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The Habitual Poet: Diane Lockward


Installment #47

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The Habitual Poet is an ongoing series of contributor interviews. If you are a Poemeleon contributor and would like to participate copy & paste the Q's from below and e-mail your answers to: editor@poemeleon.org. 

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Q: Where do you prefer to get your books?

A:  I get a lot of books at readings. It means a lot to me when the audience buys my books after a reading. I assume that the same is true of other poets. I also order a lot of books online. There are no longer any bookstores in my town.


Q: How many poetry books do you think you own, and what percentage of these have you actually read?

A: I have no idea. Never counted them, but four book cases are full of books, the majority of them poetry books. I’ve stopped buying novels and now use the library for those, but I still buy poetry books and rarely get rid of any. I’ve read almost all of the books I own, though there’s a sizable stack of new books waiting for me on the kitchen table .


Q: When, where and how do you usually read? (i.e. at bedtime under the covers, cover to cover, etc.)

A: I read poetry in the morning while I have breakfast. That morning reading is at my kitchen table. In the afternoon I read novels in a comfortable recliner. I read novels at night also, but usually fall asleep before I get too far. Something about that comfortable chair.


Q: What books of poetry have you read this month?

A: No Blues This Raucous Song (Lynn Wagner), Salt Lick (Glenna Luschei), Taste of Cherry (Kara Candito), Zephyr (Susan Browne), Slipping Out of Bloom (Julie Moore), The Book of Seventy (Alicia Ostriker)


Q: What other books/magazines/backs of cereal boxes have you read recently?

A: Mark Doty’s The Art of Description, Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead, Michael Sledge’s The More I Owe You, Tom Perrotta’s The Wishbones. Also a bunch of journals—Poet Lore, Prairie Schooner. The Writer’s Chronicle, P&W.


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Q: When, where, how do you write, and why?(i.e. at dusk on a dock, longhand in a notebook, because...)

A: My best writing occurs in the morning over a cup of ginger tea, at my kitchen table, usually around 20 minutes for a quick without-thinking kind of writing. The first draft, often not even a draft really but a big mess of spontaneous writing, is almost always done in longhand, on a yellow legal pad, with a ballpoint pen. I write poetry because it makes me happier than anything else I do. On any morning when I’ve begun a new poem, I’m happy and exhilarated all day.


Q: How many first drafts do you think you complete in a week? A month?

A: I am not a prolific poet. I can go weeks without writing a thing. Then I might get half a dozen drafts in a rather short period of time. So it’s hard to say how many per week or month. I’m not much of a counter anyhow. I don’t keep track of stuff like that or how many poems I’ve published or how many journals I’ve published in.


Q: How long do you wait before revising a poem?

A: No rules on this. I might start revising later that same day. I might wait a week or months. Sometimes never.


Q: When do you know a poem is “done”?

A: When I begin to lose interest in working on it any longer. It feels like I’m beginning to make it less good.


Q: Have you ever given up an invitation so you could stay home and write?

A:  No, I don’t get a lot of invitations.


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Q: What is your system for sending out work?

A: I like to have about 6 submissions out at all times. I don’t always have that, but it’s what I like. Right now, because I’ve just had a new book come out, my folder is pretty barren, so I don’t have much out in the world.



Q: What have you more recently received: a rejection notice or an acceptance? Was it what you expected?

A: Right now I’m waiting for responses to the handful of submissions I have out. I certainly get more rejections than acceptances, but fewer than I used to get. I’m more selective now and I know the market better.



Q: Where do you generally publish: online, in print, or a mix, and do you have a preference?

A: I have a residual preference for print, though I’m not sure that’s sensible any longer. I think it’s a good idea to publish in both print and online journals. I practice what I preach.



Q: What is the worst (or weirdest, or best) experience you’ve had with a journal/magazine/press & its editor(s)? (No names, please!)

A: Years ago an editor accepted a chapbook manuscript for publication. He asked me to make a few revisions. I did and sent the manuscript back. A few weeks later he sent a rejection with a note that made it clear that he had no recollection of having read the collection or of having accepted it. I decided to just move onward. Not my kind of guy.


