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Volume 3 | Issue 1 | September 2008 | 

Artists are always in quest of beauty.
Interview with Diane Lockward

By: F.H. Mostafavi

Diane Lockward is the author of What Feeds Us (Wind Publications, 2006) which was awarded the Quentin R. Howard Poetry Prize. She is also the author of Eve's Red Dress (Wind Publications, 2003), and a chapbook, Against Perfection (Poets Forum Press, 1998). Her poems have been published in several anthologies, including Poetry Daily: 366 Poems from the World's Most Popular Poetry Website, Garrison Keillor's Good Poems for Hard Times, and Letters to the World. Her poems have appeared in such journals as Beloit Poetry Journal, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Prairie Schooner. Her work has been nominated for several Pushcart Prizes, featured on Poetry Daily, and read by Garrison Keillor on NPR's The Writer's Almanac. She is the recipient of a 2003 Poetry Fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and read her work at the 2006 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. A former high school English teacher, Diane now works as a poet-in-the-schools. She and her husband live in New Jersey and are the parents of three grown children. To learn more about Diane, visit her website: www.dianelockward.com

1- "I think that good poetry rises from a kind of urgency." What is your interpretation of this statement by Rosemary Starace , please? And for you what is the source of good poetry?

I believe it means that our best poetry comes when we feel driven to speak, when some subject compels us to put pen to paper, when we care passionately about the subject. We write best when we write out of a sense of necessity. And I think that just as urgently as we feel we must speak, we also desire to be heard. Because I feel that what I have to say matters, I want someone to listen to me. This is true of even my most personal poems, perhaps especially true of them. So the poem might first be a kind of spilling out. Then comes the craft, the desire to shape and refine, to make art out of what spilled forth. The spilling often comes quickly; the shaping much more slowly.This might sound odd, but sometimes I want to write yet have nothing to say. I feel a kind of physical agitation, an itchiness to get back to writing. Then I need to keep my ears open, to read good poetry by other poets, to go to a reading. Invariably, this hyper-attentiveness will reveal something that needs to be said. Then the hunger, the urgency grips me and I head for the desk.
Other times I have something bouncing around in my head, maybe something I overheard or some cool image. But no poem presents itself, Then I need to be on the lookout for the real subject. What does this image relate to? Why does this interest me? The tidbit bounces around in my head for days. It won’t leave. That means it’s
begging to be a poem. If I’m patient, the poem will come. This is slow motion urgency.
For me, the sources of good poetry are many and varied; personal experience, invention or imagination, poems by other poets, eavesdropping, even television, the news, music, snippets of conversation. And today, right outside my kitchen window a glorious profusion of goldfinches, their first day back this year. Last year they flew around in my head for days, then ended up in a poem.

2- What is your interpretation of Adrienne Rich's saying:
"The imagination's cry is a sexual cry."

I’m not familiar with this intriguing quotation, but I suspect that Rich means the poet’s desire to create is like sexual longing. I think she is speaking metaphorically, but as with many strong metaphors, there is also literal accuracy in her words. When I haven’t written for a while, when too much time has passed since the last poem, I feel a physical need to get back to the desk. I want the pen in my hand, the raw paper in front of me. I wake up with that need; it’s a kind of itchiness. A poet in heat? I feel a sharp hunger to create something new. That hunger is experienced by both the imagination and the body. The imagination sends out a cry for satisfaction.

3-How do you see the place of women poets in America compared with men?

It’s historically been an uphill struggle for women poets, but I think we are moving up that hill. Years ago women weren’t supposed to write poetry at all. Look at any textbook of early American Literature. Look for the women poets there and you’ll find one, Anne Bradstreet. And we know that she wrote while her husband was away from home and late at night after her eight children were sleeping. But now we have many well-known women poets—Mary Oliver, Louise Gluck, Sharon Olds, Alicia Ostriker, Nikki Giovanni, to name just a handful.
I know that some contests have a history of favoring men as do some journals and presses. But we now have a number of journals, print and online, devoted to women’s poetry. We also have several presses devoted to women’s poetry. Switchback Books, founded in 2006, is a feminist press that publishes two poetry books by women each year. Other presses, such as Mayapple, strongly support women’s poetry. Both of these presses were started by and are run by women poets.
Although the gender balance continues to be disproportionate, women poets have won Pulitzer Prizes and have served as Poets Laureate at both the national and the state level. Men still get more critical attention, but women poets have it within their power to correct that imbalance by becoming critics and reviewers themselves. And many have done just that. But I don’t want to be too glib about that and make it sound easy; it’s difficult to work a job and forge a career, raise a family, keep a house, and find time to pursue one’s art. Writing poetry is a joy, but it is also a challenge. It is a sign of the resiliency of women poets that they have forged on ahead in spite of the difficulty of the challenge. The hill may actually be a mountain, but we are moving it.

