Line / Break is back with Kayleb Rae Candrilli!
Kayleb joins our host, Laura Buccieri, to talk about their journey from sports to poetry, an early love of the em dash, and the importance of trans representation.
Our guest next week is APR/Honickman First Book Prize-winner Tyree Daye. Stay tuned!
Line / Break is a new interview series from Copper Canyon Press that goes off the page and into the homes and minds of our beloved poets. We’re hungry to see poets on screen talking shop, answering questions, and taking us behind the scenes of how they do what they do. So we’re giving them a call, and bringing those conversations to you. New episodes, hosted by Director of Publicity Laura Buccieri, launch on Fridays this spring.
Laura (00:00): Hi everyone. I’m Laura Buccieri, the Director of Publicity at Copper Canyon Press. And you are watching our interview series, Line / Break, which goes off the page and into the homes and minds of our beloved poets. I’ve always had the dream of seeing more poets represented on screen, talking shop, answering questions and just taking us behind the scenes of how they do what they do. In this episode we are speaking with Kayleb Rae Candrilli. Kayleb, thank you for being here. How was your day going?
Kayleb (00:32): Survived the dentist, received a package in the city, and now I’m here.
Laura (00:38): Surviving the dentist is, yes, an accomplishment in and of itself.
Kayleb (00:42): I did Uber home though. I treated myself to that.
Laura (00:46): Thank God. You just did that after the dentist, absolutely. Well, I’d love to have you intro yourself if possible—maybe name, pronouns, where you live, most recent book or books you’ve published.
Kayleb (01:02): Well, I’m Kayleb. My pronouns are they/them/theirs. I live in the gritty city of Philadelphia. We have the best mascots. Most recently, All the Gay Saints came out on Saturnalia Press that came out in May. And Water I Won’t Touch is coming out in April with Copper Canyon. And my favorite thing about myself is that I’m a bro. I love football and light beer and I definitely have a stint a few months ago where I thought I was going to become a professional sports better. That didn’t work. [crosstalk 00:01:46].
Laura (01:48): Who says you have to be professional at it. You could always just be a sports better.
Kayleb (01:53): I just think I have to be a professional at everything and then once I realized that I can’t, I abandoned ship.
Laura (02:00): Yeah, that’s fair. Plus, you’re already a professional poet, so how much more room is there truly?
Kayleb (02:07): What if I could be a professional poet and a professional sports better?
Laura (02:11): That’d be one in a million. I love it.
Kayleb (02:14): I’m going to revisit next year.
Laura (02:15): After this.
Kayleb (02:16): Right after this.
Laura (02:20): Well, I am wondering if we could almost take a trip back in time a little bit and go back to when you were first drawn to poetry. I’m curious if you saw yourself represented in the language or the characters or the themes in poetry or was there another kind of inspiration that pushed you to write or read poetry? Was it just something that you kept coming back to? I’m curious.
Kayleb (02:50): My mom told me I was going to be a writer, so I was like, “No, I’m not.” And that probably kept me away from it a little bit longer than it should have. So I went to… I was 17 when I graduated high school and I went to the University of Arizona. I was going to walk onto the softball team with a bad MCL.
Laura (03:17): Oh my God. What confidence.
Kayleb (03:22): It’s a good softball team. So that didn’t work and I was studying demography. So I wanted to study that.
Laura (03:34): Wait. Wow. You went into Arizona knowing you wanted to study that?
Kayleb (03:40): Yes. Geography and underneath that demography as emphasis. I was 17 and I was sure. Yeah, and then I got mono and couldn’t play rugby.
Laura (03:52): There’s so many turns in this story.
Kayleb (03:54): I know. It’s all in four months. And then I saw this poster, because I wasn’t hanging out with anyone because I had mono and no one wanted to hang out with me, even though I wasn’t contagious anymore. And I saw a poster for Sister Spit and they were going to come to the hub. So I went alone and I met Michelle Tea and Amos Mac [crosstalk 00:04:18], and Keira Von Schreiber read their poetry. And I was like, “Oh, you can make art and like, travel?”
Laura (04:36): Okay. So… Yeah, go ahead.
Kayleb (04:39): Then I left the University of Arizona, went to Penn State and studied writing for eight years.
