The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Kayleb Rae Candrilli about their new collection Water I Won’t Touch (Copper Canyon Press, April 2021), the seriousness of love poems, normalcy, a creation sestina, and more.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here. Upcoming poets include Andrés Cerpa, Kevin Simmonds, Kaveh Akbar, Carly Ingram, Derrick Austin, Amanda Moore, Cynthia Dewi Oka, Matthew Olzmann, and more!
This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: I was looking back at this 2018 interview with Stephanie Trott, about your first book What Runs Over, and I was curious how you think your writing has evolved between that collection and this one.
Kayleb Rae Candrilli: Thank you for that interview in 2018! I had a blast with that one.
I do think a ton has changed since then in terms of my style. When I write it feels like a quieter experience, more reserve, more pause and silence. I’ve been enjoying that calm with the newer work. More house plants and sonnets, and less catastrophes!
Brian S: Lots of love poems in this collection!
Kayleb Rae Candrilli: We all need more love poems in our life, I think! But for me, if the first book was memoir and childhood trauma, and the second [All the Gay Saints] was queer joy and flamboyance, this one is more about the intersection of the two, i.e. maybe what a type of normalcy looks like.
Brian S: Absolutely. It’s been a long while since I was in school as a student but I think I was kind of trained to look at love poems as unserious, and I had to learn to tell those voices to get bent.
Kayleb Rae Candrilli: Love poems are always so deadly serious, and I think that’s their charm even when they are kind of goofy and unserious. A sincerity pulsing in there.
Brian S: I imagine that if this is a reader’s first experience with your work, they might be surprised to think of it as a kind of normalcy, given the way you write about your father and drug use, for example. But the poems look for beauty even in the middle of that stuff. Like one of the poems I wrote about in my piece about selecting this collection for Poetry Book Club, with the image of the bullets firing off in the fire where you and your partner are burning all the stuff in the house.
Kayleb Rae Candrilli: I think we are all, maybe as Americans, pretty intimately familiar with drug use careening into our lives in some capacity. I do think it’s normal, albeit pretty devastating.
But yes, I’ll give you that it’s probably not the norm to burn the contents of your childhood home (lol).
Nicole: Hi, just to jump in here, this is my first experience with your work, Kayleb, and Brian, you have an interesting point there which relates to a question I have. Hi Kayleb! First, I loved your book. You have such a beauty with words and expression of feelings and thoughts. It was an honor to read your work.
My question is this: throughout your book, from my experience of reading it, there is this sense of violence surrounding the culture/landscape and the speaker (you) admitting they are partaking in it, to an extent sometimes, but the gentle nature of the speaker (you) really shines through. I was left with a feeling of a gentle soul who has had a hard time and just wants to live a loving, simple existence. This was one of the lasting impressions of the book for me. Was this gentleness/violence tension intentional or were you unaware that it came through?
Given this is my first experience with your work, I can’t comment on how it relates to your earlier work—but I am excited to read it.
Kayleb Rae Candrilli: This is a beautiful question. I think for me the beauty of writing is that it provides me a way to track my growth, maturity, resolve, empathy, and capacity to love. So, I wanted it to come through because it was time to grow.
Nicole: That’s lovely.
Kayleb Rae Candrilli: I think, too, being queer in rural America is a tough thing and queer children learn the art of camouflage. For me that camouflage was being a participant in toxic masculinity and it’s taken a long time to shed the remnants of that performance. Getting there, though.
Nicole: I can imagine… I think it’s so beautiful you are wanting to grow and allowing that to be tracked on your work. It really shines through and I loved it.
Brian S: Yeah, I think about the people I went to high school with (a very long time ago) who later came out and I recognize that camouflage—and the need for it.
Nicole: So, when you wrote these poems, were you thinking, I want my gentleness to come through? Or were you just open to allowing me parts of yourself to come through?
Kayleb Rae Candrilli: I think it’s all pretty organic gentleness, mainly because I’m so often talking to my partner or other trans people.
Nicole: I love that.
Kayleb Rae Candrilli: It’s hard not to be gentle with the people you love most. The camouflage comes in so many forms! We are amazing like that.
Nicole: That’s beautiful. Really. Thank you so much for answering this.
Kayleb Rae Candrilli: Thank you for asking! I appreciate you.
Brian S: The way you end that poem, “My Partner Wants Me to Write Them a Poem about Sheryl Crow,” with the image of you packing them half a grapefruit and some sugar, that’s tender. That’s really expressive of how much we lean on each other.
And that’s a moment where the camouflage is gone, which is most important, I think.
Kayleb Rae Candrilli: I love that. That moment feels like the most important moment of the book to me, and I think you’ve just articulated why. The full veil gets dropped right there, not just in the book, but in my life.
Brian S: I’ve got to ask you about this sestina, because I’m a form nerd and I especially love experimenting with the sestina. Can you talk some about how you conceived it and also how it appears in the book, separated and sideways?
