Diane Lockward Derek Alger One on One

portrait Diane Lockward

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 163 ~ December, 2010

Diane Lockward is the author of four collections of poetry, including her most recent work, Temptation by Water (Wind Publications, 2010). Her previous works are What Feeds Us (Wind Publications, 2006), winner of the Quentin R. Howard Poetry Prize; Eve’s Red Dress (Wind Publications, 2003); and a chapbook, Against Perfection (Poet’s Forum Press, 1998).

Lockward’s poems have been published in several anthologies, including Poetry Daily: Poems from the World’s Most Popular Poetry Website, Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems for Hard Times, and The Poet’s Cookbook.

Her poems have also appeared in numerous literary journals, such as Beloit Poetry Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Prairie Schooner, to name a few. Lockward’s poetry has been featured on Poetry Daily and Verse Daily, and has also been nominated for several Pushcart Prizes.

A former high school English teacher, Lockward was the recipient of a Poetry Fellowship from the State of New Jersey Council on the Arts. She has also received awards from North American Review, Louisiana Literature, the Newburyport Art Association, and the St. Louis Poetry Center.

Diane Lockward

Diane Lockward

Lockward currently works as a poet-in-the-schools for both the New Jersey Council on the Arts and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.


Derek Alger: Your recently released collection, Temptation by Water, has received rave reviews, especially for the depth and complexity of the poems on loss and grief.

Diane Lockward: I’ve been delighted by the reception that this new book has received. You spend several years of your life — at least I do — writing the poems and creating the collection. Then off it goes. You stand back and hope that the world is happy to have it and treats it kindly.

Several readers have commented that this book seems darker than the previous two. I think that’s true, though there are some lighter moments and touches of humor. You mentioned “complexity.” The overriding theme of this book is temptation, and that’s a complex subject. There are so many different kinds of temptation and different responses to it and different consequences of our capitulation to it.

I knew fairly early on in the writing of these poems that the theme would be temptation. That made life a bit easier. I found myself on the alert for tempting things that I could put my poetry hook into. That was a different process than writing 50-60 unrelated poems and then attempting to find some unifying thread. It was more efficient. The water motif also came in fairly early. Someone observed that three poems of mine that appeared in Valparaiso Poetry Review all had something to do with water. I hadn’t thought of that, but then I did-and kept thinking of it. Soon I wrote the title poem, “Temptation by Water,” then a few more water poems and then a few that pertain to the other elements — fire, air, earth. I wove those poems throughout the book. It all began to fall into place.

DA: You recently gave a more than satisfying reading at Panoply Books.

DL: That was indeed a happy evening. First of all, it was exciting as that was my first New Jersey reading with Temptation by Water. I’d had two out-of-state readings, but there’s something special about being on one’s home turf. I was invited to give the reading by Vasiliki Katsarou who created this new series at Panoply Books in Lambertville. This is a used bookstore, a very cozy and inviting place. The town itself is charming — home, by the way, to Gerald Stern — with lots of antique stores and art galleries. On the second Saturday of each month, all stores stay open into the evening, so there were lots of people walking about. One never knows how many people will show up at a reading — and always fears that no one will show up — so it was nice to hear the door opening again and again. Also, some audiences are just special and this was one of those. Everyone paid careful attention and seemed so engaged with the poems. After the reading, we had a Q&A which I always enjoy.

DA: You’re a late bloomer, and as such, an inspiration for others.

DL: There are times when I wish I’d bloomed earlier. I might be further along in my work as a poet. But then I’m happy to have bloomed at all.

That happened only because, while I was still teaching high school English, I happened to see a call for volunteers in the English Journal.

Poets William Stafford and Stephen Dunning wanted some English teachers to test the prompts that they planned to use in a forthcoming poetry textbook. I sent in my name. Then every two weeks over the next several months I received one or two prompts. From the very first one I was hooked. I’d found my genre. It was additionally thrilling when one of my poems was taken for the chapter on acrostics in the textbook that eventually came about: Getting the Knack: 20 Poetry Writing Exercises, published by NCTE in 1994 and still a bestseller. That was my first published poem.

DA: And thus, a poet arrived.

DL: I began taking workshops on weekends and during the summer. For seven summers I spent a week or two at The Frost Place in New Hampshire.

I also went several times to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. I read tons of books of poems and books on craft. I began sending out my work and gradually having it accepted. Eventually, I decided to leave teaching and spend my days living as a writer.

