lot of poets come up through these very systematized undergrad prosody classes to Master of Fine Arts programs to first book contest to second book to tenure track job, you had a very different trajectory. Could you tell me a little more about becoming a poet, largely by way of the internet? Do you see your trajectory as unusual or exceptional?
It probably shouldn’t be, but it is. I would like to have gotten an undergrad degree, at the very least—I didn’t choose my path out of principle. It’s an indictment of the system that people like me are so rare in the landscape, because if we’re not hearing from, say, lower-middle-class Midwesterners with fiscally irresponsible dads who won’t wear pants, we’re not hearing from a whole hell of a lot of other people who face far more serious obstructions.
So, if you are an outsider, the internet might allow you to rise to prominence, but it will also color the perception of you very highly. You’ll be viewed as a slightly different species than other writers. There’s an idea that since I didn’t come from academia that my writing will be anti-academic, or more like the thoughts of a dog in an image macro than traditional literature, which isn’t the case at all.
Success aside, though, this book sheds light on the ridiculousness of the poetry economy, where a poet like you can be published in The New Yorker, have a published book and be what the non-poet would consider a wild success, and still find yourself moving back home at the first catastrophe. Can you say a little bit about the catastrophe in the book and how you decide to structure your memoir around it?
Part of it is just American healthcare—a bankrupting illness could happen to any of us at any given time. My husband developed subcapsular cataracts in both eyes and needed total lens replacements; we raised the $10,000 we needed for the surgery itself, but beyond that it basically bankrupted us. Moving back home was first unthinkable and then more and more obviously the only choice. Writing the memoir was the same.
What has the Catholic community’s response been to the book? You’ve said your father probably won’t read it—will his parishioners?
A couple parishioners have shown up at readings! A couple ex-parishioners even, who had all the good dirt. And a woman drove who 90 miles with her husband to my reading in Chicago whispered to me afterwards, with much conspiracy, that she worked for the archdiocese. I think people are on your side until you demonstrate yourself to be hostile to them, or contemptuous to something they hold dear. I also think Catholics as a general group have much more irreverent and playful senses of humor than people give them credit for—we develop them early, as a way to fend off questions from Protestant neighbors about Why We Worship That Cement Mary Statue in the Front Yard.
One of the things the book does well is managing this balance of parody and respect—which is epically hard, generally—especially in a humorous memoir about people of faith and figures of religious authority. How did you handle that?
It’s possible that I have too much respect for authority. I’m a person whose instinctive tendency is to smile at cops out of a childhood fear that I might be arrested for anything at any time. My real subversion has always come from humor, always. It is the place, to me, where observation is most clear-eyed; where I can pipe up in class; where the sentence pops out whole. But to successfully parody someone like my father, someone like my mother, all you have to do is quote them saying exactly what they say, doing exactly what they do. Perhaps the most successful parody is really a sort of hyper-realism, perhaps it is the other genres that have an inclination to soften things in the interests of making them more human.
The whole book actually has a bit of a hinge in it, where the tone shifts from humorous to something much more lyrical, almost awed, and at moments quite dark. Can you talk about that moment in the book, and the risks involved in that approach?
That is always present in my work. If it weren’t present in this book, it wouldn’t be a book I liked. It wouldn’t even be a book I felt was true. The risk, of course, is that people are generally inclined to prefer either humor or seriousness, jokes or lyricism, so to move readers from one to the other without too much jostling is a heavy labor that you must make appear light.
I’ve always thought you’ve had a really unique approach to humor on your Twitter account, too, which I think of as another arm of your body of work. Your jokes there always have this exhilarating blend of, like, vice-grip control and over-share. I’m thinking particularly of your sext series, which is so raunchy and graphic and often literally impossible to visualize at the same time. Do you think Twitter was important to developing your voice in this book?
I think it’s more likely that I was a natural fit for Twitter because of my absurdist sense of humor. Particularly toward the beginning, surrealism really thrived there—a tweet could just float, contextless and endlessly replicable, in a sort of disorienting void. It was cartoon country, with a different perspective, different laws of time and space and different consequences. Cartoon country has always been where I flourish, and where I do my best work.
So, you’re on to prose. How do you class “Priestdaddy,” genre-wise? I saw you posted on twitter that it annihilated “The Tao of Pooh” in the religious humor bestseller lists recently.
DEATH TO THE TAO OF POOH. Because of the way I approached the writing—concentrating so intensely on each chapter until it was capable of standing alone—I really think of it more as a book of essays.
I read that you thought of calling the book “lapsed,” but you felt like you were too much of a Catholic to do that. Could you say more about that?
Ha! That was a joke, actually, about the sort of title that is currently popular. If I had been going for more of the goth demographic, I would have called it “Priestess.” “Stendhal fans,” “The Black and the White.” “McCarthy lovers,” “Memories of an Even More Catholic Girl.”