[This is part of a series of interviews with past and current Timber contributors. In this installment, Interviews Editor Rachel Cruea chats with Kayleb Rae Candrilli. You can read Kayleb's latest poems in TIMBER 8.1.–Ed.]
Rachel Cruea: To begin, what is your relationship to poetry? Where did it begin, and how have your interactions with language changed since then?
Kayleb Rae Candrilli: I think, like most things, there is an unofficial and an official beginning. It’s often hard to tell which is more important.
I was homeschooled when I was young and my mother was an incredible teacher, but there were some subjects she struggled with such as algebra, Spanish, and poetry. We were reading Emily Dickinson and I surprised my mom with how dexterously I answered the curriculum’s questions. Later that day, I was out in the woods collecting firewood with a little hatchet, mind you I’m 10 or 11 at this time, and I was thinking about Emily Dickinson’s em-dashes, and I thought to myself “Wow, those dashes are to a sentence what this hatchet is to wood.” I remember it so clearly, standing there in the woods thinking about caesura as a physical act. And that, I think, is the unofficial start of my relationship to poetry.
Flash forward to 2009 and I’m a freshman at the University of Arizona, studying geography and demography. I had come out recently, and was using the distance from my hometown to figure out what that meant. I saw a flyer for Sister Spit, the queer and ever more inclusive group of poets, performers, zinesters. I was 17 and I went by myself because I hadn’t made any friends yet.
I met Michelle Tea, and photographer Amos Mac, and heard Kirya Traber perform a poem from her chapbook Black Chick. The poem is called “These are Some Definitions” and there’s this short quatrain that goes “//There is nothing / more honest / than lying naked with / everything you’ve been taught to hate about yourself.” And that was it, my brain and my body and everything that can malfunction malfunctioned. And that is the official moment.
From that point, my relationship to language has been ever changing and documented (insofar as I keep everything I write). I think there have been some “chapters” of my writing that are easy for me to identify: early heartbreak with tons of loose abstractions, formal and stuffy poems (with terribly obtuse metaphors), catharsis and total preoccupation with the poem’s emotional center/my center, and right now, the writing as political/the politics of trans joy, with (hopefully) a dash of craft.
I guess I realize now, more than ever, that language can be a mechanism of oppression and/or it can be a mechanism of liberation. I want to be vigilantly contentious of what I make, what I say, who I help, and who I might unwittingly be hurting.
RC: Your poems are deeply devoted to the body, as well as how the body interacts with location and setting. Could you further elaborate on these investments and how poetry allows you a venue for these interests?
KRC: I think that, as a human, I am most interested in my body and where my body “is” at any given moment. I’m an incredibly physical person in that way. I can really feel my body existing. That’s often what I’m thinking about: keeping my body alive, about finding ways to make it thrive.
It makes sense that this preoccupation with the body is the primary element in my work. I think too, I’m realizing more and more how important it is to talk about my body existing. As a non-binary trans person born from rural Pennsylvania, showing other trans folx that I exist can be empowering. I’m starting to recognize my work as the representation of what I needed when I was younger and that feels good and sustaining and vital. In early parts of my writing life I thought my preoccupation with my body (in particular) was self-indulgent, but I’m happy to have walked away from that kind of thinking. I encourage other people to walk away from that mode of thinking too.
RC: The titles of your pieces are striking. How do you go about finding the right title and what effect do you think they have in addition to the poems themselves?
KRC: Thank you! I love titling so much. It’s my favorite part of writing nowadays. But like other things I’ve had various relationships to titling. My memoir in verse, What Runs Over has no titles at all! And now I’ve drafted this second book that has extravagant, sometimes a bit excessive, titles—quatrain and tercet long titles. I think after writing the memoir, which for all intents and purposes, poured out of me, I needed more structure, like bumpers in a game of bowling or something. So, these hyper specific titles provide that guiding element—for me as the poet and for whoever might be reading.
And honestly, they are just are really fun to write. I think now that my memoir is written and out in the world, I’m much more invested in having a little fun when I write. I want to write for my whole life, and I needed to institute a dash of fun if that was going to happen.
