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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

Q&A with Diane Lockward




Diane Lockward's Eve's Red Dress is an evocative expose of a woman's emotional experience. Highly crafted and sophisticated, the poems confront the human need to be loved, to touch and be touched. Baron Wormser has described Lockward as "a wickedly good poet." Kim Addonizio has called her poems "irreverent, ravenous for the world, and unabashedly female." Garrison Keillor has twice featured her poem, "My Husband Discovers Poetry," on NPR's The Writer's Almanac, included it in his anthology Good Poems for Hard Times, and read it at the September 2005 Dueling Anthologists reading with Billy Collins, an event held at the 92nd Street Y in New York City.

Sondra Gash:
I love the irony of "My Husband Discovers Poetry," the way it combines humor with gravitas. The wife has been spurned; now she spurns her husband. In the act of discovering poetry, the husband is tortured. Many have wondered if this happened or if it is part of your metaphorical life. Can you talk a bit about how the poem came about?

Diane Lockward:
What touched off the poem was a conversation with a group of women poets I had just met. They were talking about husbands and boyfriends reading and responding to their poetry, and I stupidly said that my husband never read my poetry. There was an intake of breath and the women, one by one, expressed their disapproval of my husband. They thought it was terrible that he wasn't interested in my poetry, so then I felt I needed to defend him, but they weren't having any of it — they insisted he wasn't interested in my soul. As I thought about the conversation throughout the day, I found myself getting annoyed at my husband for putting me in that awkward situation, and I started asking myself why the heck he wasn't reading my poetry; at the same time, I had to acknowledge that I liked that he didn't read my work because I could write anything and not worry about his reactions. Then I started thinking I could say anything about him and he'd never know. I asked myself how such a wife might get even with such a husband, and the poem began to take shape. So to some extent, this is a kind of revenge poem. I also think of it as an ars poetica. It seems to be autobiographical, as first person poems often do, but by the time the reader gets to the end of the poem, hopefully he or she realizes that there has been some fabrication going on. That's what the wife does; that's what the poet does. But you're right — readers often assume that the poem is entirely autobiographical, and they are embarrassed and sorry for my poor husband. Actually, it's his favorite of my poems. Or should I say his favorite of the ones he's read?

How has poetry changed your life?
Poetry has given me a second life. I found poetry — or it found me — when I was a real grownup. By the time I started writing, I had three teenagers and a career as a full-time high school English teacher. Poetry opened up a whole new world for me — outside and inside. Five years ago I left my teaching job in order to more actively pursue what had become my passion. The timing of my departure could not have been more fortuitous as that first summer I hooked up with my most excellent publisher and signed a contract for my first full-length collection. I then had the time to help promote the book, do readings, and revel in the thrill of it all. I now have more time for writing, reading, and going to poetry events. I no longer have to cram everything into July and August. Poetry is no longer at the fringes of my life, but at the very center.
And your interior life has changed as well?

Yes, as a poet I am a bolder, riskier person than I am in my "real life. " In the writing I find that I am able to reach a depth of emotional intensity that I otherwise mask, repress, or avoid. And I find that any given day is intensely exciting and energizing when I have a poem gestating in my head.

Can you say something about the structure of Eve's Red Dress?
My story is probably quite typical. I sent the manuscript out for something like six years, each summer spending weeks winnowing out the weaker poems, adding newer, hopefully better poems. These substitutions necessitated rethinking the overall structure. By the time I was ready to assemble what became Eve's Red Dress, I had five Eve poems, so that suggested five sections, each beginning with an Eve poem. I didn't want a narrative line, but I did see a progression of sorts among those five poems. I put "Eve Argues Against Perfection" first as it strikes me as a renunciation, a step towards independence. The title poem begins the third section with Eve dancing in her sexy red dress. The last section begins with "Eve's Own Garden"; here Eve makes her declaration of independence. I did not want the biblical allusions to take on too much importance as I see them only as jumping-off points; my Eve is more contemporary than biblical. Nor is she only one woman. There are various manifestations of her scattered throughout the book. I'm also interested in wacky women, women who hover on the edge. Each section ends with a poem about one of those women, all of them Eve's sisters. At some point I had decided upon motifs for the five sections — family roots, fruits and vegetables, clothes or no clothes, dancing, and so on.