Laura (04:48): Wow. Why the shift from Arizona to Penn State?
Kayleb (04:55): Well, I’m pretty sure my girlfriend lived in Pennsylvania at the time.
Laura (04:59): I see. Yes.
Kayleb (05:00): I mean, there was another motivating factor, but if I look back at it, it was definitely, I wanted to go to Penn State and write.
Laura (05:09): That’s interesting. So you said, Oh, you could write and travel and read these poems that you’ve written. That’s really interesting that you picked up on the lifestyle of poetry as well as the words in and of themselves. Because I think people can forget that being a poet is also some kind of lifestyle in the sense that you’re probably also working another job, probably traveling when we all could, for tours, you’re going to conferences, you’re doing panels, you’re doing all these things. So it’s interesting you picked up on that initially.
Kayleb (05:48): Yeah. It can take you places and that was pretty unequivocally clear when I saw them. And they talked about the tour they’d been on and no, it didn’t seem like it was paying boatloads, but they were happy to be there and I was too.
Laura (06:04): Did you, at that point, had your experience with poetry… Had you been taught poetry at all or was the poetry you were taught just not memorable at all?
Kayleb (06:13): I was homeschooled until 10th grade. The Calvert curriculum, which had a lot of poetry in it, a lot of architecture and art and stuff like that. But everything had an answer key and my mom was the facilitator. Wouldn’t grade my tests; that was done by a third-party person. But she would ask me these questions about Emily Dickinson’s use of the em dash and I would just answer it and then she’d be like, I don’t know. And then check the answer key and I was right and I was like, 11. So I suppose it was there.
Laura (06:52): Now I understand why she thought you were going to be a writer.
Kayleb (06:56): But I was like, no.
Laura (06:57): [crosstalk 00:06:57] know what an em dash is at age 11.
Kayleb (07:01): And I overuse them still.
Laura (07:04): Me too. The extra work you have to go to on Google to put the em dash in is terrible.
Kayleb (07:12): I’ll do it. I’ll do anything for the em dash.
Laura (07:16): I love that loyalty. Wait, so, but at Arizona you were, I guess playing rugby and thought you were going to walk onto the softball team.
Kayleb (07:28): So, when I realized I couldn’t walk onto the softball team, I was like, “I got to play a sport.”
Laura (07:33): I see.
Kayleb (07:33): So then I was into the club rugby and then I got mono and they were like, “Your spleen… you can’t play rugby”
Laura (07:42): No, definitely not. But then, did you still—Carry on. Did you still play sports and stuff like that as you—
Kayleb (07:54): That was it.
Laura (07:54): That was it. That was truly it.
Kayleb (07:55): That was it. Never again, I was like, “ah”
Laura (08:01): Oh gosh, mono really… It’s mono that brought you to poetry.
Kayleb (08:08): Yeah. I don’t know. I just stopped.
Laura (08:11): That’s wild. I love that. So did you start writing poetry for the page? Was it poetry to be performed? Was it because you saw your first experience, it seems, was poetry in front of an audience, like live poetry.
Kayleb (08:30): I don’t know what I thought it was, but it was really bad. And I know that. Hubris was definitely a problem for me personally, in all aspects of my life. I think it came from the athlete stuff. I was very good at sports. So then when I decided to do something new, I just assumed I was good at it. It’s not the case. [crosstalk 00:09:01]. I had this big binder of terrible poems. Humongous like this. And I went to Penn State and I brought it to the person teaching me like English 15, the intro Rhet comp class. And God bless her, she took it home with her—pounds of… And she comes back with it and she’s like, “Hey kid, you really got something I’m going to pass you along forward.” And objectively speaking, I had nothing and that little lie was very important.
Laura (09:51): Yeah. I think having somebody who is in a position of power per se or a position of knowledge, I guess say, “Hey, you’ve got something. Hey, I see something.” Like I’ve been there that, that’s huge. Because you have no idea. You’re shouting into the void when you’re writing poems, at least that’s how I feel, and until I need somebody, I need that other person to stop the shout and tell me, “Is this something or is it nothing?” And that’s, yeah.
