An Interview with Diane Lockward

By Adele Kenny

Diane Lockward is the author of The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop and four poetry books, most recently The Uneaten Carrots of Atonement. She is the recipient of the Quentin R. Howard Poetry Prize, a poetry fellowship from the New Jersey State Arts Council, and a Woman of Achievement Award. Her poems have been widely published, and her work has also been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and The Writer’s Almanac. She is the founder, editor, and publisher of Terrapin Books, a small press for poetry.

Adele Kenny: First, congratulations on the publication of your new poetry collection, The Uneaten Carrots of Atonement. Is this collection related in any way to your previous books—Eve’s Red Dress, What Feeds Us, and Temptation by Water—that is, does it follow a kind of thematic or content continuum?

Diane Lockward: My last book, Temptation by Water, was written with the controlling ideas of temptation and water in mind early on, before most of the poems were written. That made the work of assembling a manuscript a bit easier than my earlier, more labored method of just writing the poems as they came, one by one, and then seeing how they connected to each other. With The Uneaten Carrots of Atonement, I returned to my earlier method. I wrote the poems with no idea in mind as to how they did or would relate to each other.

I’ve always been drawn to matters of the heart and I’ve always been deeply fond of metaphors and imagery, and I think that’s reflected in this new collection. But as I wrote those poems, I was consciously seeking out new content and techniques, and I think that’s also revealed in this book. So I’d say that this book is connected to the earlier ones as my old obsessions resurface here, but this book also investigates some new territory.

AK: “Original Sin,” the poem from which the collection’s title is taken, is disturbing (and perhaps even a bit frightening) in the way it speaks to our human frailties and the things we either know, or think we know, about ourselves. How did you decide on the book’s title?

DL:  That poem felt central to me. It felt like the one that pulled the others together. It also thrilled me when I wrote it as I did not at all anticipate the ending’s confession. It surprised and thrilled and appalled me. Arriving at that confession both enervated and energized me. That confession and the image of the uneaten carrots embodied for me the idea that sometimes we just can’t be forgiven because what we’ve done is unforgivable. I’m also attracted to quirky titles, so I chose the title for its meaning and its quirk.

AK: Your work has received high praise for its rich language, virtuoso imagery, and sensual/sexual innuendo. In Carrots, the poem “We Were Such a Fine Plum Pudding” is powered by imagery that suggests a great deal more than it tells.

Such a fine plum pudding we made,
the long slow steam to perfection,
the struck match, the two of us drenched
in cognac and served in a blaze.
And oh! the very texture of us,
so dark we were almost black,
and dear God! so sinfully rich,  … (33)

I’m impressed by the ways in which you use suggestion and sexual imagery. Do you see this as a “signature quality” of your work and, if so, why?

DL: I don’t see that as a “signature quality” of my work—not because it isn’t accurate or true but because that seems to me a critical response rather than something a poet says about her own work. I’ll add, though, that this poem did not set out to be sexually suggestive. It began with my interest in a discovered fact, that is, that plum pudding contains no plums. I liked the irony and the silliness of that. I began a draft by playing off Yehuda Amichai’s “A Pity. We Were Such a Good Invention,” though I incorrectly recalled the title as “We Were Such a Fine Invention.” At some point, I turned, as I often do, to Google. I googled “plum pudding” and took notes on the facts of plum pudding. I incorporated some of the details into the draft. As I described the pudding, somehow it turned suggestive. I let it happen. I encouraged it to happen.

AK: I don’t think of you as a poet who typically incorporates nature imagery and, yet, in The Uneaten Carrots of Atonement, there are some very compelling nature moments. You begin “August 11: Morning Prelude” with birds and move to sunflowers and bumblebees:

Outside, a chorus of birds,
not bobolinks, but yellow-rumped warblers,
and the cooing of mourning doves, mated for life. (55)

What role does the natural world and nature imagery play in your poems?

DL: You are right to notice that nature plays a bigger role in this book than in my earlier books. This was part of my pursuit of new subject matter. It also pertains to my morning writing routine. I almost always write in the morning—though not every morning—at my kitchen table right in front of sliding glass doors that look out onto the backyard which is sort of woodsy and attracts lots of deer, rabbits, birds (I tempt them with feeders), wild turkeys, chipmunks, squirrels, and raccoons.

When I arrive at the table without an idea already in mind, my method is to look out the window and just describe what I see. Stephen Dunn has said that if you describe something long enough, eventually and inevitably the poem will turn metaphorical. I think that’s true.

Nature contains a lot of light and a lot of shadows. I like that duality. The wild turkeys, for example, are fascinating creatures, traveling in groups, bobbing their heads and turning them like periscopes, but up close, they are hideous and frightening. I made use of them in the poem “The Third Egg,” a poem initiated by simple description. Eventually, those disgusting birds compel a woman to clutch her swollen belly in fear of another failed pregnancy.

