What Runs Over by Kayleb Rae Candrilli (YesYes Books, 2017) | All the Gay Saints by Kayleb Rae Candrilli (Saturnalia Books, forthcoming 2020) | interview by Despy Boutris
As an aspiring writer, I reached out to an extraordinary poet and memoirist Kayleb Rae Candrilli over email and asked if I could interview them. To my surprise and awe, they said yes, and we spoke over the phone soon after. Candrilli was intensely open and honest as we discussed their poetic process, their “memoir in verse” What Runs Over, and their upcoming collection selected by Natalie Diaz for the Saturnalia Book Prize, All the Gay Saints.
DB: You advertised What Runs Over as “a memoir in verse,” so in that way, you’re telling readers that there’s no separation between you and the speaker—you, the poet, are the speaker. How have you become comfortable being vulnerable in your writing while knowing that anyone can access it?
KRC: It wasn’t something that I was confident with all the way through the production. I kind of waffled back and forth between just calling it “poetry” and calling it a “memoir in verse,” but I knew it was a memoir. So I just made the decision to go for it despite the fact that it would, and has, alienated some family members. It was never about being vulnerable with readers in the abstract. It was always about family. But I had a really productive conversation with one of my grandmothers, in which I was like, “Hey. I would really appreciate it if you didn’t read this book,” and she said, “Okay. Can I read the second?” and I said, “Yeah! Yeah, you can read the second book.” That conversation felt like a green light, a blessing. But it is strange. Sometimes, in quiet moments, I think about the fact that people have read this book, and they know it’s my life, which feels kind of wild and humbling. Some days it’s stressful, but most days it’s exciting.
DB: On days when it’s stressful, does it help to know that you may have given solace to people who have lived a similar experience?
KRC: Yeah. That’s what it’s all about. The net positive of calling it what it is and how it might benefit people who come from a similar upbringing was greater than my somewhat unfounded fear that my family would disown me.
DB: On the subject of giving solace to readers, I just keep thinking about the photograph of you smiling on the author page at the very end of the book.
KRC: Yeah! I’m so glad you bring that up. That photo was definitely intentional. I had just met my partner, and I was just so happy—and I still am—so I thought that was the best way to finish my memoir. My editor sometimes jokes about it: “It’s just so strange for that to be the book, and then, there you are, just jovial at the end.” But it’s important—especially if a young trans person is going to read it. It’s like, “Wow, you actually can escape and be happy. You’re allowed.”
DB: And instead of writing a memoir at the end of your life, describing everything that’s been hard, it’s kind of nice that you wrote yours in your early twenties. It’s like saying, “This part of my life was terrible, but it’s going up from here.”
KRC: Definitely. It’s so strange to write a memoir at, like, twenty-two, because it takes a certain amount of deprogramming what you’ve been told about what makes a memoir and who’s worthy of being heard, which is kind of built into a respectability politic of age. I knew I didn’t want to sit on all this trauma until I was sixty-five and then write a memoir about my childhood trauma. I would just have to think about it all the time until then. So I feel very happy and relieved that What Runs Over was my first book. It opens so many different avenues. I can write a whole book of happy poems now.
DB: In that same vein, your second book of poetry, All the Gay Saints, was just selected by Natalie Diaz as the winner of the 2018 Saturnalia Book Prize. Will this collection have more happy poems?
KRC: Yeah. I mean, I’m still a poet with PTSD, so my “happy” is not the average construct of “happy,” but it’s a happier book.
DB: How does it differ from What Runs Over?
KRC: What Runs Over was super intense to write, and I had to work on it for a long time while I ordered it and defended it as my thesis. So, when I was trying to start my next project, I had to remind myself to just write—not to think about writing a book or collection, because that’ll shift so many times. I found myself very stuck in the voice of What Runs Over, and I knew I didn’t want that to be my poetic voice forever. I wanted it to be a moment and one body of my work. So, after writing like fifteen pages that sounded exactly like What Runs Over, I was like, “Okay, something’s got to give.” And I had always toyed with the idea of writing a little chapbook of ekphrastic work in conversation with Hernan Bas, so I just splurged and got myself a big art book and started writing poems in conversation with his paintings. And the paintings are twinkie and colorful, and dynamic, and I recognize my body in them. So I just went for it, and the poems sounded so different—powerful, dynamic. And, then, later, I started to write poems, and then I went through the book to try to find a painting that I could link to it. And that’s how I knew that I had worked myself out of What Runs Over and I had found my way out of that voice. I didn’t even need the paintings anymore as prompts. I wrote a ton of poems that weren’t in conversation with Hernan’s work, and then All the Gay Saints happened.
