Patricia Lockwood: The Poet Laureate of Twitter

'Priestdaddy' author talks about growing up in a "God gang" in Middle America and her atheist father joining the cloth

"People think my sexual humor is in rebellion to my upbringing but I think it's harmonious," says Patricia Lockwood, author of the new memoir Priestdaddy. For someone who has captured the microscopic attention of the Internet landscape with her tweets – such as "the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was giving a breast a Voice, like a couple of inches above it, that do not say nice things to me" or "I'm only gonna do tree author photos from now on I guess. In my next one, I'll kneel behind one nude and give it a Rusty Trombone" – her connection between sexual hilarity and her religious background seemed very unusual. This woman, who's hailed as the poet laureate of Twitter, received much inspiration from her parents, particularly her father who had gone from a staunch atheist to a Catholic priest – hence the title of her memoir.

A child of Middle America, Lockwood was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and grew up splitting her time between Cincinnati and St. Louis. As she describes it, "In Cincinnati and St. Louis, you can either live on the fancy, liberal side of town or the crazy German or Irish part of town. In Cincinnati, I grew up on the west side of town near the river. It was very clannish. People stuck to their sides of town. Particularly in Cincinnati, there was a Catholic church on every corner. In St. Louis, I grew up in north country. It was poor, near the airport, and near Ferguson." 

Between the two cities, Lockwood felt like an outsider since she was much more interested in books than marrying and having multiple kids at a young age. It was in St. Louis where, as a teenager, she joined a "God gang" where she would attend gatherings every Wednesday night, where mass was backed by guitar and sex talks were regular. Although these sex discussions were supposed to encourage its young and impressionable Catholic teenagers to abstain, Lockwood says she could not see how religion was opposed to sex because as she explains, "Catholicism is so centered on the body."

At first, Lockwood didn't seriously consider the interplay between writing about religion and sex until both she and her husband moved back to her family's Kansa City rectory when he fell ill. The basis of this return is the foundation for Priestdaddy, the reckoning of her family's Catholicism and the clash of political and moral issues – such as abortion, abstinence, hunting trips and mysterious substances in hotel rooms. This tension is what Lockwood deems as "cultural anxiety," for she wanted to remain true to her art but also respectful of the people who she expansively describes in her memoir. 

"I had to write about my upbringing, but I had to do it in a way that's respectful," she explains. "Dick jokes are absurd but it's another thing to consider people's faith and their pure trajectories. I think that I was subject to a lot of that. My dad is an active Catholic priest. He's in contact all the time with church higher up. Once again, I was subject to the church's ideals." 

Both Lockwood and her husband were only back home for eight months, but what may have seemed like a backtracking only fueled her artistic creativity. Despite Lockwood already having been published in prestigious publications, such as The London Review of Books and The New Yorker, it was in that same year that Lockwood moved back home that The Awl published her poem, "The Rape Joke," which catapulted her into the larger public conversation. The Poetry Foundation called Lockwood's poem "world famous" and The Guardian credited her for reigniting a new generation's interest in poetry.

The interest in poetry, as Lockwood argues, has never been gone; rather, it has diverged into many different and original forms. She asserts, "You can't say, 'Everyone should be reading poetry again,' when there are poets out there who aren't doing things that are academic but freer in form. In Cincinnati, poetry was really popular. There are YouTube videos with millions of views because of poem recitations." 

All of this is, in fact, very true. Poets are now being profiled in The New Yorker for their work on Instagram. Poetry has always played some part in the popular conversation; however, there are key, young poets whose social media platforms are so considerable that the establishment is taking heed of their clout. Tommy Pico, an Indigenous-American poet, is an example, and his words about poetry having a moment echo and expand on Lockwood's ideas. 

"I don't know if a resurgence is happening, but the limited characters of Twitter, for example makes me self-conscious of the single words I use, which isn't that different from a poem," she says. "I think that's why poets who use Twitter as another medium for writing, and not just self-promotion, really kill it. Like Melissa Broder."

Similar to Lockwood's trajectory, Broder has published poetry collections, has two Twitter accounts – one of which has over 450,000 followers – and an essay collection, So Sad Today, that bears the same name as her popular Twitter account. Evidently, both women are quite skilled in switching between different mediums. However, the movement from poetry to prose is particularly difficult. "The hardest part for me in transitioning from poetry to prose is allowing myself to take up more space. As a poet, I always felt like: why would I say in 20 pages what I could stay in one? So much of writing poetry is about that concentration and distillation to the essentials. I think this kind of selectivity, a willingness to only use the perfect word, can be a great asset when writing prose. But it took me a little while to learn to value the expansive nature of storytelling as something equally beautiful (and fulfilling to write) as poetry," says Broder.

Priestdaddy may be classified as a memoir, but Lockwood still had the itch to experiment in freer, flowing forms. In one chapter, "Voice," she is more playful with language. When she talks about her experience with singing, she writes: "...I didn't understand time signature. No huge surprise for a person who is living in a world of melted clocks." But even then, Lockwood admits that she is not ambidextrous when it comes to her art. 

"When I'm writing poetry, I'm not doing anything else," she says. "When I started on this book, it was a serious undertaking. I knew I was bad at switching genres, but I didn't know that, for two to three years, I wouldn't write any poetry. So now what do I do? I'm working on poetry now again. But prose may be in the future. It may be the thing where you turn on hot water at the time and then turn it off and turn on the cold. I am hyper-focused, and I can't focus on both simultaneously."

Right now, both Lockwood and her husband are based in Lawrence, Kansas. She thinks about the fear of bringing real life individuals into her work, the weight of being a female writer, the addictive "dragging" of people on social media and concludes that she can be nothing else but truthful. "For women, we want to write and we want to be considered good and morally upright. We can't sanitize it," she says. "For women writers, we are participating in Twitter and Facebook and the criticism can come down on you hard if you step out of line. I think we may operate out of fear but that fear isn't going to make good essays out of the modern age. It isn't going to make the best book."