Poet Caki Wilkinson, who teaches at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, visited Sewanee in the fall of 2019. At the time, she was in the midst of completing her third book The Survival Expo (forthcoming from Persea Books in June 2021). Managing editor and poetry editor Eric Smith sat down to speak to Wilkinson about her collections The Wynona Stone Poems (2015)—winner of the Lexi Rudnitsky Editor’s Choice Award—and Circles Where the Head Should Be, winner of the Vassar Miller Prize, as well as her new work, some of which originally appeared in the Sewanee Review.
The conversation registers how Wilkinson is keenly attuned to fear and how fear mitigates action. Wilkinson describes her search for symmetry and control in the face of things that cannot be controlled—in life and in writing. “In Memphis, in Tennessee, you think a lot about the kind of ideology behind ‘wanting to protect your property, wanting to be super prepared, have a big arsenal of guns,’ and how that kind of thinking has gotten us to where we are today,” she says. “All of this stuff is being driven by fear. That sense of obsessive order, obsessive preparation as way of protecting yourself against future disasters or future ways that things can go wrong.”
The collection The Survival Expo, like its titular poem, takes a measure of terror and anxiety about survival and our own complicated reaction to how we prepare for such inevitabilities. We are, the poet says, “appalled . . . but not ungratified / by all the ways we have to stay alive.” In this exploration, the collection strays from the literary history of its poet. The book’s poems experiment with form, straining against constraints. “If you were taught in the formalist tradition as I was, you’re taught everything needs to be very clear. It should be neat—a well-wrought urn of a poem,” she says. “I was really interested in these forms that kind of break down.”
At the heart of the conversation and Wilkinson's work is a question about hope: “What is hope? Is hope optimism?” In her prose poems, like “Nostos” and “One in Wins” (which appear in the Winter 2020 issue of the Review), hope is personified. But, as Wilkinson muses, “Hope is a character and things are not going well for her. I was thinking about Emily Dickinson, like what is the 2020 version of Emily Dickinson’s ‘Hope is the thing with feathers?’. Definitely not a bird.”
The Sewanee Review Podcast is recorded in the Ralston Listening Room at the University of the South. It is produced by Hellen Wainaina and edited by ProPodcast Solutions with music by Annie Bowers. Don’t miss any of our conversations with some of today’s best writers. Subscribe to the Sewanee Review Podcast on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. Caki Wilkinson’s books are available for purchase or pre-order from Bookshop.org.