Bees’ Knees Special Edition: The Poetry of Diane Lockward–Advice from a Wordsmith

Diane Lockward is the author of What Feeds Us, which received the 2006 Quentin R. Howard Poetry Prize, and Eve’s Red Dress. A third collection, Temptation by Water, will be released in June. Her poems have been  included in such anthologies as Poetry Daily: 360 Poems from the World’s Most Popular Poetry Website and Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems for Hard Times, and have been published in such journals as Harvard Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Prairie Schooner. Her work has been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and The Writers Almanac. She lives in northern New Jersey and works as a poet-in-the-schools for both the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

Your book What Feeds Us made me incredibly hungry for lush and savory food. Is there a dish or a recipe you would suggest that would ease my cravings after having been teased line after delectable line with your descriptions of flavor?

In the poem “Anniversary” the speaker talks about Bocconi Dolci, an absolutely delectable dessert that’s guaranteed to satisfy every one of your cravings. Three layers of meringue, each covered with melted chocolate, whipped cream, and strawberries. The sweetness of the dessert is at odds with the sadness of the poem, but that’s why I chose it for that poem.

Your collection of poems flows seamlessly from poem to poem, giving the book a real sense of cohesiveness. Did you begin with a concept when writing What Feeds Us or did the work organically emerge?

I wrote the poems without forethought of how they would cohere in a collection. When I had 60 or so poems that I felt were book-worthy, I printed them out and read, re-read, and re-read, looking for common themes, motifs, images—and they were there. The overriding obsession seemed to be the idea of nourishment or its absence, of what feeds or fails to do so. I omitted the poems that had no relevance and then set about arranging what I had into sections. It makes me happy that you noticed the book’s structure as getting the structure and flow is a tough task, but it’s the one that makes the difference between a collection of poems and a bunch of poems.

My new book, Temptation by Water, came about in just the opposite way, that is, I began with the concept and then wrote the poems. That was a more efficient way of doing things. I had fewer false starts and deadend poems and less frustration arranging the poems into a collection.

The persona in many of your poems has a complicated relationship with Bees. The word “bee” seems to stand for difficult concepts such as fear, love, and even death. How did these bees make their way into your work?

Those bees came from my lifelong fear of them. My father grew gladiolus and had gardens in several different locations. Occasionally, on a Saturday, he compelled my brother and me to spend a day working in one of the gardens. We hated every minute of it. My brother wanted to be playing baseball. I wanted to be anywhere but in that garden, anywhere without bees. Then one summer at camp I saw three girls get swarmed by bees. I had nightmares about that for years. In the poems the bees become the embodiment of everything I fear. I did not write those poems as a set, but in assembling the manuscript I became aware that bees were a recurring image.

When the cover art was first submitted, it had no bees. I asked the artist if he could add some and he did. He told me that years ago it a common practice for various insects to be included in still life paintings. I love the way he depicted the bees greedily feeding.

You are a very active member of the WOMPO poetry community. Could you please explain what this group is and how a poet would join?

Wompo is an online listserv begun maybe a dozen years ago by the poet Annie Finch. When I joined about ten years ago, there were 120 members. Now there are close to 900. Its purpose is to serve as a place where poets, primarily women, can raise issues and concerns related to poetry. It’s a great source of information and a good place to turn to when you need to know something, such as how to get a reading in Paris or what’s a good poem to read at a friend’s wedding. Anyone who wants to join should go to the Website:

When two or more poets gather, they are often referred to as a “tribe.” What does it mean to be a part of the poetry “tribe?”

In our local community we often work in isolation and find few, if any, people who share our love of poetry. When I was first learning the craft, it was essential for me to attend workshops and conferences and festivals. I learned the craft, I gained faith in my ability to do this thing that I wanted to do, and I met other aspiring poets as well as accomplished poets. I became part of the tribe. Later I belonged to a small group that met once a month at my house. We wrote together and critiqued each other’s work-in-progress. That was another kind of tribe. The last several years I have joined with a half dozen or so women poets in the summer. We take turns hosting a poetry day at our homes. We spend all day giving each other prompts. These are fabulous days, full of poetry conversation and writing. We usually go home with 4 or 5 new poems underway. That’s my favorite tribe.

Are you currently working on any new projects?

My new book will come out soon, so lately I’ve been busy proofreading galleys and compiling mailing lists. Once that’s all done, I will get back to some new writing. Because I started writing poetry late, I don’t have the big backlog that some other poets have. I work from book to book. That means that right now the cupboard is pretty bare.

What suggestions / advice would you give to the beginning poet?

Have patience and persistence. Respect your tears; they are often where the poems reside. Learn the craft. Be willing to serve an apprenticeship. Read the masters to learn where you came from. Read contemporary poetry to learn what’s being done today. Buy books by other poets; that’s one way we support each other. Mark up the books and learn from them. When you ask for a critique, be sure you are not just looking for compliments; otherwise, you won’t grow as a poet.