By Andrew Purcell
A couple weeks ago I reached out to Caki Wilkinson with a few questions about her development as a poet and about her new book, The Wynona Stone Poems (Persea Books 2015). Previously, I’d had the opportunity to run three poems from this collection, which you can read here, so I was very excited to dig a bit into Wilkinson’s title character, Miss Stone. The narrative arc follows Wynona from adolescence into adulthood in a voice that both teases the character and empathizes with her. Along the way, the reader explores the interiority of a marginally above average young woman, neither hero nor victim, as she fashions meaning from an All-American hodgepodge of sports and jobs, crafts and relationships. It’s a wonderfully executed read that should definitely find a place in your personal library.
Cosmonauts Avenue: At Syracuse University, Bruce Smith always asked his students “What hurt you into poetry?” I think a lot of times there’s an assumption that poets are generally the bookish, T.S. Eliot sort, but Smith was a running back in college and you were a basketball player. When and how did your identity as a writer begin to coalesce, and how did this relate to your identity as an athlete?
Caki Wilkinson: I was just talking about this the other day with my friend Andrew Milward! There are a surprising number of writers who were once competitive athletes. Writing and playing sports both require so many hours of practice, much of it spent alone. But there’s a rhythm to that kind of focus, at least for me, and in the best moments it leads to a level of self-forgetfulness that I haven’t found anywhere else.
I got into basketball and poetry at more or less the same time, when I was about 9 years old. I loved basketball mostly because I was good at it; I loved poetry mostly because of Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss. In fifth grade I wrote my first poem (“Jailhouse Mouse,” which won a local contest), but I also liked to read my dad’s John Feinstein books and collect basketball cards.
I started reading and writing more seriously when I got to high school, and poetry served a different purpose for me then. Poetry, unlike basketball, was something I did that almost no one knew about. I would get home from away games feeling exhausted but somehow still jacked, so I would stay up and write—a lot of terrible poems describing ochre skies and inky skies and dancing phantoms, but that was okay because I didn’t think they were terrible.
I quit basketball right after I got to college, surprising everyone including myself. I was lost for a little bit, but I wasn’t totally wrecked because I had something else I cared about and could work on.
CA: Wynona’s difficulties with identity and the specter of identity utterly blown-out by the gentle ravages of domestic life (“The Stone House”) really propelled me through the book. Paulo Coelho’s prescription would be adventure, but that seems to always be slightly beyond Wynona’s horizon. In your mind, is her wit an adequate means to sustain her truest self amid the mundanity of her lived life?
CW: Whoa, “the specter of identity utterly blown-out by the gentle ravages of domestic life” is awesome! You really knocked it out of the park with that description, and you’re right: some crucial part of Wynona is shot to hell, and she can’t figure out where it went. You’re also right that adventure isn’t the answer for her, but I don’t think wit is either. Wynona can be sassy or cheeky at times, but it usually has to do with self-protection or deflection. More often I think the wit is coming from the third-person point of view and doesn’t quite belong to her.
That said, I didn’t want to hang Wynona completely out to dry, so one thing I tried to do was give her an interior life. Sometimes this interiority backfires (i.e. she’s too much in her own head), but sometimes it allows her to create objects and rituals that make her life significant. It’s what she’s doing as a kid in poems like “Axis” and in the second half of the book with her art projects; she keeps building little worlds that are more manageable than her own. Wynona is a minor artist, but at my most optimistic I want to think that’s enough to save her.
CA: As I read The Wynona Stone Poems, I was reminded of The Spoon River Anthology. I don’t know if anyone even reads that book anymore, but they should. There’s an intimacy to watching characters age in relation to one another that transcends what is possible with the confessional mode. Which is all to ask this question, because it seems central to the overall thrust of the collection: Why is Wynona “alone” at the end?
CW: You know, my original idea was to spread the book across several characters, focusing more on the individual lives of the Weatherman, the other Stones, and Wynona’s boss. Instead, I started with Wynona and didn’t move past her. At some point I surrendered to telling her story.
But this a great question, about Wynona’s aloneness. I think ultimately she’s her own biggest obstacle, so it seemed important that she get herself to a better place by the end of the book—and on her own terms. Of course, she’s not exactly a changed woman, but she’s quit her job, at least, and cut ties with the Weatherman, and she isn’t making creepy models of people. If the book had a longer trajectory I might have wanted her not to be alone at the end, but at this point it felt like enough to leave her poised for something better.
CA: When I first read your poetry, the formal qualities of your work stood out. Now I’m starting to think that what I was really seeing was more than just formalism, something perhaps a bit like dramatic composition, the rhythm of speech patterns syncing with smart turns of phrase. The emphasis on persona in The Wynona Stone Poems also helps to deliver this kind of experience. Can you explain a bit about the dramaturgical impulses in your project?
CW: When I started this book, I wanted to write a verse play. I immediately ran into two problems: I knew almost nothing about playwriting, and a lot of the verse plays I read weren’t very good. I couldn’t wrap my brain around what needed to happen for the form to work, so once I started writing I abandoned it pretty quickly. What did make it into the book, though, are a bunch of subtler references to staging, sets, movie shots and scenes, and so forth. This made sense to me for a book whose characters are often performing multiple roles (historical interpreter, weatherman, boss, etc.).
As for form, I definitely think my poems have a dramatic impulse. I like the way Frost puts it when he talks about “the sound of sense,” which is something I’ve thought about a lot. Also, in the context of a longer project, working with different forms helped me see each poem as a distinct piece, and it helped me create smaller moments of dramatic tension and resolution.
CA: Who is a contemporary poet you look to and say “that’s something I’d like to be able to do?”
CW: I’m consistently drawn to Heather McHugh’s poems. She loves words and wordplay more than any poet I know, and I’m always impressed with her poems’ snappy tropes, but what I admire most about McHugh is her attentiveness. She has an exquisite ability to re-see, dignifying or dismantling the stuff most of us take for granted.
CA: Lena Dunham and Maurice Manning are reading you. Who’s on your summer reading list?
CW: I just finished Karen Joy Fowler’s novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which was wonderful. Next on my list is Holding On Upside Down, Linda Leavell’s biography of Marianne Moore, which I’ve been holding on to since it came out in 2013. I’ve also got a whole heap of recently released poetry books, among them Kimberly Johnson’s Uncommon Prayer, Terrance Hayes’s How to Be Drawn, Joshua Mehigan’s Accepting the Disaster, and Erika Meitner’s Copia.
CA: Do you have any lines or couplets that haven’t yet found a home, that are just lying around? Want to share one?
CW: For years I kept trying to find a poem that would accommodate the rhyme “crustacean” and “bus station,” but it just didn’t work. People would read the poem and go, “Wait, I don’t get it. Why is this here?”
My newest rhyme pair—and I’ve still got hope for this one—is “emoticon” and “ a gloat-a-thon.” I like emoticons as much as any (female) person I know, but count me out of the gloat-a-thon.
CA: What’s next?
CW: I’m still working my way into something new. For the last year or so I’ve been playing around with shorter poems, trying to resist or redirect my narrative impulses. The poems I’ve written so far are still a little mysterious to me, but it’s been fun to see what I can say with fewer words.
I’ve also been reading a lot about spells: excerpts from the Greek Magical Papyri, Norse runes, Anglo Saxon charms, and so forth. The names and subjects can be pretty irresistible (“Cat Ritual for Many Purposes,” “King Pitys’ Spell of Attraction,” “Charm for the Water-Elf Disease”), but more importantly, I love the idea of poetic language that aims to make something happen. Here are some verses that will cure your boils, or keep your enemies away, or “draw down the moon.” That last phrase comes up a lot in the Greek Magical Papyri, and isn’t it perfect? I want to write a poem that does that.
Caki Wilkinson is the author of the poetry collections Circles Where the Head Should Be (UNT Press, 2011), which won the Vassar Miller Prize, and The Wynona Stone Poems (Persea, 2015), which won the Lexi Rudnitsky/Editor’s Choice Award. She lives in Memphis, TN and teaches at Rhodes College.
Andrew Purcell‘s work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, The Cafe Review, Birdfeast, The Adirondack Review, and NightBlock, among others. He received his MFA from Syracuse University and currently lives and works in Philadelphia.