“This,” Patricia Lockwood begins as we step into a hall lined with plush velveteen sofas, “is the hall where all the horses are.” We’re meeting at the Royal Horseguards Hotel, in central London, and she’s eager to show me the paintings hanging on the walls, which she’s been admiring – and ranking. “These are my favourite horses,” she continues, pointing to three looming, almost life-sized, valiant fillies, mid-run, hooves about to take another step into the waves creeping up towards their bellies. We move on, swiftly, criss-crossing the corridor, to another painting in which she says the horse appears “haunted” by the stark look in its eye (“but, wow, look at the body,” she adds of its protruding muscles and stocky limbs). And then, the finale. “Now,” she says, “come over here.
“Let me show you the one which has its bum hole showing.”
If you’re shocked, you may have not yet had the pleasure of reading Lockwood, the award-winning poet who was dubbed “The Smutty-Metaphor Queen of Lawrence, Kansas” by The New York Times. She writes poems with titles like “Nessie Wants To Watch Herself Doing It” and “The Whole World Gets Together And Gang Bangs A Deer” and “The Father and Mother of American Tit-Pics”. She tweets so-called trans-genre “Sext” poetics regularly to the 63k+ people who follow her on Twitter. She rose to global internet fame and critical acclaim when her poem “Rape Joke” went viral (more on that later), and she has since been charged with “single-handedly engaging a new generation in poetry” and “reinventing how we talk about rape”. During the US election, during a take-over of the New Republic's Twitter account, she tweeted Donald Trump saying simply: “fuck me, Daddy.” It has since been deleted.
And so it seems almost expected that today, dressed in nude tights with the faces of cats over the knee caps, she’s asking me to lean in further to “look at the detail on that bum hole, look at it, closer”. I do dutifully as she asks and wonder briefly how many other journalists have enjoyed the same short colourful guided tour. A lot, I conclude, but I don’t mind – if she’s trying to disarm me, it’s working. She’s warmer than I thought she would be, and, despite the amount of times “bum hole” has been said between us already, she’s quieter too. “I think it’s being brought up as the daughter of a priest,” she explains. “The place I feel most freedom is in my humour – with that, I can go do whatever I want. And maybe that is because I was raised in a sort of repressive way, where women did act a certain way. I might be loud in my writing, but if you meet me, I have a tiny voice.”
Her religious upbringing is a good place to start, since it forms the basis of her new book, Priestdaddy – a hilarious, reflective and touching memoir about returning home to live with her parents, her husband, Jason, in tow, aged 30. And if Lockwood is full of contradictions, she’s got nothing on her father, a former sailor who became a Catholic priest (despite being married with five children) after undergoing a religious conversion after watching The Exorcist 72 times whilst on board a submarine. He’s now, in Lockwood’s words, a “pantsless, gun-toting priest”, who plays expensive electric guitars. As if by divine intervention, as we sit down to talk she spots two priests chatting quietly a few tables away. “Did you see them?” she whispers. “I felt their presence.”
“I had always joked that I might write about my father one day, and the book my husband and I joked I would write was called Priestdaddy,” Lockwood begins. She moved home to save money for the expense of a medical procedure, and what unfolded was a bizarre scene that did not always go well, but which, she says, begged to be documented.
The result has already received rave reviews for it’s unrelenting wit and warmth. And it’s the latest in a flurry of successes from Lockwood. Her first poetry collection, Balloon Pop Outlaw Black (2012) became one of the biggest selling indie collections of all time, her second, Fatherland, Motherland and Homelandsexuals, was released in 2014 to huge critical acclaim – The New York Times Book Review described it as “at once angrier, and more fun, more attuned to our time and more bizarre, than most poetry can ever get”. Rape Joke, the stand out poem of the latter collection, was declared “world famous” by the Poetry Foundation as well as being included in the Best American Poetry list of 2014, and being awarded the Pushcart Prize. But, says Lockwood, she never really expected anyone to read it. At all.
“If I had thought that it was going to be as widely read as it was I might have written it differently, or felt more inhibited about the way I wrote it,” she explains. “When you write a poem, there’s no sense that any one is going to read it. Most people don’t read poetry. That meant I could really say whatever I wanted.”
