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Among the crumbling gravestones and gnarly live oaks of Savannah's sprawling, possibly haunted Bonaventure Cemetery, the poet Patricia Lockwood sat with her gangly limbs draped delicately across our picnic blanket, careful to avoid rocks and the bottle of peppermint schnapps she brought as her contribution to our lunch. It was one of coastal Georgia's spring-like February afternoons, and she was in low-rise jeans, a sweater that occasionally exposed her stomach, and a choker. "I always get confused when I get dressed to be interviewed," she said. "I get a sort of outfit insanity where I'm like, My belly can be out, I'm Tara Reid, it's 2006, none of this matters!" Her dark lashes seem to drip from her kewpie-doll eyes, and though her laugh is more a conspiratorial cackle than the demure giggle of a virginal schoolgirl, her freckly, porcelain complexion and rosebud lips challenge any attempts to place her beyond the oeuvre of Hans Christian Andersen. She is an accomplished poet who can draw a sharp line from geopolitics to dick jokes, but she looks distractingly like a beautiful cartoon character.
I'm kidding. Before I picked her up at her apartment in downtown Savannah, the 34-year-old author of two books of poetry had only ever been interviewed in person by "dudes." This had resulted in a number of ridiculous descriptions of her face that seemed, while inappropriate, so fun to write—to Jesse Lichtenstein, who profiled Lockwood for the New York Times Magazine in 2014, she was "all large eyes, apple cheeks, and pixie haircut—like an early Disney creation, perhaps a woodland creature"—so she suggested I too "lay on some crazy thing" about her, just to see if it would fly. Men, she said, write about you "like you're a fruit bowl or something. I feel like if you're going to compare me to an animal, I've got kind of a possum thing going on. It's not even the really cute, forest ones." In the image that accompanies the Times Magazine profile, Lockwood thinks she looks "like a milkmaid who is trying to vape the sun."
Preconceived notions about Lockwood are not limited to her appearance. Because she is funny, and because her work often reframes sexy internet language with an ironic awareness of literature, history, and religion, she is usually understood on the strength of her most erotically absurd poem titles: "The Whole World Gets Together and Gangbangs a Deer," "Search 'Lizard Vagina' and You Shall Find," "The Father and Mother of American Tit-Pics." (That one's about Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.) To the New Yorker, she is "crowd-pleasing" (always bad), the "poet laureate of Twitter," and "an exemplar of brilliant silliness"; to the New York Times Magazine, she is a "smutty-metaphor queen." In addition to her popular Twitter account, her claim to fame was a destabilizing 1,200-word autobiographical poem called "Rape Joke" that went viral in the summer of 2013, which was unlikely both for its popularity and for its successful application of a toothy sense of humor to a resoundingly unfunny subject.
Lockwood told me that her work is most often characterized as being about "sex and gender and metamorphosis," which she added is "probably fair," but "they really hammer home this sex part." The book that features "Rape Joke," Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, does deal with these themes, but as Lockwood applies an almost psychedelic transfiguration process to the figures that populate her work, she comments blackly on a slew of other topics: childhood and puberty, nature, environmental degradation, parenthood, writing and poetry, history as we are taught it in high school, war. To say that her work is about sex is to be too easily distracted by the word "stiffie" or the phrase "do it"; more often, Lockwood uses the language of sex to talk about the rest of her world.
Her new memoir, Priestdaddy, to be released in May, flicks a switch and reveals how many of these poetic concerns fit together, but there's also a mythology surrounding Lockwood's life that it's hard to say if the book will dispel. She never attended college and spent much of her life, as Lichtenstein put it, "in a Proustian attitude, writing for hours each day from her 'desk-bed.'" When the Times Magazine profile came out, many readers cherished this detail: Finally, we had among us an actual writer, doing actual writing! Lockwood confirmed to me that the desk-bed was still her habit, and when I commented that nebulous authorities claim it is bad to work from one's bed, she replied, with the kind of exclamatory mock fury that is characteristic of her and her memoir, "Fuck them! They say all sorts of things. They say you should eliminate ADVERBS—that's BULLSHIT!"