DB: What Runs Over is very violent—the abusive father, the skin-picking, the body dysmorphia, the blood, the lightning, fire, and smoke, the hunting, the destruction, etc. How did the act of writing it all down affect you? Was it cathartic, or did you have to relive the trauma?
KRC: I think it was both. You can be in a lot of pain, and it can still be an act of catharsis. Surges of reliving the trauma forced me to exert some mental toughness (and maybe disassociation in moments). But for the most part, I was able to take breaks before it pushed me too far.
DB: For you, what role does poetry have in facing trauma?
KRC: What Runs Over had to happen for me. I had to deal with my own trauma and show people that you can come out the other side. It had to happen, but I’m deeply uncomfortable with the commodification of trauma—particularly of people of color and queer people. And how it seems like cis people are more likely to buy your book if it’s about your body hurting. I see people forced to exploit their trauma for whatever few dollars are in the art world and the writing world. How are we supposed to be healthy if the only way to get a grant is to be really sad? We eat up trauma. We want to consume other people’s trauma. I, for one, am trying to be more conscientious of who I am as a reader and a literary gatekeeper, in particular in regards to the ways in which we’ve been kind of designed to eat up the trauma of those who have less privilege than we do. In that way, I was really scared that no one would want my second book. I was like, “Are we ready for a book of trans love poems? Are we ready, as consumers and as readers, to not be in pain the whole time?” And, luckily, we are.
DB: I read that you wrote a lot of What Runs Over while on the train to New York in spurts. Can you talk a little about that?
KRC: I wrote ten to fifteen pages at a time. It was like twenty-six hours on the train, so I just drank a bunch of terrible Amtrak coffee and wrote in really big spurts. After five or six of those trips, I started to realize that I had the bones of a manuscript.
DB: Was it during that time that people at Lambda Literary told you, “yes, this is a book”?
KRC: That happened first—when I brought in the first thirteen pages. They were like, “Yeah, we’re all for experimental essays, but that’s not what this is. It’s the beginning of a book.” It was really reaffirming.
DB: One can describe you as a “poet of witness”—you bear witness to your own life and experiences and also offer a voice to the trans community. What do you think the role of witness is in poetry?
KRC: We’re taught to write the first speaker out of our essays, and to never center the “I”—that the “I” is untrustworthy, and the “I” is self-centered. As a trans person, I think that’s trash, and I’ve been working really hard to deprogram all the parts inside of me that say that I’m an untrustworthy narrator. I’ve been trying to take to heart that, when I write about my body, it’s incredibly important. It’s not self-centered. I force myself to take up space in the narrative, because the witness is taking up space, right? They’re there.
I think it’s important to be a witness but not necessarily a wallflower. I think that distinction is important for me. I don’t just want to be a fly on the wall. I’m participant in my body being in the world. Fiercely participant. I think it’s important to shirk off any preconceived notions of what witnessing is and to just do it. I want every marginalized group of poets and writers to say “I” as much as possible. If a trans reader comes to a poem written by a trans person, and it’s “I, I, I, I, I,” even if they don’t identify with that body in the world, they’re like, “Oh, I can take up this kind of space because this person did.” That representation is so incredibly priceless and something I never had. I want everyone to have it moving forward.
DB: On the very first page of What Runs Over, you introduce your relationship with your father and start to illustrate his violence. Toward the end of the poem, you write, “my daddy almost pumped me full / of lead. my daddy almost left me / for / so ask me why i hate animals…” While I was reading, I couldn’t help but fill in “dead,” and I assume that you wanted readers to fill in the word, even while choosing to redact it. Why did you make that choice?
KRC: I think there are a few moments of redaction and erasure, and it’s just to exert some control over a narrative I was completely powerless in. There was absolutely no agency that I was able to wield—ever. I don’t think I felt agency until my twenties, and I think those moments of retroactive redaction or erasure was just an attempt to reclaim some power. And, anyway, no one wants an exact rhyme like that.
DB: In another interview, you mentioned that you’ve struggled with depression, and What Runs Over illustrates that depression well. I, too, have struggled with depression and found literature and writing helpful. What effect has poetry had on your emotional state?
KRC: I think it’s really easy to say that poetry saved my life, but the more complex version of the same thing is that it gave my experience more depth—perhaps made it more of a prism. I can’t tell you that writing poetry or reading poetry makes me happy all the time. It doesn’t. But it is humbling and exciting to know that everyone is struggling. There’s a word for it—sonder. It’s that moment on the street when you realize that everyone’s life is just as important as yours. And I feel like poetry and writing made life a constant moment of sonder, and you know that it’s not always a happy feeling. Sometimes, it’s just point-blank devastating. But sometimes it’s inspirational and happy and enough to get you through.
