The Delicate Art of Balloon Shaving
Poet Patricia Lockwood just published an autobiography called Priestdaddy. Focusing on her closest relationships—including an bawdy-yet-chaste flirtation with a young seminarian living with her family—the book is smart, weird, and funny as hell. Preparatory to an upcoming performance together at Joe’s Pub in New York City, Patricia and I spoke for the first time on the phone. In a homage to her notorious sexting tweets, and in a misguided attempt to make her publicity duties more interesting, I offered to prompt Patricia’s reflections on Priestdaddy by reading her relevant quotations from the epistolary novel Dangerous Liaisons.
PATRICIA LOCKWOOD: You’re going to read me quotes from Dangerous Liaisons?
BEN ARTHUR: I am.
PL: And then what do I say?
BA: Whatever you want. Here: “Madame de Merteuil, though indeed a woman highly regarded, has perhaps only one fault: she overestimates her ability; she's a skillful driver who enjoys guiding her chariot between rocks and precipices and whose sole justification is that she remains unscathed."
PL: This mostly reminds me of the game “Oregon Trail.” I always chose to potentially kill the whole team but hopefully achieve glory. That’s what my dad would do, too.
BA: Yeah, I thought of your hunting trip with him.
PL: Call it his hunting trip. It was not mine.
BA: And you didn’t shit yourself, so: glory.
PL: But in a way my brother won for shitting himself because it so gilded the day that we never forgot it. Now I’m wishing I had read Dangerous Liaisons.
BA: Your father is both an electric guitar-wailing, semi-nudist, hardcore Republican, and a dedicated priest with a sacramental go-bag by the door, ready to run give succor to his flock at a moment’s notice. It seemed like there was a through-line in these contradictory impulses.
PL: It’s the only kind of existence that’s possible for him, an existence that lives at the two poles. If you told him he is contradictory he wouldn’t believe you. To him it all exists perfectly harmoniously within his system. You wish for just a moment the man would appear in the flesh and you could talk to him for five minutes.
BA: “The man” here meaning Our Heavenly Father, or your dad coming out of his room?
PL: It would be just as surprising if Jesus came down and was like, “Hey, I’m also very much semi-nude and living at the edge.” Which he certainly was. But to my dad the guitar playing, the motorcycles, the fast cars, the hunting manias, those are all a childlike effort to participate in a masculinity that he always admired but never really felt a part of. I don’t know that those things are natural to him. If they were natural to him he would have been able to shoot a fucking deer, man. He’d slice a big piece of the venison sausage and chomp it.
BA: It’s sort of a show of hyper-masculinity he’s putting on.
PL: He’s playing tin soldiers, he’s playing hot cars. What are those? Hot Wheels!
BA: Another quote, which reminded me of the chapter Men of the Cloth: “You would laugh to see how openly she preaches at me. She wishes, she says, to convert me… Let her believe in virtue, but let her sacrifice it for my sake.”
PL: I’m trying to reconstruct the book from what I remember of the movie, and also the movie with Reese Witherspoon, Cruel Intentions. You should have done this interview with quotes from Cruel Intentions. It would have made a lot more sense to me.
BA: It’s a little like we’re speaking through a translator, because I’ve never seen Good Intentions.
PL: Cruel Intentions! The seminarian would have been the young girl, the Reese Witherspoon character.
BA: That is 100% how I cast him.
PL: Because many seminarians are not straight men, when we first got to the rectory we assumed maybe he was not straight either. And I was like, “If that’s the case, Jason [Patricia’s husband] then the job’s on you. You seduce him, you dance the tango through the room with the rose between your teeth.” But when we met him he was eating this meat lover’s pizza, and I was like, “Nope, this is on me.”
BA: There is definitely a sense of seduction about your conversations.
PL: But it’s play, and that should be understood. If you grow up in that environment, all you have between you in those situations are your words, so you figure out a way of speaking to each other that’s kind of like a screen behind which your actual bodies are, and only your words reach across. We were enacting a sort of theater that I had learned very early, and that is really the only way that men and women relate in that kind of environment. That, for me, was almost comforting. I’m not sure if that’s something people can understand if they grew up in normal teenager-hood where you, like, go parking, and drive down the main drag and shoot at each other if you’re interested in someone.
BA: Your understanding of contemporary American culture is that we drive the main drag, and we shoot at each other if we’re interested in someone.
PL: Yes. Meanwhile we had this very elaborate set of coded conversations, like Kabuki. It was so ritualized and impenetrable to people on the outside, but that’s what we were doing. It’s like a sophisticated and insane dance we were performing.
BA: It’s funny, I grew up in a small college town, and my father is Jewish, which made me a total Jew in our hometown, even though we were not at all religious.
PL: Extra Jew.
BA: This older boy once invited me to go to the Christian youth group with him in order to save my Jewish soul. What I found fascinating was that it was super erotic. I remember this game where the girl holds a balloon that the boy puts shaving cream on—
PL: And the boy shaves it and tries not to pop it!
