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March 7th, 2012 / 7:18 pm
Author Spotlight

“Aaliyah would have been on Twitter. It is fucked up that she is dead.”: An Interview with Patricia Lockwood, Poet Laureate of Twitter

Patricia Lockwood is a poet. (A poet. A very good poet.) She also uses Twitter in interesting ways. Earlier this year, her series of SEXTS got attention from Rhizome, and then The Huffington Post & The New Yorker.

And I look at those tweets and I wonder, “How does someone do that?” Not get attention, though. I mean write those. How? So I asked.

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So, I was initially pretty dismissive of Twitter. And then, at some point, I noticed how funny it could be and found it to be a mostly worthwhile distraction. And then—probably while reading the fake Christopher Walken feed—I began to think there could be something kind of poetic about Twitter. That each little update could be a joke, a persona poem, a zen koan.

Did you sense the “poetic” potential in the Twitter post from the beginning or did your approach to Twitter change?

It took me about ten years to join Twitter because, like old men everywhere, I “did not get it.” What is the … where are your mentions … what is hashtag … who is a belieber? When I did join, I spent my first week livetweeting the movie Bambi, focusing specifically on the puberty of Bambi and Thumper, and was subsequently unfollowed with extreme prejudice by the few poets who had charitably followed me in the first place. (This still happens! A real writer will follow me and then four days later be like “what the freak is this” and it is goodbye. CAN’T believe you wrote a tweet about Jesus jelqing.)

OK, so scrolling back, I see that one of my earliest tweets was “I want to see the Beethoven movie where Beethoven finally manages to tear his way out of the dog’s body and play something good on the piano.” About two weeks later I sexted for the first time, like a teen. So it wasn’t so much that I saw the possibilities right away as that … Twitter is the perfect way to disseminate the kind of writing that comes most naturally to me.

When I first signed up, I was aware of a few accounts that I thought were really funny, like @gregerskine and @extranapkins. I followed them, and discovered a bunch of other people who were writing what could only be described as Literature. There was no doubt in my mind. Subjects were: toads, bogs, jorts, gender, Animorphs, Chingy, wasps, “im gay,” Kate Bush, crieing, and pizza; but the tweets themselves were Literature. I was writing in a separate aesthetic, but it dovetailed so prettily with what they were doing that it was easy to enter into conversation with these people, and begin writing the Communal Book of Twit.

You say that they are producing “literature.” Would you call it a kind of “poetry?” Or is that form a little too well-defined at this point? Does the tweet get its own category? (And, heck, is it the tweet that is the achievement, or the whole of the gathered up and examined feed that deserves the title?

WHAT IS POETRY. CAN SOMETHING THAT IS NOT POETRY … BE POETRY. IF IT IS POETRY, CAN IT NOT BE POETRY? In this interview I will answer the question so good that no one needs to answer it ever again! We will lay it to rest like a little baby … who … is dead.

I have no problem thinking of tweets as poetry, because the really great ones function in the same way that poetry does to me. They are clear and cubic thinking, and they repay obsessive thinking-about. 140 characters is just about the right length to get inside your head, so if I walk around all day chanting “apnews: an girl go back in time to shhot cow that start gret chicago fire . cow say “i expect you” shoot her an start fire with i’ts cigaret” to myself the same way I walk around chanting “The milkman came in the moonlight and the moonlight was less than moonlight,” I see no reason to make a distinction, because I’m not some sort of taxonomy psycho. Honestly, when I think of the question “what is poetry” I picture Linnaeus and David Lehman absolutely making out, hands up each other’s shirts, while everyone who participates in modern American poetry watches.

BUT at the same time, I like to call them tweets because otherwise it’s a big waste of the stupidest term that has ever been invented for anything. If we don’t call them tweets then what are we gonna call a tweet, a bird’s sound? Please. Let’s be reasonable.

(taxonomy psycho. heh.)

I understand the SEXT series came out of the Anthony Weiner situation. Did you see someone else post one? Or did you see a void and fill it? (The fact that that question appears to sound like a sext is purely coincidental.)