RC: I am always fascinated by the ways in which writers go about organizing a collection of poems. Some poets seem to have a conceptual project in mind before writing the collection, whereas others seem to write the poems and then move on to the process of making a book. How did you go about creating and shaping What Runs Over?
KRC: In 2015 I wrote 13 pages of this poetry / prose hybrid thing and titled it “Cartography of the Tri-state Area.” I brought it to the Lambda Writers Retreat and presented it as a short experimental essay. I didn’t really know what it was. My classmates at the retreat kindly informed me that I had to write 60 more pages and that it was going to be a book. It was really radical permission and I definitely cite that workshop as the reason I kept moving forward with the project.
At that time, directly following the retreat, I was making a lot of train trips from Tuscaloosa, AL to NYC. It was about 26 hours each way. I wrote at least 45 pages of the book on those train rides. Then as one typically realizes, I realized I had been trying to write this book for years. So I was able to go back and pluck poems from 2013 and 2014 that fit the manuscript perfectly. Then I threw all of them on the floor and tried to figure it all out.
I actually still have the pictures of the first time I tried to make it a book:
RC: What Runs Over is often referenced as a “memoir in verse.” Could you talk a little about this concept? How do you navigate yourself from the speaker in your poems?
KRC: Well I think it was really about whether or not I was going to be brave enough to call it a memoir, that’s no to insinuate that bravery and naming something memoir are intrinsically tied; you have to do what you gotta do to feel safe and happy and satisfied, but for me, I thought it was important to open myself up in this very particular way. I could have called it lots of things, “Poetry” “Poems” “A Narrative” “A Collection”and it would have been fine, but none of those descriptors would have acknowledged the “reality” of the book the way I needed. I don’t consider What Runs Over to be “poems” or a “collection;” I consider it a memoir that is lineated on many of its pages.
And there’s really no need to try and navigate a divide between me and the speaker in my work. They are one in the same. Maybe one day it will be different, but for now it’s not important to me as an artist to protect or insert that space.
That said, I think it’s healthy and ethically responsible that that space exists in how we read verse and I’m certainly not interested in “breaking down” the convention, but it’s also not necessary for readers coming to my work.
RC: How has your voice as a trans-individual shaped your interaction with writing and art, especially in the sense of publishing and existing within a literary community?
KRC: I think now that I am out and writing in this world as my trans-ass self, everything feels way more important. Like, there is good that come from my writing—real tangible good. Real representation.
There was definitely a few years in the beginning of my writing life that felt super accolade driven. Really grossly motivated to be completely honest. I felt like writing was some sport I could win. But since coming out as trans that grossness has really steadily evaporated—which has allowed my work to be more emotionally accessible and honest, I think. Not to mention I feel like a much kinder more empathetic human. Much work to be done, but it feels as though I’m headed in the right direction.
In terms of publishing and existing in a literary community, I feel pretty comfortable, and that comfort is of course and inarguably maintained/upheld by my whiteness. So white artists need to be working quadruple time to extend whatever comfort they may feel in this community to POC. Buy their books, publish their work, review their work, hype their work on social media, submit their work for prizes with your money, support their Patreons with money, book them for money book them for workshops with real money, hire them for lots of money, etc! And then don’t talk about how you’re a good person for doing it. Just do it.
RC: Lastly, what currently grabs your attention? Books, music, art, people, food etc.
KRC: I love this question because I like so many things.
Vintage crew cut sweatshirts grab my attention. Extra points if from alma maters (Penn State and Alabama—We Are, Roll Tide).
Books and Writers:
And my partner, Jack Papanier, is pretty wonderful videographer, too. You can check their stuff out here.
Thanks for having me!
Kayleb Rae Candrilli is author of What Runs Over with YesYes Books. They serve as an assistant poetry editor for BOAAT Press and they hold an MFA and an MLIS from the University of Alabama. They live in Philadelphia with their partner. You can read more here.