The Uneaten Carrots of Atonement
by Diane Lockward
101 pages—Wind Publications, 2016
Review and Interview by Lucia Cherciu
The Uneaten Carrots of Atonement, Diane Lockward’s latest book of poetry, is musical, sophisticated, original, and above all, funny. Demonstrating a wide-ranging formal artistry, Lockward plays with cento, sestina, and sonnenizio—each poem trying something new in terms of form, a different experiment, a different line structure, a new beat. This formal variation serves to create an overall effect of adventure and originality that is as entrancing as it is unique.
Throughout the book, Lockward manages to approach sober themes with a light, endearing tone that is both warm and funny. This quality can be seen in the poem “Original Sin,” in which a child atones for a sin she hasn’t committed, but could have committed by thought. The poem reflects childhood’s time of wonder and the small miracles of life that hide questions rarely asked. Here the poet showcases her remarkable ability to capture a child’s mindset—with its singular attention to nature and everyday objects—and to recreate this mindset with laughter and joy.
Above all, it is humor that unifies the arc of the book. The poem “How I Dumped You” dramatizes the satisfaction of putting an end to a bad relationship through a whole list of similes and metaphors that are so satisfying and hilarious that they’re worthy of a standup comedian: “I cast you off the way a cicada wiggles out of its husk, / a vacated hotel on the bark of a tree. The way a snake / moults, its skin somebody else’s skin now” (18). Each line adds a new dimension to the feeling of renewal that comes with such a heavy topic, turned light and endearing with the use of quirky images that come from the imaginary of someone who is a good observer of nature and small things.
Similarly, “Shopping at the Short Hills Mall” plays upon the idea of advertisements and consumerism in order to describe the difficult aspects of a break up:
I walked into a store and bought a new husband.
The old one had conked out and was minus
irreplaceable parts. The store had advertised
a new, improved model, and they took trade-ins
which was attractive as I wanted to eke out
one last bit of value from the dud I dragged in,
plus now I wouldn’t have to worry about disposing
of him in an ecologically responsible manner.
Here again, Lockward’s tone delights and surprises, providing a sense of play that mingles with the underlying heaviness of the poem’s fact. Both entertaining and satisfying, this distinctly modern tone laughs and celebrates, mocks and adores, but more importantly, teaches us to pay attention.
In “The Instincts of a Dog,” Lockward uses the prose poem in order to evoke a singuar absurdity that is both truthful and hyper realistic, pointing to the everyday minutiae of life. Here every gesture is part of a larger theater, a ritual created in our childhood: “Sometimes to sidestep an obligation or invitation, I say, have to take the dog to the vet, although the dog’s been dead for twenty years and wasn’t even mine—it was my brother’s.” The sarcasm and double entendres make us want to hear Lockward’s poems out loud and imagine them as part of a stand-up routine in which the topics are easy to identify with, something universal we have all experienced.
Humor and irony are again mixed with regret and nostalgia in another funny poem, “We Were Such a Fine Plum Pudding,” which simultaneously points to the end of a relationship and plays with the metaphor of food in order to gain access to a topic that is both difficult to discuss and yet necessary, describing a relationship that was initially “so sinfully rich, / currants inside us plump and sweet, / and clotted cream like a moat around the base.” Later, towards the end of the poem, this metaphor is tweeked to reveal the underlying sense of loss: “our pudding misnamed and false, / overbaked and ruined— / my moist plum dried up, your poor plum / shriveled, a plumless pudding after all.” It is perhaps the ability to use metaphor and conceit, describing feelings and experiences through image, that unifies Lockward’s book.
Throughout, The Uneaten Carrots of Atonement thrives on metaphor, each new image yielding to a deeper layer. The poem “In Defense of a Cashew” uses a nut in order to describe complicated feelings. “For the Love of Avocadoes” portrays tenderness and vulnerability through the fixing an avocado dish, creating, through food, the portrait of a son who is now all grown up and has learned to deal with life on his own. In “My New Boyfriend Covers Me Like a Flowered Scarf,” Lockward describes a new sweater like a lover, and the anticipation and joy of the metaphor thrills our senses, the similarity apt and rewarding.