AK: In several of the poems in Carrots, your readers encounter dead animals; for example, the rabbit in “Original Sin” (7), the turtle in “Warnings” (36), and again a rabbit in “Eminent Domain” (63). Are these animals in any way metaphorical—symbols, perhaps, for something other than the obvious?

DL: That’s the duality I was getting at in the preceding response. The three poems you mention have in common that they involve children. Childhood is a time of innocence, but it’s also a time when we inevitably learn about death. And we learn about human cruelty. Yes, those poems are metaphorical; they all lead to something more than just a dead animal. I can’t say what these poems might mean to a reader, but to me they all have something to do with loss of innocence and, more than that, they deal with the discovery of something dark within.

AK: I’ve always felt that your work carries a strong psychological component—that you’re not afraid to enter dark or prohibited places—that there’s much going on in the spaces between lines and stanzas. Am I on target there, and what might you tell us about that? How does it figure in The Uneaten Carrots of Atonement?

DL:  I welcome the dark and the prohibited into my poems. I like it in other people’s poems and I like it in mine. I don’t set out to be all dark and dangerous, but when the poem heads down a dark alley, I’m happy to follow it there. As for what’s going on in the spaces between lines and stanzas, first I want to say that it pleases me that you find something in those spaces. But I can’t say it’s ever my calculated intention to put something there. And if there is something there, I think it’s more likely the result of what I’ve taken out than of what I’ve put in. I’m a relentless reviser and cutter. If everything’s left in, the imagination of the reader has no challenge, nothing to figure out. If some things are omitted, the reader has the challenge and the joy of filling in the empty spaces.

AK: The past several months have been both busy and exciting for you. I’m thinking especially of the establishment of Terrapin Books, closely followed by Terrapin’s first anthology, The Doll Collection, and selection of the first books to be published. Establishing a press is an impressive venture and not one that most poets undertake. Why and how did Terrapin Books and its intriguing name come to be?

DL: Busy and exciting for sure! and at times, a bit terrifying, as in, What have I gone and done now? Seriously, though, I love this new venture. I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing. Each day is full and challenging and invigorating. I’ve become completely dependent on to-do lists. This all began with my decision to publish a sequel to The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop. I had the materials together but needed a new publisher. Then I decided I would be that publisher. I thought that if I were going to learn how to do one book I might as well realize a small dream I’d had for some time, that is, opening a small press. I thought of lots of reasons why I shouldn’t do that, but ultimately decided to take the plunge.

The name Terrapin Books came during a sleepless night. It was still with me by morning. As noted earlier, the turtle plays a role in The Uneaten Carrots of Atonement. I thought that creature with its tenderness and its hard, strong, intricately marked shell and its slow persistence would be a perfect emblem for the press as I envisioned it. Then I set about making the dream happen. That meant asking questions of people who were already operating small presses. Everyone I asked for help freely provided it. I took care of the legal stuff, opened a business account at the bank, and created a website.

Then came the hard work, but the most important work of how to format a book. I’d never done it before and had no idea how to do it, but I’m pretty computer savvy, so told myself I’d figure it out. Again, I asked questions and received answers. I chose a software program and set about learning how to use it. Someone else told me about a software program for cover design. Once I felt like I’d acquired the skills to make a book, I decided that my first project would be an anthology of poems about dolls. With an anthology I’d get lots of submissions and word about the press would spread. Once that project was well underway, I signed up at Submittable and sent out the submissions call for the first open reading period for full-length collections. From the submissions, four were selected. Now that The Doll Collection is in print—and I must say it’s beautiful and the poems are wonderful—I’m working on the forthcoming books.

AK: Your creative energy, your books, your expertise in producing events (Girl Talk and the annual poetry festival in West Caldwell among them), along with your tireless work for poets and for poetry are so much a part of who you are. Where will you go from here? What “uneaten carrots” will you bring to your “table?”

DL: The Crafty Poet II is in progress. I hope to have it out in several months. I’m also working on the four titles forthcoming from Terrapin Books. At some point, I’d like to get back to my own poetry.

A Note About the Interviewer:

Adele Kenny is founding director of the Carriage House Poetry Series and poetry editor of Tiferet. Her poems have been published worldwide and have appeared in books and anthologies from Crown, Tuttle, Shambhala, and McGraw-Hill. She is the recipient of various awards, including NJ State Arts Council poetry fellowships and Kean University’s Distinguished Alumni Award; her book A Lightness, A Thirst, or Nothing at All was named a 2016 Paterson Prize finalist. She has read in the US, England, Ireland, and France, and has twice been a Geraldine R. Dodge Festival poet.