DB: I was first struck by your work after reading “Love poem written for the last swampland (or, global warming makes us fuck desperately)” and was amazed at how great you are at titling your poems. Why did you ultimately decide not to use titles in What Runs Over? How do you think that choice affects readers’ experiences reading the memoir?
KRC: Ninety percent of these never had titles. I was writing pages with the idea that, eventually, I was writing a memoir in verse. It was never built as a collection. I wanted readers to read from front-to-back the way they would a prose memoir. Also, I feel like a title invites breath and pause, and I didn’t really think that this book called for any breath or pause. There are the short, right-aligned poems in there that are breath—where I tried to reel it back. But I hoped it would be read front-to-back.
DB: I know that poets such as Aziza Barnes, sam sax, and Danez Smith have been important to you as a writer, and your work is like theirs in some ways and different in others. How do you see your work fitting into the contemporary poetry scene?
KRC: I think there are so many of us right now—it’s been described as the Golden Age of Poetry, and I would give it that credit. To be alive and writing with these people, and to be their peer, is a really incredible moment in time for me and for other people writing and reading. I can’t speak for everyone, but I think that something that’s important to us now is to lend a hand much sooner to young writers. There’s a mentorship program I’m participating in right now, and it’s really special to work with a fifteen-year-old writer who’s so fucking good. Heartbreakingly better than I was at fifteen. Like, what was I doing when I was fifteen? I was, like, chopping wood and rereading the fourth Harry Potter book. I wasn’t reading Bluets at fifteen. Being part of the contemporary poetry scene is so beautiful, but even more beautiful is being able to say, “Oh, you’re fifteen? You’re my peer. You can be my peer” and making that happen. I think there’s a desire to dissolve some of the ageism, and so as long as we don’t only do that in one direction, that’s fine. We can’t forget about the emerging writers in their sixties, who raised however many kids to be successful and then finally got to write their first book. There has to be space for them, too.
DB: You taught rhetoric and creative writing classes at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Alabama. What is the most essential lesson you worked to teach your students about writing and otherwise? Likewise, what advice would you offer to young poets?
KRC: Writer’s block isn’t real. You’re allowed to have multiple drafts of the same piece for different audiences. Don’t think that trauma is the only thing that can take center stage in your writing. And, if it does take center stage, don’t forget to participate in self-care rituals as you write. Just take care of yourself and don’t get overwhelmed. If you’re really trying to pursue writing, you don’t have to rush it. I try to tell myself that, too. I still often feel like I’m rushing it, but that’s not something I want for my students. So I try to tread this line where I teach them to use Submittable but also teach them how not to get obsessed with submitting. And I think it’s a really difficult line to tread. Also, vary your sentence structure.
DB: How have you unlearned the shame this country teaches? What is the place of joy in spite of violence and injustice, both in your work and in your life?
KRC: I can’t lie and say something other than my relationship with my partner. It’s not for everyone—to be partners—but it is for me. And there has been so much safety and joy in our relationship that we’ve been able to take that joy outside. And taking that joy outside is dangerous. Like, it’s scary to go outside as a queer person. But it’s less scary, and I’m having more fun, with my partner. And I think that’s exciting. It’s exciting to just feel a little less fear.
There’s a poem in All the Gay Saints called “There’s a Point at Which I Tire of My Own Fear,” and, you know, it’s not the happiest poem in the book. It’s about violence against queer people. Essentially, the poem ends with me dying in my partner’s arms, and that is how you win—to be there, in a safe spot, when it happens. Whatever that means.
Besides the partnership, the book really talks about coming to terms with needing top surgery and having to go get it—which is a huge privilege. But, still, to work through that decision-making process on the page I think is useful to get out in the world and hopefully will help some folks.
DB: I love that you want to help people through your writing—that it’s more than just getting it out and surviving. You genuinely hope your words help others.
KRC: Yeah. What it really is about is representation. I didn’t have any. I just didn’t. My body in the world, my stories, are not helpful to all the trans community. In fact, they’re probably only helpful to a sliver of people, and that’s enough.
Despy Boutris is a poet. Her work has been published in Folio, Cal Poly’s Byzantium, and The Berkeley Times. She currently is earning her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Houston, where she teaches and serves as an Assistant Poetry Editor for Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts.