Friday, March 16, 2012

Interview with Diane Lockward

Michael T. Young: Thank you, Diane, for accepting my invitation for an interview. I’ve admired your work for a long time and am glad to have a chance to discuss it with you.

Something that struck me about Temptation by Water and your previous collection, What Feeds Us, is how very well organized the collections are. The poems work individually, of course, but then there is a very strong sense of themes developing as the collections progress. I wondered if you needed to rework poems or write new ones to get this kind of cohesion or if it comes together naturally for you as you gather individual poems you’ve written. What is your technique for assembling a collection?

Diane Lockward: The process has varied. For my first two books I pulled together 50-60 poems that I thought were book-worthy. I read the poems repeatedly, looking for an overriding idea, some kind of umbrella under which the poems could fit. Once I had that, I looked for a constellation of related motifs, weeded out some poems, and mapped out a game plan. I took notes on a yellow legal pad, made piles of poems which became sections, and laid them out on the floor to check movement from one poem to the next and one section to the next. Of course, my plan changed multiple times.

For Temptation by Water I had the controlling idea early on. Then I wrote poems towards that idea. This latter method was, of course, much more efficient. Whether that will happen for the next book remains to be seen. The organization of a book of poetry is, I think, immensely challenging but exciting. It’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle. As for revising poems to make them fit into the book, I have made very minor changes for that reason, for example, a title change or a word change. If I felt that one poem was too similar to its predecessor, I found a different placement for it.

Michael T. Young: In Temptation by Water there is a quiet motherly presence, as in the poems “My Mother Turns Her Back,” the ending of “If Only Humpty Dumpty Had Been a Cookie” and “It Runs This Deep.” I wondered what you saw as the significance of this presence in the collection. What is its role?

Diane Lockward: These poems have to do with brokenness, I think. I’m saying “I think” because I don’t analyze these things in my own work the way a critic does. I sometimes do that kind of analysis with another poet’s work, but not with my own. However, now that you’ve pointed this out, I think you’re onto something. I didn’t plan that a mother would appear and reappear, but there she is. When I wrote the poems, they each stood alone; now they do seem part of a pattern. I’m sure that during the organization of the collection I must have noticed the presence of the mother and scattered her throughout the sections. But I still haven’t figured out the significance. Probably means I’m messed up in some serious way.

Michael T. Young: Your poem “Spying on My New Neighbors” shows a young couple abandoning their gardening to go off for a little fun in the bedroom. It concludes by comparing their sexual activity to plants nurtured, flowering and growing and that consequently, “long tender roots shoot down, strong enough for any storm.” It suggests that their sexual passion for each other plants emotional roots that will help them weather future difficulties. What do you see as the relationship between sexual passion and emotional attachment and endurance?

Diane Lockward: This poem fits in with the mother idea you referred to. There’s something lovely about the innocence of the unrestrained passion of the young couple. Witnessing their kissing, the speaker is reminded of her own younger self. The making out and the love-making scenes are joyful, but I couldn’t help feeling that the speaker sees what the couple does not, that is, what their future will be, and it’s not all roses. I felt that poem come alive in the line break “nothing bad has happened / yet.” Now there’s a snake in the garden, sorrow ahead. Perhaps the roots the husband and wife are shooting down now will be strong enough to support that sorrow, which I suspect will have something to do with their boy.

Michael T. Young: The poem “You Offer Lychee to Your American Friends,” says, “Learn to love what is decadent, / what grows in other gardens.” In a collection of poems that is often about the double-edged sword of desire, this statement is very interesting. What do you see as the importance of this kind of adventurousness, of learning to love what is decadent and grows in other gardens?

Diane Lockward: This poem resulted from an article I wrote for Red Room, an online site for authors. It was a piece about my obsession with food, specifically, fruit. One of the other authors on the site, Belle Yang, wrote me a note about her fondness for lychee and her American friends’ refusal to eat it. They wanted chocolate which she disdained. “Who doesn’t love chocolate?” I thought incredulously. So the poem came out of that conversation. It’s one of several that makes reference to gardens. Perhaps chocolate is another version of the snake? Certainly, I believe it’s important to be adventurous, to tackle the snake, but I do that much more in my poetry than I do in my real life.

