Caki Wilkinson’s second poetry collection, The Wynona Stone Poems, inhabits quite a different space than her debut collection. Like in Circles Where the Head Should Be, Wilkinson’s formal adeptness is still on display throughout the collection, but this time, the poems are all focused on a single character: Wynona Stone. Wynona has some characteristics of an everywoman: she is concerned with fears we all know too well, such as self-doubt and the feeling of being in a rut. We have all asked ourselves what Wynona wants to know: What am I doing with my life? While some of Wynona’s anxieties are familiar, she is utterly unique and multifaceted. After moving back to her hometown, Wynona unenthusiastically dates the local weatherman and spends her time outside of her unsatisfying job making clay models. Throughout the book, Wynona’s childhood memories bleed seamlessly into poems about her present, and we all make the intrepid journey into “real” adulthood with her, recognizing ourselves in her experiences and rooting for her small triumphs along the way.
The Wynona Stone Poems is the winner of the 2013 Lexi Rudnitsky Editor’s Choice Award (Persea Books). You can get a sneak peek at some of the poems from the collection in Memorious. Caki answered some of my questions about what it was like to write a poetry collection so unique in scheme and scope.
Circles Where the Head Should Be was formally “strict,” so to speak, whereas in The Wynona Stone Poems you experiment more with other forms, like prose poetry for example. Can you talk about how you made this shift and what you think this experimentation with form brings to this book?
I can be pretty obsessive about balance (e.g. the middle section of Circles Where the Head Should Be, a series called “The School by the Zoo,” is made up of sixteen, sixteen-line poems that all follow the same meter and rhyme scheme). My impulse is to impose order, but I was constantly working against this impulse in The Wynona Stone Poems, understanding that variety was going to be important—along with a certain amount of messiness. If things were lined up too neatly I would risk the element of surprise that helps keep the collection moving forward. Individually most of the poems follow some kind of metrical pattern, but I made a point to vary their shapes and sounds, and I tried to be open to breaking their rules.
Speaking of form, you’re often referred to as a formalist poet. Do you see formalism as a part of your poetic identity? What draws you to writing in form?
I never know what to say about formalism. I think about form all the time—and I’d say that’s true of most poets—but I don’t think very much about formalism as a movement or aesthetic or anything like that. I love and read all sorts of poems, and I hope I’ll continue to experiment with different styles.
For me, though, restrictions are generative. Following some formal scheme helps to push me past my own blinkered way of seeing; it forces me to assume a wider and stranger stance. This is true of other poetic rules too, and I’m always giving myself these private challenges: Can I write a poem in which all the lines are anagrams for the first line? Can I write a cross-rhymed poem without punctuation? Can I write a stanza that includes the words adagio, jellyfish, and butt?
Can you talk about the impetus for the character of Wynona Stone? Was there something in your own life that sparked the idea, or did she come from somewhere else entirely?
When I started writing the poems, I knew I wanted to do a longer project, and I thought the project would focus on several characters. I had all these notes and ideas about setting it at a museum, but my initial plans for a plot never really took off. Wynona was in the first poem I wrote, and I never could move past her. I was drawing some from my own life—more than I realized at the time—but this comes out less in the specific plot than in the mood of the poems. I wrote half of the first draft in a pretty isolated place where I was alone all day creating these characters and their town. I wrote the second half after moving and starting a job in an office, and it was hard to make the transition; suddenly my head was filled with lots of real people and concrete responsibilities. That tension made its way into the poems too: there is one Wynona who works in a museum and visits the Weatherman; there’s another who goes home and builds clay models.
I know that you and Wynona have some similarities, like playing basketball, for instance. What other elements in the book do you think were drawn from real life? (Other characters maybe?) Can you talk a little about the idea “writing what you know” and how to turn life into poetry?
Yes, I played basketball very seriously from age eight until my freshman year college. I never intended to make it part of Wynona’s history too, but it became one of the ways I connected with her younger self. Sports were such a central part of my life growing up that it was hard for me to imagine what else she would have done with her time.
As for the other characters, a few are composites of real-life people (though there was never a weatherman—much to my family’s relief), and I borrowed plenty of little details. For example, a friend who had recently moved back in with his parents told me he came home one night to find them dead asleep in separate rooms, separate TVs blasting separate programs. I thought that was the perfect image for Mr. and Mrs. Stone. Mostly, though, I needed Wynona and the people of Pleasant Bluff to feel a little mysterious; it’s what pushed me to keep writing.
“Write what you know” is one of those rules that makes sense if you don’t think about it very hard. And, too, people often assume it means “write what happened,” which isn’t the same thing. Robert Lowell reportedly used to tell his students, “A poem is an event, not a record of an event.” I like that. Sometimes the poem’s event is its own kind of knowing.
Unlike many poetry collections, this collection sticks with one character throughout. Can you talk about how this was a new challenge for you? What drew you into Wynona’s character and made you want to continue writing about her? How did you find the process of delving deeply into one character’s life and psyche, rather than writing a more “traditional” poetry collection linked by theme or form, for example?
For me, one of the hardest things about writing poems is that you are constantly starting over. Every poem is its own occasion, and when you finish one it’s back to the drawing board. This can be liberating, but it’s a lot of pressure. When I was writing The Wynona Stone Poems I got to build a whole world. At first I doubted whether or not the project would succeed, but working on the poems was fun in a way that writing hadn’t been in a long time. Eventually I learned to trust the fun I was having and stop worrying (mostly) about everything else.
I think I was drawn to Wynona initially because of her flaws, which were alternately funny and sad in ways that made me root for her. Wynona is a compressed, distorted version of a real person, and there are moments when her circumstances seem ridiculous, but I think her motivations are very human. She’s a person trying to come to terms with a bunch of small failures, and she wants to hope there’s something better ahead of her.
-Susan Elliott Brown is a poetry reader for Memorious. Her poems have appeared in such places as Measure: A Review of Formal Poetry, The Atticus Review, The Ampersand Review, and the Best American Poetry Blog.
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