It’s All about Positionality: Talking with Kayleb Rae Candrilli

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Leaving home is an inherently complex act, one that is often seen as an inevitable rite of passage and transition toward true independence. It is never as simple as driving away. Particularly when that home is laden with trauma and abuse, escape requires many steps and is a constant undertaking. Pain lingers and evolves in memory, finding ways of seeping into the dark corners of our lives and settling in, more often than not, unwelcome.

For Kayleb Rae Candrilli, poetry is a means of not only deciphering traumatic events but of reclaiming them for the benefit of others. Their first book of poems, What Runs Over, is one of endurance and awareness, taking inventory of their youth and escape from a mountain in rural Pennsylvania. These poems gather strength much in the way that a quiet wind becomes a force: slowly, patiently, and without warning. Throughout this nearly hundred-page journey, we accompany Candrilli as they toss rattraps into wood stoves, meet boogeywomen, hold beating deer hearts, and look for phantom wedding rings. These lines speak of perseverance, inviting the reader to look openly, with empathy, and to consider rural life through the words of a transgender boy.

Not long ago, they and I spoke about reclaiming memory through poetry, the necessity for radical softness, and the political act of being happy.

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The Rumpus: When did you begin working on this collection?

Kayleb Rae Candrilli: I was writing it for about two years, but I wasn’t always aware that I was writing it. I wrote thirteen pages all in one clip and was sitting there trying to figure out what it was, because I knew they weren’t individual poems. So I brought it to a nonfiction class—I was at the University of Alabama—and said, “Here’s a lyric essay.” And they said, “Not quite.” I didn’t leave that particular situation feeling like I had the makings of a book, so shelved it for a while. Then I went to the Lambda Literary Retreat in 2015 and I was in a nonfiction group again, and I gave it to all of these wonderful queerfolk who write prose-nonfiction. And I said, “Here’s a lyric essay.” And they said, “You have to write fifty-five more pages immediately; this is going to be your first book.” It was really affirming and amazing that they were attuned to what it was while I wasn’t.

So then, in the three or four months immediately after the Lambda Literary retreat, I was making a lot of train trips from Tuscaloosa all the way up to Penn Station in New York, which if it’s going according to schedule will take twenty-four hours. If it doesn’t, it’s up to thirty-two hours on a train and an exercise in stamina, while still romantic enough that you can write a shit-ton of poetry. On those train rides I was probably pumping out ten pages in these little bursts. After a bunch of trips, I had sixty or seventy pages. Then I looked back at all the poetry I’d written a year before and realized that I had been working on this project my whole life. I took all the titles off my old poems and threw them in, and went from there.

Rumpus: Your publisher, YesYes Books, listed it as a memoir in verse. Why?

Candrilli: That was my decision, because that’s what it is. But it took me a long time to arrive there. Once the pages were written and I was staring at a bunch of them, I knew what it was, but I didn’t know if I was going to call it a memoir for family reasons.

Rumpus: It seems like a large part of being a queer writer is learning how to name things, both in our writing and of ourselves.

Candrilli: And also thinking about what you’re going to put into the public sphere. I’ve become really comfortable this past year with being overly public and overly honest, putting everything out there for people to sieve through and see if there’s anything that they can use to make their lives better. It’s been a better way for me to live.

Rumpus: Has it benefitted you as a writer to be more honest with the public?

Candrilli: Totally. When I was younger, I definitely came about writing from the wrong angle. I learned about contests and thought, This is a sport, I must be able to win it. But that was the wrong attitude. I wrote and read a lot, which was super useful but also an icky way to be. But I don’t think I’m the first or last to fall into the trap of young writing in the contest sphere. I’m certainly happy to be in a more comfortable space, in so much that I don’t care about that anymore. And being super honest all the time has resulted in a lot of young transfolk coming to me to show me their work or ask me their questions, to say, “Thank you for what you’re doing; I see myself in this narrative.” As soon as that starts happening, any kind of careerist bullshittery that you’ve ever had evaporates because you realize what you’re doing is way more important than your CV.

Rumpus: What advice do you have for young trans writers?

Candrilli: I think readers who aren’t trans have a very specific idea of the trans experience, and as trans people we’re indoctrinated with what cis people think of trans people. That’s almost more visible than other trans people, so just reject that entirely and don’t write what you think is most palatable for cis people. The thing I recommend is to write for other trans people, and you’ll be amazed with what comes out. Guaranteed, if you just write for trans people then the cis people will think it’s fucking awesome anyway.

