October: Halloween. Prepare to be frightened. Very frightened! Though not by the likes of this month’s guest poet, Diane Lockward.
It was easy enough to find Diane’s poetry on the ‘Net. I Googled to her name and found, among others, “The Missing Wife” and “Gender Issue,” both of which I’ve included in this interview. For my part, I needed no further introduction or persuasion. However, I still needed to be able to persuade Diane to take part.
Diane told me the same day she’d be happy to participate – and here we are.
For starters, her bio:
Diane is the recipient of a 2003 Poetry Fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and has received awards from North American Review, Louisiana Literature, the Newburyport Art Association, and the St. Louis Poetry Center. Her work has been nominated for several Pushcart Prizes, featured on Poetry Daily and Verse Daily, and read by Garrison Keillor on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac.
Diane conducts writing workshops for young and old poets, inexperienced and experienced poets. She also conducts workshops for teachers on how to teach poetry. She was a featured poet at the 2005 Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching and a workshop presenter at the New Jersey State Council of Teachers of English Conference in both 2003 and 2006.
Diane has also been a featured poet at a number of festivals, such as the Warren County Poetry Festival, the Inkberry Festival, the Long Branch Poetry Festival, the Walt Whitman Poetry Festival, the 2006 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, and the 2007 Burlington Book Festival.
A former high school English teacher, Diane now works as a poet-in-the-schools for both the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.
On May 17, 2009, Diane was appointed Poet Laureate of West Caldwell, NJ.
George thinks he’d like to play with dolls.
This man loves women but envies girls
their dolls and wants his own, no GI Joe or Ken
but a real girl’s doll, Miss Alexander or
Muffy, Ginny, Barbie, or an American Girl.
He dreams of a portmanteau full of doll’s clothes,
a purple party dress with hand-smocked bodice
and genuine lace, pajamas with pearl buttons,
black patent leather dancing shoes, and changing her
from swimsuit to gold lamé evening gown.
Most of all he wants a baby doll, not
plastic and hard-edged, but with skin that feels
human. Tiny Tears, Cuddle Baby, or Cabbage Patch.
He does a Google search, orders a baby
off the internet, a modern immaculate conception.
Nights he tucks it snug as an embryo under his shirt,
craves pickles, hot fudge sundaes, buttered popcorn.
Soon the yeasty rising of belly, taut and round
as a drum, shifting and pulsing inside.
His arches collapse, his lower back aches.
In bed he grows restless, flops from side to side.
Electrical charges down the lightning rod of spine.
He breathes and pants—phh, phh, phh—as women
on television do, legs bent at the knees, and pushes,
feels the hot rush of water, the salmon-swim of child.
She slides between his legs, a perfect home
delivery. He bathes the petal-soft skin, like any real
mother would, feeds and burps his baby,
strokes the pearls of her toes, remembers
the dancing shoes, and vows to kill the man who harms
this child, pink and delicate as a tea-rose.
Wife and dog missing.
Reward for the dog.
—bumper sticker on a pickup truck
The wife and the dog planned their escape
months in advance, laid up biscuits and bones,
waited for the careless moment when he’d forget
to latch the gate, then hightailed it.
They took shelter in the forest, camouflaged
the scent of their trail with leaves.
Free of him at last,
they peed with relief on a tree.
Time passed. They came and went as they pleased,
chased sticks when they felt like chasing sticks,
dug holes in what they came to regard
as their own backyard. They unlearned
how to roll over and play dead.
In spring the dog wandered off in pursuit
of a rabbit. Collared by a hunter and returned
to the master for $25, he lives
on a tight leash now.
He sleeps on the wife’s side of the bed,
whimpering, pressing his snout
into her pillow, breathing
the scent of her hair.
And the wife? She’s moved deep into the heart
of the forest. She 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.
INTERVIEW WITH DIANE LOCKWARD
by Russell Bittner
DSL:As indicated in the epigraph, the poem was inspired by a bumper sticker. On my way up to the Frost Place in New Hampshire one summer, I noticed those words on the vehicle in front of me. I wondered what kind of a slob would put that on his car. I wondered about his wife, wondered how he treated her, wondered if he treated her like a dog. It got under my skin and stayed there. While at the Frost Place, I was asked to draft a new poem. I used the bumper sticker. So that poem began in irritation. Ordinarily I go through many, many drafts. This one required fewer than my usual number. But I think it took me two years to find a good home for it.
