The Enoch Pratt Free Library represents the free public library system of Baltimore. To learn more about the annual poetry contest, and to read Caitlin Wilson’s winning Poem, “Watershed”, click here. I caught up with Caitlin recently, who was kind enough to answer a few questions about her work. Our conversation follows.
LPR: I absolutely loved your poem and loved, too, the opening rest stop factoid. I sense your poem was generated from this? Can you talk a little about how this piece came to be?
CW: The fact was absolutely a jumping-off point for “Watershed,” because the image was strange enough to generate questions in me. Who is this tall, mysterious woman? Why is she walking throughout the bay? Where is she going? I loved her. When I began the poem, I wanted to try answering these questions and to discover why the scenario was so captivating. I find this to be a good approach to writing anything—exploring the ‘why’—because the time it takes to arrive at an answer is where all of the value lives, especially when you never arrive. As Rebecca Solnit writes in her essay “Open Door,” “That thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost.” I struggled to write the end of this poem, because even after following this woman’s journey, I still don’t know who she is to walk through the bay. But isn’t it more interesting that way?
LPR: I love so many lines in this, but especially “pebbling the waters skin”. I also enjoyed the names of these creatures that you include: Jesus bugs and blennies. Did you find yourself inspired by the names of plants and animals? I always wonder about the stories behind these names?
CW: I grew up swimming in the Chesapeake Bay, often the Magothy River, catching small fish with my hands and playing among different plants. It was natural to learn what names they were given, and I remain constantly fascinated by learning new things about the world. Names allow you to single things out, but at the same time they connect back to a long heritage of people who created a name and its linguistic roots. When we hear a name, we know it to be a person, place, or thing, but we also sense the story behind it. An insect may have a million regional names, but if I use Jesus bug, you get a sense of the spiritual and miraculous and how it walks upon water. And etymology is endless fun. I actually have a vivid memory of reading the short story “The Awakening” by Isaac Babel for the first time as a young writer, because the boy in it, who also hopes to be a writer, has a crisis when he is accused of not knowing the names of trees and birds and told that failure will ruin his writing. Of course, naming isn’t knowing, names can be so arbitrary, but they do carry complex meanings, which is sustenance to a poem.
What does it mean to feel an abiding love for something that you have a hand in depleting?
LPR: Are you a strictly a poet or do you write fiction and/or nonfiction? I ask as your poem so deftly celebrates the natural environment, this at a time when we are fighting, not just to save the Chesapeake Bay from pollution but the world. Do you see yourself an environmentalist or was this an isolated piece? If the latter, what else are you interested in writing about?
CW: I’ve tried my hand in other genres, but I always find poems come most naturally. I consider poems to be largely nonfiction, with room for deviation if it gets at a larger truth. Poetic essays or extended prose poems are so engaging to me, and I would love to branch into that form with the right subject. I tend to meditate outwardly in my writing, so the environment is one of my primary interests. Loss is also a sensation that rises to the forefront in my writing, because it never fails to bridge a gap between the personal and the natural world—that life continues in spite. I think Emily Dickinson had a strong intuition for that connection, as do many poets. And the current changes the world is undergoing includes countless losses—people, forests, species, water. What does it mean to feel an abiding love for something that you have a hand in depleting? It’s a kind of advocacy for the world, to show it in beauty and honesty and as a wellspring for our own lives that must be tended.
LPR: Are you an avid reader? What writers have influenced you and how?
CW: I strongly believe that I wouldn’t be a writer today without being an avid reader. Some of the first poets I read at length include Rainer Maria Rilke, Charles Wright, Poe and Dickinson—old school, but all of whom I think passed on a receptivity to formality in my prosody and an openness to mystery. A few of my more recent (and living) influences include Paisley Rekdal, Diane Suess, Leila Chatti, Roger Reeves, and my two teachers from graduate school, Kathleen Graber and David Wojahn. I do try to read outside of the poetry genre when I have time, and I’m certain I was influenced in all kinds of interesting ways by reading my parent’s old 80s sci-fi and fantasy trade paperbacks when I was younger.
LPR: What’s next for you?
CW: Hopefully, a poetry chapbook, which has the potential to become my first full book after graduate school. Besides that, I am staying open to opportunity and getting outside as much as I can.
Caitlin Wilson is a Maryland poet. She holds an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University. Her writing has appeared in ENTROPY, filling Station, Iron Horse Literary Review, McNeese Review, RHINO, Rogue Agent, and Wildness. She was a 2021 Sewanee Writer’s Conference contributor and recipient of VCU’s 2021 and 2020 Graduate Poetry Awards, a 2019 AWP Intro Journals Project award, the 2018 Henrietta Spiegel Creative Writing Award, and a Jiménez-Porter Literary Prize for Poetry. She previously served as managing editor of Blackbird.