Patricia Lockwood became a famous poet on the Internet, a statement that raises many questions: Is “famous poet” even a thing? Isn’t poetry a stodgy and dignified endeavor, more suited to print magazines like the New Yorker than ephemeral, frivolous spaces like Twitter? And how was it that some of the smartest, most original poetry was being written by the daughter of a Catholic priest, a woman who never went to college, married at 21, and does her writing from bed in Savannah, Ga.?
“I don’t conceive of myself now as a person of brains,” says Lockwood over a glass of wine in the Grey, a restaurant that was once Savannah’s bus station. “I think of myself as a person with a knack for metaphor. I think of myself as a person with the twist or the torque, that’s that little thing that some people have.”
Starting in 2011, her beguiling, off-kilter sext-like tweets made her a star on social media, such as I teach an African Grey Parrot to sext. He sexts at the level of a two-year-old -- “mama, mama, mama.”
Lockwood’s first book of poetry (“Balloon Pop Outlaw Black”) came out in 2012; that same year, a poem of hers appeared in the New Yorker. But it was 2013’s “Rape Joke,” published online in the Awl, that made Lockwood’s name. At a time when women were increasingly sharing their stories of rape and sexual assault, against a backdrop of anti-feminist backlash (especially among some in the comedy world, who vehemently defended rape jokes), Lockwood’s searing autobiographical poem stood out for its brilliance, its rage and its wit. The poem “Rape Joke,” it has to be said, is both sadder and far funnier than any comedian’s rape joke. (A second collection, “Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals,” was published in 2014 by Penguin.)
In her new memoir, “Priestdaddy” (Riverhead: 352 pp., $27), Lockwood writes about returning to live with her parents after she and her husband face unexpected medical bills. Multi-generational households are always complex, but this one was especially so, because Greg Lockwood, in addition to being a husband and father of five, is also a Catholic priest. A “human loophole,” his daughter writes, he was a Lutheran minister who’d already had a family when he received special permission from the Catholic Church to be ordained after he converted. The two couples also share space with a young seminarian, who is studying for the priesthood under Greg’s tutelage.
For a daughter whose religious and political views have diverged from those of her parents, going home again was uncomfortable at times. But for a writer whose preoccupations have often included sex and absurdity, it provided a lot of material. “There’s this guy across the hall, who’s like about to make a vow to never have sex for the rest of his life,” Lockwood says. “And my dad’s constantly playing the electric guitar, in his underwear.”
“Priestdaddy” mines Lockwood’s unusual childhood and family. There’s her father, born into privilege and touched by “congenital naughtiness,” now of Christ the King Parish in Kansas City, Mo., who despite his unorthodox marital status and hobbies is nevertheless an extreme traditionalist. “He believes that no other priest should be married,” Lockwood tells me. “He’s moved to a position that’s very, very pro-homeschooling. It feels a lot more extreme than it felt when I was young.” She grew up attending anti-abortion rallies with her mother, Karen, who brought her along until it became clear how much they terrified Patricia.
In person, Lockwood, 34, is very funny but also grave, her conversation as bold and disarming as an adult version of Eloise. Sitting in a back booth at the Grey, Lockwood is a bit tired and pale — “I look like sin and the pit right now,” she says — she’s been fighting the flu. The discussion ranges from the boyish earnestness of cocktail culture to whether or not antibiotics make alcohol more potent to why someone should launch a restaurant that serves nothing but round food (meatballs, croquettes, arancini) and call it Balls. She is effortlessly charming, but having grown up with an extremely charismatic father, she sometimes works to control that quality in herself. She worries, she says, about being too glib, too much of a performer.
“Honestly, the chapters I had the most difficulty with in the book were the ones where I thought I might be treating some subject or some person with superficiality [when] I would want to go deeper,” she says. “It never felt to me that it would be honest to either just write a serious, very straightforward book, or something that was just comedy set pieces. It seemed like you’d have to include both things. But then you don’t know whether you’ve struck the right balance.”
Lockwood and her siblings developed their fierce sense of humor “as a sort of armor,” she says, “a front line of defense against what was basically an unreasonable atmosphere.” Her father, she says, “sucked up all the oxygen — he was a big screamer too, and very impulsive.” It’s a complicated relationship, and one that Lockwood says she’s found difficult at times to write about. “You can’t just write a funny book about it, even if your dad is this sort of larger-than-life, Toad of Toad Hall character, which is probably his only analog in literature.” The humor is obvious (“he generally does not wear pants”), but so is the pain (in “Rape Joke,” he treats his daughter, who’s just told him she’s been raped, as if she were a sinner in need of absolution). Of this book, Lockwood says, “I don’t think he’ll read it, but I think to a certain extent he feels like he’s the sort of person who should have a book written about him.”
Her father’s mistrust of college discouraged her; she never went. Like a lot of autodidacts, Lockwood talks about reading and books and ideas in a more interesting way than one encounters in the classroom. Her literary enthusiasms span high and low. “I love to read addiction memoirs,” she says. “I love reading heroin memoirs, for some reason. I always like to understand how people organize their days. Is spending a day with your heroin stash really that different from me, crouching in my bed surrounded by piles of books?”
And yes, Lockwood writes in bed. “It’s so lazy! But the less I move, the more I can think,” she says. “I always wish I were one of those perambulatory writers like Wallace Stevens.”
Perambulation sounds like a good idea; the interview flows out of the restaurant and into downtown Savannah, where Lockwood and Kendall eventually returned, after eight months living with her parents and an additional two years in Lawrence, Kan. It continues past fountains and statues and monuments to Civil War heroes and villains. It ends in the small patio behind Lockwood and Kendall’s apartment, where an outside cat named Princess Fuzzypants taunts the three inside cats, who glare at her.
Lockwood and Kendall are both tall and attractive; Kendall’s mother has told them they should be “couple models,” Lockwood crows, “like that’s a thing!” It’s clear the pair, who met in an online forum discussing poetry and have been married more than a dozen years, enjoy each other immensely. They recall the events described in the book’s trippiest chapter, about a drunken evening fueled by martinis that Kendall mixed up “according to Julia Child’s recipe.” They were the strongest martinis Lockwood ever tasted; “like a house that’s bigger on the inside than the outside — that martini had more alcohol than the glass actually held!”
Both agree that despite the priest’s big personality (“a true eccentric,” Kendall says, putting it mildly), it’s Lockwood’s mother who emerges as the book’s star. While on a road trip together, Karen asks her daughter how it feels to write poetry. Lockwood writes about her mother’s shy question about where that gift came from: “You know, your dad thinks he’s the reason…” she tells Lockwood. “He doesn’t think that I could ever….”
This is crazy, Lockwood tells me. “She has more of the twist than anyone.”
Both Lockwood and Kendall worried about how Karen would feel about the book. “It’s hard to be written about. It’s hard to be a character in somebody else’s story,” says Kendall.
“She was worried about it; my older sister was worried about it,” Lockwood says, “but I was like, ‘Mom, don’t worry, everyone who’s read the book thinks you’re really the heart of it. You’re the centerpiece of it.’ ”
Tuttle is the president of the National Book Critics Circle.