Performative control and vulnerability

Deirdre Lockwood, Mud Season Review author

Our editor-in-chief, Rebecca Starks, recently spoke with Deirdre Lockwood, our Issue #7 featured poet. Here’s what she had to say about the inspiration behind her poems, the novel she is working on, and the relationship between her work as a scientist and her work as a writer.  


What inspired “Americant”?

It came out of the Bush years. When the U.S. invaded Iraq despite massive protests against it, I felt so frustrated. I wanted to write about it, but everything I wrote came out sounding angry and shrill.

Then, in 2007, I went to see Robert Bly give the Roethke Reading at the University of Washington—I was in grad school there at the time. He talked about the wars we were fighting, and said something like: even if you don’t do anything else during this time, at least you can tell your kids you wrote a few bad poems.

That released something in me. I started writing poems in different voices, letting myself go over the top into cliché and cant, and Bush’s particular flair for the English language. It took a few years to think about putting some of them together in one poem, having them talk to each other.


What inspired “Valentines for John Berryman”?

Berryman is one of my favorite poets. His work has this tantalizing combination of formality and risk-taking, performative control and vulnerability. And he was always paying homage to the poets he loved, living and dead, in his work. I wanted to pay my own homage to him, while playing with some of his vocal and thematic tics, and the occasionally coy style of some of his tributes to female poets, like Homage to Mistress Bradstreet and his poem to Dickinson (“Your Birthday in Wisconsin You Are 140”).

I was also thinking about recasting Dante’s grove of the suicides as a more comforting resting place for troubled souls. Berryman struggled with death—specifically in the form of suicide—all his life. His father committed suicide when Berryman was 11, and so did many of Berryman’s close friends and fellow poets. Then he took his own life when he was 57. In the spirit of his poem to Dickinson, I’m glad to have this poem out there just after the centennial of his birth.


What do you hope people take away from your poems?

Since I write to wrestle with the questions that preoccupy me, I hope to meet readers somewhere along the way of their own struggle with similar issues. And I hope the sound of the poem stays with them for a little while.


Could you describe your writing process?

I work in chunks of an hour at a time by setting a timer and focusing on writing or editing without a break. When I’m generating new work, I try to put onto the page whatever comes out, and not judge it. Then I take a break: a walk to let my mind wander, or a dip into another writer’s work. Meditative walking is really wonderful for discovering connections and new ideas. Sometimes I just have time to do an hour of writing a day, but I try to keep the daily streak going.


What poets have been important to your development as a poet?

Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins, for their intensity and metaphysical revelations. Robert Hass, for his beautiful writing about nature and sensuality. Anne Carson and A.R. Ammons, for experimentation. I’m also indebted to and inspired by the wonderful poets I’ve had as teachers: Rosanna Warren, Glyn Maxwell, Robert Pinsky, April Bernard, Geoffrey Hill, and Derek Walcott.


You are currently a writing fellow at the Richard Hugo House in Seattle. What does that entail?

It’s a wonderful program that brings together five emerging writers who are working on year-long projects. This year, there are two poets, two fiction writers, and an essayist. At the beginning of the year, we set incremental goals toward finishing our book-length projects and shared them with each other. Each month, we get together with a coordinator at the house to check in with each other about our progress, share writing, and meet with visiting writers to learn more about writing and publishing. It’s really inspiring to be part of a cohort of dedicated writers in multiple genres, and to have support and accountability for finishing a longer project.


What is your novel about? What has been the greatest challenge in writing it?

It’s about a woman who leaves her husband and teenage son for Iceland—ostensibly to chase her dream of becoming a geologist, and her obsession with climate change. When it’s clear she isn’t coming back, her 17-year-old son, Leif, leaves his home in eastern Washington to try to find her and understand why she left. In the course of this quest, he encounters challenges that change him and shed new light on his family history.

The biggest challenge has been learning how to write fiction. Writing poetry has often felt intuitive to me, like hearing music. But when I was in Iceland as a Fulbright fellow, the idea for a story came to me. I was inspired by Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red to try to write a novel in verse. But I kept getting stuck in my own spokes, struggling to move the story forward through the density of poetic images and rhythm. I finally decided to try to write it in prose, but I still have a lot to learn.


There aren’t many writers who manage to write both poetry and novels, or feel they can do both with equal success. Do you feel a tension between the crafts, and how do you resolve it for yourself?

At least for me, image and language (with its particular rhythm and sound) come first when I’m writing a poem. I’ve come to realize that in fiction, story has to come first. Of course, brilliant writers like Anne Carson and Michael Ondaatje seem to be able to do both at once. I’ve spent a lot of time learning about the craft of fiction—writing in scene, and creating action, character and suspense. I’ve taken some wonderful classes at Richard Hugo House in Seattle, and I read novels with more of a writer’s eye now.


You have a PhD in oceanography from Washington University and are a contributing editor at Chemical & Engineering News. How does your science work interact with your writing, or is it separate in your mind?

I think both science and writing are about learning to love the questions—Rilke’s famous advice in Letters to a Young Poet. For science, the question is “How does it all work?” And for literature it’s “What does it mean?” Both scientists and writers are doing endless experiments to figure these things out, though we’ll never figure it “all” out, and there’s a beauty in that. I’m preoccupied with both ways of investigating the world. In my writing, I try to explore the places where they overlap, and situations in which they come into conflict.


What is the first poem you remember writing?

I’m very lucky that my parents read me wonderful poems and stories as a child, and encouraged me to memorize poems and write my own. When I was five, we spent the summer driving cross-country and camping in lots of different national parks. In Yosemite, my mom was interested in going to a workshop given by a visiting writer. Apparently, he was a little skeptical when she brought me with her, but she said, “Don’t worry, she can write,” and he let me stay.

I remember him leading us through some great brainstorming exercises—writing down tastes, smells, textures, sounds that were striking to us. Then we went to Yosemite Falls and I wrote a poem called “The Waterfall.” I wish I knew who that visiting writer was!


What is the best advice about writing you have ever received?

Listen to the thing that is your own, that makes you feel weird and/or uncomfortable, and don’t let yourself edit it out of your writing.

And (for editing): put your work in the desk for long enough that you can read it as a stranger would.


Since we’ve grown out of a writers’ workshop, we like to ask: could you share a best—or worst—workshop experience?

I was a student in the master’s program in creative writing at Boston University. About halfway through the year, when our workshop group of about a dozen poets had become pretty close-knit, Robert Pinsky asked us to try to write poems mimicking another poet in the group, or a poem that was very different from our own style. Then we shared them anonymously and tried to figure out who wrote them. It was a great way to reveal our verbal tics, and shake us out of our comfort zones—and, on the flip side, show us what was distinctive about our work.


What’s your favorite children’s book?

I’m a sucker for Frederick as an argument for why we need artists. He’s a mouse who spends all summer playing, and all the hardworking mice are frustrated with him for not contributing to their efforts to store food for winter. But in the winter he keeps them warm with the bright stories of his summer escapades.


Deirdre Lockwood has a master’s in creative writing from Boston University, and her poetry has appeared in journals including The Threepenny Review, Yale Review, and Poetry Northwest. She spent a year in Iceland as a Fulbright fellow, and won a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize. She is currently working on her first novel as a writing fellow at Richard Hugo House in Seattle.

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