Rumpus: Do you write based upon memory, or do you use journals to put yourself in the time you’re writing from?

Candrilli: It depends on the project. What Runs Over is just memory, and anything that made it in is remembered pretty vividly. And then in the moments where I use slipstream or slip into the surreal, it’s not because I don’t remember what happened. I don’t know if it’s more a defense mechanism for me or for the reader.

Rumpus: Can slipstream be a way of reclaiming memory or a moment you don’t want to hold onto but can’t let go of?

Candrilli: Absolutely. In the beginning when I was using slipstream to walk away from or change memories, I regarded that in myself as a weakness. Now I’ve gotten to a place where I see that’s what agency looks like. I’m doing this conscientiously and to exercise my agency over time and memories where I didn’t have any.

Rumpus: What do you do to protect your writing time?

Candrilli: I don’t write every day. I’m not a morning writer or an afternoon one; there’s no set plan to how I write. But I do try to log the lines that come to me every day, those single lines that pop into your head with nothing around them. I’ve been taking more and more care to make sure those end up in a notebook or Word document, or even my phone. The way I like to write right now is to take seven of those lines, throw them into a Word document, and create a poem around it. It’s like the Sudoku of random lines. What might be more important is protecting yourself.

When I was working on What Runs Over, I was thrown into fits and spurts of depression, for lack of a better word. I was writing it in those bursts, those ten page clips on a train, leaning into this romantic idea of what a poet in pain should look like. I would never do that again, and I don’t recommend it to anyone. It’s not smart to put ourselves in situations that we can’t easily remove ourselves from. Now when I write things that are difficult, I write them much more slowly and over larger spaces of time, because I want to give myself a break and be kind to myself. Taking a lot of time when you’re writing something that’s inherently painful and spreading it out, it changes your perspective on the actual trauma itself because you’re extending time in a really strange way. You’re extending your experience of writing trauma, which gives you distance and then perspective and new light. I think it’s good to be gentle with yourself and spend a shitload of time on difficult material instead of trying to complete it in a manic space where you’re channeling the intensity of the pain you’re writing about.

Rumpus: Writers are now expected to respond immediately to social and political events, which are often triggering past traumas. But art may not be the first thing that you think to do; instead it might be to go home and get in bed. How do you strike a balance between gut-reactive writing and a more meditative response?

Candrilli: This happened to me the other day. I was sitting down to write a poem and the title is something like “Open Letter to My Future Mother-in-Law and her Transphobia.” And I had those seven random lines that I’d come up with over however many days, and they were all angry. My writing has been in the past but I don’t think it’s angry right now, so it didn’t feel my writing. Instead of putting those angry lines in, I was radically soft about it. It’s a really gentle, redemptive, I’m-waiting-for-you-to-come-around poem. You have to get to the best version of yourself in any version of yourself before you can appropriately respond to any type of news or trauma.

Rumpus: Where do you find value in silence versus response?

Candrilli: It’s new, and I’ve worked on it. What Runs Over is not written from that space. Directly after What Runs Over was done being drafted, I started going to weekly therapy. I have Borderline Personality Disorder and as soon as I received that diagnosis, I was almost elated to have a name to the face because it allowed me to spot symptomatic behavior and slow my life down. In learning how to avoid those nasty symptoms and bad behavior, because that’s what Borderline Personality Disorder can manifest itself as, I really started to dig silence and being a little more reserved and as emotionally mature as I could manage in any given situation.

Rumpus: Do you see humility as something a writer learns with experience?

Candrilli: I think I learned it. I totally feel empathy in my bones, but humility was not there at all. It took a lot of things all happening at once: therapy, having finished What Runs Over, and meeting a partner who is incredibly pure. But also starting to witness poets who are not about acolytes at all. They just don’t give a damn—it’s a true community of poets who want everyone to be learning as many incredible poems as possible because that’s why we’re here. And just seeing people together writing poems and the sheer enthusiasm that they showed for one another made me think my life would be better if I were like this, and other people’s lives would be better if I was like this. So I think it’s fine to make a change, but it was totally learned. It took watching other people be good people.

Rumpus: What can writers do to foster community without sacrificing their own well-being?