Q: Have you ever received any fan (or hate) mail? If so, what was that like?

A: Yes, I’ve received a number of fan emails. It’s very very cool to know that someone somewhere read my work and liked it well enough to track me down just to let me know my work had found an appreciative reader. This has happened several times with online publications, never with print ones.


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Practical considerations


Q: What is your day job, and how does it affect your writing?

A: My day job used to be high school English teacher. Now I work as a poet-in-the-schools but I don’t do a lot of that. When I work with older kids, sometimes I get a draft underway, but most of my schoolwork now is with younger kids who keep me on my feet.


Q: How does your significant other’s occupation affect your writing life?

A: My husband is in the restaurant business. When readers learn this, they assume that that is why I sometimes write poems about food. I don’t, however, think there’s much of a connection. My husband doesn’t cook and rarely talks about food.


Q: Have there been periods in your life when you couldn't write?

A: Yes, fallow periods, like right now. I try to think of these times as periods of gathering. But I’d just as soon skip them and be more prolific.


Q: Do you have a “poetry budget”?

A: No. It would be too depressing to think of how much more I spend than I earn.


Q: Have you ever suffered (or made someone else suffer) in the name of your art? (i.e. picked up your kids late from school so you could finish a poem, forgone lunch to buy a book, left a relationship because the other person just didn't understand, etc.)

A: No, my life is much duller than this. Such drama as it contains goes into the poems.


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Random nonsense


Q: Do you have any superhuman abilities? (i.e. can you tie a cherry stem in a knot with your tongue, or write a double sestina with both hands tied behind your back?)

A: I used to be able to make a hideous noise that sounded exactly like a fire engine, but I gave that up years ago. I suspect that it was more inhuman than superhuman.


Q: You write a scathing poem about your mother and she learns about it. You:

a.) Move to South America and leave no forwarding address

b.) Delete the poem and insist it never existed

c.) Show it to her (she’s already written you out of the will anyway)

d.) Do none of the above; instead you: _____

None of the above. My mother had a pretty sad life, and though I was affected by it, I would never have used my poetry to hurt her. She died before I started to write poetry, but she was here to share my happiness when I had a first article published in the English Journal. She wanted to be a writer herself, but her parents wouldn’t send her to college to major in journalism, so she majored in French and never wrote. I like to think that I’m writing for the two of us.


Q: If the best medical specialists in the world told you that if you didn’t give up your poetry habit today you would die in six months, would you get your affairs in order or would you leave that up to your family?

A: I would get my papers—the drafts, poems, etc.—into some kind of order as I don’t think anyone in my family could figure out what to do with it.



Q: If you could be a vowel, which one would you be and why?

A: I’d rather be a consonant—the letter l—but if I must be a vowel, then I’ll be “o” as it sounds musical and can be both happy and sad at the same time.


Q: Finally, what piece of advice would you most like to share with our readers? (This can be on writing, the writing life, or anything else...)

A: Be generous to other poets. Attend their readings. Buy their books. Read the books with a sincere effort to love the poems. I recall a reading at the Frost Place in New Hampshire where I noticed the poet Gray Jacobik in the audience. As she listened, she sat upright, hands folded in her lap, perfectly still, her eyes closed. She looked  as if she were in prayer. I think that’s a perfect image for how we might approach another poet’s work, that is, with the attitude of prayer.



Diane Lockward is the author of three poetry books, most recently, Temptation by Water. Her previous books are What Feeds Us, which received the 2006 Quentin R. Howard Poetry Prize, and Eve's Red Dress. Her poems have been published in such journals as Harvard Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Prairie Schooner and have been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and The Writer's Almanac. She lives in northern New Jersey and works as a poet-in-the-schools. Please visit her online at http://www.dianelockward.com.

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Reader Comments (1)

What a delightful interview, and I love the questions and will seek out the answers of other poets. I connect strongly to the generosity advocated here at the end! Thinking about my own answer to the mother question--actually thinking about telling her about the question!! And realizing I, too, have more poetry books than I can count.
February 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKathleen Kirk
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