What are you working on now?  Any shift, or are you working in the same vein?

Certain subjects in Eve's Red Dress continue to interest me, and I find myself revisiting them. I've written quite a few poems about fruits and vegetables, but I don't seem to have had my fill of them. The supply is abundant and the metaphorical possibilities are seductive. So I make no apologies for having recently written a poem about an artichoke. I couldn't resist all those layers and the squashy heart inside.
    Of course, I'm always on the lookout for new material. Lately, I've been doing more internet research as part of my quest. While writing a poem about worms, I did a Google search and found all sorts of useful worm-related information and vocabulary. I've also been attempting to expand my knowledge of forms. I remain more attracted to free verse, but I think my free verse may be feeling the effects of some formal strategies. Recently I took a careful look at Ray Gonzalez's anthology of prose poems, No Boundaries (Tupelo Press, 2003), and was especially drawn to Nin Andrews, perhaps because she also has a poem about an artichoke. I haven't yet been able to make myself give up the line break, just can't do it, but several of the poems in my new book, What Feeds Us, have longer lines and a boxier look.
    While working on that book, I knew I didn't want it to be a duplicate of my first. There are again some food poems, but they are about different kinds of food, and the collection deals with hunger for other things as well. It's about the various ways in which we are nourished, or not nourished. The structural plan of this book is also quite different.

What are the obstacles to writing for you?
The fear of failure is right up at the top of the list. You know that thought, "Oh, I'm just going to write a bad poem, so why bother?" When I was a kid, maybe 10 or so, I was quite a good diver. One summer a man spotted me doing my splendid dives at the swimming pool and offered to teach me. For a time, I got better and better. But then he wanted me to move to the next level and do double this and triple that, and I became afraid, both of getting hurt and of failing. Little by little I started cutting back instead of moving forward until I wasn't doing much more than a basic swan dive or jackknife. In high school I tried out once for cheerleading and didn't make the squad. I never tried again, said I'd lost interest. 
    When I started writing poetry, I promised myself that I would forge on ahead no matter what. I was encouraged by a poet who told me that no matter how successful you might be in other areas of life, you can't get good at this without being a beginner. You have to serve an apprenticeship. I'm still doing that, still doing some belly flops.
    Another obstacle is the absence of ideas, of material. I'm not an everyday kind of poet — wish I were, but I've come to realize that that is just not how I operate. I seem to get several drafts going. Then I work for weeks revising and tend not to be doing new stuff at the same time. I have periods when nothing seems to be happening. Perhaps those are necessary periods of reflection, observation, listening. Eventually I find myself itching to get back to writing. When I go too long without writing something new, I go to readings. I hang out with poets. I get immersed in poetry.
    Certainly laziness is another stumbling block. I could also call this lack of discipline. It's so easy and tempting to let distractions intrude on writing time. Finding time is not a problem. But sometimes making use of the time is a problem. Always it's the getting started that's hard. Once I'm started, I just keep going. I get very excited and intense. And I love working on revisions, shaping the poem, changing it, finding something I hadn't expected to find.

What draws you to a poem?
I like poems that offer clarity, that give me something on a first reading but not everything, poems that call me back for another reading and another. I love the element of mystery. I want to be a bit baffled. And surprised — I love it when a poem takes a turn I hadn't anticipated. I want some complication. Brigit Pegeen Kelly, in her latest book, The Orchard (BOA Editions, 2004), has a line about "complicating the air." I think that's what good poems do — they complicate the air. I recently read a poem in Prairie Schooner (Spring 2005) that does that to the air I breathe. It's by Chris Forhan:

        Sludge at the edge of the field, still water, slat fence
        and its rickrack shadow. Trowel tongue.
        Tulip rooted in black, cricket soaked in it.
        Mask of the cedar waxwing. Snipe's eye, fly's face.
        A nudge does it, if you're young enough.
        My jaw dropped and black leapt in,
        black spleen, black brain, black car
        pulling out of the driveway, turning at the top of the hill,
        then noon, black in its blue suit.

