Afterwords, Commentary

Afterwords // Patricia Lockwood: The Hour of Bewilderment

By Elizabeth Cooperman and Matthew Kelsey

On July 10, 2014, Patricia Lockwood read at Seattle’s Elliot Bay Book Company from her most recent book of poems, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals. The room–a book-lined basement annex with a small raised stage and podium–was full. Over the next few months, editors Elizabeth Cooperman and Matthew Kelsey exchanged a series of emails, sharing their thoughts about the event. This conversation results from that exchange.

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1: Meme-Numbed

MK: First impressions first: that reading was absolutely feral. The energy that Lockwood exuded seemed barely containable by the typical reading format. This was apparent from the get-go, when the woman introducing Tricia struggled to stay composed or even objective. She was effusive, probably to a fault. But between that anterior energy and the tone of Lockwood’s poems (and that voice!—those are hard poems to read aloud, I think, and she did herself a service), it’s hard to believe we were all seated, quiet and well-mannered, in the basement of Elliott Bay Bookstore, no?

I know we’ll have to discuss how Lockwood became a social media phenomenon, and there’ll be time for that. But for now, I’d like to stick to tone and atmosphere. See, the poem I keep returning to is “Revealing Nature Photographs.” That poem seems so symptomatic of her work at large—it’s dressed in a familiar vernacular turned on its head. Replete with vulgarities, idioms, puns, and a collage of explicit images, the poem does, in fact, reveal our nature.

Having known the poem previously, I spent less time listening to her read it, and more time tracking the responses of the audience. Man, was there a wide range! Some chuckled, some smiled through the whole poem, some winced, some just stared dumbly ahead, hardly sure of how to respond to the volatile and pornographic theater she was constructing.

I’m interested in knowing your response to the overall atmosphere of the reading, but I also want to know: do you think she laughs when she writes her poems? More importantly, how much do you think she wants us to laugh? How much of her poetry is aimed at infuriating, which is what Stevens suggests good poetry ought to be capable of…and how much is supposed to be taken as absurd humor? I don’t know…

EC: Let me just say right now that I love the word “feral” so much. I took this opportunity to look up the etymology of “feral” and the word snarled at me, as did Patricia Lockwood in the basement of Elliott Bay. At least that’s how it felt. She had such an air of fond- and faux-disdain for us—her audience. Even as, between poems, she drank mock-elegantly from a glass of water and, alternately, a glass of “bookstore wine,” Lockwood seemed grateful for the refreshments and the occasion but also fake-aggravated by the formality of it all. Or the absurdity of it all? Perhaps. “Wiiiiiiiiine,” she whined, during one of these strange displays of irony and thirst. Overall, I got the sense that Lockwood was being playful with the audience, though the tone of her play-bristliness was sometimes confusing to me, difficult to read: “You can snap,” she said, to someone poetry-snapping in the front row after her first poem, “but don’t clap, that is hysterical.”

“Feral” dates back to c. 1600 and comes from Middle French feral meaning “wild,” which comes from Latin fera, as in the phrase fera bestia, i.e. “wild animal.”

Other related “wild” words that I stumbled on during this exploration and happen to like for their sounds and roots and any accidental parallels (I am totally just having fun riffing here, forgive me, please, for the aside):

– fierce (this word originally meant “proud, haughty”)

– zebra ( <L. equiferus“wild horse”)

– hip (as in seed pod of the wild rose < hiopa “briar, bramble”)

– wild oat (as in, “crop that one will regret sowing”)

– dithyramb (meaning “a wild choric hymn”)

– Artemis (Greek goddess of the moon, hunting, childbirth, wild animals)

– deer (< indo-european root dheusom “creature that breathes”)

I haven’t read much of Lockwood’s work, but it strikes me, Matthew, that as you single out the poem “Revealing Nature Photographs” you’re keying into an important theme for her. I might not have noticed, otherwise, that wildness and wilderness ran like wild oats through the work we heard Lockwood read that night: a Bambi poem, a zoo poem, a man-hunt poem, a Robert Frost in the leaf-covered backwoods of New England essay, and a final poem titled “The Body is a Goldrush Town” that features pioneers, horses, whores, tin stores.