DA: Graduate school turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

DL: I stayed home for eleven years when my three kids were brand new. I worked at home as a freelance proofreader for several years. Then for some unknown reason I decided to apply to graduate school and see if I could earn a master’s degree. I say “unknown reason” because I had never distinguished myself as a student. I became a teacher after college, but I didn’t think I would ever return to the other side of the desk. Then some kind of bug bit me. I went to Montclair State and just loved it. In the intervening years, I had changed. Suddenly, I became a good student.

I discovered that I had a brain. That was quite a lovely revelation.

DA: The poet John Donne was a great influence.

DL: One of the first courses I took was Renaissance Prose. I chose that course because it was in a good time slot. Now most of that literature is quite dull, but on the first night the professor lectured on the history, science, and world view of the period, and I found it fascinating. I loved the symmetry of the period — a place for everything and everything in its place. And I loved the conflicts of the period with so many of the old-world views being challenged. I read Donne’s prose and admired his range and his use of language.

The next semester I took Renaissance Poetry and changed my Concentration from Victorian Literature to Renaissance Literature. Later I took a seminar on Donne, Hopkins, and Yeats. Then I wrote my master’s thesis on the metaphors in Donne’s Anniversary poems. What attracted me to the period was the metaphorical world view. What attracted me to Donne was his use of metaphors and his combination of intellect and passion. Now that was still years before I started writing poetry, but I suspect that Donne laid the groundwork for the later blooming.

DA: You settled in New Jersey after a number of jaunts during your early childhood.

DL: I was born in New Jersey, but my father was in the service, so I lived in nine different states before I was two years old. Then we returned to N.J. Around that time something went wrong in my parents’ marriage, though I never found out exactly what. They stayed together until I was in high school, but they rarely spoke to each other. I had to be very careful what I said or I might get into trouble with my very strict father. I suspect that that, too, has influenced my poetry — you know, the pleasure of saying the forbidden and of telling and perhaps inventing the long-held secrets.

As a child I enjoyed playing with puppets with my mother who used a very good vocabulary. I credit her with my interest in language. She had very much wanted to be a journalist, but her parents would not allow that — not an acceptable career for a young woman. So she majored in French and never did anything with it. Sometimes I like to think that I’m writing for the two of us.

I also enjoyed writing fake diaries in which I created a very romantic life for myself. I wrote letters, taking the roles of two different people. When I think about all this, I realize that I had something naturally creative in me. Unfortunately, I never had even one teacher who nurtured that. Throughout school I do not recall a single teacher providing an opportunity for her students to write poems. So when I did the volunteer project with Stafford and Dunning, it turned me into a poet and also revolutionized my teaching.

DA: You went to college to become a teacher.

DL: Yes, I’d always wanted to be a teacher. I had many dolls and animals who attended my early classes. When I was around 10, I taught my 4-year-old brother how to read and do basic math. Imagine my shock and dismay when I went to college planning to be an English teacher — I went to Elmira College, an all-girls school at the time-and earned a D for the first semester of freshman English. But I persevered and ended up surviving and doing okay and did become an English teacher.

DA: And then, of course, you taught.

DL: My first teaching job was in Elizabeth, N.J., an urban city. The school was public but all girls. It was a very different environment for me — a bit of culture shock — but I loved it. I stayed there for four years, then left to have my first child. Once all three kids were in school full-time, I returned to teaching. I taught one year in the high school I’d graduated from. The next year I taught part-time in a neighboring community. Then I landed at Millburn High School, a wonderful school, and stayed there for nineteen years.

DA: Did you enjoy teaching high school English?

DL: I enjoyed it right up until the day I left. But I was ready to leave. The teaching itself was great, but I’d grown very weary of the endless papers. And I felt that teaching five classes a day, two of them AP Lit classes, was draining all my energy. There wasn’t much left over for me or my own writing at the end of the day.

DA: Your first poetry collection, Eve’s Red Dress, came out in 2003.

DL: I was working on that first collection while I was still teaching.

Each summer for six years I spent a few weeks reworking the book, taking out the weaker poems and substituting with newer, stronger ones. Then I’d send it off to the contests. Eventually, I received honorable mention and semi-finalist spots, then a few finalist spots. Exciting the first few times, but it wears thin. And gets expensive and, worst of all, it keeps you spinning your wheels, feeling like you can’t move onto the next project.

