She is a prize-winning, published poet, but for Caki Wilkinson, the true rewards are in the words.
"My prize was three $1 bills and a blue ribbon. I wouldn't call it destiny, but I guess it marked a kind of beginning," says Wilkinson, a second-year PhD student.
A beginning, indeed: Earlier this year, Wilkinson earned a 2008 Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship – and a $15,000 prize – from The Poetry Foundation. She also took top honors in The Atlantic magazine's 2008 Student Writing Contest for poetry, for her work "Bower Bird."
How special is this time in her life, and to be part of the effort to encourage the further study and writing of poetry?
"It's all very exciting, and a good dose of encouragement; certainly writing is not about prizes or awards, but I think most writers would agree that a little recognition can do wonders for the psyche," says Wilkinson, a Sewannee, Tenn., native.
"The news from the Atlantic caught me off guard – I forgot that I had even entered the contest. With the Lilly fellowship, I was just happy to be a finalist, and when I got the phone call from Don Share (an editor at The Poetry Foundation) I was pretty stunned. It's a real honor to be included with the other four winners."
Wilkinson, a finalist for the Southwest Review's Morton Marr poetry prize in 2006, earned her bachelor's degree in English from Rhodes College and her MFA from Johns Hopkins University. In McMicken's Department of English and Comparative Literature, she found one of the few PhD programs that allow students to take a combination of creative writing and literature courses.
"I wanted, and felt like I needed, to do more reading – especially the kind of guided, focused work that takes place in lit seminars," she says.
"At the same time, though, I wanted to have time to write, and the program at UC seemed to meet both of these needs."
Wilkinson is finding great support from faculty and other students in the Department of English: It's been a wildly productive couple of years for the department's poets. Just recently, for example, first-year PhD student Morgan Frank's poem "Rescue" was chosen for the annual Best New Poets anthology. The collection is due out this fall.
"This is not the kind of program that encourages one particular kind of thinker or writer; my fellow graduate students are all involved in such different projects, and their various perspectives make workshops and seminars a lot more interesting," Wilkinson says.
"Along these same lines, one of the things I've enjoyed the most is getting to work with a range of professors in the English department. Alison Rieke helped turn me into a fan of Marianne Moore, and Amy Elder offered lots of good advice for a paper on Gwendolyn Brooks. Joanie (Mackowski), Don (Bogen), and John (Drury) are all very supportive, and I had a great experience in the Elliston workshop last spring with (visiting poet) John Koethe."
It is, she says, "absolutely" exciting to be a poet in a time when one's work can be read – and heard! – online.
"There's the idea that the only people reading poetry are other poets," Wilkinson notes. "I don't necessarily agree, but without a doubt the Internet has expanded (exponentially!) the readership – and the 'listener-ship.'"
When she's not writing, does she find time to read?
"Oh, gosh, I get a little anxious just thinking about it," says Wilkinson, who also enjoys playing basketball.
"I'll just say that the next book in the queue is John Barth's 'The Sot-Weed Factor.'"