One of America’s most talked-about contemporary poets tells Peter Stanford about her unlikely childhood as the daughter of a traditionalist Catholic priest
Tales of the impact on developing young minds of growing up in a vicarage, parsonage, rectory or manse are ten-a-penny, whether it be the Brontës in Haworth or the young Theresa Brasier in Oxfordshire, en route for Downing Street. But, a child’s eye being raised in the presbytery, where father is also Father, is altogether rarer because of Catholicism’s rule of priestly celibacy. “That’s why I was able to sell Priestdaddy to a publisher," giggles the US poet Patricia Lockwood.
She is the second of five children of Fr Greg Lockwood of Kansas in the American Midwest, who, thanks to a special Vatican dispensation in the mid 1980s, was one of the first Lutheran ministers to become a Catholic priest, despite being married (“He was tired of grape juice,” Lockwood writes. “He wanted wine.”) “I didn’t know then that it was as weird as it was,” she remembers. “I think I still don’t know how weird it was.”
It is a weirdness she explores in a memoir that mixes humour with serious-minded warts-and-all honesty. In the flesh this live-wire 35-year-old is exactly as she writes, her gamine haircut striking, her tongue sharp and occasionally crude (The New York Times dubbed her “the smutty-metaphor queen of Lawrence, Kansas” when it selected her second collection of poems as one of its “notable books of 2014”). Her warmth is so uninhibited that it effortlessly takes the chill off the sterile London hotel lounge where we meet.
“My father is perhaps the most contradictory man,” she explains. “He can only exist when half of his body is at one pole and half at the other. Having been drawn to Catholicism [Patricia’s mother, Karen, is a cradle Catholic], he is now drawn to the farthest extreme of it. So now he’s conservative and no fan of the Second Vatican Council.”
So contrary, indeed, is Lockwood père that, unlike his daughter, who regards a married priesthood as the “sane and obvious solution” to the vocations’ shortage, he opposes the very idea. “You would expect a person in my father’s position to be a fan of the idea of priests being married, but instead he wants to pull the ladder up after him. He wants to be the only one,” she says. “What my family likes, more than anything else, is to be special.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, her book is dominated by Greg, with his contradictions and eccentricities: his love of electric guitars (he buys an old Paul McCartney-style model, at the same time as telling Lockwood he can’t afford to send her to college), of guns, of action movies and of cream liqueurs. Yet what is so fascinating about this peek behind the net curtains of what she calls a “totally absurd” presbytery is the impact of Fr Greg’s change of vocation on the rest of his family. There is, for example, the impact on his devoted wife of the casual misogyny with which she is treated by the Church her husband decided to join.
“My mother has had some terrible experiences,” her daughter reports. “There was a bishop who, whenever he saw her in public, would always ask her where her ‘babies’ were. ‘Did you leave them alone?’ he would taunt her. There was another priest who always called her by the wrong name on purpose – as a joke! And the priests and bishops who came to our house but never thanked her for cooking for them or for handing out Scotch and port. They all had housekeepers and so they treated her as one of those, as if she just came with the church building.”
If Lockwood is sounding angry with the Catholic Church, then that is because she is. Anger, she agrees, was also a factor in her decision to write about life with her father. “Not bitter angry,” she insists. “The book is done in the way you would rib your own family.” When she told her father about Priestdaddy, he threatened to murder her. She makes it sound the most natural reaction in the world. “It was the same sort of jesting,” she shrugs. “It was a very affectionate comment, I think. It’s hard to tell. He won’t read it. I don’t know if he has any idea what is in it, but he is proud enough to want the book club at his church to read it.”
“I hope that in writing Priestdaddy I have been very tender towards my father,” she says. And, alongside the jokes and the barbs, she has been. In one powerful passage she describes how, after Mass, she would walk through the presbytery and see that her father had been joined by “shadowy figures with their backs turned to me. They were in need … Sunday after Sunday in our living room sat the unthinkable and spoke to my father.”
Being such a diligent shepherd had its toll. After those who needed him so badly had gone, there was, Lockwood says, “nothing left” for his own family – “except a desire to be alone with himself, so he could regenerate the language he needed to speak universally”. The usual argument advanced for resisting a return to a married priesthood is that it would short-change parishioners if their pastor had a family to care for as well as them. Patricia Lockwood’s experience suggests the real problem is the other way round. It is the family who suffer physical and emotional deprivation so that the flock can have its needs met.
She rejects any suggestion that she has been scarred by how and where she grew up. “I feel warped by it, more like a tree that has grown in an interesting way.” She wonders aloud if she would have ended up a poet, had it not been for those out-of-the-ordinary formative years. “I do consider what I do now as a vocation in some way, or I feel drawn out to some point that is above me. But maybe that is only because I was raised religious. Maybe that isn’t what I would feel otherwise.”
In her late teens, she eloped with the man she was to marry, despite her father brandishing one of his guns. And that departure – she now lives in Savannah, Georgia – also marked a breach with the Church. "There was something all or nothing about Catholicism where I grew up. Either you absorbed it or you ran from it."
Today she describes herself as populating the "uneasy space" between the two positions. That – plus her poet’s instinctive weighing of words – makes her nervous of placing any qualifying words before "Catholic" to describe herself. "Like lapsed, or culturally Catholic. It’s such a weak term. That’s why I just say Catholic. But if I go to a Mass, I don’t take Communion. I have too much respect for the idea. I don’t consider it to be just a cultural practice, available to those outside the stream of strong belief."
For the first time, this sassy, articulate woman is struggling to explain herself. And so, instead, she reads me (a Tablet exclusive, she notes) parts of "Would It Matter If I Said", a new 'Catholic' poem that she has just written, which touches on the enduring legacy of her presbytery childhood.
Would it matter if I said
by Patricia Lockwood
Would it matter
If I said I believed or did not believe
I told my friend.
It does not matter.
Christ exists inside me as a form
As Sunday morning
As the knife edge of love
As the stitch in my side when I’ve been
To this day I say, God how I hate nice cars,
Would even my ecstasy be different without Him?
Would my paper cuts throb more or less?
Would I recite “help me” when I am alone?
Would I compare so many things to spears?
His ribs will not leave me
His thigh bones, His arms.
Do I even want Him out?
Lockwood pauses a while, resisting a return to her default wisecracking mode. “Catholicism is not something you can shed,” she says finally. “It’s too ingrained. It is woven with your life. It’s in my body. If I go into a church, I want to genuflect. My body doesn’t forget.”
Priestdaddy: A Memoir is published by Allen Lane at £14.99; a collection of Patricia Lockwood’s poems, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, is published by Penguin at £7.99.