Yes, the poem first appeared in Two Rivers Review, but before it landed there, it had been accepted by New York Quarterly. I waited and waited for the publication. Finally, I queried and received no response. A phone call brought forth a disconnected line. Then I learned that the editor, William Packard, had died. I sent the poem to another journal where it was accepted, but that editor wanted to omit the final stanza. That felt completely wrong, so I declined. Then I sent it to Phil Memmer, editor of TRR. He accepted it, but suggested a minor revision in the fourth stanza. I liked his idea so agreed.
When I put the poem in Eve’s Red Dress, that last revision didn’t seem quite right, so I made another change and that’s the one I’ve stuck with. Although the poem didn’t initially take me too terribly long to write, as you can tell, the poem traveled around before it ended up in print. This is a poem I often read at readings as audiences respond well to it. It makes them laugh, but it also makes them sad. I like that combination.
RRB:I have to confess, it’s a little difficult for me to understand how a piece like this wouldn’t be snapped up immediately—death in the family or not. However, both you and I have enough experience in this racket to know there’s never a guarantee that a piece, no matter how well accomplished, will be accepted by every editor. It’s in the nature of game: (1) know your editor; (2) read the poetry (and the archives) at a given site to see what kind of stuff he or she likes and publishes; (3) see if there’s a possible fit between your own piece and whatever you find there; and (4) send it on a wing and a prayer if there is. Then leave the rest to chance and the editor’s whim.
Let’s look at another one, shall we? The following piece, “Gender Issue,” could, I suppose, also strike a controversial chord. If I understand correctly, it first appeared in Margie and was then published in your own collection, What Feeds Us (Wind Publications, 2006).
I want to sing
a song worthy of
the avocado, renegade
fruit, strict individualist, pear
gone crazy. Praise to its skin
like an armadillo’s, the refusal
to adulate beauty. Schmoo-shaped
and always face forward, it is what it
is. Kudos to its courage, its inherent love
of democracy. Hosannas for its motley coat,
neither black, brown, nor green, but purple-hued,
like a bruise. Unlike the obstreperous coconut, the
avocado yields to the knife, surrenders its hide of leather,
blade sliding under the skin and stripping the fruit. Praise
to its nakedness posed before me, homely, yellow-green,
and slippery, bottom-heavy like a woman in a Renoir, her
flesh soft velvet. I cup the fruit in my palm, slice and hold,
slice and hold, down to the stone at the core, firm fist at the
center. Pale peridot crescents slip out, like slivers of moon.
Exquisite moment of ripeness! a dash of salt, the first bite
squishes between tongue and palate, eases down my
throat, oozes vitamins and oil. Could anything be more
delicious, more digestible? Plaudits to its versatility,
yummy in Cobb salad, saucy in guacamole, boldly
stuffed with crabmeat. My avocado dangles from
a tree, lifts its puckered face to the sun, pulls
all that light inside. Praise it for being small,
misshapen, and durable. Praise it for
the largeness of its heart.
Stripping the Lemon
—after Strip-Tease by Jeff Hayes
I could be peeled
like that, in liberal
strips, one end
to the other, skin
lifted off in a spiral,
your hands aswirl,
knife slicing, flesh
like a bridal veil,
top end and bottom,
with zest, stroke
of the blade
missing a patch
at the top, tip
a generous nipple.
I could be
Would you lift
off this skin,
let it float
like a boa?
Would you grate
gold, my sparkling
sun, my outrageous
egg yolk yellow?
Would you take me
as I am, or squeeze
and squeeze, make me
what I would not be—
a sorbet, a pudding, a pie?
DSL:This one always raises some eyebrows, especially among young male audience members. It seems to make them uncomfortable. They are uncertain, perhaps, of their own masculinity, and here’s a poem about a man who wants to play with dolls. And then they don’t quite know what to make of the transition that takes place. When I read the poem aloud, I can see guys looking at each other, stirring in their seats. They’re somewhat embarrassed by the notion of a man giving birth.
I explain that the poem evolved from two things: 1) hearing a woman say that if men had the babies they’d probably commit less violence against women, and 2) hearing George Costanza, from the “Seinfeld” TV show, say in one episode that he’d like to play with dolls. So the poem begins with the doll idea, then moves into the birth idea, and ends with the violence idea. I was not consciously making that happen; I let it happen. Then, of course, in revision, I honed it.
The idea of a man giving birth is really not that revolutionary. There’ve been a few movies made using the theme. There have also been a number of movies and TV shows about men raising babies. And I have a suspicion that most men at some time wonder what it’s like to have a baby growing inside your body, what it feels like to give birth, what it feels like to nurse a baby. When I pose any of that as a question, most men say they have not had such thoughts. I suspect they’re not telling the truth.
