Kayleb Rae Candrilli is author of What Runs Over with YesYes Books, which was a 2017 finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in transgender poetry. Candrilli is published or forthcoming in TriQuarterly Review, Cream City Review, Bettering American Poetry, and many others. You can read more here.
Rachel Franklin Wood: I’m so excited to begin this interview with you. Thank you so much for agreeing to talk with me. If at any point I ask you about something that you don’t want to address, please say so. I’m happy to redirect.
I’ve read and reread What Runs Over leading up to our conversation, and having this collection as a companion has carried me through the rough first weeks of spring. I don’t mean to report that this is a comforting read. Yet, as I read, I felt myself settle into what felt like an old friendship in which intimacy and candor and shared history function in equal parts. Before we begin, I want to take the opportunity to thank you for writing this tremendously generous book and setting it loose in the world.
For a collection so honest, so transparent, I’m struck by the presence of absence in What Runs Over. For example, in the opening poem, you write,
my daddy almost pumped me full
of lead. my daddy almost left me
so ask me why I hate animals
With the omission of the expected rhyme of “dead,” you draw more attention to what is being implied than what is explicit. What role does absence play in your work? What do you omit, consciously or otherwise?
Kayleb Rae Candrilli: This is a super good question, and one I’m happy you asked. I think absence and omission operate in a few ways in WRO. In the case of the omitted rhyme “dead,” I think I am trying to do a few things: build tension, yes, but also let readers know that I will never be willing (or able, for that matter) to give them the whole story. The ways in which I’ve dissociated from my own memories are powerful, and, of course, part of the reason I’ve been able to move forward at all. Sometimes, when I omit, or redirect, or redact, I am trying to protect myself/&/or my family. It’s not always tethered to a consideration of craft. Sometimes, I just don’t want to remember how close my father was to killing me, my mother, my sister.
On page 58 I redact visually and “black out” what my sister was wearing at the DHR office. I did this in one part because I don’t remember what she wore. But I also redacted this way to protect her. I did this to exert control and feel as though, as an older sibling, I could still exhibit some protective qualities—even though my whole childhood was without agency, and truly, I couldn’t protect her at all. Much of this book is just a clamoring to retroactively claim agency.
In early drafts of WRO I had much more visually redacted. I remember bringing in a few early pages to a workshop at the University of Alabama and a peer used an electronic version of the pages to look underneath the redactions, and they found long strings of periods and slashes and underscores. In the moment, I felt so invaded by that action, but it also helped me understand the ways in which I was coping with my trauma, or, maybe more accurately, not coping.
After that, I really started to use surrealism to reclaim the memories. On page 83 I write:
as a child i made lists / i made lists of meat and meaty parts / my mother would caldron catch me stirring rabbit’s feet, my dog’s clipped toe nails, beaks of turkey and grouse, the liver of a fawn daddy killed out of season / daddy’d say, the young ones are so tender / and i’d keep stirring and my mother started to worry that i wasn’t getting enough sun, that all the meat i ate was just a little too green to be good / she said what’s wrong with you and i poured her an elixir / i said here mommy, this is for you and me, it will invisible us, it will make daddy wonder where we’ve gone to / mommy, this is the good drink / she humored me, took the glass-vialed potion and put it on a shelf of birthday party sand arts / and it sat there and it sat there and it rotted through the glass and it acid tore through each floor and me and mommy lava jumped through the living room right before the whole damn house burnt down with daddy still in it / and after i took mommy’s hand, said, pointing to only ash, see? invisible.
There is no lava in rural Pennsylvania, but there is heroin addiction, and domestic abuse, and an undying desire to escape. I don’t have to tell you that life would have been easier with my father dead. I don’t have to tell you that I wanted the heroin to take him—or that the house never burnt down. You already know that.
But all the omission, the redactions, the reclamation of memory through surrealism, is how all of this trauma can live inside of me without consuming all the good stuff. And I’m so invested in the good.