Michael T. Young: Related to this, the poem “Implosion” speaks of the “destruction of what’s not needed” and compares it to “the way a heart melts,” “the collapse inside.” Do you think the heart sometimes needs some emotional spring cleaning, a kind of demolition of outdated feelings? If so, how does this relate to the emotional roots put down as suggested by the poem “Spying on My New Neighbors”?

Diane Lockward: I really don’t have a theory about the heart. I was pursuing a metaphor after watching a building being imploded on a TV news story. It just seemed to me a good expression of how a heart falls apart sometimes, not noisily but quietly, a kind of inward melting. From there, it was appealing to exploit that metaphor—the body as an empty building once the heart’s gone. There’s no saving this building, no light in this poem as there is in “Spying on My New Neighbors.”

Michael T. Young: I find your poems very seductive, even erotic. One of my favorites is “Orchids” from the collection What Feeds Us. But even in Temptation by Water, there is “Love Song with Plum,” “The Very Smell of Him,” and, of course, “Spying on My New Neighbors.” Much of this eroticism centers on food or flowers. Do you find the sensuality of food and gardening to naturally relate to sexuality? What, if any, do you see as the connection?

Diane Lockward: Yes, yes, and yes. Food and flowers are irresistibly sexy. We touch, smell, taste. Our senses come alive. Both food and flowers are so rich with sensuous and sensual possibilities. I’m not the first to find this connection intoxicating. Think of Georgia O’Keefe’s sexual flowers. Think of the movie Tom Jones with its amazing eating scene in a country inn, the voracious eating an obvious prelude to sex. I saw that movie in 1963 and it had a lasting impact on me.

Michael T. Young: The poem “Prunis Persica” is a kind of homage to the peach and seduction and ends saying “face flushed with indulgence of peach, / blushed all winter in memory of peach.” And the poem “The Desolation of Wood” ends saying “Wood houses a past and rots at the heart.” What do you see as the importance of memory and the past in the collection? How does it relate to desire and the heart?

Diane Lockward: The pleasure for me in writing “Prunis Persica” was the wordplay. I wanted words as luscious as the peach. My hard work was primarily directed towards revising the language. The last line came out of nowhere, one of those lines that surprises you when you write it and leaves you thinking, “Where’d that come from?” I wasn’t thinking about the importance of memory but about how much I’d be missing peaches in winter. A number of the poems in this book look into the past; memory is a rich source for most poets, but I have no penetrating theory about it or its connection to desire and the heart. I’m sure there is a connection, but I’m not clever enough to articulate it. One of the exciting things about writing poetry is that we are free to write about subjects we don’t fully understand.

Michael T. Young: One of my favorite poems in the collection is “Capturing the Image.” I love the movement from inner world to outer world, how the speaker, not trusting her own heart, turns to fix on beauty outside in the natural world and finds a kind of cleansing in this. What do you see as the importance of beauty and our ability to appreciate it? Does it have a cleansing or renewing effect?

Diane Lockward: That one began during a poetry retreat I took in Ocean Grove, NJ. My room overlooked the ocean. One morning I woke up very early and looked out the window. The sky was a gorgeous pink. I wanted to capture that, so I grabbed my camera and snapped a picture. As I wrote about that, the literal moved to the metaphorical. I thought about Astrophel and Stella and the Renaissance notion that the beloved’s face was imprinted on the heart and that came into the poem, as did Othello’s foul cistern when his heart was consumed by jealousy. Certainly, beauty is important to poetry, to my poetry, to this poem, though I’ll tell you that I’m more attracted to the foul cistern than I am to beauty and renewal.

Michael T. Young: Which poem in this collection is your favorite? What in particular about it is meaningful to you?

Diane Lockward: I’m not sure I have a single favorite but among my favorites is “A Murmuration of Starlings.” I like the form of it—American Sentences, an invention of Allen Ginsberg. I liked the challenge of achieving the 17-syllable sentences. I also like the turn this poem takes. I’m not much of a social or political commentator in my poetry, but something of that snuck its way into the end of the poem. I like the departure I took in the poem.