TAXONOMY PSYCHO, COMING SOON TO A THEATER NEAR YOU, STARRING SOME GUY WHOSE NAME I DON’T KNOW

I wasn’t specifically thinking of Anthony Weiner when I first started sexting (no one, I hope, is specifically thinking of Anthony Weiner when they first start sexting.) I had a long-standing fascination with the media panic about SEXTING TEENS and MARRIED SEXTING and ARE THE OLD SEXTING, IN HOMES? Newsweek was losing its mind with terror. Stock photos depicted crazed sexual geezers* leaning against trees. Headlines were all things like: “Majority of Americans Now Getting Turned On by Misspellings of the Word “Pprenis?” Anyway, so one day I was on a long, long car trip to Key West and I was bored as hell, so I asked people on Twitter to send me sexts, “physically impossible sexts preferred.” I posted a few to start that established an absurd precedent –

Sext: You ask for oral. I get between your legs and whisper the alphabet repeatedly until you scream

Sext: I insert myself into a fog and thrust back and forth until I eject a small area of denser fog

– and then @gregerskine sent me some, including the incomparable “I HAND U A PANINI AND U OPEN IT UP 2 SEE THE COMMAND ‘ORGASM’ WRITTEN IN THOUSAND ISLAND” sext. From that moment forward the form seemed to be set, and other people took it up — it was simple, it was empty, it was elastic.

So yeah I stuffed that huge sucking void.

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*Please note that if you like “shocked senior man gets a racy, sexy text message from his wife,” Shutterstock also recommends “shocked senior woman with a towel,” and “mature burned electrician.”

Do you draft your tweets or are they spontaneous? I’m curious about how much deliberation goes into them and if there’s a certain headspace one gets into to create, say, your Sext series.

I’ve noticed there is a certain dark, surreal tone that runs through your tweets and the ones of some of the other folks you follow and promote. DogBoner, say. Or FamousCrab. SPERGERS. Fart. Is there a certain Tweet Wiring in your brain? A path you follow? Is it a similar path to the Poetry Wiring?

I draft like crazy, because: I do most of my tweeting with my phone, and it is so so different to write with your thumbs. Have you noticed this? I often enter Thumb Fantasias where I just move my thumbs around for ten minutes, fifteen minutes, twenty minutes, rearranging elements of joke and text and scenario with my stupid thumbs. It is a part of you that should never be writing — eight elegant fingers? Yes. A pencil in your mouth, or between your toes? Good job. Dictation? You are rich, and rich people are known for being good writers. But thumbs? No. Writing with thumbs means all rules about content are out the window; it’s such an unnatural physical act that it requires an unnatural vernacular. It is enormously freeing and enormously frightening, to be a modern thumb writer of the cyber age.

(I made all this up just now but it actually does seem plausible.)

Why the darkness? My eras are the 17th century and the apocalypse. So, elaborate conceits full of burning tires. Everyone is having sex, but so are their fleas? What a magnificent chestnut horse, let’s eat him. Ahhhhh, the gorgeous colors of the sunset are killing us. I believe that any skill that serves in the writing of poetry can serve also in the writing of jokes — the path is the same, but the vocabulary is different. The impulse too is the same: to create something symmetrical, something that shuts to or clicks closed, to make parallel forms with unparallel lines. To make the hugely unlike lie down together, as they must at the end of the world.

Why bring them together — the poem and the joke, or the joke and the prophecy? The hybrid is compelling, always and perennially. It’s the desire to make fucked-up dog breeds that live longer than either of their incest parents. Or if they don’t live longer, they breathe weird and are illegal. Both outcomes are interesting.

Do you have a favorite joke? Is it better than your favorite poem? Do you have a favorite poem? Is it better than your favorite joke? Do you have a favorite tweet? Is it the better than your favorite prayer?

Favorite joke is THE ARISTOCATS, a very funny movie about jazz kittens in France, they are a family and they do the FILTHIEST things to each other, it is almost too much to be believed.

Which is to say, I don’t like most traditional jokes because they seem calcified to me. I like jokes that present a form you can work within or distort or turn inside out. When people tell me jokes I tend to look at them like where the hell do you get your hair cut, Shear Genius? This is a failing on my part. I remember directing such withering looks at uncles who told me knock-knock jokes that I’m surprised they didn’t die.

