Patricia Lockwood has been described as “the poet laureate of Twitter” (HTMLGIANT), a godhead of “cartoon tween j/o bait” (Vice), and “completely non-linear,” like a Zooey Deschanel character that does not exist (Connect Savannah). In her own words, she’s a “discursive” nerd-child who “turned funny,” ended up in Georgia by way of the Midwest, and amassed 16,000+ followers for her Twitter oeuvre of cartoon lyricism and surreally unerotic sexts. But she was a poet before she was anybody’s poet laureate, published in places like the Awl, Rattle and The New Yorker, and an unusually autodidactic one; Lockwood, who is now 30, never went to college or enrolled in some creative writing program. Her aesthetic just happened to complement something already taking shape online.
Despite her intermingling of poetry and comedy, Balloon Pop Outlaw Black is most overtly funnyon its cover, a parade of nude Popeye-faced dogs drawn by cartoonist Lisa Hanawalt. The poems in this debut book are no less fantastical than Lockwood’s tweets, but they take a different tone, fixated on the mutability of words and symbols. One imagines wild reflections hunted to extinction: “The frames hang straight and still know nothing. / They believe they are still the body of their animal, / strung and stood up with wire, filled with fat / organs of baby looks.” She ensnares archetypal stories, like a boy swallowed by a whale, and makes them devour themselves.
I called Tricia in Savannah, where she lives with her journalist husband Jason, and we talked in a half-interview-half-DM-conversation for two hours, which was systematically mutilated into this Q&A. (After Jason’s eyesight was threatened by a rare eye condition that their health insurance didn’t cover earlier this year, Twitter followers donated over $10,000 to her hastily registered Paypal account.) Another deadline was hanging over her as we spoke; Balloon Pop Outlaw Black has already shifted half of its initial print run, and if it sells out, she’s publicly pledged to get one of those adorable sailor-dog monsters tattooed on her lower back. “Jason is blind now, so it would ruin doggy style forever for any other man in my life, but not that guy.”
How would you describe/explain Balloon Pop or your Twitter persona to an aging relative?
It is like if you had a bad daughter—a VERY bad daughter—and it is Thanksgiving, and she keeps yelling sexual things at the turkey as you set the platter down, and she won’t stop telling the mashed potatoes what they look like, and at one point she gets up and attempts to stuff herself into the refrigerator because she “needs to feel the constraints of form.” Then when everyone is trying to say grace she bangs both fists on the table and shrieks, “I’m thankful for William Wordsworth and big butts,” while staring directly at you, knowing that you prefer Coleridge and long legs.
What did you do on Twitter at first, and when did the sexts come about? What was their genesis?
Honestly, sexts came just a couple of weeks after I started my account. The first 200 tweets or so were weird. I was only following poets. I thought that you made hashtag jokes, which obviously we immediately understood later to be extremely lame, but I was like, “ha ha, hashtag joke, let’s make one of those.” Along with those, I livetweeted Bambi, essentially from memory [laughs], in the first couple of weeks. So I was tweeting about Bambi, and then I was on a long car trip to Key West, and I was bored, because I don’t ever drive. Let me tell you something: my husband went blind earlier this year, and he has little pieces of plastic in his eyes now to see, and he is still a far safer driver, by far, than I am. I never drive.
So I’m just sitting there with my phone, I’m like, “alright, sext me, guys.” And it was so early that I didn’t even understand that people who didn’t follow you couldn’t DM you. But, guess who actually did, was Greg [Erskine, @gregerskine]. A lot of those early sexts are me and Greg talking back and forth, and the panini sext IS Greg’s. I didn’t understand that when it got retweeted the one I posted immediately afterwards saying it was Greg’s would not go along with that. He is such a humble man, because he was raised Unitarian, and he was like, “oh no, I just want my ART to be in the WORLD, I don’t care if my name is on it.” It was probably because the Anthony Weiner thing was just starting to blow up, it was just starting to gather steam, and there were tons of shitty stories on Nancy Grace about how your kids were sexting and that sort of thing. It seemed like a really funny, stupid word. But the form, the form took shape almost instantly. I don’t think that it ever particularly changed or grew more complex.
Yeah, one of the things I love about it is that you’ve basically used the most lizard-brained, utilitarian form of romantic communication and turned it into this font of surrealism.