Michael T. Young: Are there any prose works that have noticeably influenced your work as a poet? What are they? Can you say in what way you feel this work or works influenced your poetry?

Diane Lockward: I have always been a reader. I think that my poetry has probably been affected in some way by everything I’ve read—from Nancy Drew mysteries to Madame Bovary. As a high school English teacher, I used to regularly read aloud passages from novels such as Heart of Darkness. As I read Conrad’s words, I could feel their beautiful, horrible music. I remember one student who told me that she hadn’t liked that novel until she heard me read those passages aloud. I remember, too, reading a particular sentence and then commenting on its various syntactical feats. I concluded with “I love this sentence!” Imagine my puzzlement when my class burst into laughter! I asked what they were laughing about. One student spoke up and said she’d never heard anyone get so enthusiastic over a sentence.

Michael T. Young: What do you like to do that has nothing to do with poetry or writing?

Diane Lockward: Everything I think of seems to in some way relate to poetry. I like to bake, especially desserts, but food is grist for my metaphor mill. I like to walk, but it’s on my walks that I often find the word or line that eluded me back at the house. I love computer work, but much of the work relates to my poetry, e.g., making a video of a poem, doing my monthly poetry newsletter, blogging at my poetry blog, sending out submissions, and so on.

Michael T. Young: Thank you, Diane. Let’s close with one of your poems, your favorite from the collection.

A Murmuration of Starlings

. . . . . . It was raining dead birds.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .—Mayor Brian Levine, The Star-Ledger, 1/27/09

Starlings dropped from the sky,
mid-flight, like balloons suddenly deflated.

No time to spread their wings and glide on air,
and, synchronized, to soar and dive.

No time to close their wings, to wrap
themselves in shrouds of feathers, and sleep.

They fell like water balloons tossed blindly
from dormitory windows.

They fell like rocks dumped from the unlatched
rear end of a construction truck.

They fell like bombs, like stars, like fallen angels,
they fell like dead starlings.

Hundreds plummeted from the sky
on cars, porches, and snow-covered lawns.

They’d taken the poisoned bait
and, headfirst, dreamed one last time of England.

Birds who’d once disturbed a king’s sleep
with cries of Mortimer, Mortimer.

Memento mori, forcing us to contemplate
unexpected death.

Do we not already think of the fallen,
earth’s fields littered with corpses?

Dark vision made real,
their glistening bodies, silent now and still.

Birds who’d sung their own song
and wooed their mates with lavender and thistle.

Find more information about Diane Lockward or her books at her website or blog:Diane Lockward’s website:
Diane Lockward’s blog:

Reivew of Temptation by Water

Temptation by Water. Diane Lockward.
Nicholasville, KY: Wind Publications, May 15. 2011. 90 pages,
ISBN: 978-1-936138-12-8

Temptation by Water is Diane Lockward’s fourth collection of poems and as I did with her previous book, I marveled at how well she puts a collection together. Better than any other poet I can think of, her collections are balanced between the power of each individual poem to stand on its own and the way the poems work together to develop related themes. Temptation by Water focuses not only on the heart and the disappointment or fulfillment of its desires but also embodies a struggle toward remaining vulnerable, to braving loss and pain so as to still be willing to take the risks of truly living. Throughout the collection self-exposure and self-preservation ebb and flow like water, the heart pulses with reaching out toward beauty and the world, then pulls back into itself, elements of passion crystalizing inside it while others are discarded in the wake of new influxes. It is a complex collection of subtly explored emotions, penned with humor and wit, craft and experimentation.

In these poems technical skill and playfulness combine into a subtle yet casual voice. For instance, in the poem “Pleasure” she concludes with an uncommon rhyme called an amphisbaenic rhyme. This is a type of slant rhyme where the words are reversed. Lockward rhymes “sleep” and “peels.” She also creates this rhyme phonetically with “slurp” and “pearls.” Only a truly deft writer could create such pyrotechnics in a poem that sounds completely at ease in its tone, which Lockward does not only in the poem “Pleasure,” but in the other poems throughout Temptation by Water.

