Jul/Aug 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Diane Lockward

Interview by Elizabeth P. Glixman

Diane Lockward is the author of two books of poetry, What Feeds Us (Wind Publications 2007), and Eve's Red Dress (Wind Publications 2003), and a chapbook, Against Perfection (Poets Forum Press 1998). Her poems have appeared in publications includingThe Beloit Poetry Journal, Prairie Schooner, Spoon River Poetry Review, Margie, and Kalliope. Her work has been featured on Poetry Daily and Verse Daily and read by Garrison Keillor on NPR's Writer's Almanac. Her work appears in the anthology Good Poems for Hard Times edited by Garrison Keillor.

Diane has received awards from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, North American Review, and the St. Louis Poetry Center. After twenty-five years of teaching high school English, she retired to write full-time. She works as a poet-in-the-schools (doing short-term residencies) for the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

Diane has a bachelor of arts degree in English literature from Elmira College and a master's degree in English literature with a concentration in Renaissance literature from Montclair State College. She lives in New Jersey with her husband. Her three grown children have flown the coop.

Excerpt from title poem "What Feeds Us":

In my story, Eve walked out of the Garden,
unencumbered by Adam
and carrying only the apple.
She didn't know where she was going,
but knew she'd need something to eat.


EG     Can you tell me in one word what your poems are about?

DL     Hunger.

EG     Can you explain what hunger the poems are about?

DL     Some of the poems are about the hunger we have for real food, but others are about the larger hungers—our need for love, for sex, family, success, the past. These hungers are a kind of longing. I'm interested in what happens when we are left undernourished or starving.

EG     This quote from M.F.K. Fisher at the beginning of the book encapsulates that idea: "...there is nourishment in the heart, to feed the wilder, more insistent hungers" (The Gastronomical Me).

Who is M.F.K. Fisher?

DL     She was a good cook, but more importantly, she also wrote about food and the sheer pleasure of it, the sensuous joy of food. She turned the preparation of food and dining into an art. Her essays and books are assembled in a huge collection entitled The Art of Eating.

EG     I was struck by the color, sight, and sound of your poems. (BTW the book cover by artist Brian Rumbolo is beautiful.) I wanted to look at every object around me, after reading them. Do you rely on one of your senses, more than another, when you write a poem?

DL     Probably the visual. A draft often begins with simple physical description of what was seen. I consciously exploit the other senses as both a way of discovering what the body knows and a way of pulling the poem into my body. Sensory perceptions are powerful yet subtle tools for getting to know people, places, and things. I'm interested not just in the appearance of a lover, but also in his smell, his taste. I'm interested not just in the appearance of a place, but also in its various flavors and aromas. I'm stimulated by the way a favorite piece of clothing feels on the skin and by the sounds of spring and winter.

EG     Worms, wrens, snakes, goldfinches, orioles, warblers, weeds, and the elements live in your poems' landscapes. How do you feel about nature? Which do you like the most, earth, air, fire, or water, metal, or wood and why?

DL     I never was much of a nature lover. Several years ago I became a walker and found that I noticed grass, trees, and flowers in a way I hadn't before. And now that I've got goldfinches and other birds in my backyard, I feel more attuned to nature than I used to.

When I began graduate school, my intention was to take a concentration in Victorian literature, but the first course I took—selected because of the convenience of the meeting time—was Seventeenth-Century Prose. What could be duller? But on the first night of class, the professor drew a series of concentric circles on the board and taught the Copernican and Ptolemaic theories of the universe and then the elements and the humours and the correspondences between them. I loved the symmetry and the metaphorical view of the world. From that night on, I belonged to the Renaissance. I hadn't yet begun to write poetry, but I suspect that my fascination with the Elizabethan worldview has had its influence on my work.

Of the four elements, I gravitate most often towards fire. Fire is exhilarating and beautiful; it is also dangerous and destructive. It embraces opposites, so it's potentially complex. I've had to declare a temporary moratorium on fire images because I've exceeded the allowable quota.