RRB:Speaking as one of them, Diane, I’d have to say that not only are they not telling the entire truth, they’re outright lying. Moreover, I suspect the reason many men take up the arts in one form or another (or start businesses) is precisely because they can’t make babies. They want to create just as much as women do; they just don’t have the apparatus.
We’re getting a bit beyond our word limit, and I don’t want to strain the patience of our audience. However, there are two more pieces of yours I’d like to showcase here before we say G’night.
Perhaps, in a paragraph, you can give us a bit of background to both—and then we’ll call it a wrap. Okay by you?
DSL:Both of these are concrete poems (Note from RRB: “poetry that visually conveys the poet's meaning through the graphic arrangement of letters, words, or symbols on the page.”), but I should say that these are the only such poems I’ve ever written. Usually, I’m pretty attached to the left margin. “Organic Fruit” ended up in pear-like shape after I first centered the poem—just to see how it would look. I noticed that it was close to the shape of its subject, so I worked hard to get it more so. It was first published in Seattle Review. When I was putting together the manuscript for What Feeds Us, someone said that the poem was too curvaceous for an avocado; it dipped in at the middle. So back to the computer I went for several hours of fooling around with words. Where a line was too long, I had to find a short word substitute. Where a line was too short, I had to find a longer word to fill out the line length. That turned out to be a really good revision activity. “Stripping the Lemon” is both concrete and ekphrastic. The original painting shows a lemon in a luscious state of undress. I thought it was very sexy, so I tried to capture that—first in the content of my poem, and then in its shape. I doubt that I’ll be doing any more concrete poems, but I suspect that I’ll be doing more food poems. I find food—especially fruits and vegetables—just loaded with metaphorical potential.
RRB:Both of these pieces, Diane, look like a lot of fun. However, I know the look is deceptive—that a lot of work went into writing them—and so, I have to congratulate you on the effort. It was a total success.
As, I think, has been this interview. I thank you—and say “Goodnight” to you and our readers.
Diane Lockward is the author of What Feeds Us, (Wind Publications, 2006). The collection received the Quentin R. Howard Poetry Prize. Diane is also the author of two previous collections, Eve’s Red Dress (Wind Publications, 2003) and a chapbook, Against Perfection (Poets Forum Press, 1998). Her next full-length collection, Temptation by Water, is forthcoming from Wind Publications, summer 2010. Her poems have been published in several anthologies, including Poetry Daily: 366 Poems from the World’s Most Popular Poetry Website and Garrison Keillor's Good Poems for Hard Times. Her poems have also appeared in such journals as Beloit Poetry Journal, Spoon River Poetry Review, Harvard Review, Poet Lore, and Prairie Schooner.
RRB:Diane, apart from your own writing (which, I assume, takes up the better part of your waking hours), you conduct a number of workshops. Are some of these also for children? And, if so, do you have a preference? Adults over children … inexperienced over experienced?
DSL:I taught high school English for a number of years. Since I began working as a poet-in-the-schools eight years ago, most of my work has been with kids in elementary school simply because elementary school teachers often request a residency and high school teachers rarely do. Initially, I liked the change. The younger kids—I’ve worked with a lot of third graders—are just naturally creative and imaginative. They have huge amounts of energy and enthusiasm. I enjoy working with them, but must confess that I find them exhausting. I have to be on my feet the whole time I’m in the room and have to be moving around checking and helping. The kids’ poems are often quite astonishing, but I go home almost comatose. When I work with older students—I get some freelance work with high schools—I am able to sit down and write with the students, so often return home with a draft or two in progress. But oddly, high school students are sometimes less enthusiastic, less inventive. It seems that after elementary school they are no longer given opportunities to write poetry. So what I really like the most is working with older students and helping them find the third grader that still lurks within them.
RRB:Good answer! I share your sentiments, by the way, with regard to third (or even second) graders.
You may be interested to know that St. Ann’s School, here in Brooklyn, has not only a poetry program for children all the way through the 12th grade, but a resident poet who teaches it. That, to my way of thinking, is pretty phenomenal—but also a huge privilege.
Why don’t we take a look at the first poem I mentioned above – viz., “The Missing Wife.” If I understand correctly, it was originally published in Two Rivers Review and then included in your book Eve’s Red Dress, which came out in 2003 from Wind Publications.
Why don’t we first take a look at the piece, and then you can tell me a bit about it—what inspired it, how long it took you to get it down to your satisfaction, what the general reaction to it has been, that kind of thing.