The opening poem and the title poem of the collection “Temptation by Water,” prepares us for the difficult and daring world we are about to enter. In it a woman wades into Henri Matisse’s painting “The Open Window” where there is

. . . here and there a splash
of black, like shadows foreboding something
she cannot name.

She floats inside the frame,
like Alice free-falling down the hole, enters this
other world. . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .The sea
like liquid emeralds, a kind of paradise, not one
human in sight, not one person she can name.

This is a kind of paradise, but not paradise. We are about to enter a world of poems that is similar to Alice’s Wonderland, a place that has dangers, a place that is not static but where hard lessons are learned and growth is a little frightening. The rabbit hole here is the human heart, its desires, its realizations and disappointments and all it does in response to both. The first poem in the first section, “Weather Report” closes with

. . . a slip of the tongue can change
desire into disaster, how desire and water
can sweep us away, and how we are all
looking for someone to push back
the waves, to grab hold of us, and keep us
here, pressed to the earth.

Of course, that desire to hold back mortality is impossible. No matter who we love, they too are mortal. That fact is confirmed 2 poems later in “Leaving in Pieces,” which is a humorous poem with a serious theme. The speaker’s husband loses his hair, the very thing the speaker says she married him for. Over the course of the poem, she kicks her husband out of their bed and replaces him with a dog, “his liquid eyes, his lustrous hair.” But the reason for it is that the husband’s bald head was always there

forcing me to contemplate
weighty subjects I preferred to ignore,
like my own mortality.

Love and desire in these poems is not just intimacy and acquisition but a battle with death. But that can’t be conquered and it comes “in pieces” or a little at a time: an aging mother’s ever stooping figure, winter taking over a garden, a lover lost. These reminders of mortality intimidate the heart that wants to do nothing more than withdraw into itself. So there’s the centipede who is a

Lucky little arthropod,
without our human flaws.
He has no poetry, no art, no songs,
but knows no fear when darkness enters a room.
. . . . . .(“What He Doesn’t Know”)

It’s a double-edged sword or a tongue-in-cheek conclusion, but either way it’s a metaphor by which the heart can guard itself. In another instance, a woman is “done now with ripeness, the mess of juice.” Or again, Humpty Dumpty is imagined as a cookie among others

. . . baked by his mother,
his grandmother, a procession of women in aprons,

their slippers padding into the kitchen,
women greasing pans, pre-heating ovens,

their hands dipped in flour,
fingers kneading butter, sugar, and eggs,

women filling and enfolding him,
bringing him home, wrapped
in the unbreakable dough of their arms.

These are examples of the heart contracting into itself to avoid the breakable world. But no real living is done there either and it slowly must find a way out of its lifeless securities. Sometimes it’s in taking a photo of natural beauty, as in “Capturing the Image.” Or, as is often the case with a Lockward poem, it’s a moment of the sensual pleasure in food as in “Onion,” or “Love Song with Plum” where the speaker takes the plum offered and concludes by confessing

. . . I want to stand at the perimeter
of this plum-luscious
earth, sink a plumb
line for balance, then plummet
like a bird on fire, placate
all my desires, my implacable
hunger for the ripeness of my sweetheart’s plum.

This is the renewal of the heart after the poem “Woman with Fruit” earlier in the collection declared the speaker “done now with ripeness, the mess of juice.” The collection affirms the growth of the heart’s struggle to risk living fully, and to accept the pains and loss that come with passion and love, with growth in a life that is fully lived. The final poem in the collection, “Seventh-Grade Science Project” affirms the risk of a girl catching butterflies and how it was worth it:

. . . . . . . . . . . . The pin-pricked fingers, wasp

. . . . . . . . . . . . stings, and blood on my arms
. . . . . . were what I paid for my first
A in science. All that summer

I ran like something wild and left
. . . . . . my multi-colored fingerprints
. . . . . . . . . . . . on everything I touched.