Yeah, these are metaphysical, crazy things that I’m writing, which is why it is so funny still when a man—and it’s usually a man—responds to you going “yeah girl, I want to put soap on your boobies in the shower.” You’re responding literally to a tweet about me riding down the neck of a brontosaurus until I come. You would think at some point that people would get the idea that these aren’t actually sexy, but they never, never do.
I think I saw an interview with you somewhere where you said that—and unfortunately this happens with any, you know, woman says a thing on the Internet, some gross dude pops up—but I think you said that you actually got less weird attentions than you expected?
You do get some strange things. My favourite is the man who tweeted me repeatedly that I looked like the little girl from Fatal Attraction. And I was like, “Ooh, you know, what most people don’t remember from Fatal Attraction is the little child?” I think most people are like, oh, the bunny that she boils, sexy woman. No, “you look like the little kid from that movie.” He kept talking about my delectable cheeks. I don’t know. My strategy is just never, ever to respond to that kind of thing. Most people don’t follow up if I don’t respond to them. Some people do—it’s not threatening, or it hasn’t been in my particular situation, but it is really tone-deaf. You don’t respond but they just keep coming—I don’t know what they envision the outcome to be, but it’s fascinating to think about. Like, what’s gonna happen? “I fell instantly in love with your father when he talked about his cum to me on the internet.”
What’s your background like? Because I don’t really know—I know that your dad was or is a Catholic priest, I think you’re from the Midwest originally but now you live in Savannah…
Yes, Ohio and Missouri, and now I’m in Savannah, Georgia. But my background’s really not—like, I don’t have any educational background to speak of. I didn’t go to college or anything like that. And if you look at my last 10 years it was just writing, with occasional stints doing waitressing at diners and things like that. I do have an interesting family origin story, but as far as my background goes, there’s really nothing. It was always just me reading and writing at home in my room all day [laughs].
My father married my mother when they were respectively 18 and 19. He was an atheist then, because he was just a huge cool a-hole. You know the kind. He had sweet jeans and big hair and he just talked shit to everybody all the time. Anyways, they got married when they were really young, and he was an atheist, and then he went into the Navy, and he was on a nuclear submarine during the Cold War. They screened movies for them occasionally on the submarines, and one night one of the movies was The Exorcist, and he got freaked out so bad he just found God on the spot [both laugh]. He got on the phone to my mother, like, “I am a Christian now.”
Oh my god.
I know, right? That should tell you a little something about the kind of person—we’re very affected by art! If there are loud, scary demons onscreen that is enough to convert us wholly to a new religion. We’re strung that way. I don’t know why he chose Lutheranism, but he was a Lutheran minister for a while. Now my mother had been raised Catholic, and I think it was very difficult for her to be a Lutheran minister’s wife, to be a Lutheran, essentially, like he was. And then when I was a toddler, he converted to Catholicism. And when that happens, and you’re a minister of another faith and you’re already married, you can get a dispensation from Rome and continue as a married Catholic priest. It was very rare then, there were, like, 50 or 100 or so in the U.S. But you had the feeling that they wanted to keep it under wraps.
It’s kind of like a cheat code.
Yeah. I think there may be more of them now, because there was that recent thing where the Catholics were like “heyyyyyy, Anglicans, aren’t you really upset? Women are being ordained ministers, and how about those gay people. Well, if you are, then come on over to the Catholics.”
It was a very strange upbringing, but it really did give you a strong sense of authority and also of the naturalness of performing in public. If you see your father get up every weekend and just declaim, that does seem very natural to you. And even when I was a child I had this very authoritative voice, and I think that’s probably where that came from.
I can’t decide if I should ask you when you began writing poetry or when you started using the internet, because they both seem equally important.
It’s this bifurcated thing. I came later to the internet, probably when I was 13 or so, which is just about the time when I got funny. I wasn’t always funny—I turned funny because we moved a lot, and you had to go to new schools all the time, and it got so wearing, you had to sort of distinguish yourself in some way. And at one point I was just, “fuck it, I’m going to be funny.” Eighth grade, oh my God [laughs]. I had to go to this super super rich, privileged all-girls Catholic school, and I was so behind academically—previously I had been at this little parish school. I was like, “fuck, I can’t do any of these papers, I can’t do any of these tests, they know Latin, I can’t catch up, I’m just going to become funny.” Before that I was fairly quiet. But I was always writing poetry, since I was a little baby child. The first time I can remember was a fourth grade haiku that I also illustrated, about diamond drops on a leaf or something. I very carefully drew this leaf with a pool at its centre, which isn’t really how a leaf works, but you know, fuck that, it was an extremely proficient haiku.