Candrilli: I’m trying to figure that out. I want to be able to give more time to people than I can now, so I’m dedicating the whole of my mid- to late-twenties to figuring out when to say no and when to really say yes and lean in, and give all of my energy to someone like a young trans poet who’s looking for mentorship.

Rumpus: When you think of home, what do you think of?

Candrilli: My partner, that’s the simple kitschy response. I’m on the autism spectrum and I didn’t know it until recently, and being around this person makes all of those idiosyncratic tendencies that I didn’t understand feel totally normal and okay. I think that’s the biggest thing that ever felt like home.

Rumpus: Being understood and accepted is so important, and being around people who encourage us to write, especially about ourselves, so that we can better understand each other. The “I” is pretty powerful.

Candrilli: I’ve had the privilege of education all over the place, but in being formally trained there’s this hesitation that comes to writing about yourself. It takes a while to get rid of the idea that you can’t have an “I” in your writing. Trying to strike that balance all the time is just exhausting, but I really think that people who aren’t cis-het need to be writing about themselves in excruciating detail. You’re not taking up too much space. I’m trying to get to a point where I understand that myself, but it’s difficult. I’ll go through and look at a poem, and think, Oh my god, I said “I” so many times. I have to snap myself out of it because that’s the whole damn point of this poem. Don’t be scared to write about yourself. Do all sort of things to yourself in writing.

Rumpus: Beyond your own writing, you’ve worked as an editor with journals like Black Warrior Review, NANO Fiction, and now BOAAT Press. How has working as an editor and considering the work of others impacted your own craft?

Candrilli: There’s a really nitty-gritty answer that first came to my mind, which is that I know a lot more now about beginning a piece than ever before. Your titles have to be great, and your first lines have to be totally slammin’. In a different capacity, particularly my experience as the nonfiction editor at Black Warrior, I didn’t have slush readers. And there were heavy, heavy essays about astonishing quantities of pain. I think I started to realize a little bit about how much it really takes for people to send work out, and it made me write more generous rejections. I was blown away by some of those pieces, but you can’t take them all. And then thinking, Oh damn, this is what I put people through, while being generally more grateful because I write about some tough shit. It’s such a faceless exchange that being an editor made me more conscientious. The whole process should be done much more kindly than it is, but there’s only so much time in the day.

Rumpus: Do you feel it’s necessary for the reader and writer to have similar life experiences in order to have empathy for one another?

Candrilli: No. I think there’s a difference between aesthetic and life experience, or at least there should be. And if there isn’t then we should be trying to parse it out in ourselves, which is something editing made me do. Of course I’m going to pull the rural queer narrative out of the hat; I’m going to see it and sniff it out right away. But when I bring that to a meeting, there’d better be four different types of narratives in that packet. Be hypercritical of your own aesthetic and what you’re drawn to, and making sure that that doesn’t overwhelm the collaborative project you’re working on.

Rumpus: Is it the writer’s job to enlighten the reader?

Candrilli: It’s all about positionality. You can enlighten me until the cows come home and I’m into it, if this is your positionality, if you’re enlightening me about you. But if you’re enlightening me about someone else’s experience, I distrust it immediately.

Rumpus: Is there a dialogue you’re looking to spark with your work?

Candrilli: I’m interested in young queer people not thinking that being brought up poor and rural excludes them from certain scenes, whether that be academic, artistic, or queer groups. You don’t want to feel like the odd one out, but often times you might, if everyone in your queer book group grew up in Philadelphia and you grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania, homeschooled on a mountain. There’s a difference. I want those folks to feel represented in a way that’s useful and to communicate that their narratives should also be out there. I have a draft of my second book, which is a collection of poems tentatively titled, All the Gay Saints. And that whole book, compared to What Runs Over, is a happy book. It’s about trans joy, and that’s a dialogue. So often we’re reduced to our trauma, and though that’s a narrative that applies to me I can’t have it always be that way.

Rumpus: There has to be a balance between joy and sorrow, or trauma and recovery.

Candrilli: Exactly. So I feel really excited that my first book in the world is about actually surviving a trauma, about being inside of it and getting out of it. Running over, running off, running out.


Stephanie Trott is an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where she serves as poetry editor for Ecotone. Her work appears in Cleaver Magazine, Buffalo Almanack, and Polaris. More from this author →