In these selections, Nature is heroic and terrifying and laughing at us. Nature is perverse and erotic. Nature is violent and free. Nature (capital N) embodies a sense of chaos and unruliness that Society (capital S) has tried to control through the invention of zoos and zoo-like stuff, including language: “The word ‘zoo’ is a zoo for the zoo,” she quips in “What Is the Zoo for What.” Society, in Lockwood’s poetry, is norm-obsessed, generic, dry as a parched throat—and secretly scarier than the chaos it’s trying to curb. The poet seems to imagine herself as a sort of pioneer exploring treacherous landscapes.

What is the role of poetry in such a world? An article in Seattle’s The Stranger called Lockwood’s book Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals “the first true book of poetry to be published in the 21st century.” Wow, I can’t say that didn’t get my attention. Is Lockwood crafting dithyramb’s for a meme-numbed generation? Some people seem to think of her like that, as representing you and me, as Whitmanian.

I suppose I breezed over tone and atmosphere in this response and have leapt ahead to poetics. In Fanny Howe’s The Wedding Dress, Howe describes what she calls a poetics of “bewilderment.” In this poetry, the poet or narrator embraces her lostness. She circumambulates her past, current and future selves. Alliteration and rhyme emerge in the lyrics as a way to mark those self-circlings. “There is a Muslim prayer that says, ‘Lord, increase my bewilderment,’ and this prayer is also mine…,” writes Howe.

I loved what you said about Stevens—about the idea that poetry should be “infuriating.” And I imagine some people find Lockwood’s presentation style (if not her poetry) just that. But why? What’s her point? To be perfectly honest, the performance that night puzzled me. It seemed like she was irritated or wanted to irritate us or wanted us to feel uncomfortable, that she wanted to be challenging, difficult for us to read. My best guess is that, as a writer and as a performer, she is trying to increase her—and our—“bewilderment.” So that we might find our way out together? I’m not totally sure. What do you think is her project?

MK: Ah! What a fine rabbit hole you’ve found the depths of—allow me to dive in after you. After all, you’ve posed some remarkably vital questions, and your etymological musings have reminded me of some relevant quotes and quips.

photoFirst, let me say that I do think readings are absurd, and it seems that Lockwood agrees. So I think you’re right to suggest that she was aiming some aggravation (not just pseudo-aggravation!) at the pomp and absurdity of it all. And readings are hysterical, aren’t they? See: the woman who introduced her, who was practically possessed with adoration for Patricia that she really, in the end, failed to adequately introduce anything but madness. See: the audience—us! Out of the 80 or 90 people (I’m guessing) who attended the reading, a good 50 or so stayed in line to chat with Patricia and receive her autograph (which was, in each and every case, a careful drawing of an animal). I was the very last person standing in that line, and it took me NINETY MINUTES to meet her. See: the strange, unidentified man dressed in clown garb who entered the room during the meet-and-greet and challenged Patricia to some sort of language duel. Lockwood was steamed by the invasion and, with barbed tongue, bid the joker a swift and merciless adieu. It’s impossible, then, for me to find readings anything but absurd. And how could someone as novel and sharp as Patricia not take a crack at that environment, at everything down to the wine?

So: what do I think Lockwood’s project is? What’s the role of poetry in the natural world the two of you so carefully and cleverly describe? It seems to me that she’s out to infuriate, yes. I found the exact Stevens quote I hinted at earlier—it can be found in his grab-bag of aphorisms titled “Adagia” (from Opus Posthumous): “Perhaps it is of more value to infuriate the philosophers than to go along with them.” Then, in his famous ars poetica, “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” Stevens echoes himself and argues that poetry is meant “not to console, nor sanctify, but plainly to propound.” And why would a poet seek to offer a false sense of solace if, as the speaker in Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” suggests, “the world…Hath neither really joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help from pain; / And we are here as on a darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night.” Lockwood depicts a world that is disturbed, a world that confuses by way of its dialectic nature, and so she chooses to pique our nerves over soothing them. She performs the work that Robert Hass claims is vital—in “The Problem of Describing Trees” (Time and Materials), Hass writes, “It is good sometimes for poetry to disenchant us.”