RFW: In your answer, you’ve touched on something that I experienced during my time with WRO. For every instance of trauma, there are responding moments of exhilaration, joy even, at the experience of existing in your body. In this, what is “bad” and what is “good” become complicated, tangled. Perhaps my favorite moment of this occurs in the poem on page 17 in which young Kayleb violently rushes at deer, only to lie in the “dry-warm patches” of grass exposed after the animals scatter. Here, what is professed to be an aggressive act reveals what is hidden beneath bodies and what is revealed is beautiful and feels warm on the skin.
I understand that you are currently working on a new collection that allows for transness and joy to exist simultaneously. First, thank you. Second, is this new collection more anticipatory, more forward-thinking? Or will it return to moments in childhood where joy was present? Could it do one without the other?
KCR: I think the second collection, tentatively titled All the Gay Saints, intentionally strays from childhood. I needed a full departure from WRO in regards to content and tonal register. I needed that departure to grow as a writer, but also have some respite from writing about trauma.
So instead, All the Gay Saints, is, I believe, a book of trans boy love poems, to my partner, but also to my body—as you can see me think through the decision to get top surgery.
A poem that, I think, does work in both regards is “During my top surgery consultation, my partner says to the doctor, tell me what you will do to their veins.” Which is right here with Tinderbox if you want to check it out in full. But the last few couplets read:
I am scared
of my partner
being face to face with my blood
because I love them.
When we talk of the future, my future chest is as flat
as our future backyard. We plant
a lemon tree and it grows
even in winter.
This tone of hope is one I try to maintain and cultivate throughout All the Gay Saints. In this way, it feels like it’s a productive sequel to WRO. I joke a lot that the happiest part of WRO is seeing my author photo at the end, where I am grinning ear to ear. But really, it’s so exciting to be alive and to have lived and be living through it all. It was a contentious decision to make that my author photo. Young trans folx will read the book, and that’s the last thing they will see. I love that.
But to get back to the question, the new book names my partner my “future husband-wife” and runs that nomenclature throughout the book. So in a very textual, up-front kind of way, the book is anticipatory and thinking toward a future—a future where two gender non-conforming people are alive, and happy, and thriving outside of the pain that is so often prescribed to us by this world.
Childhood appears sometimes, but namely as a way to show how cool it is to be owning these bodies in the present. In “My horoscope is my future husband’s horoscope & we are both considering T” I write:
Husband, nothing is holy
Our fathers built staircases & we are bringing
sledgehammers to our bodies so gently
only we can hear this pleasure.
There is nowhere to go
but into one another.
Something I’m aware of is the book’s (and my) participation in the social, capitalist, and hetro-patriarchal subscription to marriage. I believe that mine and my partners’ bodies do a lot to queer the institution of marriage but surely not, and perhaps never, enough. I think the future I reference so often will teach us how to productively queer the institution more once we are in it, but we will still be “in it.” It’s just something I recognize and would rather be forthright about. I, and we, are still learning, as queer people, how to mitigate our desire for marriage with the ethical hang-ups that inherently come hand-in-hand.
RFW: In both of the poems you’ve shared above, future seems to be a thing gently built by your own hands. My impression is that the future envisioned here could not manifest in an urban environment and exists, if only within the landscape of these poems, in a rural space. If in WRO you write of the violence and unpredictability of the rural, in these poems rural landscapes allow for the freedom to explore change. But in both WRO and these newer poems, I see creation of remarkably queer rural spaces in the inextricable relationships between body and environment. Can you speak some to your understanding of rural queerness? Does it have definable aesthetic?
KRC: This is perhaps one of the most nuanced and intuitive questions I’ve ever been asked. So, thank you for it.
Everything can be two things. Rural Pennsylvania can be where heroin addiction tore my family apart, it can be where animals were cruelly poached out of season, where I was beaten, etc. But it can also be where I first kissed another queer person, where I was shirtless in the forest alone and only worried about ticks, where I realized the trees didn’t care much about my gender, and maybe I shouldn’t either. It was all of those things simultaneously.