EG     I counted 7 poems with food titles and many more with mention of food. Artichokes, linguini, a vanilla bean, macadamia nut cookies, croissants (is anyone drooling yet?) blueberries, hamburgers, french fries, pickles, crabmeat, guacamole, avocados, cold pizza are mentioned. Many times they are a vehicle to link people (often a lover or parent) or show the dynamics of a relationship as in...

Excerpt from "Cold Pizza":

Snow dusted the pizza
my husband carried home.
He stomped in cursing, God damn
snow all over the box!
I pacified him, promised
snow would do no harm, though I wondered why
he hadn't brushed it off instead of complaining
about the weather, the jerk at the pizza shop,
and snow all over his god damn car seat.

Inside the box, our pie waited for someone
to lift the lid. Oregano joined hands with mozzarella
and tomato sauce, and tried to stay warm, indifferent
to the troubles of me and my husband.

Or in...

Excerpt from "They Weren't June and Ward Cleaver":

My parents warned me
if I ate one more pickle,
I would turn into one.
I made an art of licking each pickle
with my little pink tongue—
to stop the dripping, I said,
but really so if anyone wanted
a bite, I could say, Oh no,
this pickle's been licked.
This pickle's been in my mouth.

When my belly was filled with dills,
I poured the juice into a tumbler
and joined the grownups for cocktails.

Do you create the poem, after seeing, say, a piece of pizza, a pickle, or the vanilla bean, or do you start with something you want to say, and the vanilla bean or linguini comes to you in the flow of your process?

DL     My approach varies from poem to poem. "Cold Pizza" was instigated by the epigraph ("You know it's over when you can no longer bear to watch him eat") which was something I'd heard on some dopey TV talk show.

I visualized a husband eating in a way that would gross out the wife. Then it escalated; everything about him became gross. I chose pizza for the ritual dinner. It struck me as a substitute for a real meal (though I love pizza). It is a potentially sensuous food with its colors, aroma, texture, and taste. Setting became essential to the poem. I wanted the atmosphere to feel like the couple was dining in Alaska. I wanted to bring the outside inside. The husband brings that right in with the pizza.

"They Weren't June and Ward Cleaver" is a "rescued" poem, that is, it evolved from something I cut out of another poem ("Meditation on Green"). I love pickles and have since childhood, so some of the poem relies on memory. My memory of pickle indulgence led to thoughts of the silent war between my parents and my perception of it even as a child, years before they split.

"Linguini" evolved after I read a poem, "The Blended Family," in Prairie Schooner. The poet, Carol Potter, ended each line with the word "spaghetti." For some unknown reason, that made me want to write a poem about linguini. After a few drafts, I abandoned the line ending plan and let the poem go where it wanted to go which was to an intimate meal with a lover.

"The History of Vanilla" began with a TV commercial for Tylenol PM. When I can't sleep, I turn on TV to lull me to sleep. One night I heard, "Need something to lull you to sleep," and since I did, I paid attention. I heard what was supposed to be a dull lecture on the history of vanilla. But I love vanilla—I think vanilla extract is the best smell—so I thought that such a history would actually be an interesting topic. The next day I put history of vanilla into Google and was amazed by what came up. Much of what I found in the history was imported into the poem. But what to attach it to? A delicious lover.

EG     Food and love are often connected in movies, stories, poems, plays, newspaper ads. Whether it is the nurturing or sensual aspect of cooking food, serving food, eating food, everyone is into food. How do you feel about food?

DL     As a child I was a very fussy eater. Food was often the subject of discord and trouble at the dinner table. Perhaps the obsession with food stems from that. Perhaps the obsession is enhanced by my husband's work in the restaurant business. Now as an adult there are a number of favorite foods that I can no longer eat like pickles and citrus fruits and tomatoes. I miss them horribly. Sometimes I long for them. I want what I can't have.

EG     Don't we all! Do you like to cook?

