Diane Lockward Interview, with Kaite Hillenbrand
I love your poem “Why I Read True Crime Books”; it’s eerie and foreboding and makes me feel uncomfortable the way I suspect true crime books would make me feel. This poem opens up glimpses into other people’s lives, as does your poem “Two-Door Mailbox with Gin,” and both poems make me feel how interconnected people are. What drives you to write poems that show this connection? Also, a question that may or may not be related: are you naturally a social person (extrovert) or private person (introvert)? How does this affect your art?
I never believed poets who claimed they spent years on single poems, but “Why I Read True Crime Books” did take me several years to complete. I didn’t work on it every day. It disappeared for months at a time. Then I’d go back to it and get a few more lines. Several things stymied me. For one, I knew I wanted this to be a sestina. I wanted the obsessiveness and the repetition of the form, but I felt corseted by the rules of that form. Also, I hadn’t really figured out for myself why I read true crime books. Mystery novels have no appeal for me. Why does the story have to be true? Until I figured that out, I couldn’t end the poem. Then I read Kathryn Harrison’s memoir, The Kiss, and suddenly the light went on. Something she said about her own need to peek into other people’s dark houses gave me an immediate moment of perception, of recognition. And I was at last able to complete the poem. (Of course, I’m not going to tell you what that perception was.) Another huge decision for this poem was whether to use first person or play it safe and use second or third.
“Two-Door Mailbox with Gin” was ignited by the purchase and installation of just such a mailbox, minus the gin, of course. For some unknown reason, I imagined a left-behind martini in there. And then up popped my mother. It was alarming, wonderful, and surprising to find her there, to reconnect, and speculate as to why she might have come back.
This leads me to the last part of your question. I am most definitely more introvert than extrovert. Poetry allows me to tell my secrets—and at the same time to put a veil over them or alter them or give them to someone else. I wrestle with how much and what to tell. And what am I allowed to invent in order to convey a more real truth? Huck Finn’s moral lie. And how much am I compelled to reveal when people ask if the poem is true? Sometimes my need to write the poem is at odds with my need to protect my privacy. The poem always wins. Then, too, whatever the poem’s subject, regardless of how personal or invented, in the end there’s the matter of craft. The poem has to work as a poem.
I admire people who can tie lots of different kinds of knots; they can do so many things that other people can’t, as your poem “Knot-Tying” shows: tie up boats, make lassos, camp, climb, etc. It’s such a useful and fascinating skill. What knot can you tie that you’re excited about, and/or what knot would you like to be able to tie, and why?
The only knot I can tie is the square knot, which I learned in Girl Scouts. My interest in knots came about while watching a news story about a prisoner who’d attempted to make an escape using sheets tied together with knots. However, his knots were poorly done and the sheets came apart and his escape was foiled. For such a small failing, back to prison he went. I researched knots and was fascinated to learn how many different kinds there are and how intricate they are and how varied their functions. But it occurred to me as I was drafting and drafting the poem, wanting it to be about more than just real knots, that some knots are metaphorical. Some hold fast and some don’t, just like relationships.
If I were going to learn to tie knots, I’d want to do the kind you need for making lace and pretty things like doilies and tablecloths and those old-fashioned things that used to be placed on the backs of chairs. Antimacassars. Isn’t that a great word?
You were a high school English teacher. Would you share one or two of your favorite stories, or best experiences, from being a teacher? I’d also like to know what you thought the challenges of teaching at the high school level were and how you dealt with those.
I taught in four very different high schools. The first, right out of college, was an all-girls’ public high school in Elizabeth, N.J., a very urban city. The next was in the town where I lived then and now, in the school I’d attended. Then came a year in a blue-color town. Finally, I arrived in a very affluent community. Each school had its own challenges and rewards. My two favorites were the first and the last. In the city school there were lots of disciplinary problems. The girls were tough and I was not, but I loved those girls and some of them loved me back. The last school was the most academically challenging and rewarding. The kids were very bright and ambitious.
I hadn’t discovered poetry until the last school. When I did, that is, when I began writing poetry, it changed the way I taught poetry. And that was a very good thing. I stopped murdering the poems. Shortly before I left teaching, a former student was hired by the district as an English teacher. At our first department meeting, she was asked what she remembered of her years as a student. She replied that what she remembered best was writing poetry with Mrs. Lockward.
You might also be interested to know that this last school, Millburn High School, is the school Anne Hathaway attended. I might have had her for her senior year, but she went to California to film her first television series. So I can just drop her name and say I almost knew her.
You are Poet Laureate of West Caldwell, New Jersey, and you are a poet-in-the-schools for the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. What do these positions entail? In what ways should we encourage the reading and writing of poetry in our communities? What successes have you seen in this regard, and what advice do you have for people who want to benefit the arts?
I left teaching so that I could live more fully as a poet, but I wanted to continue with some kind of official work, so I applied to be a poet-in-the-schools. That involves doing short-term residencies during which I teach students how to write poetry. It’s fun, and the kids just love the workshops. Most of my school work now, however, comes from freelance jobs as school budgets have dried up. I wish that more teachers spent more time with poetry. Young people are naturally creative. Unfortunately, this gets squashed out of them because teachers, perhaps of necessity, put so much time into prepping kids for standardized tests. What they don’t understand is that time spent on poetry—listening to it, reading it, talking about it, and writing it— is preparing for the test. So my advice to teachers—especially middle and high school teachers—is to make poetry a more integral part of their work with students.
I was appointed Poet Laureate of West Caldwell in 2007 in recognition of two public service projects that I was doing then—and still am—in my community. One is a big reading in March to celebrate Women’s History Month. The other is a poetry festival to celebrate literary journals.
Both of these are part of my personal mission to widen the audience for poetry and to provide more spaces for poets to do their thing. I’d love to see similar events going on all over the place.
My advice to poets and poetry lovers is as follows: 1) commit to organizing at least one public event, 2) go to readings by other poets, and 3) consider hosting a poetry salon to celebrate a poet you know.
Why I Read True Crime Books
It always happens in someone else’s house,
the silence, the window lifted, lock broken,
children asleep, mother and father in bed,
a stranger mounting the stairs,
a gun, a baseball bat, an axe in hand,
someone else’s final hour.
It’s always someone else’s family, not ours.
It’s down the street, across town, not in our house.
I’m merely pushing off my father’s hand.
I’m still intact, unbroken.
It’s not my crackhead boyfriend creeping up the stairs
to slaughter my parents in their bed.
In the book it’s always someone else’s bed,
someone else’s dreams fractured, someone else’s horror.
That’s not me flying down the stairs.
The ghosts that live forever live in that other house.
It’s their bones, their lives, their illusions broken.
In my house it’s just pages turned by hand.
It’s not my father’s hands
lifting the sleeping child out of bed,
not my family left behind forever broken,
no complicated ligatures to unravel in the morning hours,
no blood spatter on the walls of my house,
not my name wailed by the mother crumpled on the stairs,
not my mother, her eyes raw and glazed, who stares
into the camera, covers her face with both hands,
thinks of nothing but her child locked in a pervert’s house,
locked in a closet with a makeshift bed.
It’s them, not me counting down the first 48 hours,
terrified this case won’t ever be broken.
I’m neither the mother nor the child who’s broken.
My father wears a suit, carries a briefcase down the stairs,
doesn’t dig in the desert for hours,
doesn’t bury bodies in acres of sand.
He kisses me good-night and goes back to his bed.
He plants red tulips and yellow daffodils behind our house.
I won’t be broken by the book in my hands.
That vacant stare, the mayhem, the empty bed,
all theirs, not ours the grief in that flowerless house.
Two-Door Mailbox with Gin
Inside the back door,
a half-empty martini glass
some wandering drunk
must have left behind,
taken one last swig,
and slipped out the front.
The rim had no lipstick,
the clear glass uncracked,
squeezed between batches
of coupons and catalogs.
It held an inch of gin
and the small sword
of a toothpick.
The stem was intact,
so I could take a drink
if I wanted. If I dared.
I wondered whose lips
had touched the rim,
whose fingers had lifted
the glass, what sorrows
had sunk to the bottom,
nestled like extra olives,
if some lost reveler,
tired of drinking alone
and desperate to get home,
had meant to leave
some kind of message,
some call for help,
if my mother had come back
from being dead,
come for one last drink
or to apologize,
my mother with her ruby lips
and painted nails.
I sniffed for the scent
of Muguet des Bois,
but it was already
the morning after,
and whatever drunk
had passed my way was gone,
leaving this fragile memento
among the darkness, the bills,
and the pile of bad news.
Untying the Knot: A Sonnenizio
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
admit that what lies between us is not love
but merely something physical. No platonic knot
immaterially binds us, wedding mind to mind. Not for us
the lure of two eggheads nodding at breakfast,
The Times spread between us, coffee hot and laced
with hazelnut, our souls transcending last night’s tumble.
We grasp only what can be touched. Purity’s not for us.
We embrace the corporeal, admit nothing
of old age, no knuckles knobbed and arthritic,
nor our two ring fingers encircled with silly love knots.
We cherish each wild indiscretion, fear not the body’s
hungers, only its decline, and regret not
the broken promises, but seize the flesh and fret not.
I am learning the intricate art of tying knots,
not delicate ones from strings and ribbons,
but knots from ropes no knives can cut—
nylon, true and strong, manila braided
from hemp, and lariat rope that resists
a strain by pulling tighter and tighter.
I want to master the lark’s head, so firm
it restrains what it holds from flight,
and the bowline whose noose never slides,
jams, or fails—it gets the job done—
and the cat’s paw useful in hoisting a hook.
I want to master the over- and underhand
of intertwined loops. But not the slip and release
of the clove hitch. I want knots beautiful
like lace and knots for rescue—the figure-eight,
the water knot, and the double loop.
Let my fingers master the slip knot,
the diamond knot, and the shroud knot
from which no one slips. I want knots
elaborate as a bird’s nest, knots to weave
a hammock held fast between trees,
knots that hold their weight, that won’t come
undone, knots to make a lasso to bring back
what runs. I want the single Gordian knot
so complicated no man could ever
unravel it, the knot strong enough to hitch
a halter to what’s wild and tame it.