When you are inside of something, lost in something, it is hard to see where one begins and another ends. It’s taken me a while, but I don’t fault the land for the behavior of those who lived on it. I think that’s why my “future” is willing to inhabit a rural space, a rural space where two queer people will treat each other with gentleness and love and respect, a rural space where two queer people will grocery shop and a young trans kid will see us, and thusly see a possible future for themselves.
I reflect a lot on my time chopping wood, and how that performance of “masculinity” helped lead me through the conscious beginnings of my queerness, and how I also used it as a violent physical outlet to work through the trauma that was happening around and onto me. And, additionally, it was an act that kept my mother and sister warm during winter. It’s hard not to be thankful for that kind of physical work, when it yielded so much I still consider productive and fundamental to my personhood. I think that admiration and appreciation comes through in most of my poetry.
I think too, and your question gets to this, that rural space provides just that, space—both literal and figurative. There is room to be alone, room to spend time thinking about your body and your body’s relationship to the landscape. What you lose in all that space, of course, is seeing other bodies like yours. Rural queers are, rightfully, so hungry for representation.
I have a new poem and a sentence in it reads, “I believe strongly that had I known one trans person as a child I’d have half as many scars as an adult.” I believe that, but I also know said scars look more to me like the wet earth after a tree uproots, than a pothole in pavement. And that, after all this time I’ve spent healing, is beautiful and peaceful in its own right.
I guess what I wish for the future is that rural queer representation is more prevalent in all the artistic fields. I certainly write hoping that young rural trans folxs will find my work, and then find something to hold in it.
Sometimes, when I know I’m signing a book for someone who came up rural, I sign with something like “This landscape can’t keep us down.” And for me, that is the rural aesthetic. The rural aesthetic is saying “this landscape can’t keep us down” a million different ways, until we all really believe it.
RFW: What you’ve written about existing in a rural space as a queer person resonated with me and I hope to forgive my rural landscape in the same way that you have. The only way that I felt it possible to transition was to partition my lives, was to move, was to cut off communication. For many years, I equated rural to the closet, and, though nothing charges my spirit like Wyoming landscapes, being in that state has been in the past an act of silence. But recently, my two distinct identities have begun to join more frequently. The experience is often odd and anxiety-making, but the relief that has come in the joining has been tremendous. In it, I believe I’ve begun to allow others to really be with me. Not as I am on the page or in selfies, but as a physical body before them in that moment. Perhaps this will get me home again. I’d like if it would.
One thing I’ve realized in transition is that nearly everything I’ve held true about myself is tenuous and demands to be turned and turned again. With that exploration, transition becomes contradiction and frustrates my conception of self unless I allow for spontaneous, near constant re-calibration. If transition is contradiction, writing about transition is an effort to make movement tangible, and perhaps what I find most confounding about creating art from transition is that it grants rigidity to an amorphous and continual progress. What has been your experience of having WRO as a physical representation of your self in the world shaping the perceptions of others who may not personally know you? Do you think others look to it to understand trans identity as a whole? Should they?
KRC: I’m glad it resonated and I think a partition is so healthy. The end of WRO is in fact a marker of partition:
The last deer I reach for meets
the front of a metro north.
What is more of a partition than that?—the epitome of urban life, the metro north, crashing into a quintessential signifier of the American rural, the white-tailed deer. And though that partition helped me move forward, I am thankful for the ways it is currently dissolving, as it is helping me grow into a more honest version of myself.
But to your question, I wrote WRO as I was coming out as trans. It is written very much in a moment of realization and power and reclamation. That said, I think it’s very likely that some cis readers might mistake WRO for a text meant to understand a wholistic “trans identity.” I really hope they don’t. And I’m sure many cis readers will have the nuance and political awareness to understand that my body in one moment isn’t the end-all be-all of the trans identity—not even close. But I think trans readers are already so well versed in transition as amorphous and confounding that they won’t mistake WRO as anything more than a moment, a beginning of one person’s transition—a transition that will exist and last as long as my earthly body exists. There is no point A or point B, just a body chugging along.