DL     I used to be a good cook; now I'm a fairly indifferent one. Perhaps in retribution for the grief I caused my poor mother, two of my kids were very fussy eaters. My daughter ate almost nothing. I don't know how she survived childhood. Cooking for people who start crying when you put dinner on the table tends to take away your enthusiasm for cooking. My specialty area is desserts—and even my fussy eaters would eat those. My most popular dessert is bocconi dolce—three layers of meringue, each glazed with chocolate and topped with whipped cream and sliced strawberries. The three layers are assembled one on top of the other. This dessert appears in my poem "Anniversary."

EG     From several poems it seems that your parents were gardeners and separated when you were young. Did this affect you adversely?

DL     My father was the gardener. He left when I was 16. I'd like to say I wasn't affected by it, but how could that be possible? We are all affected by our home environment. I generally try, however, to discourage readers from reading poems as autobiographical documents or revelations. I know there are poets who claim that everything they write "really happened" and who even suggest that it's somehow kind of immoral to do otherwise. I think such an attitude shows a lack of imagination and compassion, as well as a touch of moral arrogance. If I wrote only about my life, I'd run out of material.

I take it as a compliment when someone concludes that a poem of mine is autobiographical, because that means it feels real and authentic. But I don't want to be pegged as an autobiographical poet. I want to be free to stick to the facts, to embellish them, or to make them up as the poem requires. It is always the poem that comes first. I am in the service of the poem.

EG     I once read writers are good liars. This applies to poets also. I think they must be to create an authentic atmosphere in a poem, even if they have not experienced what the poem is about. I like that phrase, "I am in the service of the poem."

DL     When we begin to write poetry, some of us worry about looking foolish, about embarrassing ourselves or our families. Consequently, we are too reserved; we hold back. Others are wrongly convinced that every least morsel of their personal lives is good material for poems. As we learn the craft, we begin to realize that there is so much more to a poem than the story or event behind it. We learn to improve upon reality. The more I learn about the craft of poetry, the less concerned I am about how I will be judged. I am more concerned about how the poem will turn out. As I craft the poem, I am serving it, doing what needs to be done for the sake of the poem.

EG     There are quite a few poems where bees play a part in the story.

This line Fat-assed insect! Perverse pedagogue, from the poem "Invective Against the Bumblebee," suggests you hate bees!

DL     I am afraid of bees. They appear in my nightmares. The experience witnessed in "The Beekeeper," another bee poem, happened when I was a child in summer camp and observed two girls getting attacked by a swarm of bees. Of course, it was more traumatic for the actual victims, I'm sure. The poem emerged many summers later at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, when I was harassed by a bee during an outdoor lunch and rescued by a brave friend. My son as a baby was stung by a bumblebee. They rarely sting and then only when provoked, but this one came out of nowhere and launched an unprovoked attack on my son. The real event occurred at the beach, not on grass.

EG     Here is an example of creating that non-autobiographical authenticity.

DL     Yes. A bumblebee at the beach is less believable than a bee in the yard. Once I made that change, I also had to get my son out of his bathing suit.

Excerpt from "The Beekeeper"

                When Ann slips
her hand deep into the bag and charms
the bee, I'm back in the nightmare of my childhood, bees
swarming the ceiling of my bedroom, waiting for me
to sleep, thousands of bees in military rows,
an army of bees, their lances, spears, and bayonets
pointed at me, soldiers patiently waiting
for the buzz of my breathing.

EG     The poems in What Feeds Us are centered in emotions many of us feel, protectiveness for those we love, sadness at what was lost (a child grown up and leaving home, a lost love, death, illness, the end of a marriage), fears we have had since childhood, and a longing for a great passion—"the heart wants what the heart wants/ and what it wants is fire (from "Pyromania"). Women are usually the ones who want to hear and talk about emotions like these. Do you write poems for women, or what audience is your work intended for?

DL     I don't really think of an audience when I'm writing. It's probably easy to classify me as a women's poet—my subjects are often domestic and have a personal feel to them. I don't resist that classification. In fact, I'd like to feel that I speak to and for women, but I'd also like men to feel included and interested. A poem like "Gender Issue," I think, pulls a man into a woman's world.

EG     The language in these poems and the stories are both loud and blaring and soft and straightforward.