I don’t know, but it seems the human animal has mastered routine and ritual, and has for ages received the half-rotten fruits of it. It’s a story we’ve heard many times recently, to the point it’s become some sinister little lullaby: we drag ourselves through habit after dumb, dull habit every day in an attempt to anesthetize ourselves against the world’s elbows, which are sharp and numerous and swing unpredictably in the direction of our temples. We like to think we’re safer than we are. We like to be “meme-numbed,” as you so wonderfully put it. But writers like Lockwood refuse to grant us such enchantment. Lockwood forces us to take a step back and finally see the forest for the trees, to see Nature—to see ourselves as Auden does in “September 1st, 1939”: “Lost in a haunted wood, / Children afraid of the night, / Who have never been happy or good.”

But perhaps this is too morbid, too dark. Jorie Graham writes, “The longing / is to be pure. What you get is to be changed.” Maybe that’s all Lockwood wants—for us to feel transformed, even slightly; to reconsider ourselves and our nature, inside and out. After all, Lockwood’s poems aren’t entirely dark—they’re saturated with lust and humor, among other qualities, all of which aim to revel in and celebrate the complexities of the world.

I’m not sure I’ve adequately answered your questions, Elizabeth, but I’m certainly full of bewilderment now, and I feel a stronger urge to take risks since attending the reading. What has the experience offered you? Has the difficulty of Lockwood’s work made you reconsider anything—yourself, your environments, your books?large_7971341456

2: Performing Our Curiousities

EC: It’s been two months since the Lockwood reading. Actually, you just texted me to ask whether we can “salvage this conversation”—what you’re asking, I know, is whether too much time has passed for any of this to be relevant?

In Zach Savich’s essay “Easy, Durable Dreams: Notes on Poetry and Social Media,” he says that in “Ode on a Nightingale” the disappearance of the dark bird is the impetus for the poet’s invocation of that bird. Because the bird has departed, Keats must paint him, sing him, bring the bird back. And when the wild bird is gone again and the music is gone, the poet must return to himself and to the music of his own thoughts and also the non-song of his perhaps less poetic surroundings: “Here I am in the city, alone with my deep heart’s core. Fled is that music. I was just saying something. Did the wi-fi fail? The presence gains significance through its fading.”

The truth is it’s sort of perverse to drag out a discussion of “The Poet Laureate of Twitter” (Lockwood has over 42,000 Twitter followers for those of you who don’t know). In the course of those two months I’ve cut my hair, learned to make Bolognese, gone to see “Waiting for Godot,” and have even started following Patricia Lockwood on Twitter. Current tweet: “T.S. Eliot would write such a weird fucking book about cats if he were alive today.”

But I also like that the Lockwood reading is by now long gone, is no longer immediate, (fled is that music), because it forces us to reflect on the event differently than we might have the next day, when it was fresh and messy; I am invited to return to and weigh the music of that night again.

“In the seemingly effortless imaginative presence of social media—constantly broadcasting, easily conjuring—do we lose this quality of return,” writes Savich, “the fading back to an ordinary street, unsure if we wake or sleep, and so the deep heart starts to feed blithely at the surface, on surfaces?”

One thing I’ve gained in the two months since the Lockwood reading is a better grasp of my own mixed feelings about it.  I’m not sure I could have articulated them initially.

To be a little less diplomatic, Matthew: you and I felt pretty differently about the reading. Whereas it “rocked” you, I found it more puzzling than moving. I felt left out of a joke, distracted from the poems by what seemed like an emphasis on persona.

Wendy Willis’ recent essay “A Million People on One String: Big Data and the Poetic Imagination” describes the poet’s internet identity as his/her “poetic avatar.” Willis characterizes the trickiness of cultivating and maintaining such an avatar: “One of the odd things about being a poet in the digital world is the pressure—or impulse—to display a kind of poetic extroversion, to be a poet on the internet. . . . At worst, it is an unseemly form of exhibitionism—a kind of poet porn—that drains creative energy out of actually making poems.”

Lockwood’s Twitter-voice is bawdy and bling-y, is riotous and ridiculous, is disgusting, is blunt, is not bland, is daily, is a song-of-self. And we like this voice. It’s funny. Which is something so few poetry readings are.

