why deer and poetry mix so well: A conversation with Caitlin Scarano
Originally from Southside Virginia, Caitlin Scarano (she/they) is a writer based in Bellingham, Washington. She holds a PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an MFA from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. They were selected as a participant in the NSF’s Antarctic Artists & Writers Program and spent November 2018 in McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Her work has appeared in Granta, Entropy, Carve, Colorado Review, and other journals. Her second collection, The Necessity of Wildfire, was selected by Ada Limón as the winner of the Wren Poetry Prize. You can find them at caitlinscarano.com.
Regardless of whatever genre she is working, Caitlin writes true things. Her poems are blunt and beautiful and observant and deeply infused with care about the world around her. I first met Caitlin in the summer of 2016 during the Disquiet Program. We have kept in touch over the years, and I am delighted to be able to share this little snippet from one our recent conversations about her new collection and her writing process. She is the only person whom I would actively advocate getting a deer skull tattoo.
The Rumpus: What do you think about when you run?
Caitlin Scarano: I listen to music or podcasts, but I prefer to run with a partner, like a running partner. If you’re running with someone, you just talk the whole time and it goes by really fast. Sometimes, and this may seem strange, but when I’m utterly exhausted and alone I’ll count—like I’ll count to 100.
I mainly run on trails, and there are so many places to explore. Running is a way to get into the woods and see more places. I spend so much time at my desk, on my computer. That’s where I write, it’s where I work remotely full-time, so just the ability to be away, to be outdoors and away from the boxed-in feeling of the screen is so valuable to me. Yesterday, I ran along these bluffs and they were so beautiful. The image will stay with me; I’ve been thinking about it for days—I actually dreamt about running last night.
A friend asked me recently, “What is exciting you right now?” and I was like, “Running is exciting me.” I’m not running fast or particularly good at it but its adventure and it makes me feel strong.
Rumpus: We have different ideas of “not very fast.” I sometimes think I’m just not built to run. I don’t think i’ve ever gotten under a 17-minute mile in my whole life, even when I do it for 3-4 months straight.
Scarano: When you say, “Oh I run, but I’m not a runner,” it’s like when people say, “Oh I write, but I’m not a writer.” You’re doing it. You just do it and it does get better and there are simple things you can do to make it easier. It was really hard when I first started, and I couldn’t do more than 3-4 miles for the first ten years. You can do it, it’s more like, Do you want to? Do you have the time?
Rumpus: I get that. “Does your desire to do this thing outweigh the pain of getting better at it?” There’s a giant metaphor in there, and I don’t like it. . . . What’s your relationship like to writing these days?
Scarano: I go back and forth on this in my writing and my relationship to my writing. I think the main burden on my writing is capitalism; it’s the main thing that keeps me from writing as much as I’d like or being a more prolific writer. I struggle w/ depression and anxiety—as many people do in our current climate—and I feel like a large percentage of it would not exist if I didn’t have to deal with capitalism, if we weren’t in that system. So much of what we need is just time to do what is important to us, and time is what is taken from us because we have no choice but to work to continue to survive. 40 hours a week plus something else sucks mentally, like it literally sucks energy from you. The challenge of sitting down and thinking, “I’m going to sit down on and do an hour or two of writing this morning,” when I just want to lie on the couch and eat a cupcake.
So where does that leave me? Do I just beat up or criticize myself for not waking up at 4/5 am and working on my poems? Or do I have some patience and grace for myself within this very inhumane system? There are so many reasons I already feel shame and blame that I don’t want to add to it because I’m not writing as much as I think I should. The main reason I would want to make money as a writer would be so that I could quit my job and have more time to write. I’ve never been very interested in being rich or famous. Money is an access to time, which is the actual, valuable thing.
Writing poetry still brings me joy. It still feels very beautiful and powerful, and I still have the impulse. I do a lot of research. I’ll read about sperm whales for an hour to get one image, but I’m learning about the world, and it’s interesting to me. I enjoy trying to make something beautiful or interesting or trying to work through something i’m thinking about or adding complexity to a situation.
The most meaningful things that have come from my writing are opportunities like travel or meeting people. These relationships and places i’ve been are way more valuable than my book making money. I only live in Bellingham because I came out for here for a two-week writing residency, where I met my former partner. My whole life as it exists today is only because of writing.
Rumpus: The Necessity of Wildfire is dedicated to that former partner. What did it mean to dedicate this book to him?
I wrote these poems during a five-ish year period, and the book is about my early time living in Washington and how I change a lot. During that time I with that previous partner, and we lived together for a large part of that time in the cabin in the mountains semi-homesteading. I write about what’s happening in my life and who I’m interacting with and where I am. Even if the poems aren’t necessarily personal or autobiographical, I’m still putting out what I’m absorbing. Even if I hadn’t dedicated this to him, he was one of the most important fixtures of my life during those years, and there’s no way that the book wasn’t somewhat for and about and to him.
Our relationship was ending around the time the book was going through the end of production, so while I could’ve taken it out, it was important for me to keep it in because even if the relationship didn’t continue it still mattered. This collection is in honor of the time that we did share, and regardless of how it ended, that time did exist and it was true and it was deeply formative.
This dedication is mainly an act of acknowledgment and gratitude. Partnership is so important to me, both romantic and otherwise, and one of the best ways to know me deeply is through poetry. So I think it’s also a gesture in that way, acknowledging how someone has known me deeply. But the book is not, like, all happy love poems—
Rumpus: No one would ever accuse you of writing happy love poems.