I couldn't say what this poem literally means, but it intrigues me. I'm attracted to its sounds — the s, k, and t sounds, the repetition of black. And the mystery — where does that car come from? Is there a driver? A destination? This poem raises a lot of questions; that's a good thing for a poem to do. Still I sometimes find myself attracted to a poem that just says straight out what it wants to say, that dares to be simple; for example, Wendy Cope's charming love poem, "The Orange." Now that poem is right on the surface. I have no doubt about what it's saying, and yet I admire the simplicity of it. And sometimes isn't that just how love feels? And the way an orange can give such pleasure when you are happy — that seems so true to me. I'm charmed, too, by the expression of love through the medium of an orange.

Who are some of your contemporary heroes and heroines?

This is always a hard question because there are so many poets who've influenced my work, taught me things I needed to know, and encouraged me. So I will be leaving out many who ought to be included, but I'll point to three women poets: Linda McCarriston, Sharon Olds, and Kim Addonizio, all of whom had a powerful effect on me when I was starting to write. I loved that they talked about family life, and I admired their willingness to confront difficult topics, to go into dark, hidden, forbidden places, to lift up a rock and see what crawled out. McCarriston's Eva-Mary (TriQuarterly Books, 1994) was a revelation of what might be said. At a Dodge Poetry Festival, I heard McCarriston speak, and I admired the way she fearlessly acknowledged the autobiographical elements in her poems though she was dealing with tough topics like incest and other kinds of family abuse. She really rattled the skeletons in the closet. She said that as a poet she wanted to kick down doors, and I thought I'd like to do that too. Sharon Olds also writes about tough topics. But her position on discussing the autobiographical elements is the direct opposite of McCarriston's. She will say only that the poems are "seemingly personal." I think that also takes courage, to refuse to give the reader more than what's in the poem. I found it liberating, enabling me both to deal with facts and to tell lies and not have to say which is which. Addonizio's Rita and Jimmy (BOA Editions, 1997) took me to the dark side of love, and I found it quite a thrilling place to be. I like Addonizio's spunk. And I find it an intriguing paradox that she is so adventurous, yet also interested in traditional forms. But all three poets are careful practitioners of craft, as bold in style and voice as they are in subject matter. And while each initially attracted me with her boldness and darkness, each has a deep capacity for tenderness. I find that an attractive combination.
    Of course, there are also many male poets I admire. I like Stephen Dobyns for his versatility and range. "Fragments" is such a tender, loving, and sad poem. Then you read "Bleeder" and wow! And Philip Levine, listening to him on tape and hearing him read "Let Me Be." There was this amazing line: "Except for the smoking, people said I was like Jesus." I loved the blasphemy and the humor of that. I like Levine's toughness, the way he tackles Detroit and work and hard times. But then you read "For Fran," and there's the tenderness. Another poet I adore is Baron Wormser. He has "wit" in the Renaissance sense of the word, that is, depth of intelligence and skill with words. He creates wonderful characters, has a great capacity for compassion, and is probably one of the best poetry teachers in America.

