Snark and sexting are making Patricia Lockwood a young poetry star

Studio 360
Poet Patricia Lockwood, whose new collection titled "Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals" was recently published.
Poet Patricia Lockwood, whose new collection titled "Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals" was recently published.

Grep Hoax

At age 32, Patricia Lockwood is making a splash in the poetry world — as you might expect, considering that her rise to literary fame included the publication of a 1200-word poem called "Rape Joke."

Lockwood wrote the poem in response to an uproar over stand-up comedian Daniel Tosh's actual rape jokes. It was published last July on a website called “The Awl,” and it immediately went viral — probably a first for a 1200-word poem. It starts this way:

The rape joke is that you were 19 years old.

The rape joke is that he was your boyfriend. The rape joke it wore a goatee. A goatee.

Imagine the rape joke looking in the mirror, perfectly reflecting back itself, and grooming itself to look more like a rape joke. “Ahhhh,” it thinks. “Yes. A goatee.”

No offense.

(Listen to Patricia Lockwood read the full poem)

Now “Rape Joke” is part of Lockwood’s new collection of poems, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals.

Lockwood says she had no idea the poem would take off like it did. “I don't think anyone writing a poem has any sense that it's going to make any sort of a splash,” she says with a laugh. “More important, it's good not to be thinking about that when you're writing.”

At the same time, she notes drily, “the level of fame a poet can reach in this country is not very high. I'm about as famous as, like, a local used car dealership owner, maybe — if that.”

Even so, Lockwood has become about as famous as a young, living poet can probably be. And, she says, it's all been a bit discombobulating.

“You're not expecting any of it, and poets generally work pretty much in an insulated, very solitary environment,” Lockwood says, “so it can be very interesting to have all that feedback resonating at you when you're trying to do this very sort of private practice.”

But even before “Rape Joke,” her work was steadily attracting critical attention. Her last collection, Balloon Pop Outlaw Black, made the New Yorker’s Best Books list for 2012.

In her latest collection, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, Lockwood applies her off-kilter wit to subjects such as highly-sexualized woodland creatures, the Loch Ness Monster, and the ghosts of Whitman and Dickinson. The poems swerve between hilarious and creepy, profane and profound. 

Most of Lockwood’s poetry is funny, but not in the way people may think. It’s not “light verse," nor does Lockwood consider it part of the “stand-up poetry" movement. 

“My baseline voice when writing poetry tends to be very serious, very grave,” she explains. “But in my actual life, my interpersonal relationships, I tend to be a funny person. So it was a challenge that I set myself to try to integrate these two voices.”

Lockwood has discovered that Twitter is the perfect vehicle for this merger of the colloquial and the poetic. “When I go to Twitter, I'm generally going to say something funny. I'm not going to say something super serious,” she says. “But it's also very literary. So I was doing something there [that] I thought would be possible to carry over into my poetry.”

In fact, Lockwood might be better known for her prolific tweeting than for her poems — something that has not universally endeared her to the gatekeepers of the poetry world

"In my tweets, I will straight-up tweet about the Kool-Aid Man," she says. "I'm not necessarily going to do that in a poem ... [T]he idiom shifts a little bit, the vocabulary shifts, and the characters shift.”

All poetry has a punchline, Lockwood points out. Whether it's funny or serious, there is always “sort of that ‘sock it to the people’ at the end."

Lockwood’s best-known tweets are her "sexts" — mini-poems, inspired by the Anthony Weiner scandal — that may be a new genre unto themselves. They are surreal and impossible come-ons that mock the over-sexualization of everything in modern life.

Contemporary poets often teach at a college or university and many of them hold master's degrees in fine arts. But Lockwood is hardly a creature of the literary establishment — she didn’t attend an MFA program, or even graduate from college.

She lives with her husband in Lawrence, Kansas, far from coastal literary communities. She shrugs off suggestions that this state of things affects her writing.

“I think that I had a weird voice to start with,” she says. “I don't think that if I had done an MFA program, it would have beaten it out of me. I know that's the popular conception. It is possible that I have a wider sense of who an audience can be because I didn't go to school.”

“Maybe the reason I didn't go to school is because I was weird, too. I mean, it might all come back to weirdness in the end.”

This story is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen