The PEN Ten: An Interview with Kayleb Rae Candrilli
1. What was the first book or piece of writing that had a profound impact on you?
There are so many pieces of writing that had a profound impact. I certainly wouldn’t have found this life without children’s books and YA. I love Abarat by Clive Barker, the Inkheart trilogy by Cornelia Funke, Yoss by Odo Hirsch, The Edge Chronicles by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell, and the Harry Potter series by she-who-must-not-be-named. And speaking of being trans, I also love the Hardy Boys series.
My mom and I would hit the dumpsters behind our local libraries, and I’d scoop out hundreds of discarded books. That is where I found tons of books on limerick. I was extremely serious about limerick as a form when I was like nine, 10, and 11 years old. Which feels like an oxymoron: jumbo shrimp / serious limerick.
My mother told me I was going to be a writer, and she told me with such authority, I imagine that’s why—for a time—I decided on professional athlete, and then architect, and then cartographer, and then professional demographer.
All this gets me to my true watershed moment. At 17, I had just started studies at The University of Arizona (U of A), where both my aunt and uncle had studied before me. I had just declared geography as my major, with emphasis in demographic studies. I even won a little certificate in front of a 200-person class for my paper on GDP and IMR. I had written 17 pages of charts and number crunching, when the assignment called for three to five pages double-spaced.
“Like the art itself, truth is subjective. There is a peace to be made inside the wishy-washy nature of truth. I try to navigate truth, and then I try to renavigate after everything has changed. . . I think poetry has a unique ability to navigate truth. But poets need to dedicate themselves to the life’s work of renavigation—an endless arch of truths.”
But eventually, on some pegboard at U of A, I saw a poster for Sister Spit—a bunch of queer writers and artists coming through Tucson to present their work. I had come out pretty recently, and though I was making friends, I felt relatively isolated. I couldn’t get anyone to join me, so I went alone.
Michelle Tea, Amos Mac, Kirya Traber. All these glorious artists and writers, all queer. It was 2009, and Mac had just started Original Plumbing, to which we all owe so much. Then, Traber read her poetry, and that was it for me. It felt gravitational—my pull toward the medium. I started writing really terrible poems after that, and I am thankful. Traber’s chapbook, black chick, is one of my prized positions. It still has its beautiful red pressed paper shawl around it.
2. How does your writing navigate truth? Do you think that poetry, as a genre, has a unique capacity to unveil concealed truths?
Like the art itself, truth is subjective. There is a peace to be made inside the wishy-washy nature of truth. I try to navigate truth, and then I try to renavigate after everything has changed. I look back to old writing, and everyone’s pronouns are wrong! Mine included. Hell, I have a tattoo that says, “To each her own.” Lucky for me, it’s a pretty illegible font to begin with.
All this is to say, yes, I think poetry has a unique ability to navigate truth. But poets need to dedicate themselves to the life’s work of renavigation—an endless arch of truths.
“I think there’s a perception of the writer’s identity—one we’ve seen represented, again and again, in popular culture. I’ve rarely seen a writer fit into that mold. . . But my personal identity certainly affects and guides my writing. What would I have to write about without all the goofy stuff that makes me, me? And what would I have without this particular body and all it holds, all it attracts—both good and bad? All those memories packed in at cellular and unshakable levels.”
3. What does your creative process look like? How do you maintain momentum and remain inspired?
I really enjoy answering questions about process because I think sometimes the classical tropes of a writer staring down a blank page can muddy what it often looks like. For me, I feel most like a collector. For weeks or months, I collect images. I do blackout poems of Creed lyrics or Chelsea Handler books, toss them in a box. I play with poetry magnets and haikubes, snap a photo for later and shelve it. Eventually, I return to all these disparate images, throw them in a notepad, and then do the work of linking them all—mostly, when I sit down to actually “write,” I find I’ve done a lot of prewriting in my head, which makes me feel a lot better about not writing for eight months (or however long it’s been).
Right now, I’m thinking about poems in which Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen are hardened survivalists in a post-apocalyptic world, which means I get to watch old Olsen VHSes and play zombie video games, and one day when I sit to write, I’ll get to see how much work has already been done. For me, it’s unhealthy to actively put pen to paper every day—much of the work is done by living, and it just takes time to recognize it as such.
4. What has it been like to publish a book in the time of coronavirus? What changes did you have to make to your publication process?
Any crisis—any large-scale catastrophe—has the unique ability to put things in perspective. To make what is small, feel small. On a micro and personal level, sometimes this recentering can be helpful and humbling.
I didn’t really change too much about my publication process for All the Gay Saints (released in May 2020) or much for Water I Won’t Touch, coming this April. There’s only so much space one can take for themselves when the world is grieving, which it so often is. That said, my presses have been incredibly adaptive, supportive, and always work so hard on behalf of my work. I am very thankful.
“For me, form is a useful constraint for sense-making, when the world makes no sense. I set out to complete a puzzle, and my completion of the form is the gratification I imagine some people feel after locking down a 2000-piece jigsaw—sense from what started as nonsense.”
5. How does your identity shape your writing? Is there such a thing as “the writer’s identity?”
These are two very different questions! So I’ll start with the latter and tell you I really hope there’s no such thing as the writer’s identity. And if there is, maybe I like to think I can help subvert it with an unironic love of dubstep, light beer, and competitive backyard cornhole competitions. I guess what I mean is, I think there’s a perception of the writer’s identity—one we’ve seen represented, again and again, in popular culture. I’ve rarely seen a writer fit into that mold.
