The acclaimed poet, memoirist and Thurber Prize winner talks about humor, reading in her pajamas and making books duel it out to win her affection.
It’s possible you haven’t heard of Patricia Lockwood yet. Her debut poetry collection, “Balloon Pop Outlaw Black,” was a critical success and a darling of the indie poetry scene—accolades that, while impressive, aren’t very likely to catch the attention of your average Joe.
You might be familiar, however, with Lockwood’s poem “Rape Joke,” which went viral when The Awl published it in 2013. In it, Lockwood uses a mix of humor and cynicism to examine rape culture through the lens of a personal experience she had at age 19. It “casually reawakened a generation’s interest in poetry,” declared The Guardian, and went on to win a Pushcart Prize.
Penguin Books published a second poetry collection, “Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals,” the following year, which received its own high praise from the likes of Rolling Stone and The New York Times, but it was her 2017 memoir, “Priestdaddy,” that earned Lockwood the 2018 Thurber Prize for American Humor (among a slew of other honors). Lockwood graciously answered our questions via email ahead of this year’s prize, for which she is a judge. The winner will be announced tonight at the Lincoln Theatre.Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.
How did you decide to inject comedy into your telling of such a personal experience in “Rape Joke”?
Well, you’re working with the idea that clearly some people do find it funny, as a general concept. So it became interesting to push that to its limit—do you find this funny, then? What about this detail? How much human [specificity] can be sketched into the blank shape of such a joke before it’s not funny whatsoever? Once that frame was in place, the poem came very quickly.
The marriage of humor and poetry isn’t an obvious one to a lot of people—I think poetry often is considered to be a formal medium, especially to those who aren’t familiar with it. Was this a natural combination for you?
It’s so unnatural that I had to work for years to blend the two into something that satisfied me, that operated at the speed of comedy while maintaining punchlines that were actually serious. Sometimes I had to trick myself, by using words I had always considered verboten, or putting cartoon characters in there, or quoting the sort of porn spam that sadly no one seems to get anymore—anything to widen a horizon that had always seemed to me fixed.
Was it difficult transitioning to prose for your memoir after publishing two poetry collections?
It was, but I’d always been comfortable writing both poetry and prose. The greater difficulty is that much of my prose up to that point had been satiric, and now I needed it to reach deeper while still being funny. It was a matter of balancing two very disparate tones—both the serious student and the clown who gets kicked out of class.
How are you approaching your role in this year’s Thurber Prize awards?
It would be nice to get a special wig and robe, maybe even a gavel, but my approach was mostly, “read these books in pajamas and see whether at any point you laugh out loud.” However, the weight and responsibility of the task—you want to approach each book in the proper spirit and give it its proper due—meant that usually the most I did was say the word “Ha” out loud, like a Star Trek alien with little latex wrinkles on her forehead.
What criteria did you use to judge this year’s finalists?
Oh, I would never dream of using criteria, it would feel too much like the Olympics. No, a simple gut reaction is enough for me to go on. If I need a tiebreaker, I sic the books on each other under cover of dark.
What are you reading right now?
I always juggle quite a few at one time. Right now I’m concurrently reading “Mistress Masham’s Repose,” by T.H. White; “The Sketch-Book,” by Washington Irving; “The Love Object,” by Edna O’Brien; [and] “Youth,” by Tove Ditlevsen.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a novel! It’s a poet’s novel, though, which means that it could be plausibly shelved in about six other sections of the bookstore, including Crockpot Cooking, Self-Help and Bibles.
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