To go for that A, to live life passionately, requires accepting the bruises and losses, the “blood on my arms,” it is to be marked by the world and in turn to leave a mark. Temptation by Water is an affirmation not only of the temptation to plunge into the changing tide of life but a seduction, a masterful collection of poems you will not soon put down or soon forget.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Savoring: Why I Write

Nearly every writer at some point considers why he engages in this peculiarly difficult activity of writing. Many great writers have penned stunning essays on the topic, such as George Orwell and Joan Didion. The question suggests itself every time the writer puts pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard. Why am I doing this? Perhaps it’s different every time. The poem written today has a different reason for being written than the poem written yesterday.

Thomas Hardy said, “The mission of poetry is to record impressions, not convictions.” When I write a poem, I am not usually trying to convince anyone of the rightness or wrongness of a point of view, I am usually trying to recreate a moment, an observation, a sensation. Sometimes those sensations imply a point of view, but the perspective is only important in so far as it conveys the sensations, in remaking the moment in the mind of the reader. What I want them to come away with is an experience for their own contemplation, not a principle of moral conduct.

Writing is a way of finding meaning or creating meaning. Life and existence aren’t implicitly meaningful. The sun doesn’t mean anything by itself, it simply is. A life doesn’t mean anything in itself, it simply is. But to me, the sun or a leaf or a life, can mean something because of associations, of similarities or contrasts with other things. I see how, whenever I take a walk, I always end where I began, and realize this is like blood circulating through the body and this, in turn, is like being born and dying. Seeing such connections between disparate things and bringing them together in a poem or other work of art gives life cohesion and that cohesion is meaningful.

Writing is an act of discovery. Joan Didion said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” Many writers do not sit down with a particular idea to convey or some point to make. In fact, writing, and especially writing poetry, is not about making a point, it’s about discovering a point.

Writing is a way of seizing the day, of approaching something with full attention. Even if one doesn’t live in the fast pace of city life, life goes by quickly because we don’t pay attention to everything, especially the small moments of simple beauty or insight. In fact, we can’t. Work, chores, bills, all the daily responsibilities take up our attention. Writing is a way of slowing down the flow and reflecting on what has passed.

“Savor” is one of my favorite words. It literally means “to taste.” But it is also used to mean “to value” or “to fully enjoy.” There are things we do, moments that pass, events we participate in without valuing them, or “tasting” them. Like medicines, we swallow them without chewing, without savoring. But we should savor life, that is, fully taste the moments and events we are in, fully value them. Writing is a way of doing that. It’s a way of getting to the bottom of a feeling, a hunch, a moment. Writing is a way of tasting and valuing the depth of the day.

In good poetry and good prose there is some indescribable sensation conveyed, some kind of ethereal hunger satisfied. It is something more than the ideas, the theme and subject, the plot or characters. Sometimes I think it is the consequence of the physical aspects of language, that language elicits a physical response. It is as if the sensibility, that vague organ which registers aesthetic appreciation, were something between a tongue and a stomach. Like eating a meal of quality food prepared by an expert cook, it registers a kind of pleasure but also satisfies a kind of hunger. Something is digested that nourishes another, more rarified system, and is noticed not in better eye sight, but in sharper perception, not in clearer skin but in greater sensitivity to the moment and to the world. Because of this, a good poem may not teach us to be moral people but we are better people for reading a good poem.

Bertolt Brecht said, “First comes food then comes morality.” It is very hard to be a good person or care about being a good person when one is starving. Brecht was right, but it is also true that when this aesthetic hunger is satisfied, it is easier to be kind and care about being kind. The world is a better place in light of a good poem. Because in its afterglow, sunlight passing through the maples appears thicker, greener and more golden, as if color settled on the skin like gauze. It is warm and comforting. That is, the light becomes tangible. The aroma of a season becomes pungent with significance and the darkest view distills to a surprising clarity. In that clarity, there may not be an articulated principle or moral dictum, but there is a desire to continue that clarity and significance, a reason to be kind, a motive for not spreading darkness.