I go back to “The Glass Essay” a lot. I go back to the Holy Sonnets. I go back to “Fresh Air” and “The Boiling Water.” They’re not better or worse than anything. They’re rocks, and stones, and trees.

This is the closest thing we have to a canonical tweet, and it’s probably the one I think about the most:

YO AALIYAH DONT FILL UP ON ALL DAT BREAD GIRL…..GOT A BIG MEAL COMING WHEN WE LAND Really makes ya think. Eat the bread everyone. Namaste.

When I think of this tweet my thoughts go like this:

Aaliyah is dead and that is fucked up. I loved her voice a lot, I love the light-touch singers best and she was the lightest light-touch singer. She had the ability to just barely land and still feel the note — she was Princess and the Pea with the note 8 mattresses under her! I think of her technique as being trusting, but I think of it that way in retrospect.

If you don’t want to look at tender huge graffiti of her face on big walls all day every day then I don’t even know how to talk to you.

The quieter, the sweeter, the especially intimate voices — is it natural to feel that they are more ours? That the people who own them have more to do with us? Is that why we feel the way we do about Aaliyah?

Why do I feel the way I do about Aaliyah, and if I feel that way about her then why do I laugh at this tweet?

Well, “laughing” is not exactly what I do. More like, “sit staring at it with a sort of appalled reverence, wondering what kind of person I am.”

The reason people like @graeyalien are funnier than “twitter comedians” is because their tweets operate in two more dimensions. They consider who is speaking the tweet, and they consider whether the tweet looks funny. They create a character, and they apply small systematic derangements of punctuation, spelling, and capitalization appropriate to that character.

The recognizable speaker of this tweet is … a white aunt in Manitou Springs?

It makes you picture an Olive Garden moment on a plane that has entered into myth. The dishonesty of myth is that it makes you forget that the Olive Garden moments ever took place — not on that plane, not on that day, not between those two people.

If I think of the people in my life who have told me not to fill up on bread, it is an intimate circle of people. In my life only the people who cared a great deal for me have told me not to fill up on the bread.

Who is speaking? Who is telling her not to eat the bread? The voice is … paternalistic, which seems right because that’s how I remember people treating her even when she was alive. She seemed to arouse more than usual feelings of protectiveness. Protectiveness, paternalism are complicated. But somehow it always sounded nice when Timbaland called her “baby girl.”

But Timbaland would’ve told her to eat as much bread as she wanted. Oh my God. Timbaland would have baked bread for her himself.

She didn’t seem like the type who would eat all the bread. Maybe she really loved the bread! Maybe her handlers didn’t want her to eat it! Maybe she didn’t want to eat too much of it because her stomach had gotten so famous at that point.

Remember when we were all showing our stomachs, and wearing like enormous cargo pants and sports bras outside in the daytime? What the hell was that?

Actually that was awesome and I wish that it would happen again.

But not at the cost of eating the bread.

At some point she got abs? Which because I am visual always made me think of her breath pouring and tumbling down inside her like a cataract of water, over and past the boulders of abs, and the notes having to climb up over them on the way out.

Wikipedia: “In 1998, she hired a personal trainer to keep in shape, and exercised five days a week and ate diet foods.”

I was not allowed to show my stomach, at that time. I probably wouldn’t have showed it even if I HAD been allowed, because stomachs seemed so vulnerable to me.

It is tempting to view a person who died in a plane crash as being entirely vulnerable, even in her lifetime.

Neither was I allowed to listen to hip-hop. Well, it wasn’t so much that I wasn’t allowed as that — hip-hop was seen to be somehow ridiculous, and as having nothing to do with us.

But that is what I loved the best. I could give a fuck about an electric guitar.

I was 18 years old, and she was 22, and for years her music had been everywhere, and I didn’t mind at all.

Not all of this information is present in the tweet, but the tweet walks arm-in-arm with all this information.

The art we like the best is generally the art that has the greatest access to us. So. This tweet has tremendous access to my feelings about Aaliyah. Aaliyah’s voice had tremendous access to me.

Aaliyah would have been on Twitter. It is fucked up that she is dead.

Eat the bread everyone.

Namaste.

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