You can be scrolling through heinous news and then come across some poetry and, just for a brief respite, you can click away from all that terrible fire and garbage
Plenty of people did read it. After Rape Joke – an evocative account of Lockwood’s own rape aged 19, which is as funny as it is unsettling – was published on The Awl in 2013 it was an instant viral hit. “The rape joke is that you were 19 years old,” it reads. Then, later, “The rape joke is that he was a bouncer, and kept people out for a living / Not you!”
Does it bother her that the poem – and such a deeply personal experience – has become so intrinsically linked to her name? “I write in the poem you’re asking for it to be the only thing that people remember about you. So I did anticipate, say that if a lot of people perhaps read it, that it would form a conversation about me,” Lockwood says. “And that has been true to a certain extent. But sometimes, for instance if you’re doing a radio interview or you’re talking to someone you just met and they ask you a question about it, it feels very personal.
“You’re almost like, ‘Wait, how did you know about that?’ So sometimes you come up against it in a very startling way. But you also forget that it’s something everyone knows about you. Sort of an unsettling feeling at times.”
But Lockwood says that the feeling can be true of all poetry, which is incredibly intimate by its nature. She says, “You go to do a reading, and you’re reading this thing that you wrote in a fury of solitude – writing a poem is the most alone, in an ecstatic way, that you can be.
“It’s purely this expression of self. You get out there and you’re reading to people, and they’re experiencing with you something that you wrote when you were so alone… I’ve always liked that about poetry readings.”
Lockwood thinks of herself as “a very old school conception of the poet,” she says, with the hint of a smile, “almost to the point where I want to wear a flowing white robe around me and have, like, a laurel wreath on my head”. But that’s not exactly how she’s received. Rather, she’s dubbed (often somewhat disparagingly) a “Twitter poet”. “They say I’m a ‘hipster’ or a ‘millennial’ poet,” Lockwood explains. “Because I’m on Twitter they think I’m a technical whizz? No.”
If people come to know you through the internet, I think it can be a way for the older, white male establishment to dismiss you
In fact, she says, Twitter and other social media is breathing new life into the poetry world. She says many people have discovered her poetry purely because of Twitter, and that those calling her an “internet poet” should be pleased that the form is wiggling away from the perceptions of privilege and pretension that have long preceded it. “You can be scrolling through heinous news and then come across some poetry and, just for a brief respite, you can click away from all that terrible fire and garbage,” she explains. “Just for a second you can be looking at something which is its own oasis. I think that has been very meaningful for people.
“Art is making itself part of the fabric of our experience of the internet, in a way that has been very beautiful, in what I think has a saving quality. Among all this other noise, there are just these little circles of space and silence where you can go and experience art.”
But would Lockwood be dubbed a “crowd-pleasing” poet, as she was described by The New Yorker, or, simply, “Twitter famous” if she were a male writer, I ask? “Oh no,” she says, immediately. “I think I’m even written about as though I were a baby. Like ‘A baby who can write! She can read! It’s amazing!’ But, though of course you’re aware of sexism in the ways that female writers are treated differently than male writers, but I think that it may even have something to do with youth. I’ve seen male poets – like Steve Roggenbuck – dismissed as well on the fact of their youth and the fact of their internet usage.
“If people come to know you through the internet, I think it can be a way for the older, white male establishment to dismiss you. I don’t think it’s just that I’m a woman, but I think there’s this misconception of youth, and even frivolity.”
There are many things that I feel Lockwood might be from the short time we spent together, I think, as our conversation draws to an end: endearingly odd, doe-eyed, intimidatingly intelligent, kind, introspective, admirable, friendly. But frivolity doesn’t spring to mind.
Patricia Lockwood might well be "crowd-pleasing", and "Twitter famous". She might be "smutty" in her poetry and brilliantly filthy online, and she is undoubtedly a very modern, very funny, very clever and hauntingly raw poet. But frivolous she is not. I'm in no doubt that every word – from "bum hole" and there on in – has been carefully selected; her committment to language is as palpable in person as it is on the page. And so I leave her, amid the horses, in all their glory, thinking that Lockwood's unique story is as unforgettable as her.