Kayleb Rae Candrilli: So, generally speaking, I don’t like sestinas very much, and I really wanted to write to form in a way that would be fun for me personally.
Brian S: It’s a real risk-reward form, because it can go bad so easily.
Kayleb Rae Candrilli: I wanted a bombastic, sacrilegious, queer story of genesis with hysterically long lines and the lines growing, to me at least, was the additive nature of genesis, the stacking and multiplication of “creation.” I had a lot of fun with the poem! Which I can’t always say.
Brian S: One of the big challenges of the form is that it announces itself so loudly at the end/beginning of each stanza with that repetition of the end word, and breaking it into basically seven verses on different pages negated some of that.
Kayleb Rae Candrilli: And I think each stanza is meant to be a bit different than the last, simulating a new day. The repetition gets buried in the line length, too. I think most of contemporary form is about breaking rules, and the rules are definitely broken here, even if they are kind of unspoken rules.
Brian S: And also the way you play with the end word “man” as the poem progresses—“man” to “men” to “unmanned” to, finally, “humans.” Like there’s an evolution happening in the poem.
Kayleb Rae Candrilli: That’s about all we can hope for, but I love evolution bumping up against genesis, so thank you for pointing that out.
Brian S: I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness, so my feelings about evolution and creation have changed a great deal over the years, and I still get a kick out of putting them side by side.
Kayleb Rae Candrilli: With all the UFOs in restricted airspace it’s probably best to keep an open mind lol. Conviction has never done me a ton of good one way or another.
Brian S: What’s it been like trying to plan a book release during a pandemic? I feel like we’re in the early stages of coming out of it, but it’s still probably a little fraught?
Kayleb Rae Candrilli: My last book came out in May 2020, so in a way this has become the norm? I think it’s been hard for me to find a space I feel comfortable taking up. This is an important moment in history, the confluence of all these human disasters at once. All this is to say, I don’t think I did a ton of planning, though perhaps I should have!
Brian S: For what it’s worth, I think this book deserves to hold some space. It’s speaking to basic humanity and that’s a thing a lot of people could use to be reminded of at present.
Kayleb Rae Candrilli: I appreciate that and for holding space for it here.
Love poems! We all need deadly serious love poems.
Brian S: The planning, I imagine, is tough. Like maybe we can think about in-person readings again? Maybe not right this moment, but they’re on the horizon, I’d think. Start doing readings at vaccination sites…
Kayleb Rae Candrilli: Writers were so odd to begin with! We are going to have a bumpy transition back into amp feedback and open bars.
Brian S: Everybody’s going to be going over their time limits. Somebody hanging a sign behind the readers that says “No COVID Poems.”
Nicole: Can you speak a bit about the title of the book? I know there were several poems in the book with that title, and for whatever reason, I didn’t fully understand it but I really want to.
Kayleb Rae Candrilli: I’ll start by saying I can’t swim, but also it’s about alcoholism, dehydration, storms, growth and roots. I think it takes on new meanings throughout, and is contextualized differently by different poems. We are ninety percent water. What a ridiculous thing.
Nicole: That’s cool, the shifting meanings.
Brian S: Which poems from this book are your favorites to read, when you have the chance?
Kayleb Rae Candrilli: I like reading the Sheryl Crow poem the best! And second to that, I like reading the crown when both me and the audience has the stamina. It’s an eleven-minute poem, so it’s not an everyday thing. There is a line in the crown, though, that’s so clunky and I knew I should fix it but never got it quite right. Now I’m just rocking with the clunker line.
Brian S: That is excellent.
What other books have you been reading lately? Are there any forthcoming collections we should be looking forward to?
Michelle Hulan: Hiiiii! First of all, this collection is just so fantastic. I am obsessed with this book. Thank you for your art and for joining us.
I’m thinking a lot about the placement of the poems and sections themselves, specifically the last poem of the final section. It reads (for me) like a radical act of persistence and survival, despite the anger/rage/trauma some of earlier poems explore. I’m wondering, with this in mind, how was the process for poem and section placement for you? Was this a fairly organic/intuitive process?
Kayleb Rae Candrilli: Hello! Thank you for being here and for the question, my friend! In regard to ordering, I felt pretty intuitively that the crown of sonnets had to end the book. I so badly wanted to put myself in a position to repeat myself as the last line of the book. I think it also completed a personal arc there, too, and I knew the book was done in a really fulfilling way.
Michelle Hulan: Mmmmm yessss. That feeling comes through.
Kayleb Rae Candrilli: The sestina though, used to be much closer to the crown, and after some astute edits by Copper Canyon Press we moved it earlier, and I think it did a lot for pacing so I appreciate them a ton over there.
Brian S: That’s the hour. Thank you again, Kayleb, for joining us tonight, and for sharing this wonderful book with us.
Kayleb Rae Candrilli: Thank you for having me and being here! And for the wonderful questions, appreciate y’all and please have a wonderful night!
Photograph of Kayleb Rae Candrilli by Beowulf Sheehan.