March 25, 2019KR Conversations

Caki Wilkinson

Photo of Caki WilkinsonCaki Wilkinson is the author of the poetry collections Circles Where the Head Should Be (University of North Texas Press, 2011), which won the Vassar Miller Prize, and The Wynona Stone Poems (Persea Books, 2015), which won the Lexi Rudnitsky/Editor’s Choice Award. Her new work has appeared in Yale Review, Nation, Crazyhorse, and other magazines. She lives in Memphis, Tennessee. Her poem “Flyover Country” can be found here. It appears along with another poem in the Mar/Apr 2019 issue of the Kenyon Review.

What was your original impetus for writing “Flyover Country”?

Tennessee, where I grew up and still live, is full of nutty place names. Driving east from Memphis to visit my family in middle Tennessee, I pass through Dancyville, Yum Yum, Bucksnort, and Only—and that’s just in the first two hours. I’d been wanting to write a poem or series that incorporated some of these names, but I wasn’t really sure why or how to do it. I kept trying and failing to construct a narrative around the towns, and eventually I decided to cut the connective tissue and just let the names speak for themselves. I got a giant state map and found even more towns I’d never heard of, and that gave me some momentum.

The first draft used the same basic structure as the final version, but the poem wasn’t doing much beyond the rhythm and sounds, so I set it aside and moved on. About six months later, in the grim days after the 2016 election, it seemed like everyone was talking about “flyover country” and the South, and I returned to the poem. I went back to the map too, and suddenly I was noticing all these place names that weren’t just nutty but sort of eerily suggestive, and that’s when things started to click.

“Flyover Country” invites readers to occupy spaces somewhat neglected and overlooked, as hinted by the title. What do you think can be gained from meditating on and being asked to look at and enjoy the sounds and oddity of these spaces?

I think place names in general can be very unsettling—an extreme example of Emerson’s idea that language is “fossil poetry.” Since this is a list poem, I wanted to include a variety of odd and evocative names, but also I was interested in how the names relate to one another. I started to think of the poem almost as a portrait of Tennessee, or any place that could be called flyover county. It begins with town names that evoke familiar characteristics or stereotypes of the South, and there are strains of humor and reproach, but I hope the associations become more complex as the poem progresses. And I hope that complexity is also a form of compassion.

“43 Sonnet” plays directly off of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnet 43,” and begins with the same line. What relationship do you intend this piece to have with the Shakespearean one it invokes? Is it fair to look at it as a modernization of some of the original sentiment? Is there satire intended here as well?

In some ways “43 Sonnet” is a modernization of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnet 43,” but its main connection to the original is more literal: my poem takes Browning’s first line and then reshuffles it anagrammatically in each of the following lines. As ludicrous as it might sound, I had written several other anagram poems before this one, most of which reworked one of my own lines. For this poem, though, I chose a line from a sonnet that had always irritated me—because it is ubiquitous, but also because if you do “count the ways,” there are only seven. That’s not a lot of ways. It made me want to write a poem in which the speaker is literally and obsessively counting the ways she loves someone.

So I do think “43 Sonnet” started from a place of dark humor, and from the very beginning the poem is wary of romantic love. That said, one of my favorite things about using anagrammatic constraints is that the resulting poem is always a little (or a lot) out of my control. As I continued to rearrange the same thirty-one letters, “43 Sonnet” started to feel more serious. And it is serious: it’s a sonnet about the demise of a relationship. In Browning’s sonnet, love is this all-encompassing and active force; in mine, it’s much more slippery.

How has your writing changed since you started out?

When I was first starting out, I wanted my poems to be very hospitable, and as a result I gave myself a lot of rules. I’ve always liked constraints—formal, thematic, whatever—but now I’m a little less concerned with polish and more willing to deal with a poem on its own terms. I’m also more likely to see that a poem is going off the rails in time either to steer it back on track or let it crash. I used to think I would know what I was doing once I’d written a certain number of books or poems. That hasn’t been the case, but I’m better at not knowing what I’m doing.

What project(s) are you working on now, or next? 

I’m finishing up my third collection of poems, which includes both “Flyover Country” and “43 Sonnet.” The manuscript felt really unwieldy for a long time, but I’ve got my head around it now.