Although Priestdaddy is explicitly about Lockwood coming of age with her father, who, through a weird loophole, converted to Catholicism and became a priest after he was married with five children, it covers a wide range of improbable biographical events that could each sustain a book-length narrative on their own; by what I think of as the book's climax—Lockwood's discovery that one of the towns she grew up in was also home to a radioactive-waste dump—it feels surprising that you can still be surprised by her. The story goes back and forth in time and is framed by the recent nine-month period during which Lockwood and her husband, Jason Kendall, lived with her parents in their rectory in Kansas City. Early on, Kendall considered Lockwood a genius and was happy to support her, but he had to have eye surgery and couldn't work for a while, so the pair packed up their home in Savannah, a place they loved, and headed west. "We are penniless and we are exhausted," she writes of her return to her parents' home, "and in the grand human tradition, we have thrown ourselves on the mercy of the church, which exists for me on this earth in an unusually patriarchal form. It walks, it cusses, it calls me Bit. It is currently shredding its guitar upstairs, across the hallway from the room where we will be staying for the foreseeable future."
The frame allows Lockwood to flow easily into childhood anecdotes and reflections on faith, feminism, money, and about 12 other things. The family moved around a lot: She was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, but the bulk of Lockwood's childhood and adolescence was spent moving back and forth from Cincinnati to St. Louis, which she says was due in part to her father "being a crazy guy who would constantly burn his bridges with various bishops." As a child, Lockwood attended anti-abortion protests, was a member of a cultish youth group called God's Gang, tagged along on her father's deranged hunting trips, and hung out with the people who typically frequented her father's church: nuns and the needy. At age 16, she writes, she attempted suicide by taking 100 Tylenol and stopped being a believer, though today she won't call herself an atheist; belief, she told me, remains "braided up in my DNA and the way I think and my imagery." At 18, she had an offer to attend college at St. John's in Maryland, but two weeks before she was supposed to leave, her father called her into his study and told her, as "the orotund, indignant sound of Rush Limbaugh was blasting from a radio… and the drunken leprechaun sound of Bill O'Reilly was blasting from the television," that they couldn't afford it. Shortly after this conversation, her father would buy an expensive guitar that had originally been made for Paul McCartney. "Later," she writes, "I would take a detached literary pleasure in the notion that higher education had been unwittingly robbed from me by a Beatle." She told me that she and her siblings developed their shared sense of humor—"extremely absurdist and sort of teetering on the edge of hysteria or mania at all times"—as a kind of survival technique.
That humor is resilient and flexible, and though it occasionally overshadows Lockwood's other talents, it triumphs over what she calls the "unthinkable" and creates a kind of happy ending nevertheless. Much of Priestdaddy—and the lore of Patricia Lockwood—circles back to her Cinderella-story career: After the disappointment of not being able to attend college, she turned to the nascent online poetry community, writing mainly, as she says in the book, "poems about mermaids losing their virginity to Jesus (metaphor)." She met Kendall on a forum when she was 19, he proposed shortly afterward, and they bounced around the country together. He worked for newspapers, and she occasionally took jobs at bookstores or restaurants when it was absolutely necessary, knowing deep down that, because she had no college degree, the lifestyle could have continued forever. "People talk about the 'grad-school poverty' as being not real poverty because it's fleeting," she said. "But what if you've assumed a grad-school lifestyle, and there's no guarantee you ever get out of it?"
After years of working that way, Lockwood seems to have escaped becoming, as she says, "a crazy lady wearing a Slanket." She and Kendall moved back to Savannah late last year, and Priestdaddy is a good-faith effort to make the kind of money that doesn't come with even popular poetry collections.
While the trappings of literary success—two-dimensional reviews, incorrect ideas about your resemblance to Disney woodland creatures floating around—might be annoying, they don't seem to bother Lockwood all that much; they enable her to further channel her "insane, particular drive" into her work. Besides, she says of her image, "I don't think it has anything to do with me."