Patricia Lockwood’s new memoir Priestdaddy sounds as if could be equal parts bad joke and worse porno: What do you get when you bring together a Catholic priest, his wife and their daughter, a gifted, dirty-minded poet? You get a powerful true story from one of America’s most relevant and funniest writers. Lockwood’s humor—conversational, sensitive, mordant—serves as her work’s bedrock and signature. It was a “joke,” after all, that catapulted Lockwood to wide recognition: Her “Rape Joke,” one of the most devastating poems of the 21st century, was published online in 2013 and quickly went viral, vaulting her into the cultural consciousness.
With two poetry collections under her belt (Balloon Pop Outlaw and Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals), Priestdaddy is Lockwood’s first foray into memoir. Her career to date is hardly traditional. Often described as “Twitter’s poet laureate,” the Fort Wayne, Indiana, native has long embraced the internet as a medium. Recent tweets to her 64,000 followers address everything from horse buttholes to Dat Boi to her Bieber-face dress. So it’s no surprise that the commandingly written Priestdaddy—about family, religion, identity and trauma—will certainly make you laugh out loud. But it may also move you to tears.
Filled with boundless—and boundary-less—energy and sex jokes, Priestdaddy centers on Lockwood’s return with her husband Jason to live in her parents’ rectory in Kansas City, Missouri, broke and wiped out after having to pay for unexpected eye surgeries for Jason. Adjusting to cohabitation with Lockwood’s mother Karen (a perpetually worrying Perfect Mom) and father Greg (the scenery-chewing priest daddy of the title) provides for a fusillade of anecdotes, as does the family’s Catholicism. Greg, a guitar-soloing, Rush Limbaugh–listening seaman-cum-clergyman, was already a married dad when he became a Catholic priest, ordained via technicality; his favorite pastimes appear to be speaking in all caps, buying fancy musical instruments and lounging around near-nude.
Lockwood’s ability to mash up church, smut and poesy into conversational, contemporary prose is remarkable. Whether it’s memorable phrasings such as “cucked by God” or an entertaining if somewhat slight chapter about finding semen in a hotel room with her mother—“a thousand cums crying out for a body,” “a Catholic’s worst nightmare: souls all over the bed”—there’s an infectious joy and delirium to her inventive turns of phrase, her supremely filthed-out lyricism.
“I’m a naturally reverent person,” Lockwood tells me. “A lot of people would laugh if I said that to them, but you don’t become a poet unless that’s true of you. But I’m also interested in seeing all that I can do with it. To me, it’s a lot funnier coming out of my mom’s mouth than it would be, like, Bob Saget’s.
“He followed me on Twitter at one point,” she explains. “I took a screenshot and then was like, ‘Well, this is weird.’ It’s one of those things—years after you watched Full House, Bob Saget follows you on Twitter—we’re in a weird age.”
Beneath Priestdaddy’s juxtapositions of jizz and religiosity, the extended comic set pieces and occasional “toy observation,” Lockwood’s deeper project is one about survival: the story of how writing helped her deal with trauma, first as a suicidal 16-year-old chorus student and later as 19-year-old sexual assault victim (see “Rape Joke.”)
“A trick I often use when I feel overwhelming shame or regret or brokenness beyond repair,” Lockwood writes in Priestdaddy, “is to think of a line I especially love, or a poem that arrived like lightning, and remember that it wouldn’t have come to me if anything in my life had happened differently. Not that way. Not in those words.” Considerations like these—about the different forces that shape a narrative, and a life—permeate the book. “The story of family is always a story of complicity,” she writes. These declarations—direct, solemn, juddering—are part of the literary machinery of the book, directing it past the rollicking, internetty lols about bodily fluids into darker, near-unpunch-line-able realms where Lockwood is, in many ways, most effective.
What was going on in your life when you first started writing Priestdaddy?