4-Faiz Ahmad Faiz says: "The true subject of poetry is the loss of the beloved." For you what is the true subject of poetry? And how do you interpret the word: "beloved"? who is this beloved?

I’ve heard it said that poetry has only two subjects: love and death. Don’t both of these come together as one subject in Faiz’s words? The loss of the beloved is, after all, a kind of death. However, for me, the word “beloved” has definite romantic meaning. The beloved is always the human object of one’s love. So I think that Faiz’s statement, while it might be true of his own poetry, is, for most of us, too limited. It is possible for me to love some humans with whom I have no romantic relationship–my mother, siblings, children, friends. And it is possible to love what is not human. I love tomatoes, my dolls, flowers, any number of objects and places. And I can write about my real beloved though I have not lost him. So there are many people and things to love, and there are many kinds of love. And there is the opposite of love—hate and jealousy which are really forms of love turned inside out. And there are stages of love and the absence of love and the longing for it.

I would enlarge Faiz’s idea and argue that the true subject of poetry is simply love. As I look over my own work, it seems to me that it’s all somehow connected to love. I can’t imagine writing a poem that wouldn’t be. Poets are passionate people, at least inside, in the place where the poems grow. I’m not talking about the brain, though it’s good and essential to have one of those too.

5-How do you see the relation between literature and religion?

Religion is a gold mine for writers. Consider novels such as Crime and Punishment, Madame Bovary, and The Handmaid’s Tale. None of these is a religious work, but all draw significantly from religion. Poets also draw from religion and the Bible for allusions, allegory, symbols, stories, characters, places, and rituals. As a child I was raised Episcopalian and had 11 years of perfect attendance at Sunday school—not good, not excellent, but perfect! I no longer go to church, but I know that that background is valuable to my work. My first book, Eve’s Red Dress, uses the biblical Eve as an archetypal figure, but the poems are not religious. My Eve is out of the Garden, is many-faceted, and lives in the modern era. Her snake walks on two legs, and she is more likely to be tempted by an apple fritter than an apple.
I still love church music—“Ave Maria,” “Amazing Grace,” “O Holy Night”—and two of my favorite poets are John Donne, the Dean of St. Paul’s, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Catholic priest. I’m not interested in poetry that preaches or tries to impose doctrine. I’ve read many such poems, but I can’t name any or the poets who wrote them. That’s because such poems and poets aren’t memorable. However, Donne’s work, both prose and poetry, is infused with religion and Hopkins’ poetry is exclusively religious. But it’s the poetry and the passion that appeal to me, the craft that makes these poets and their work great. Neither attempts a conversion. Neither offers chicken soup for the soul.
In Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple, Celie, the main character, bathes Shug Avery. Already in love with Shug, Celie says, “It feels like I’m praying.” That’s how I feel about poetry. It cleanses me and it feels like I’m praying.

6- As a poet what is your interpretation of beauty? I mean in what do you see beauty?

As is true of most abstract concepts, it is easier to give examples of beauty than to define it. We find such examples all around us in the physical world: a rainbow, a sunset over the ocean, flowers. These are free and available to all of us and give pleasure to the eye and the spirit. Many material objects are regarded as things of beauty—jewels, a fine house, a sleek car. These give pleasure but may stimulate greed and class distinctions. There is human beauty—the flawless skin, sleek hair, the perfectly proportioned body. This kind of beauty goes only to the fortunate and is sometimes a source of envy. There’s a touch of irony here in that something beautiful may provoke something unattractive. There are also acts of the spirit that might be regarded as beautiful—generosity, kindness to others, service without expectation of reward.
Artists are always in quest of beauty. Think of Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” with its famous closing lines: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” We are compelled by beauty as a topic, but we are also compelled to create a thing of beauty when we craft a poem, the “well wrought urn” that the critic Cleanth Brooks spoke of. For me, beauty in a poem comes from a number of elements. Distinguished diction is one element. I do not mean beautiful-sounding words, though there’s that too; I mean diction that enters my ear, my head, my heart. I want involvement of the senses. I want the poem to enter my body. I want to feel what the poet is talking about. I want a kind of music, though it does not have to be a harmonious music. I want the poem to offer something worth saying and I want it to be well said. Galway Kinnell’s poem “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps” comes to mind as a poem that illustrates this kind of beauty.
But there is also beauty in what is not traditionally or conventionally beautiful. In “Sow” Sylvia Plath creates a beautiful poem about a huge ugly animal. Richard Eberhart crafts poetic beauty in “The Groundhog,” a poem about the animal’s decomposing body.
Since you’ve got me thinking about beauty, I want to quote the opening lines of Book 1 of John Keats’ Endymion:
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