That said, I think to be a useful writer, you need an inherent and growing capacity for empathy, you need to be open to the art of witnessing, and you need to never think you’re completely right about anything.
But my personal identity certainly affects and guides my writing. What would I have to write about without all the goofy stuff that makes me, me? And what would I have without this particular body and all it holds, all it attracts—both good and bad? All those memories packed in at cellular and unshakable levels.
6. References to the Bible appear throughout Water I Won’t Touch, which serve the themes of transformation, transgression, and forgiveness that are maintained across the collection. Of course, the Bible has long been a text that has been used as ammunition against the queer community. I was wondering what informed your decision to turn to the Bible—especially the book of Genesis—when writing these poems, so many of which paint a portrait of the violence that trans people face in their daily lives.
I’ve always been interested in running toward the “sacrilege” the world often throws on queer people. In my first book, I am God. I pray to myself. My body is holy. When I’m writing, none of this feels the least bit transgressive. It feels true. My second book, All the Gay Saints, imagines a world where everyone is both a twink and a saint—cruising in the woods—because why not make the whole tedious and terrible business of religion a bit more fun, even if just for a few pages?
In the poem you reference, “Sestina Written as Though Genesis,” I am interested in genesis as a personal creation story—of which we all have one. I am more interested in every single trans person’s origin story than I am in any sliver of the Bible. In writing my own story, by (in one part) forcefully staking claim on the book of Genesis, I’m telling everyone to do the same—until what pervades is our stories and not the monolith weaponized against us.
7. Poetry is such a unique genre of writing because parts of its history are so dictated by rigidity and form, yet it also allows for some of the greatest breaks from convention. A few of your poems, such as “Sestina Written as Though Genesis” and “Transgender Heroic: All This Ridiculous Flesh,” draw from long poetic traditions, but then reinscribe them—you tweak the end-words in the sestina and write an epic that is as much about strength and resilience as it is about vulnerability and softness. What is it that gravitates you to different poetic forms, and how do you make the choices to subvert some of the rules that come with them?
For me, form is a useful constraint for sense-making, when the world makes no sense. I set out to complete a puzzle, and my completion of the form is the gratification I imagine some people feel after locking down a 2000-piece jigsaw—sense from what started as nonsense.
“In regard to the tradition of form itself, I think I am a small part of the tradition being remade and reclaimed by historically marginalized folks. Our bodies are breaking rules by existing, so why wouldn’t our art?”
In regard to the tradition of form itself, I think I am a small part of the tradition being remade and reclaimed by historically marginalized folks. Our bodies are breaking rules by existing, so why wouldn’t our art? And too, I’m not reading John Donne on the weekends in my quiet moments. I’m reading Natasha Trethewey, Danez Smith, and torrin a. greathouse. I am interested in the “right now” and my little home in it.
8. What’s a piece of art (literary or not) that moves you and mobilizes your work?
I really love electronic dance music. Most things I’ve written have their specific synth-heavy soundtracks. It’s taught me so much about sound, so much about the emotional core of whatever I’m working on. A lot of the artistic mediums can be exclusionary—writing especially, I think. Music feels more elemental, more accessible to me. I am so envious of musicians! But gosh I appreciate them, and I couldn’t make art without their art. In that way, the relationship feels healthy and compounding and regenerating.
9. What is your relationship to place and story? Are there specific places you keep going back to in your writing?
I have a line in a poem that goes, “It is hard to clean a home, but it is harder to clean the memory of it.” And I think that gets to the nucleus of many writers’ obsession with place, home, and origin story. Our genesis stories.
I don’t believe much in nature—in the nature vs. nurture question. Sure, the stove is hot, and often we remove our hands. But more often we have our own codes that make up the stove. For me: Steak-umms, Jane’s Krazy Mixed-Up Salt, food stamps, lighting grandmommy’s sandalwood incense on the pilot light, my father heating his drugs. For others: the tortilla sitting right on the burner, or the smell of burnt scrambled eggs on a Sunday, or perhaps the gas bill defaulting—the stove is just another cabinet.
How could we not return?
10. Which writer, living or dead, would you most like to meet? What would you like to discuss?
I think I’d really enjoy sharing a cigarette and a coffee with Anaïs Nin. I feel like this needs no explanation. Who goes harder than Nin? I hope we’d talk about nothing important.
But if I had to roll it back a bit further, I would love to hang out with Gaius Petronius. It is immensely funny to me that Petronius trolled The Odyssey with a queer protagonist in the first century AD. Ugh, the glorious audacity of it all. I love it.
Kayleb Rae Candrilli is a 2019 Whiting Award winner in poetry and the author of Water I Won’t Touch (Copper Canyon Press, 2021), All the Gay Saints (Saturnalia Books, 2020), and What Runs Over (YesYes Books, 2017). Candrilli was a 2017 finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in transgender poetry and a 2017 finalist for the American Book Fest’s Best Book Award in LGBTQ Non-Fiction. They have received fellowships from Lambda Literary and are published or forthcoming in Poetry, The American Poetry Review, American Poets, TriQuarterly, Boston Review, and many others. They live in Philadelphia with their partner.