‘A lot of power’
Poet luxuriates in English language
Christopher Locke knew he was onto something big when his first attempt at writing, a short story featuring James Bond, camping and various bodily functions, shocked and upset his third-grade teacher.
“I remember thinking, ‘This has a lot of power! This is exciting!’ ” Locke said.
His teacher’s negative reaction didn’t deter him from doing what children do – showing their work to their parents. Fortunately, his parents were pleased that he was happy and proud.
“What I discovered quite by accident was that when I wrote this story, I had that same feeling of earnest desire to show what I’d done, and I knew that this was something I wanted to continue,” he said.
And continue he did. Locke, an award-winning poet, essayist and playwright, will read from his latest full-length collection of poems, Waiting for Grace and Other Poems, at Gibson’s Bookstore tonight at 7.
Locke described his early challenges as a writer.
“In high school I tried my hand at the deep, dark abyss poems,” Locke said. “You’re listening to the Smiths and you’re wearing your black sweaters and turtlenecks, and your wrist is against your
forehead and you’re thinking, ‘How can I go on?’.
“It’s so melodramatic, but it’s so important in your growth as a writer. You have to have that stage; it’s sort of like a lily pad that you have to step on to get you across to the next one, which will get you further across the pond to the other side.”
The encouragement he received in high school made him feel that perhaps his writing had something to say. And he learned that it’s okay to write what you feel.
“I wrote this poem that was quite dark, but then I felt guilty about it being so dark,” he said. “I felt worried that the rules wouldn’t allow that, so I added a chipper, sunny ending to the poem, hoping that it would somehow let me off the hook in case anyone, God forbid, read it.”
His English teacher told him bluntly to get rid of the dissonant ending.
“She was the first adult champion of untidy emotions that I had met,” he said.
But what emotions are tidy, anyway? Life is messy. Locke has been described as a writer who takes what life throws at him, and throws it right back.
“My poems do tackle difficult subjects,” Locke said. “Not all of them do – but I think it’s incredibly important that my poetry lay bare decisions that have happened, and I work to find the language that best represent those moments. Sometimes they’re ugly, and sometimes they’re beautiful, sometimes a combination of both – but honest.”
Locke, who has taught English and creative writing in high school for about 15 years, wants his students to feel free to be honest, too. He tells his writing students to write, as a good starting point, “something you’d be terrified to show your mother.”
They need to read what is relevant to their lives, and to take risks in their writing, he said. They need to trust, however, that their risk-taking will be received positively. They have to trust that what they write matters, and that it will be allowed.
Locke didn’t exactly choose writing as a career. You could say that writing chose him.
“I don’t think I have a choice,” he said. “That might sound arrogant, but it’s not meant to be. It’s something that I have to do. It’s not a hobby. I don’t do it for fun. It’s not fashionable. It’s simply something that is necessary, as much as breathing and eating and living.”
Writing allows him, he said, to “muck through the quagmire of various experiences” and find clarity and understanding, and a greater connection to life when he finishes something.
“It offers a buzz that very few things can equal outside of feeling loved,” he said.
While poetry is his “first and greatest love,” he finds it more difficult than writing plays or essays.
“It’s not because of subject matter, or because I’m fearful of what it is I have to say. It’s that sometimes I struggle over a semicolon,” he said, laughing. “Or that line six of this poem of 33 lines ends on the word ‘looped,’ but is that the right word? I’ll struggle, and I’ll leave, and I’ll come back and I’ll end up spending three hours on a line, whereas I can rattle off a 10-minute play or 500-600 words of an essay in that same time frame.”
Poetry can also be unpredictable for the writer.
“One line can become a hinge that takes, me, the writer, and swings me over to another room that I wasn’t planning on entering, let alone even know that there was a door into that room,” Locke said.
Locke is a master of creating pictures with words: a small abacus of birds fills a telephone wire; a bat spelling the air in dark, cursive swoops; the hem of the wind’s silk robe dragging slightly across the lake. He’s especially pleased with one from “Porcupine,” in which he and his daughters watch from their car as a porcupine slowly lumbers across the road:
finally passed, and when my daughter
wondered out loud if something helped
guide it, I imagined a mouse as crossing
guard, small sign gripped in his hand,
one of those bright orange vests made
by someone who loves him, who needs
the world to see him clearly in this rain.
His daughters, Grace and Sophie, attended the event where he read this for the first time.
Many of his poems are inspired by his daughters, who appear frequently in Waiting for Grace.
“There are a lot of dad poems in it, too,” Locke said.” You can’t help but incorporate their experience and mere existence and what you share into your writing. I think to not do that would be false and disingenuous because they play such a prominent role in my life every day.”
Ultimately, Locke said, poetry is communication. This is evident in the way he approaches his readings.
“I like to tell stories when I do a reading,” he said. “I loathe readings in which the poet stands up and shambles over to the podium, then looks down and mumbles. To me, the reading experience itself is so important to try to connect with the audience.”
Locke likes to explain how or why a poem came to be, or why it’s not what it could have been, because ultimately, he said, he is responsible for not only what he puts out there but what he chooses to leave out.
“I like to talk about the process and how we, audience and poet reading, arrive in this place together,” he said. “Poems, even although they appear static on the page, can always be changing. I think that change occurs when you read to an audience as a result of how it’s received, and how it’s read, and explained.”
Locke will present Waiting for Grace and Other Poems at Gibson’s Bookstore tonight at 7. He will be joined by local poet Martha Carson-Bradley.
For information, visit gibsonsbookstore.com or call 224-0562.