I always had the sense that the internet was where you wrote funny and real life was where you wrote serious. Which is nonsense, of course, but I thought that for a long time. I never attempted to merge the two voices until fairly recently. But yeah, I was writing all of this intense poetry, I was the sort of person who had a manuscript when I was 15 years old, and I was sending it to contests, all this ambitious stuff. I was really interested—I was basically attempting a key to all mythologies [laughs]. I was like this hot teen Casaubon. “Oh, Christian symbolism intersects in interesting ways with the symbolism of other mythologies. I shall write poetry exploring this!”
Like anyone would ever care. But I was very serious about that. “This is the sort of poetry that people will truly want to read.” I don’t know where I got that idea. So I was writing this really thoughtful, highly metaphoric stuff. I always had a very keen sense of metaphor, it’s just the immediate way that I think. And parallel to the poetry I was just being funny in my everyday life and on the internet, but when I sat down to write that was never coming out. I had a Diaryland diary for a while—
Balloon Pop Outlaw Black is divided into three different sections, and they each start with a longer poem and then there’s a bunch of shorter ones, so I was wondering, did you always have that structure in mind, or did that come about organically?
I don’t think I altered the order of those poems from the order in which they were written. I didn’t always have it in sections, that was something that was suggested by my publisher, and my publisher also suggested breaking up the longer poems so that there would only be a few sentences per page, which really gives it a little more air to breathe. Yeah, that book, that was my crazy book. That was a book that I just sort of sat down and over a year-and-a-half period just blazed out. I think that everyone has a crazy book where they’re too isolated, they don’t have enough money, and they’re in a weird small dark apartment, and they’re not going outside enough, and they’re just every morning going to the computer and blazing out this book. That was that particular one for me. Although maybe all my books will be that way, but I don’t think so. The crazy book is good, and I think that you can point to different writers’ trajectories and pick out which was the crazy book.
I started with the Popeye poem [“When We Move Away From Here, You’ll See a Clean Square of Paper Where His Picture Hung”] because I was on drugs, not in a purposeful way, but because I had really bad bronchitis, and so I had this cough syrup that was prescribed by my doctor, and it was the [Obama] inauguration. So I am just, like, floating on clouds of drugs during the inauguration, my television is showing Barack Obama, and I have the Popeye DVDs right next to it. This is literally how this happened. This is like a baby’s method of conceiving a poem. I’m looking at Barack Obama, and I’m perceiving that we’re seeing a man being flattened into a symbol at this very moment. But also, at the same time, my eyes are flicking over to this Popeye DVD, and you know the linework used in Popeye cartoons is not like the linework used in Disney cartoons, where Disney aims to make the outlines disappear and not be noticed. In Popeye it’s much more calligraphic; it’s a thicker line, there’s more swoosh to it, it’s a gorgeously designed pictograph, really. To the point where if you put his face on a spinach can, everyone would know what it was. So I’m thinking, Popeye is a pictograph, Barack Obama is a symbol, and then I write this poem. That’s really an idiot’s way of hitting on an idea, but it’s how that particular poem happened.
I noticed that a lot of the poems in the book—they’re prose poems, but they’re interspersed with these tighter metres and enjambments, what people would more traditionally think of as poetry. I’m a total dilettante with later 20th century poetry, but I’ve never seen that particular technique before and I was curious about it, why you chose to employ that.
It was instinctive. Most of my formal techniques or innovations are really just to direct the reader how to read something. So if the format suddenly becomes tighter, or if a line breaks out of nowhere, or if the rhythm suddenly becomes more insistent, that’s to direct the reader how to read something. The same is true of punctuation. I’m not using traditional punctuation—I know how to traditionally punctuate, but I’m working off a sense of how long I want people to pause, and which words I want to be emphasized. So I’ll use a comma if I want a light rest, and a semicolon is a fuller rest. In the whale poem I allude to that, when I talk about the “gibbous pause,” [laughs] of the semicolon. That’s actually a very felt thing for me, how long certain punctuations cause people to rest in their heads. I grew up reading poetry, but it wasn’t as if it were contemporary poetry, and it wasn’t as if I were well-versed in all these different poetic techniques. All of that for me has been feeling my way, and I have a very strong sense of what feels right.
