17 Feb 2018

Patricia Lockwood: Speaking from silenced places

From Saturday Morning, 10:04 am on 17 February 2018

When American poet Patricia Lockwood wrote her memoir, Priestdaddy, of her tempestuous father who became a Catholic priest, she wanted "more than anything to be kind".

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Already married to her mother Karen, her father Greg had a religious conversion, became a Lutheran minister, eventually converted to Catholicism and received special dispensation from the Pope to become a priest.

Priestdaddy was named one of the 10 best books of 2017 by The New York Times and is described by The Guardian as a "dazzling comic memoir".

Lockwood says her father hasn’t read it.

“He won’t – it’s probably better that he doesn’t don’t you think?”

Lockwood is famous for her 2013 poem Rape Joke, describing her damaging experience, raped as a teenager by one of her father’s high school students, seven years older than her.

When eventually she told her father, his response was to absolve her of her sins, in his role as priest.

Lockwood thinks the office of the priest allowed him to “access a form of human tenderness”.

“Maybe his reaction as a man would have been angrier, more intemperate.”

She doesn’t think her father read Rape Joke either.

“I think he knows what it contains but he doesn’t generally read my writing. I don’t know that he’s always comfortable encountering other versions of reality than his own.”

There’s a way in which that also felt like a recognition that her writing was private and not wanting to encroach on it, leaving her free to do what she wants.

She describes him as as impetuous, hot tempered, a compulsive spender and a gun enthusiast.  

Following her suicide attempt at 16, arising from feeling trapped in an unstable household, her father said “I want to thank you for ruining our anniversary”.

But she was obsessed with trying to be fair to her father and other people in her life when she wrote the book.

You never knew what would happen with him, she says. One moment everything was fun, and the next something psychotic would happen, but she watched and didn’t assign judgement.

 "It’s maybe the way children experience their parents – where I don’t think we actually see them as monsters, you’re just taking everything as it comes.”

With her family part of the church she saw its inner workings “in a way not many people get to see.”

In the abuse scandal in the US, many priests knew about other priests but became swept up in the vast machinery of the church, she says. “It somehow made people less good than they inherently were.”

She overheard a priest saying a 14-year-old girl who had been abused should never have put him in that position – a “mind boggling” attitude she says can be fostered when people are in seminaries, talking only to other men and thinking about how to protect themselves from the encroachments against the outside world.

Lockwood has published two collections of poetry - Balloon Pop Outlaw Black, and Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals.

She has a huge following on Twitter and for her artful and surreal sexting parodies.

Lockwood was always frightened by things, she says, and is surprised at how straightforward, loud and strong her work is.

“It’s a kind of lashing out – it’s talking about part of myself that wants to make myself small or quieter or just melt into the corner."

But a voice “slips out in other ways” and for her that was writing.

At the time her poem Rape Joke went viral, a furore over a comedian who told rape jokes was in the public consciousness, though the poem, which went viral, wasn’t a direct response.

“The internet is this tremendously democratising force where now we can speak up from silenced places, or from lower mouthpieces, and we can speak back to that kind of person.”

She was married at 21 to Jason, who she met on an online poetry forum. His father was a Baptist preacher and his family, she says, was “pretty normal”.

In contrast to her father, Lockwood’s mother Karen has a “prim buttoned-up quality” but is very funny and loves puns and word play.

It was while Lockwood was writing an online diary that she figured out she could write funny prose, and the task then was to integrate that into the voice of poetry.

The mystery is where that writer’s own voice comes from, she says.

“All that we can know is when we’ve found it.”

“I think when you hit that first sentence where it really sounds like you, you know. The trick then is you have to continue in that.”