I wonder now how many of the people in that basement already followed Lockwood on Twitter and had expectations about her performance based on those daily, sometimes hourly, updates from her tweeting-brain. She must have been under pressure to represent not only her poems but also her “poetic avatar”—in almost stand-up comic fashion. She must have been under pressure to make us laugh.

Of course any poet already has an avatar—in her poems. Lockwood happens to have two.

It’s fair to ask ourselves every once in awhile what exactly we are (were) looking for when we sit down to listen to a poet, in person. And it’s true that lots of poetry readings are “hysterical” in the ways we’ve discussed and in the way Lockwood seemed to point out to us—too stuffy, too stilted, too serious, too sip-y. Most of us have taken time away, sworn them off.

Then again, I first fell in love with poetry as a listener, in just such a sober setting—entranced not by poet-personas, but the hypnotic effect of poetry, the undulation of those voices and ghost-voices, the way the words of poems sounded different than regular speech.

(The most bewildering poetry event I have attended since Lockwood’s reading was one in which the poems were actually inaudible. Musicians who were supposed to provide improv sonic texture unintentionally drowned out readers’ voices! Just imagine: poets as dumb, moving-mouths.)

Oh God, Matthew, it’s terrible but I confess that at this point I barely remember Patricia Lockwood’s poetry. I’m pretty sure though that the reading did not change me in the way you were hinting at. What’s clearer in my mind is that instead of waiting in line to meet Lockwood (90 minutes?!), I jetted out of there to get some air, grab a drink, and debrief a little. Then I went to look at some new paintings at a local gallery owned by friends, where I sampled, if you will, some delicious “gallery wine.” The paintings were mostly of faces—deranged, Francis Bacon-esque faces, with blobs of veins and bubble gum bulging eyes—placed on enormous canvases. Another “haunted wood,” though this time in paint. The night concluded with a few of us in a dark photo booth—picture: rolled-back eyes, a messy kiss, wrinkled necks. I found the black and white strip stuck in the journal with my notes on Lockwood.

But there is only so much poetry you can suck out of a reading, anyways. I think a lot of what you get is just a tone—a feeling (or not) in your body. That’s why, so often people will come up to a poet afterwards and say ‘I enjoyed that but I’d love to see it on the page.’ Adieu.

MK: Thank you, Elizabeth, for your previous note! It’s a wonderful continuation of our conversation, and I’m happy to know that the time away helped you shed diplomacy and dig in to your feelings a little more firmly. The resistance you feel to the night we shared at Elliott Bay Books is worth acknowledging, for sure.

I have to admit: I think it’s a shame that certain poets have become social media celebrities. I think it reduces them to lines, blurbs, quips, and jokes that are thin and diluted out of context. It doesn’t compare to the whole of their poems, books, and lives. And I blame the readership for that; I blame the online mob.

People, after all, love to sensationalize the writers they like. They flock to what they’re afraid of saying themselves. When they re-post, all too often what they’re saying is, “Are we allowed to say this aloud?! Well, she said it anyway, not me. So…” They re-tweet as if passing a note in school, fully knowing that the original pen will always get into trouble, if trouble occurs. And even if we disagree with the writings of Lockwood, even if we revile the behavior of celebrities like Madonna, Marilyn and Miley (yep, I went there), these artists are all doing something we need them to do: they perform our curiosities, cravings, wonderment, and fears all on stage for us so that we can, in the first place, know where we stand and how we’d like to position ourselves against the world. If they don’t do what they do, then we’d be left in silence.

I don’t mind that you didn’t enjoy the reading as much as I did. In fact, you’ve raised some essential questions I hadn’t yet addressed. So thank you. I do, however, mind that other people are somehow both exaggerating and reducing Lockwood’s work via social media. I believe it changes the comfort I feel in enjoying her work, to be honest—it makes me feel as though I’m part of a cult. But her words—as provocative, insightful, and demanding as they are—deserve far more.

Elizabeth Cooperman is Associate Editor for Poetry Northwest.

Matthew Kelsey is Managing Editor for Poetry Northwest.

Read a poem by Patricia Lockwood (not mentioned in this conversation!re) at Poetry Northwest here.

photo credits: Lara Mercer Photography  cc / NASA Goddard Photo and Video  cc