Scarano: —if someone dedicated a book to me—well, it would depend on what the book was about—in general though, I think it would be such an act of care. It can be dark and there’s trauma that’s being dealt with—not just in a relationship—but childhood trauma or damage to a landscape; it’s not a positive, one-dimensional gesture: “I’m dedicating this to you because you know me and saw me in my fullness.”
Rumpus: Thinking about this book as an encapsulation of your brain during 2015-2019 and Do Not Bring Him Water [Scarano’s first collection] as an encapsulation of your brain during 2010-2015—what do you feel like is the biggest difference between these two books?
I recently re-read both of them, and what I was struck by reading Do Not Bring Him Water, especially in proximity to Necessity of Wildfire, was like, Goddamn, Caitlin, you were doing the most. The first book really struck me as visceral and raw. I still really believe in that book and am proud of it and stand by it, but it does reflect an earnestness and a type of processing that is no longer part of me. I feel like I now have less heightened responses and ways of processing even the same sort of traumas and relationships. What do you think?
Rumpus: Yeah, you’re taking in similar themes because this is the stuff of your life, but the way it’s coming out is different. This book is funny. Like “I Know We’re all Sick of Deer Poems But Let Me Explain.” I see more nuance and texture.
Scarano: I think I’m more aware of myself as poet. I can poke fun at myself and have that meta lens: “Oh here i am, writing another deer poem.” I fucking love deer poems. I don’t know why deer and poetry mix so well—and the moon—but it’s just true. It’s cliche, and it’s not that you can’t use a cliché, but that you have to acknowledge that it is cliché and then rework it.
Maybe it’s that I’m not taking myself and the world so seriously, which is an attribute of getting older. I will always be intense, like you will always be intense—
Scarano: —but softening around the edges and being lighter with yourself and stop having such a tough lens or expectation. I do continue to write about trauma and abuse and relationships and loss, but, yes, the way that it’s being handled does feel softer or more reflective here. I am also trying to expand my scope in how I’m thinking about these subjects in more layered and ambiguous ways.
Rumpus: I also see you imagining other futures. I was struck by “Nights Like These I Think of My Sisters,” and how it draws on the same themes as “Merely Bird, Merely Bonnet” from your first book, but they’re entirely different poems. Put another way, the same source material is being thought about and articulated in very different ways, particularly in the poems’ endings: “No, be the land beyond the gate that compels her” versus “Ask me which one of us collects baby bodies in the night,” which is, kinda fuckin’ bleak, Caitlin.
Scarano: I’m so cautious about words like hope and joy especially in our current context, but I love what you said about imagining new futures. it doesn’t guarantee that it’s going to happen, but even in the imagining it’s powerful. In this book and hopefully in the books I will write going forward I will continue to make more space.
Rumpus: I know that you write both essays and poems, so what draws you in particular to poetry? Also, what is the difference between a prose poem and a piece of flash nonfiction?
Scarano: At some point during graduate school I started being very compelled by the idea of a “genre-less” world. As a culture, we do cling to “What is true and what is not true?,” particularly in prose. I am grateful that poetry doesn’t have to answer that question so often. I think that’s why I gravitate toward it.
I’m trying to create something that is reflective of an experience or an emotional experience— like i’m trying to create an emotion of an emotion. It feels more instinctual or closer to the bone. I like how I have more freedom to play with or invert meaning or to have more gaps or strangeness or surprising juxtapositions or associative turns, as well as focus on image and metaphor.
As far as prose poems vs. flash essays, I’m also not sure it matters. This book is marketed as a collection of poems, but I have this prose piece in it, “Deer Season”—more deer—that’s three pages long and in paragraph form. So it’s not technically a prose poem if you’re thinking of that rigidly as it being a block of poetic or lyrical prose. I think it’s more essay-like, but it’s in my poetry collection, and I don’t think it stands out oddly. There’s more information in here about specifically growing up in rural Virginia. I am very pleased with it, but I don’t know if I think of it as a poem or not a poem.
It’s whatever you say it is. If i’m writing a poem, it’s a poem. And sometimes i just want to let people in more and be more direct and narrative.
Rumpus: Not gesturing at kudzu, but actually saying the thing.
Scarano: Yes, tell you the scene, what happened, what I was feeling.
There’s another piece in here, “Silo X,” that is also three pages and one block of text. And I do think of this one as a prose poem—but why?
Rumpus: No spaces! Justified margins!
Scarano: There’s also a different feeling to it, it feels like a train moving really fast. It’s hard to stop the momentum in this one, whereas in the other there’s more control.
Of all the poems in Necessity, this has the energy of the first book and very in conversation with those themes of multigenerational domestic violence and the repercussions of that. There’s anger in here, and I thought it was important to have that come through.
Rumpus: What are you working on right now and/or what have you noticed in the work you’re producing lately?
Scarano: I’m still writing poems if i have time, like one a week if i’m lucky. I’ve been learning a lot about bees. They have these very complex social systems, and the collective experience of being in a beehive and how they’re centered around a queen is very interesting to me. The most recent poem I wrote is about bees and reviving my faith in the idea of being with a man—still just writing what’s happening in life.
A long-term project i’m working on is part of the In a Time of Change program. It’s a multidisciplinary group mostly based in Alaska—we’ve been meeting once or twice a month for over a year once or twice about a month and learning about boreal forest ecology. The end goal is to collaborate and make art that relates to science of these forests. I’m working with Megan Perra, a visual artist I’ve worked with previously. We’re focusing on this one matriarchal wolf in Denali National Park. She’s been collared, so the work is about different aspects of the wolf’s life. I’m thinking about how we protect species but also how we relate to individual animals.
Author photo courtesy of the author