BA: It felt as close to a sexual orientation rite as I could think of. Like, if I were trying to come up with an interaction that would drive teenagers to go finger bang each other immediately afterward.
PL: On the church bus! That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Did you experience the complex taxonomy of Christian hugs? You had Christian side-hugs, you had the deep hugs after you prayed over one another—those are very erotic, as well, but there are very finely shaded hierarchies and circumstances under which they’d be employed.
BA: Yeah, I’m in seventh grade at this point and the whole shaving-a-balloon-that-a-girl-is-holding is closer to where I wanted to go than anything theretofore…
PL: Oh. It probably gave you a problem then. That’s the perfect age for a problem.
BA: Do you mean a boner?
PL: No, I’m talking about a fetish! We’re the sort of people who think, “How does a balloon and this ritual take center stage in your mind and shape your feelings about sex?”
BA: How to create a lifelong balloon perversion.
PL: We’re pervert people.
BA: It does seem like an unintentional side effect of Catholicism is that when you repress human sexuality that much it just blows out the side. It bleeds through in unexpected places.
PL: It’s not just the repression; it’s the particular mold into which we force it. Good for you for getting out, but, you could have seen some more stuff if you had stuck around a little bit longer. We were talking about sex in my youth group in basically the most detailed, graphic way you can imagine. This was the school of thought that we need to talk to kids about every possible permutation, we need to go through the Kama Sutra with them and review all the positions and tell them why each one is something they are not allowed to do. All we ever talked about at these meetings was sex—about how we weren’t allowed to do it.
BA: Wasn’t that essentially a marketing scheme? They had a problem where none of the teens wanted to come to their youth groups and they were like, “What do teens like? Boning! We’ll make it all about boning, and slip the host in sideways.”
PL: No, no, no. It was something more organic. It was partially an outgrowth of how sex education at that time had changed in response to HIV. All of these things were in the cultural conversation, and this was just the hyper-Christian way of participating. Basically it was that movie Booty Call, but about God.
BA: My last quote for you—and here I was thinking about your gradual remove from Catholicism, and how coming back into that environment you experienced a certain gravitational pull: “If, for example, I had just as much love as you had virtue (and that is surely saying a lot) it is not astonishing that one should end at the same time as the other. It is not my fault.”
PL: Okay, the movie I will choose to explain the way I felt when I was back in my house as a thirty year-old is Stargate. When Spader puts his fingers and parts of his face into the sucking dimension-hole… have you seen Stargate?
PL: You haven’t?
BA: It appears the only common references you and I have are your books.
PL: And the balloon thing!
BA: We’ll always have the balloon thing.
PL: So, in Stargate…
BA: Please explain Stargate to me.
PL: Thinking about it more, I actually can’t explain Stargate that well. All I can say is there’s this massive artifact, and it becomes filled with this mirage-y substance that looks like a pool. He puts his fingers up to it and it sucks his fingers into it a little bit.
BA: And that’s how you felt about moving home with your family.
PL: That is how I felt about moving home with my family. But less sexy. Because Stargate is actually a very sexy movie. There’s a genderless pharaoh, and Kurt Russell as a militarized Ken doll.
BA: Before this becomes a Rotten Tomatoes review of Stargate, let me ask a different question.
PL: So good. 98%!
BA: Shifting from poetry to autobiography, was that weird or did it feel natural?
PL: Everyone has asked that question.
BA: Fine, moving on to the next—
PL: No, no.
BA: You said my question sucked!
PL: [Patiently] No, I didn’t. But I was going to say that the specific way that it did suck was that I had to answer that same question every time.
BA: Right. So, what else do you want to do, other than these two specific forms you’ve played with so far?
PL: I think I want to write a novel. But the danger with me writing a novel is that I wrote a very bad one once.
BA: What was your very bad novel called?
PL: The History of Opposable Thumbs, which doesn’t even make sense. It was sort of like an innocence novel between these sisters, and their mom is in a nursing home and one of the daughters bites her hand, and gangrene sets in. And the sisters at some point have sex. And there was this very Saunders-esque touch where one of the sisters worked in a Silly Museum. Sort of like Pastoralia or CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. But I didn’t know what to make happen in my novel, and I was like, “What happens in all the great novels? Basically, people who are related fuck each other.”
BA: Last question: do you ever write in response to other artists? If so, who?
PL: I do that all the time when I watch movies. Usually while I’m drinking. For me it’s always visual things. Art, or movies.
BA: It does seem like your description of your experience of words is—
PL: Very visual. But it also seems like it’s not visual in the typical way.
BA: Like synesthesia.
PL: I think that’s made up sometimes.“I see notes as colors…” Maybe I’m just jealous.
Ben Arthur has released seven albums and two novels, and his upcoming album, American Castles, will be released in November.