A constant and careful eye toward craft and technique show themselves in each poem, making The Uneaten Carrots of Atonement a perfect text to adopt in a creative writing course on poetry. This is a book worthy of a writer who is fascinated by the many ways in which technique and syntax enrich the meaning of a line—an interest also demonstrated by her books The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop and The Crafty Poet II: A Portable Workshop, in which Lockward invites poets to reason with their art form and wrestle with the pull of music and painting. Diane Lockward’s is a voice that is at once sarcastic and tender, knowing and innocent, delighted by metaphor, play and understatement.
Diane Lockward Interview with Lucia Cherciu
Diane Lockward is the author of four poetry books, most recently The Uneaten Carrots of Atonement (2016). Her previous books are Temptation by Water (2010), What Feeds Us (2006), and Eve's Red Dress (2003). She is also the editor of The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop and its sequel, The Crafty Poet II. Her poems have appeared in Harvard Review, Southern Poetry Review, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. Her work has also been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, American Life in Poetry, and The Writer’s Almanac. Her awards include the Quentin R. Howard Poetry Prize, a NJ State Council on the Arts poetry fellowship, and a Woman of Achievement Award. She is the founder and publisher of Terrapin Books.
I really enjoyed reading your books, and I am glad for the opportunity to find out more about you and your press, Terrapin Books. I recently read your book The Uneaten Carrots of Atonement, which was published by Wind Publications in 2016, and I love the poem that gives the title to the book. Can you talk about this volume and the title?
The book gathers together poems written over the six years since my last book, Temptation by Water. When writing the poems for that last book, two themes made themselves apparent early on—temptation in its many forms and water. Writing subsequent poems for the book then seemed a bit easier. But that was not my process for my earlier books for which I’d just written the poems one at a time. When I had 50-60 poems, I searched for common themes and motifs. I returned to that earlier process for The Uneaten Carrots of Atonement. As I went through the poems, I noticed that quite a few had to do with sin and guilt and our desire for atonement. I put those poems together and noticed that a number of them included animals—rabbits, turtles, birds. I began to see a book coming together.
The book’s title comes from the first poem in the first section. That poem is entitled “Original Sin.” It’s about the death of the young speaker’s pet rabbit, a death caused by an act of cruelty for which the speaker tried to atone by offering carrots which remained uneaten. Is atonement then possible?
Tell me about your writing practice, about your everyday struggle with writing, its pleasure and conflicts.
I wish I were an everyday kind of writer, but I’m not. I’ve tried to be, but that process which works for others eludes me. When I do write, it’s always in the morning, always at my kitchen table, and always on a yellow legal pad.
Although my writing of poetry is sporadic, I spend time each morning reading poetry while I have breakfast. I mark poems I like, ones I want to revisit. If ideas come to me, I jot them down in my idea journal. Eventually, I have a talk with myself about the necessity of getting something written. If I waited for inspiration to strike, I’d get very little done. I have to make it happen by carving out some time and showing up at the kitchen table. Then I find something in my idea journal and just freewrite which I love doing. If I’m lucky, something ignites and I sense the possibility of a poem.
Subsequent days are spent weeding out the garbage from the freewrite and uncovering the poem. Then days of more drafting and revising. I’m a big reviser. For me, revision is often the stage in the process where I discover the poem. And I’m happy to completely rework what’s in front of me. I find that intensely exciting, something that wouldn’t happen if I settled for early drafts.
Are you part of a writing group? Where do you find the support and encouragement to sustain the work it takes to be a writer?
I was part of a group for seven years. We met once a month at my house. We always spent part of the time generating new work and part of the time critiquing poems. Then one of us got a new job and could no longer come. So the group just sort of died out.
I try to attend local readings to give and get support. I’ve had a poetry blog for years, and I do a monthly Poetry Newsletter which helps keep me in the larger poetry community. I’m also on Facebook and have lots of poet “friends” there.
How did you come up with the concept for The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop?
The Crafty Poet evolved out of my monthly Poetry Newsletter. Each newsletter contains a craft tip solicited from a well-established poet, a model poem that I’ve found in a book or journal, and a prompt I make up based on the model poem. After doing the newsletter for several years, I began to think about doing a book. When I had enough material, I spent a few months planning the book’s structure—a monumental task. Once that was done, I put out a submission call for sample poems written to the prompts.