The poet Patricia Fargnoli says about your poems in What Feeds Us, "Like high-wire acts of language and imagination, they almost leap in the air and come down again on the wire, balancing between witty and dark, personal and invented, idea and emotion."

In "Gender Issue" you write about George, a man who doesn't want a GI Joe doll, but wants a Barbie doll. He wants to be a woman. He pretends to give birth in his room:

Excerpt from "Gender Issue":

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.


Excerpt from "Grief on Schooley Mountain":

The cancer had come back,
this time in his stomach.

Her voice calling his name
filled the air. Huge rocks and stones,
no longer implacable, crumbled.


Excerpt from "The History of Vanilla":

Totonacos, Aztecs, Hernando Cortez.
Whisper his name. Precious plunder
of Spain. With cacao, elixir rich and noble.
Drift into dreamy exotica, Madagascar,
Mexico, Tahiti.


Excerpt from "The Best Words":

And fructify—I wanted to conjugate
That sinuous verb. Like Proteus, changing its form,
oozing into fructuous, assuming the official ring
of fructification, advocating like a president's wife
for the fructification of America.

What writers and or poets have influenced you? Have there been other people or disciplines that have helped to form you as a poet?

DL     Donne for the complexity and uniqueness of his metaphors and his range; Keats for the sheer beauty of his language and the exquisite emotion; Hopkins for his verbal gymnastics and most especially for "The Wreck of the Deutschland," a magnificent, exhilarating poem that raised goosebumps when I first read it. Among contemporary poets, I gravitate towards women—Sharon Olds for her boldness and her example of courage in her refusal to answer questions about the personal details in her poems; Linda McCarriston for her courage in unveiling dark subjects; Kim Addonizio for her versatility, humor, boldness. All three of these poets are attentive to craft. I feel that they cut a path for me to follow. My three early teachers—Madeline Tiger, Renee Ashley, and Priscilla Orr—encouraged me to travel that path and made me believe that I could. And I have to mention my mother, who freely used a wonderful vocabulary and read books to me and gave me the gift of language. She wanted to be a writer, wanted to study journalism, but her parents wouldn't let her. I like to think that I'm writing for the two of us.

EG     When it comes to the sounds in your poems, the line breaks, and the shape, do you spend time consciously crafting and rewriting your poems? Do you take advantage of the natural sound of your ear? Do you say I will capitalize on alliteration or assonance or put in more sh sounds?

DL     I write a first draft typically in 10-20 minutes. I spend hours, days, weeks revising. My first draft is almost always written in longhand on lined yellow legal paper. I put the draft on the computer and print out. I continue to write out in the margins. Often the real poem emerges out there. I import some of the margin material into the draft. Sometimes I'll feel the need to do a bit of research. This leads me to information and new vocabulary. After a number of drafts, I start to work on the shape of the poem—line lengths, line breaks, stanza breaks. In a workshop I took several years ago at the University of Vermont, Chase Twichell advised the group to avoid finding a shape or form for the poem too early as it prevents further thinking and stops the real writing. Good advice which I took to heart and still follow. After I've got the content and then the form, I go over every single line for music and word choice. I read aloud; I record myself and listen and let my ear get involved. I try to capitalize on what's already there.

EG     What feeds you these days?

DL     The early thoughts of working towards a next book—the kind of thoughts we have as soon as one book comes out.

Giving readings which I love to do, going to readings, reading journals, taking walks, thinking about the next book, and flirting with the idea of temptation.

EG     "Flirting with the idea of temptation." We can't end the interview on this. Spill the beans (notice I used a food metaphor).

DL     Before I organized each of my two books, I gathered together what I thought were my best 50 to 60 poems. I laid them out on the floor and tried to find an overriding unifying idea. That idea came after the poems were written. But as I look ahead now, I find myself operating in a somewhat different way. I have an idea—temptation—and am consciously attempting to write poems that relate to that idea. So I am courting temptation, dwelling on it, flirting with it. But I probably shouldn't talk much about that or I will kill it before it's hatched.


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