7. What gave you the courage and the confidence to publish poetry?

The poetry itself is the source of whatever courage I have. When I am writing a poem on a difficult, painful, potentially embarrassing subject, I utter one of my mantras, “Go forth boldly.” I tell myself to just write it, and I remind myself that I don’t have to show it to anyone. I just need to say it, to put it down on paper.
Then I start with the revisions, many of them, and during that process craft takes over. The poem asserts itself. It’s no longer the subject I’m thinking about; it’s image, metaphor, word choice, sound, rhythm, shape. As issues of craft consume me, I lose the worries, the fear. I want to make the poem as good as it can be. If I become proud of the poem, if I think it’s worthy, then I want to go public with it. I want it to have readers. I don’t worry about who’s reading it, and for the most part, I don’t know who’s reading it. I hope people will like the poem, but I’m not concerned about how they might judge me.
Another hurdle awaits, however, and that’s the prospect of reading the poem aloud to an audience. It’s one thing to have your work read in a journal by strangers on the other side of the country. It’s another thing to stand up in front of those strangers and perhaps some familiar faces as well and bare your soul, to put your heart out there on the floor. To overcome that kind of fear, I always do a practice read-through at home, sometimes more than once. And I’ll tell you that there are some poems I have never read to an audience though I am happy to have them in journals and in my books.
I’d say that, on the whole, I’m much braver in my poetry life than I am in my other life, that is, my life outside of poetry.

8- What is your interpretation of this idiom by Russian poets:
"Suffering's spell"?

I’m not familiar with this expression, so I’ll just be speculating here. One thought that comes to mind is that the Russian poets might have been thinking about those people who seem to move under a cloud of misery. We all know such people. Misfortune pursues them. Their dreams are never realized. All their plans turn to dust. Their investments go sour. Love never lasts. It’s as if someone cast a spell of suffering on these people.
Another possibility is that the idiom refers to the allure that suffering has for some artists. Sometimes it’s hard to say if suffering pursues them or they pursue suffering. We have a romantic myth that artists must suffer for their art, that it is impossible to produce great art if one is happy. There are many artists who clearly suffered. Van Gogh comes to mind. Janis Joplin. Jimi Hendrix. Among the poets we have Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell. The list goes on. But these were artists who had serious psychological problems, sometimes combined with substance abuse. The romantic myth of the necessity of suffering is a false idea and a dangerous one. We all suffer enough in this life. We don’t need to court it.
I think it is essential that a poet be able to feel intensely, and how is it possible to live in our age, in our world, and not be affected by the chaos all around us? But I need to believe, too, that it is essential to feel joy as well. Poetry is large; there’s room for all degrees of feeling.

9- What makes you happy besides your writing?

So much of what makes me happy is connected to poetry. It’s where I live my life most fully, where I feel most intensely. I like hanging out with poets and I like going to poetry events. I like giving readings. For the past five years I have run a festival celebrating literary journals and that has been a great satisfaction. I also run a three-day poetry retreat for a group of women. This year I organized a large reading in celebration of Women’s History Month. I spend time every day with poetry, so it’s a big part of my life.
But I do have other interests and sources of pleasure. When I was teaching full-time, I never had time to watch television. Now I do and I find that a nice
indulgence. I enjoy “American Idol,” “The Apprentice,” “Dancing with the Stars,” “So You Think You Can Dance,” and “Hell’s Kitchen.” Now I know that these are not the most intellectual shows on tv, but I seem to like shows that involve people having their dreams come true.
I read a lot, novels and memoirs. I go walking every day that the weather permits. I go with my iPod and love that. I enjoy computer work and designed my own website and one for my husband. I’ve been keeping a blog for the past year and have been surprised how satisfying that is. I enjoy good food, especially candy and pastries.

10- If you were me, what would you ask as the last question ?

I would ask: What advice do you have for aspiring poets?

I- Remember that you will always be an aspiring poet. In order to get good at poetry, you must be willing to serve an apprenticeship. Then when you get good, you must always be trying to get better. Always stretching and growing.

II- Hang out with poets who make you feel good about your work. And remember that that goes both ways. Support and be supported.

III- Imitate work that intrigues you. This is not the same thing as plagiarism. It is a way to learn, to move into new territory. Let the poems be your teachers.

IV- Avoid poets who are competitive. Somebody is always better than you, but why be reminded of this on a regular basis?

V- Forget about making money. It won’t happen with poetry. But you will grow rich.

VI- Buy books by other poets if you hope that other poets will buy your books.
Support small presses with your purchases.

VII - If you go away to a poetry workshop or conference, leave your family at home. Indulge yourself. Give yourself and your work the experience of total immersion. You can vacation some other time. Make time for poetry and then protect that time.

VIII- Don’t dismiss poetry that you don’t understand. Instead, try to figure out what the poet is trying to accomplish.

Ix- Don’t let anyone tell you what is or isn’t an appropriate topic for poetry. You are free to write about whatever is in your heart and your head. And you are not obligated to tell the story behind your poem.

X. If poetry has come into your life, then you have received a blessing. Show your gratitude by giving something back to the poetry community.









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