I notice more from readers how the BDSM strains throughout WRO shape their perceptions of me. I think that may be just as dangerous a tendency as assuming I’m some ~trans~ monolith. Sexuality is just as fluid as gender, and it’s interesting to see people make assumptions about my sexuality/kinks/etc. with not much consideration of how time and new relationships and, in my case, less alcohol abuse can alter behavior and preference and a sex life. Again, there is just a body chugging along, and the things it wants are always shifting.
But to get back to writing about and through transition, I do find it important to write and then just move along. When I revise, I revise for craft and not for the content or the ways in which I handle my own body. It’s going to change. It’s going to keep changing. In that way it feels like a productive way to document whatever “transition” it is I’m walking through. The whole body of my work is what can illustrate transition as amorphous and spontaneous. It’s important for me that each piece not try to be to big for its britches. That said though, the most recent poem I drafted tried very much to gesture to the feeling of spontaneity and recalibration you’ve described. And while it may not be a slamming poem, it matters to me. The last lines read:
this poem is not so much about a beach
as it is about arriving there,
blowing stop signs
until the coast affirms
that lines are always changing,
and the tide
tells me my body can morph,
just as many times as it needs.
RFW: So much of the work that you are doing, both with WRO and in your daily existence, pushes you towards community. But, having returned to a rural place after completing your MFA (and please correct me if I’m mistaken), you must have greater access to extended community than you did as a young person. Has leaving altered your understanding of what a rural community is? Do your communities (local, extended, poetry) ever join?
KRC: Well, though the future I reference so often in the new book is rural, I actually live in Philadelphia right now—which is pretty chalk full of community in all respects. It can be overwhelming sometimes, actually. I certainly don’t think I’m cut out for city living long term.
That all said, after my MFA, I spent half a year in Throop, PA, trying to get my feet under me and prepare for and heal from top surgery. My time there was so dreamy. It’s a relatively low income town with all these brightly colored small houses—a ton of pinwheels and “beware of dog signs” in yards and windows. Almost like an inland beach town. There, I felt myself spending a lot of time on the phone with friends from my MFA, and from Penn State before that. I would spend time on the phone while walking through the town—willfully ignoring any stares from locals that might not want me there. I thought that was a big indication of how extended community was protecting me, and helping me feel supported—despite their distance. Throop, PA was also where I crowd-funded my top surgery. And all my communities (familial, local, extended, poetry) held me up and joined to facilitate my having a better quality of life. The kindness still astonishes me and I feel grateful every day. Though loneliness, in an immediate physical sense, was still something that happened in Throop, it was so very different than my young experience.
But in terms of rural community, I believe it’s important to outsource (I’m thinking virtually here) while you try to build or join something on the ground. I think it’s important to understand, too, that in rural settings, if you’re lacking a feeling of community, there is a chance it really just doesn’t exist yet. You’re often not missing out on something already in existence. You may just have to build it, as small or as big as you’re comfortable with. And they will come. Queers are everywhere. Cute, and everywhere.
RFW: I truly don’t think you could have set up my final question any better. We’ve spent so much of this interview speaking about the future, and about what is involved in its realization. Will you do so one more time? When you look to the future, what does your community look like? Your home? Tell me about the trees, the animals, the people.
KRC: When I look to the future I see a community of queer people hell-bent on helping to facilitate one another’s happiness and wellbeing. I see contentious mentorship and support for the younger generation. I see a community that won’t allow young folxs to reach their mid-twenties before they can see themselves in poems, in stories, in music, in film and in painting, in all art and media in general. I see timely torch-passing, and the equitable sharing of capital in all forms. These are idealistic, yes, but I promise to help make it so. And I know so many others who have promised the same. So that gives me hope.
And my home, that’s wherever my partner is. Cliche? I don’t care at all lol! We are so excited to get old together, and drink coffee together, and poorly tend the house plants together, and name a BernieDoodle Drew Berniemore together, and make home videos together, and make zines together, and one day abandon all things to work summer jobs at the Jersey Shore, just because. Life is short and life is long. We’re going to try to fit it all. <3