Recently, it seemed as if a lot of the poetry I was reading had something to do with food, and today's interview subject played a significant role in me feeling that way. After all, Diane Lockward's most recent collection from Wind Publications is titled What Feeds Us (winner of the 2006 Quentin R. Howard Poetry Prize), which definitely feeds the senses and the soul.
Diane is the author of two previous collections of poetry, Eve's Red Dress (Wind Publications) and a chapbook, Against Perfection (Poets Forum Press). She is a former high school English teacher and runs an annual poetry festival in her home State of New Jersey.
Here's one of my favorites from What Feed Us:
Films of dense tissue swirling like storm clouds.
Specks of light inside, and at the center, a fibroid,
glistening like the lodestar that led the Wise Men
to Jesus. Microcalcification, cluster, fibroadenosis--
words with the force of hurricane winds--
cyst, lump, mass.
Warnings on the screen: a hurricane pounding
the coast. Isabel, like my friend's daughter.
People in North Carolina taping window panes,
boarding up homes. Wind so fierce it rips
a building from its foundation,
picks up a woman and hurls her onto concrete.
Ultrasound, MRI. A file on me now, stored
in a basement, as if I were a secret agent or a spy.
Words from a book on torture:
aspiration, fine needle, thick needle, core
biopsy, the rack of a stereotactic table. A list
of possibilities: stage 1, 2, 3, or 4;
mild pain, moderate pain, extreme pain.
A swath of heavy rain from Cape Fear
to the South Santee River. Whirling confusion
of sand pelting, cars fleeing. Radar. Doppler scan.
Category 5, 4, 3, 2. Satellite photos--
Isabel swirling, a mass on the screen,
eye at the center like a nipple.
Days of waiting for the phone to ring,
the hurricane coming closer and closer.
Days of wondering, How will I tell my daughter?
Waiting and waiting, braced for landfall.
Here's the interview:
What are you currently up to?
I'm zeroing in on the completion of a third book, patiently attempting to nurse into existence the handful of poems I need to flesh out the collection. This new collection began with an idea and the poems are kind of falling into place around that idea. This is a departure from the first two books where I was not aware of any connection among the poems as I wrote them, but once I had 50-55 poems that I thought were respectable, I gathered them together and found some unifying idea. So this time I'm working in the opposite direction. I wonder if that signifies anything?
In What Feeds Us, food plays an important role. Also, the body. Could you elaborate on what you were trying to accomplish with this collection?
The epigraph that precedes the poems really says what I had in mind. I took this from M.F.K. Fisher's book, The Gastronomical Me: ". . . there is nourishment in the heart, to feed the wilder, more insistent hungers." The poems consider what nourishes us or fails to nourish us, what sustains us or doesn't. There is literal food, thus poems about fruits, vegetables, and pasta. There is family, thus poems about parents and children, both present and missing. There's love and sex, thus poems about the body and its various parts. There's fullness and its opposite, hunger.
Oddly, although I write a lot about food, I've always been a fussy eater. But perhaps that fussiness is at the heart of my obsession. When I got married, I vowed to love, honor, and never again eat liver.
As a follow-up question, what are your thoughts, in general, on the importance of food and body for poets? Do you feel diet and physical health influence poets' writing habits?
I think of food as a metaphor for the body. Just think how interchangeable the words are that we use to describe one or the other. For example, a tomato may be round, plump, luscious, full of seeds, ripe, firm, succulent, rotten at the center. Likewise a body. Sometimes when I talk about food, I am really talking about the body. For many of us, the body is a source of dissatisfaction, disappointment, fear, pain. Food can be a substitute for what the body is missing, for its unsatisfied longings. It can be the cause of physical ailments or it can help cure those ailments. Food is full of vitamins but also loaded with irony and thus rich with poetic potential. Certainly self-image and health affect our writing. I can't eat tomatoes, but I can write about my longing for them. I can't write well when I'm in a period of insomnia, but when I'm rested, I can write a poem about sleeplessness.