Three years later I was ready to do a sequel. The Crafty Poet II: A Portable Workshop was somewhat easier to organize since I’d already done the first book. I’ve also since done a revised edition of the original The Crafty Poet; this edition contains an Index which some readers had told me they wished the first edition had. Now both books have an Index, which makes them more useful, especially in the classroom.
What is the process of communicating with other poets like? Do you invite the writers whose work you love?
For the craft tips, I keep a list of poets I want to solicit. Most say yes. Once a piece is sent to me, I create a desktop folder which I assign to a month. I keep a list of possible model poems. Once the folder is created, I select a poem and add it to the folder. I always contact the poet and ask for permission. No poet has ever said no to that request. As I’ve now been doing the newsletter for a number of years, many of the poets are already familiar with it and happy to be part of it. It’s good exposure for them and their work as I have more than one thousand subscribers, all of whom are themselves poets—a good audience.
How has the process of writing The Crafty Poet and its sequelchanged your view about writing?
I don’t know that it has changed my view about writing. Doing those two craft books was very different from writing poems. Putting them together was much more systematic and logical than writing a poem which is intuitive and wild and sometimes chaotic.
I mentioned earlier that I always write in the morning, but when doing the craft books I was able to work at any time of the day or night. I didn’t really need the part of my brain that writes the poems. I’m grateful that I’m able to do both kinds of writing.
I have read your book The Doll Collection and I love the topic. Tell me about the whole journey of putting the anthology together.
Some years ago I began nursing a dream about starting a press for poetry books. In October of 2015 that dream became Terrapin Books, a small press for full-length poetry books, anthologies, and craft books. Once I’d done the necessary preliminary start-up work, I needed a first project. I didn’t want the first project to be full-length manuscripts.
I decided that an anthology would be a good way to get started. I’d be reading individual poems rather than collections and I could reach a lot of poets. This seemed a good way of spreading the word about Terrapin Books and getting lots of submissions. I also thought this would be a good project for learning the ins and outs of formatting a manuscript for book publication. So then I needed an idea. Dolls came quickly to mind and I went with it.
I put out a call for submissions and the poems began rolling in. I contacted a photographer through Facebook and obtained one of his photos of a doll collection. He’d taken a series of photos at a small doll museum in France. My work with him was all done online—a good thing as he lives in Italy. Then I formatted the book.
I have to say that I’m very pleased with the book that resulted. I have wonderful poets in it and wonderful poems. I arranged a launch reading at my local library in NJ and quite a few of the poets came to read—four from Philadelphia, one from West Virginia, several from NY, plus several who lived in NJ. A group from Wisconsin did a bookstore reading. Another one of the poets arranged a reading in Warwick, NY. I also gave a presentation at the New Hampshire Poetry Festival and five of the poets read at that. And I hosted a reading at AWP. Fourteen of the doll poets read there.
I have many poems included in different anthologies myself, and what I like best about anthologies is that they create a sense of community, allowing poets to meet each other, network, and support each other. What has been your own experience?
I think you are absolutely right about the sense of community. I was so gratified by the support the poets gave to the book. I provided each contributor with a complimentary copy of the book and fully expected to lose money on the first project, but many of the poets ordered additional copies (at a discounted price) to use as gifts. So I was able to just about break even right from the beginning. I’m working on another anthology now and hope to have more in the future, but the main focus of Terrapin Books will be full-length collections.
I attended your AWP panel on anthologies. What advice would you have for people who want to edit an anthology themselves? Where should they start and what should they keep in mind?
They should start with an idea. The ones that are most appealing to me have a limited scope, e.g., a collection of poems about dolls or a collection of poems about donuts. The Doll Collection was my idea but the donut collection, our second anthology, was pitched to me by a poet who has a poem in the doll book. I liked his limited focus though there’s plenty of variety as there are many kinds of donuts. I also liked the quirkiness of the theme.
I think that anthologists stand a much better chance of getting their books into print if they can line up a publisher before beginning the work of gathering the poems. I know that as a poet I’ve submitted to a number of anthologies that never saw the light of day because their editors couldn’t find a publisher. Potential anthologists should anticipate that it may be difficult to find a publisher. Since presenting at AWP, I’ve had several queries about potential anthologies. I had to say no to each one as I can only do a very limited number, maybe one per year.