I started writing it in the upstairs room of the rectory, a few weeks after we moved back in with my parents—just out of a desire to create a quiet, clear-thinking circle in the chaos of that household. Real calm was impossible there, though. If you read carefully, you can hear the faint sounds of the electric guitar wailing between the lines, like background music on NPR.
As a creator, what was the biggest challenge for you in switching genres, from poetry to memoir?
It’s possible to write a poem that contains almost no information, but in a memoir you’re always having to say what year it is, and what everyone’s pants looked like, and why it all happened the way it did. Poetry, in its best moments, arrives like a visitation. But in memoir you have to set out in search of something, one foot in front of another for miles and miles and miles. You are in search of the real story, I suppose, but it does not come to you. You have to go looking for it.
You have this great line in Priestdaddy: “Scratch the most debauched writer on the planet…and find a person who was raised in the Catholic church.” That’s quite a provocative statement.
I honestly think that’s one of the truest things in there.
What is it in particular about the Catholic church, do you think, that nurtures debauchery and writerliness?
We have a lot of excellent writers. That part of it is that we take very much pride in a long academic and philosophical tradition. But Catholic schools—they’re pretty good schools. The nuns, they ride you hard about that.
As for the debauchery, we focus as Catholics so much on the body and what you’re not supposed to do with it, and all the potentially wrong things you might do with it. You hear about Christians receiving this terrible, limited sex education where you don’t know how many holes you have. Catholics are like, “Oh no, we’re going to tell you how many fucking holes you have.” You know, they were so specific about the body and its dangers and its pitfalls.
I just want to give people a week’s rest from staring directly into the B-hole of the apocalypse.
And a lot of it has got to be the confession thing; it has to be. We have to specifically go each week into a tiny, sexy room—let’s be real—and there’s some guy over there on the other side of a screen. And a lot of times, let’s face it, sins are sex things. You’re like, “Oh, wow, Father, I’m masturbating all the time….” Isn’t that a porno situation? Are we supposed to say in a different way, like, “Oh, Father, I’ve had impure thoughts.” Of course, it’s a nation of perverts. There’s no other option, basically.
It’s true! Think about it. And people are always like, “Did you go to your own father for confession?” You can’t confess to your own dad.
You can only confess to the Dad.
Exactly. You go and you pretend another priest is your father. The dynamic is torturous. And then they punish you! It’s like a fetish thing, come on. I’m not even trying to be specifically provocative. You look at these things—guys, I think the answer is pretty obvious.
Who were your literary influences in writing the book?
Oh, man. For that first eight months of writing, my entire library was in storage. I had five physical books with me: The Fountain Overflows, by Rebecca West; Out of Africa, by Isak Dinesen; The Possessed, by Elif Batuman; Open City, by Teju Cole, and The Selected Letters of Dawn Powell. The only other books in the household were about, like, tears turning into blood at out-of-the-way French shrines, or why none of the popes since the Second Vatican Council counted as real. That’s what I had! So the initial tone of the book felt very unconnected to all that reading I had done in my previous life, very unconnected to literature as a whole and the people who had influenced me in my writing before. It felt like a one-off, though of course there’s no such thing.
You write, near the end: “Part of what you have to figure out in this life is, Who would I be if I hadn’t been frightened?” Did you ever come up with an answer to this question?
Perhaps if I had had a better imagination about what is possible in a personality and what is possible in a life, I wouldn’t have felt as frightened in the first place, as cowed by the winds of authority loose in the world. I do not feel as brave as I wish to be, no. But all you can do in that circumstance, all anyone can do, is to live as if you are.
The New York Times once declared you the “smutty-metaphor queen of Lawrence, Kansas.” How would you describe yourself?
Heaven’s Clown! Call me Heaven’s Clown. But no, you must never allow me to describe myself, or attempt to give myself a nickname. For about a week after I sold Priestdaddy, I tried to get people to call me Princesse Book Deale, but nobody went for it.
What do you hope people take away from reading your memoir?
There was a time I might have answered this question more high-mindedly, but right now? I just want to give people a week’s rest from staring directly into the B-hole of the apocalypse.