How do you feel about writing about loss and pain?
I feel good about it. I'm more interested in poems about what's been lost than I am in poems about what's been found. I'm not interested in chicken soup poems that seem determined to force me to be happy. Certainly, I want to be happy, but as Donald Hall says, "The happy poem sleeps in the sun." Such poems might give me momentary pleasure, but they don't stay with me, don't call me back for another reading. Let me qualify that a bit: I like poems about happiness if they recognize its opposite. Jane Kenyon's poem "Happiness" comes to mind. Happiness, she says, comes to all of us at some time, often unexpectedly. Great! But then she also acknowledges "the unmerciful / hours of your despair." For me, the poem gains texture and honesty by its ability to live with contradiction. And let's face it — we're all a bunch of losers. I took a walk today and found a ring of keys someone lost on the sidewalk; of course, I immediately thought of the poor person who would soon be missing those keys, and then I thought of Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art." The subject is just there — it's a gift, and it has limitless possibilities. There are so many different kinds of loss, some significant, others insignificant, some material, others spiritual. We lose people we care about. We lose our illusions, our youth, our minds, our dogs, even our hair! Writing about loss can be difficult. I might not want to go where the poem is taking me, but I try to go forth boldly anyhow. There's something healing and invigorating about writing about loss. However, I don't do it for therapy; always the compulsion is towards craft. And if I dwell, very well, then I dwell. But I like variety too. I don't write exclusively about loss. Nor are all of my poems dark and sad. While I get pleasure trom having my heart wrenched, I also enjoy a good laugh.

What is the meaning of home for you?

I think of the Greek concept of nostos and the longing that Odysseus had for home, for the place where he'd once been happy. Of the many themes in the Odyssey, for me, that's the most compelling. But what if you haven't had a happy home? What if there's no home to return to? I think how home becomes a kind of presence in one's life, how that absence might be filled by the imagination, and how the poet moves back and forth between memory and imagination. Home is such a fertile field. There's the physical structure of the house with all its metaphorical possibilities, the family dynamics inside the home, the anticipation and fear of leaving home or returning home, and homesickness or home sickness.
    Home is the place where we take our meals, but sometimes we emerge hungry for more than food. How the home nurtures or fails to nurture us is an important topic for me. In the home where I grew up, my parents barely spoke to each other. But to outsiders we looked like the ideal family. So I am haunted both by what home was and what it wasn't and by the difference between the appearance of the home and the actuality. I'm also interested in the secrets that are kept inside a home and the need we might have to tell those secrets, to spill the beans. I have no problem revealing secrets in poems. But beyond what I have already disclosed, I am uncomfortable talking in a public forum about the secrets of my particular home, not because they're any uglier or more embarrassing than anyone else's, but because such revelations inhibit what I feel free to reveal in the poems and what I feel free to invent. I don't want to be regarded as a confessional poet; therefore, I don't confess to confessing. Nor do I want to fuel the romantic myth of the tortured poet. Almost everyone I know has struggled or suffered in some way. Everybody's got a story. The poet needs more than a story. She needs a brain, a powerful imagination, and a determination to learn the craft. The poem itself might be regarded as a metaphorical home that requires its own architecture, construction, and decor.

How do you feel about writing about sex?

Now here's a subject I never tire of. We live in such a sexy, voluptuous world. I'm especially interested in making sexy what isn't sexual. For example, having a shampoo at a salon is sexy, all that touching, massaging, and lathering. And is there anything sexier than a Jersey beefsteak tomato at the peak of ripeness? But I can't eat tomatoes, so I feel deprived; I long for them. When I see someone else eating a luscious tomato, it fills me with desire. I return again and again to the connections between food and sex. A powerful influence here was the 1963 movie, Tom Jones. There's an unforgettable scene in which Tom and a woman he meets at an inn sit at opposite ends of the table and proceed to eat in a way that is outrageously suggestive. And let me say that I find suggestive more enticing than graphic. Peeling off one's clothes is sexier than being naked. Think of Sir Thomas Wyatt's "They Flee from Me." The woman's loose gown falling from her shoulder — very sensual.  Obscenities float around in my head all day, but they almost never make it onto paper. They're too easy and most have lost their force through overuse. I'm more charged by words that sound obscene but aren't. I keep a list of such words in my notebook — woodpecker, titillate, poppycock. Fabulous words, my kind of sex talk.