The summer after I left teaching I was contacted by a publisher, Charlie Hughes, who had been the editor of Wind Magazine where I’d once had two poems as finalists in their yearly contest. He’d since moved into publishing books by regional authors, but he wanted to move beyond Kentucky. He asked if I had a first manuscript and would I send it to him for consideration. I was just about to begin my yearly revision, so after I finished that, I sent it off and shortly thereafter Charlie accepted the book. It’s been a good relationship and we’ve stuck with each other for the subsequent two books.

The poems in this book are structured around five “Eve” poems, each Eve not really the Biblical Eve but a modern manifestation of her — an independent woman who commits an indiscretion, gets kicked out of her place, and finds her own new place. There are also non-Eve poems about women on the edge. The poems present a modern woman’s world, but they are not for women only.

DA: Your next collection, What Feeds Us, was awarded the Quentin R. Howard Poetry Prize.

DL: This second collection came out about four years after the first. In this book I was interested in the various ways in which we are nourished or not nourished. In real food and metaphorical food. Some of the poems pertain to literal food, but the majority don’t have any food at all in them. We hunger for more than food — family, love, companionship, art, beauty. What happens when we stay hungry? Food is also very sexy as is the eating of it, so there are poems about the hungers of the body.

DA: Not bad, you were the featured poet at the 2005 Frost Place Conference on Poetry.

DL: The Frost Place was really the ground of my making as a poet. I went in fear and trembling, with the first serious poems I’d written, unsure if I would belong there. Well, I did belong, and I loved that first week. I went back for seven years, sometimes staying on for a second week taking Baron Wormser’s Advanced Seminar. My husband held down the fort so I could do that. One of the great thrills of my life was being invited back in the summer of 2005 for the Conference on Poetry and Teaching. I was invited to be one of four featured poets. I gave a craft talk in the morning, shared favorite poems in the afternoon, and gave a reading in the evening. It was extremely gratifying to return as a “real” poet!

DA: You also became involved in “Girl Talk: A Reading in Celebration of Women’s History Month.”

DL: I started that program three years ago. But some months before that got off the ground I’d put together a presentation for a women’s conference at Seton Hall University. I invited three other women poets to join me in a reading and discussion of poems related to the lives of women. We had a nifty presentation. Unfortunately, the event was very poorly promoted and the turnout was disappointing. I wanted to get more mileage out of what we’d done, so I proposed a similar program to my library.

We’ve now done this event for three years and will do it again this year. I invite two dozen women poets to participate. Each poet reads one poem only. We go in alphabetical order, but somehow the poems always play off each other nicely. A number of the poets volunteer to bake for the reception that follows the reading. We also have a book sale. Each poet can bring copies of one title. Sales have been quite lively. It’s a wonderful day of poets supporting each other.

I run another event called “Poetry Festival: A Celebration of Literary Journals.” This has run at the same library for the past seven years. I invite the editors of a dozen journals to participate. Each editor then invites two poets to represent the journal. Editors are posted at tables in the Reference Room. They sell journals and talk with the 200-250 visitors who show up. In another room we have ongoing readings. There’s a book sale for the participating poets and a freebie table. Each year we have a wide range of poets, some reading for the first time in public, others well-seasoned poets, such as Hal Sirowitz, Gregory Pardlo, Catherine Doty, and Kathleen Graber. We even had Ira Joe Fisher, the weatherman and poet.

DA: You now work as a poet-in-the-schools.

DL: When I left teaching, I wanted to live as a writer. I knew I’d never again work full-time, but I wanted to have some formal work, so I applied to the N.J. State Council on the Arts for their poetry-in-the-schools program. I do short-term residencies, 4 or 5 days.

Most of my assignments have been in elementary schools, so that has been a big change for me. I love the spontaneous enthusiasm of younger kids, their lack of inhibition and their creativity. Due to budget cuts throughout the state, in the last few years there have been fewer assignments, but I pick up some freelance work.

I also keep pretty busy with other things. I do a weekly newsletter for the women poets listserve I belong to, and I’ve recently begun a monthly poetry newsletter. I keep a poetry blog and try to post on that twice a week. I do a weekly newsletter for my husband’s restaurant. And I maintain my own website and one for my husband. And of course, I spend time on poetry!