Once the editor has found an agreeable publisher, he or she will need to put out a call for submissions, read through all of the submissions, and make selections. While making selections, the editor needs to achieve a variety of voices and styles. Then comes the hard work of putting the poems into some kind of sensible order. Once the book is in print, the editor must be willing to arrange readings and make every effort to get the book reviewed and into the hands of readers.
You are the founder and publisher of Terrapin Books. How is that work going? How many books have you published so far?
It’s going very well. I find the work of being a publisher gratifying. I’ve been doing two open reading periods per year, and I operate outside of the contest model. I accept only 2-4 manuscripts per reading period, so I’m selective. This allows me time to carefully edit each manuscript and to work closely with each poet throughout the process. As of today, Terrapin has published two craft books, one anthology with another in the works, and six full-length poetry books with three more accepted and in progress.
As a publisher, what have you learned when you worked on selecting manuscripts? Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to poets who submit their manuscripts?
I find that a lot of poets want to win a contest. It’s lovely to win something, but contests with a money prize attract hundreds of submissions and the odds of winning are low. I know many poets who spend years entering contests—I was one of them. So one piece of advice I’d offer is to pay attention to presses that operate outside of the contest model. That doesn’t mean that you’ll get your manuscript accepted any sooner, but at least you won’t go broke on contest fees which often go as high as $30.
I also think it’s essential that a poet considering submitting to a press obtain at least one book put out by that press. Be sure the press is doing the kind of work you’d be proud to have done for your book. Are the books the size you want? Is there a printed spine? Is the book free of errors? Then you should also consider how many books the press is putting out per year. If it’s dozens and dozens, you can probably safely assume that the books aren’t edited. Some presses take a few years after acceptance before the book is published. Can you wait that long?
The most common error I notice among submitted manuscripts is in the ordering of the poems. Each submission period I get too many manuscripts that are organized topically, i.e., poems on the same subject get clumped together. That deprives the manuscipt of variety and the reader of surprise. For example, if I read four poems in a row about childhood, then I expect that when I turn the page the next poem will be about childhood. And if it is, I feel a bit annoyed and let down—oh no, I say to myself, not this theme again. I much prefer a braided approach to organization.
What are the best ways to promote a book when it comes out? What should the publisher do? What should the writer do? Which strategies worked best for you and why?
I ask each of my poets to have a dedicated website for biographical information and information about the new book—cover image, purchase links, blurbs, and readings. I also ask each poet to be involved in social media, especially Facebook which is a great place to post information about a book and to keep your friends up to date.
As a poet and now as a publisher, I’ve found that one of the most important steps in promotion is the email blitz, that is, an email announcement that the poet sends out to his or her email list announcing the publication of a new book. I consider this an essential way to generate sales right after a book comes out. Poets have a tendency to think that they should only inform other poets about a new book. That’s a mistake. Sometimes the person you’d least expect to buy your book is the first person to do so.
I expect my poets to query for readings. In my FAQs I suggest that any poet who doesn’t like to give readings shouldn’t submit to Terrapin Books. I also encourage my poets to make requests for reviewers.
For my part, when each poet’s book is published, I send a list of suggestions for promoting the book. I have an online bookstore that includes all our titles. I keep a list of potential reviewers. Periodically, I send out a list of titles to our reviewers and they can choose a title they’d like to review. I do some advertising on Facebook and elsewhere.
I provide each poet with review copies to send out. I also send a pdf that the poet can use for reviewers who prefer a pdf. If a journal prefers to receive review copies from the publisher, I send a copy. I don’t publish and forget. Promotion is a joint effort.
Lucia Cherciu was born in Romania and came to the United States in 1995. She is a Professor of English at SUNY / Dutchess in Poughkeepsie, NY, and writes both in English and in Romanian. Her new book of poetry, Train Ride to Bucharest, is forthcoming from Sheep Meadow Press. Edible Flowers, which was a finalist for the Eugene Paul Nassar Poetry Prize, was published in 2015 by Main Street Rag. Her other books of poetry are Lepădarea de Limbă (The Abandonment of Language), Editura Vinea 2009, and Altoiul Râsului (Grafted Laughter), Editura Brumar 2010. Her poetry was nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Her web page can be found here.