I noticed there was a business card tucked into the copy of What Feeds Us that I received. Do you feel business cards help with the promotion of the book?
The business card is the new beret. Seriously, most poets I know have a business card. Not that what we do has anything to do with the business world, but sometimes at a reading someone asks how I can be reached. The card contains contact information and is handy to give out. I really hadn't planned to have one, but I wanted postcards with my book's cover art to supplement the press release my publisher was sending out. So I uploaded the cover image to vistaprint.com—a wonderful service—and designed the postcard. Once I did that, I then received an offer from the company for companion business cards. The price was so reasonable I couldn't say no. I ordered 250 which I expect will be a lifetime supply. Do they help with the promotion of the book? I doubt that they directly affect sales, but I think they help with getting readings and workshops and those sell a few books.
You run an annual poetry festival in New Jersey. Could you talk a little about this event?
I've run this event for the past five years. I had an idea for a festival that would be a bit different from the poet-centered festival. I was thinking of one that would be journal-centered. My local library had just finished a big
expansion and put a note in their newsletter that they were interested in new programs. I pitched my idea and the librarians liked it. The first festival was a success, so it's become an annual event.
Each year I invite twelve editors to participate. The size of the festival is dictated by the size of the library, but I don't think I'd want it much bigger. Each journal is represented by two poets who are invited by the journal's editor. So we have twenty-four poets reading throughout the four-hour event. In a separate area the editors display their journals on tables and have submission guidelines and subscription forms.
Each year the word spreads and the festival gets better and better, now bringing in around 250 people. It's a festive and exciting day that pulls together editors, poets, and poetry lovers. The main focus is on the journals and the editors. The purpose of the event is to honor the editors who give us a place for our work and to thank them for the work they do in the service of poetry. No one gets paid, but poets do sell books. And lots of journals are sold.
The festival is also part of my larger mission to help build the audience for poetry. Whitman said, "To have great poets there must be great audiences too." I'd love to see similar festivals popping up across the country.
How important do you feel community is to poets?
I arrived at poetry late. By the time I found it, I had three kids and a full-time teaching job. No time for an MFA! Instead, I went to workshops and summer conferences. I took some courses at a nearby college. I went to readings and met other poets. I was getting my poetry education and, at the same time, becoming part of a poetry community.
I'm sure that most of my neighbors don't know I'm a poet. Perhaps they wonder what I do all day inside my house. I doubt they'd be terribly interested to know that I'm writing and reading poetry. So I've had to find people who are interested. I've been in a group for seven years, ever since I left full-time teaching. We meet at my house once a month. I also belong to a women poets' listserv. For the past three years I've run a three-day poetry retreat for six or seven women poets. We meet in a hotel at the Jersey shore and spend our time writing and reading poetry. I value the stimulation, feedback, and support other poets provide.
What (or who) are you currently reading?
I've been reading Lola Haskins' Desire Lines and Sheryl St. Germain's Let It Be a Dark Roux, both new and selected collections and both wonderful. Each poet has a hard edge and a passion that I really like. My kitchen table is a disgrace. I am always vowing to clear it off, but as soon as I do, more books come into the house. That table is piled up with books waiting for my attention. And I just returned from the Dodge Poetry Festival, so I have a plump list of books to order. Those are just the poetry books. I'm also finishing up Richard Russo's novel, Bridge of Sighs, and recently finished two nonfiction books, Donald Hall's The Best Day the Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon, and David Sheff's Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction, both heart-wrenching books.
If you could pass on only one piece of advice to other poets, what would it be?
I'm not a minimalist, so I'll offer my three mantras: 1) Weird is good; embrace it. 2) Be alert. 3) Go forth boldly.
Here are some links for more Diane Lockward:
* Website for her festival: http://dianelockward.com/fest8.html
* Diane's personal site: www.dianelockward.com
* Diane's blog: http://dianelockward.blogspot.com
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