Your poem "The Missing Wife" begins with an epigraph from a bumper sticker that reads:

        Wife and dog missing.
        Reward for the dog.
So we learn immediately that the dog is wanted but the woman is not. We find out that the wife and her dog planned their escape and took shelter in the forest. Later, when the dog is collared and returned to the master, he sleeps on the wife's side of the bed, "whimpering, pressing his snout / into her pillow, breathing the scent / of her hair." Back in the forest, the wife

                                                            . . . walks
        on all fours, fetches for no man, performs
        no tricks. She is content. Only sometimes
        she gets lonely, remembers how he would nuzzle
        her cheek and comfort her when she twitched
        and thrashed in her sleep.
It is the dog she misses. Am I wrong to assume that he is her real lover?

You're not at all wrong to assume that. When I was revising this poem, I realized that the ending was a bit ambiguous. Who is the "he" — dog or husband? I thought about how to fix that, but then decided to leave it. It seems to me more suggestive and interesting than it would if I specified which one I meant. I think the wife misses human comfort and companionship, but not her husband's. He treated her like a dog; now she misses not him but his dog. It's a case of Will the Real Dog Please Stand Up.
    That she prefers her furry dog is suggested by her walking on all fours.

The wife was alive with him in the untamed luxury of freedom where there was no need to perform tricks, where she was not playing dead anymore. And she fetched for no man. Are you saying that the wife found her real self in fleeing from the falseness of her marriage?

Yes, the wife has found a more genuine self and life in the forest. I'm also playing with sexual connotations in lines like she "performs no tricks." I want to suggest that the husband treated her
badly and the only way she could bear the husband's touch was to make herself emotionally dead. For me the saddest line in the poem is "They unlearned / how to roll over and play dead." I wouldn't go so far as to say that the wife is happy now, but she's found contentment. She's lonely, but she's no longer afraid.

I like your play with the word "missing." Much of the sadness of the poem seems to be in what is missing. Missing implies failure, absence, loss. Did you have in mind these variations on the word?

Yes, absolutely. I love wordplay. The dictionary is my friend, unlike the thesaurus for which I have little use. The idea of "missing" runs throughout Eve's Red Dress. There's a constellation of related poems: "The Mystery of the Missing Girl," "Pastiche for a Daughter's Absence," "Her Daughter's Feet," "Losing the Blues," "The Missing Remote," and a few others.
    You'll find the theme again in my new book, but there it tends to be male figures who are missing.
The poem feels like an address — as if there is a significant other with whom the wife is sharing her state of being.
It interests and delights me that you say this since the poem is in third person. I wrestled with the point of view, but this is a poem that has to be third person. I wanted an intimate voice, but it's not the kind of story a first-person speaker could tell about herself without being sappy and self

Your work reflects a feminine sensibility. You use wonderful female images relating to clothing: an old woman's bathing suit, Eve's red dress, a grandmother's bedjacket, a white satin wedding dress, Imelda's shoes. You explore the troubled relations between men and women from a woman's point of view. Many of the women in Eve's Red Dress move in a world of powerful men. You show great sympathy for these women. Are you agitating for women in Eve's Red Dress? Do you consider yourself a feminist writer?

I'm happy to think of myself as a feminist, but I feel resistant to the label "feminist writer." I don't write out of a desire to bring about political or social change or to convey a message or take a position. The act of writing feels more personal to me. I am a woman poet who is interested in women's issues and in women's lives, so that's what I write about. I care about the women in my poems and some of them are agitating for independence, some of them are getting even for wrongs done against them, some of them are agitating for positions of control. But am I trying to bring about equal rights for women? I want equal rights for women and maybe that seeps through, but I do not consciously use my work for that purpose. Am I speaking through these women? Probably to some extent, but they are not me; they are my creations. When I wrote the five Eve poems in my book, I was playing with the idea of Eve out of the Garden. Out from under her father's and husband's control, could she find her own garden? Create her own paradise? If transported into the twenty-first century, how would she fare? Yes, those are feminist concerns, but I did not intend the book to be a feminist manifesto, which doesn't mean that it couldn't be read that way. But it seems to me that it's the function of criticism to find the larger significance, if there is any. My job is to write the poems, to practice the craft, to make art as best I can.