That makes me want to return to the whole comedy-and-poetry thing that you—do you find that’s not really understood or appreciated in the poetry world, or at least the academic one?
Comedy, you mean?
Yeah, I guess comic poetry, or—
I think that the trap is in the poem itself, and I haven’t figured out why yet. I’m writing new poems that really are attempting to merge the two voices, but it’s very difficult and the reason seems to be because, in poetry, when things are funny, they tend to never be funny enough for people to laugh out loud. I either want to write something that’s completely hilarious, and that usually occurs to me in the form of tweets, or something that’s really, really unselfconsciously beautiful., and that usually occurs to me in the form of poetry. Sometimes you’ll see people read poems, and they’ll read something that’s neither entirely funny nor entirely beautiful, and it reads well, and audiences really like it, but it also seems more disposable to me than something that’s fully one or the other. What’s great is that my second book is a lot funnier, and I thought, damn, all these people who are following me on Twitter are gonna read [Balloon Pop Outlaw Black] and be like “what the fucking hell is this shit, Tricia, it’s like what a grandmother would read on her deathbed.”
I was going to ask you about people you see as working in a similar vein, whether they’re established poets or even consider themselves poets at all. Kenneth Goldsmith comes to mind as someone using the Internet in an interesting way, but I just don’t know enough about contemporary-poetry-as-poetry to go much further than that—
I’ve been telling people for a while that I should put together a list, and I really should, because it’s not something I could extemporaneously drop. I told people to follow Mark Leidner a couple of weeks ago, and I think that he is a great recommendation for anyone who’s like, well, I recognize that what’s going on with some of these tweets is that they’re more than jokes, really, they’re also sort of poignant and poetic, but where would I go about finding that in poetry? He would be a good place to start.
Kenneth Koch, I think, is a wonderful recommendation for anyone who is interested in that intersection. Jennifer Knox. Maggie Nelson. Michael Robbins and Frederick Seidel, who are the biggest trolls of all. I need to make a more fleshed-out list, because it’s sort of doing a disservice – if you’re the ambassador from the country of poetry; you really should be making people aware of poets they might love.
Yeah, it could be a weird platonic matchmaking service between people who teach in creative writing programs and 17-year-olds who—
Right? It’s the only good thing I ever did in my life, forming an alliance with all these teens. And they’ll ask me, “Who are some poets that I should read?” And that is the greatest thing. It’s the most touching thing that could come out of all this. When I was a teenager, I was less tolerant of people who didn’t know much about literature, or didn’t necessarily care much about it, but for some reason, the people that I interact with on Twitter – a lot of times they’re younger, and they’re so sweet and eager, and they really really want to know what to read, and it’s beautiful. Any lingering sense of book snobbery, you know, people should be reading more and people should know what to read, was instantly gone as soon I started talking to The Teens. It was fantastic. They wanted to read poetry, what could be better than that?
You mentioned this coming second book, so I wanted to ask about that, but also—ugh, I sound like a guidance counselor—what your plans are for the future.
Well, a very cool thing about me is that I have no concept of the future whatsoever. I essentially have had the part of my brain removed that thinks about time, what’s coming next, even what’s happened in the past, really. I live in a sort of eternal present. So I’m like Baby New Year, wandering around, with no sense of that, but I am writing a second book, and it has more funny poems, and I’m writing more long-form things like the prose poems in Balloon Pop Outlaw Black, but they’re funnier. So we’ll see if I’ve been able to straddle those two things correctly. I never feel like I’m doing this to transition into some other kind of writing. I never wanted to write for TV or movies or anything like that.
Or novels, even?
Well, you know, weirdly, I wrote a novel when I was, like, 19 years old. I had an agent. I wrote a novel in a month, I got an agent instantly, and then, thank God, that novel never saw the light of day [laughs]. It was such a piece of trash! It was about two sisters who have sex with each other and then one sister bites the other sister’s hand and it gets gangrene and has to be cut off. That was the plot. I have absolutely no idea. The problem with me is that I can write individually, sentence-to-sentence, very well. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I know how to do anything good with plot or characterization, and certainly I didn’t when I was 19. So I had this novel that on a sentence-to-sentence basis was beautifully written, and was totally terrible. I’ve never returned to it. I can see myself writing something longer in the prose form that I use, short sentences, a David Markson type book. That form has always been very comfortable for me and I could see myself doing something a lot longer in that.