What are your unique poetic attributes?
That's a tough question! It's hard to step out of oneself and view that self with a critical eye. So I'll weasel out of that a bit and tell you what others have said are my unique qualities. Some have said I have a quirky sense of humor. This tickles me a bit as I often don't realize I've been funny until I read the poem aloud and people laugh! After a reading at my local library, the librarian said I was a "gutsy" poet. I like that. I'm a little coward in real life, but in the poetry I really do try to just forge on ahead. A few guy poets have said that my poems make them horny and hungry. I also like that analysis, especially the horny part. And a poet-friend of mine said that some of my poems make her want to run to the nearest bakery. Some have said I have a distinct and unusual poetic voice. Undoubtedly the most frequent response I receive is that there is a disparity between my poetic voice or persona and the real me. I suspect that people find the real me a bit of a letdown. Perhaps they expected someone more exciting and naughty. But what I love about writing poetry is that it allows me to be reckless and feisty and to do what I don't ordinarily do — dance up a storm, set fires, take lovers.
Could you comment about your reading style? It is unusual and seems understated and cool. It is slow and musical, and I like it. Has it been consciously developed?
All my life, every time I've opened my mouth, I've been asked, "Where do you come from?" People seem to think I have some kind of strange accent. When I took public speaking in college, I never received better than a C; the professor didn't like my voice. So it delights me when someone praises my reading style or even credits me with having one. It's really not anything I've tried to cultivate, but I did get some good help years ago when I went to the Frost Place as a beginning poet, so nervous I could barely speak. A handful of the more experienced poets offered to give a workshop on how to read poetry aloud. I learned how to breathe in a way that would outwit nervousness. I learned to slow down, to make eye contact, to project my voice (though I don't have a big voice and prefer to read with a mike). I dislike a highly stylized reading, e.g., the whispery-voiced delivery or the scream-the poem-at-the-audience delivery or the hands-flapping-in-the-air-delivery — all affectations I find distracting. I would say that my style is largely a matter of simply attending to each word, each syllable — they're all important. Probably the main thing for me is allowing the words to enter my body, to feel them inside me, the beat and the rhythm of them. I'll also add that I always go to a reading prepared to read. I plan what I'm going to read and I practice ahead of time, just as I would if I were singing in a concert. This is my singing.

What does your success mean to you; for example, having your poem selected as one of only ten poems Keillor read at the Dueling Anthologists program?

Having that poem selected by Mr. Keillor for inclusion in Good Poems for Hard Times was a major thrill. When I mentioned to my daughter that he and Billy Collins were reading together at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, she suggested that we go to the reading. On the way into the city, we created this lovely little fantasy about how cool it would be if Mr. Keillor read my poem. When the fantasy came true, when he said my name and read my poem, we were both just beside ourselves. And I was so happy that my daughter was with me in the midst of that completely packed auditorium. I think it gave her an increased appreciation of what I do and an understanding that poetry really does matter to a lot of people. Of course, it's sort of ironic to use the word "success" when talking about poetry. For the most part, for most of us, that success is so small. But it's also sweet, perhaps because so hard-won and untainted by commercialism. Each "success" is small, for example, getting into a good journal, maybe the one you've been trying to get into for years; being asked to contribute a poem to a wonderful new anthology; having an audience of twelve applaud vigorously at a reading; a warm, positive review; a first book and then another; an e-mail from a stranger who just wants to say that a particular poem meant a lot to him or her. Still, I'd bet that most of the people who live on my street have no idea that I'm a poet.



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