Kayleb (10:32): She sent me right to Julia Kasdorf and Robin Becker. So I was in good hands pretty immediately. I ended up teaching that same rhet comp class three years later. So it was a very neat little circle. Yeah.
Laura (10:48): Did anybody present you with a binder as large?
Kayleb (10:52): I got someone to drop out of biology and pursue theater. That’s my equivalent. I was like, “No, no, my perfect student, biochemistry is not for you.”
Laura (11:09) Well you’ve changed their life now.
Kayleb (11:10): Yeah, now they teach theater.
Laura (11:13): They teach theater? Oh my God.
Kayleb (11:15): Yeah. They teach theater in a high school.
Laura (11:17): Did you ever try, I know you were an athlete, did you ever try any other… Were you into theater? Were you into like, did you play music? Did you do any other art form seriously at all? Or even unseriously? Did you try it?
Kayleb (11:32): Like a chronic bro. Surely it was like sports and then when the knees went out and mono, I was like, “I guess art. Art seems like a really good place to go.” I was like, “My body could definitely do art longer, right?
Laura (11:51): For sure. No, I mean let’s hope, I guess.
Kayleb (11:56): Let’s hope.
Laura (11:56): Let’s hope yeah, right. Well, I’m curious. So you’ve written, what—three books? Is this your third book to be published, correct?
Kayleb (12:07): Yeah, the third book’s coming.
Laura (12:09): Yea, third book. That’s a lot of books at kind of a younger age, perhaps. I don’t know. I’m curious. Are you just a really quick writer? I know you’re actually 50.
Kayleb (12:19): Look at these white hairs growing [crosstalk 00:12:20].
Laura (12:24): I’m curious. Are you just a really quick writer or are you just really interested in certain themes that come out in book-length kind of endeavors? Do you not even think about it? And you’re just kind of like, Oh, “I’ve been writing and here’s another book like thing that’s your another binder.
Kayleb (12:45): Yeah, I bring back the powder blue binder.
Laura (12:48): You should.
Kayleb (12:54): I don’t know. I think it probably externally looks like a quick process. It doesn’t feel like a quick process for me. Each book takes three, four years behind closed doors before anything is announced. Sometimes they’re written in simultaneity. Things get swapped from one to the next. So I don’t know
Laura (13:24): Really? There are poems that have gotten swapped from one book to another? Do you feel like-
Kayleb (13:31): I don’t know if that’s, maybe it’s interesting and so far that it happened, I don’t know necessarily that it’s a good thing because it means kind of tonally, maybe not as much has shifted between one book to the next. So that’s something I kind of have to be aware of. But when I’m swapping them, I am trying to recognize something about tone and saying, “this is a mismatch, maybe you belong over here.”
Laura (13:59): Well, yeah. And I mean, it does seem to me at least that your books each have… All of them together actually lend themselves to this arc, right? And so I think, the fact that they can be switched does actually, I guess in hindsight, makes sense because you are telling this narrative throughout all three. Although they’re in no way a series or anything like that, that’s not what I’m implying, but they do tell a larger story.
Kayleb (14:31): Yeah. And I don’t know why, you can read them however you like, but I do enjoy the idea of them being read chronologically. There’s something about that that is exciting to me. And I guess that comes from what I’ve found to be important for me as a writer—one that has, I think, over published and a lot of regards we’re started maybe too early. Maybe that’s more what happened. I wanted everything to be out there. I wanted to have this digital footprint of art that people particularly trans people could look at and—”blueprint” is probably not the best word, but look at as kind of a potential map and then pick their own path. I wanted to publish a lot because not a lot of trans people were getting published, or I didn’t find them. “You can have everything, even if it’s bad, just make it public.” What that does to your psyche is up for debate, but that’s why I did it. That’s why I started early. I think “legacy” is another tricky word, but I want to have books left in my wake because I don’t know, how long does a trans person in a fascist regime live? I don’t really know.
Laura (16:03): Yeah, No, I think that’s fair.
Kayleb (16:06): Not Forever. So that’s part of it too.
Laura (16:12): I love that and I wonder, have you seen anybody, has anybody made contact with you that’s seen your work and seen it as a blueprint, and if they have, I’m sure that that must be like when your teacher passed your binder along, you know what I mean? And you don’t have to answer that, but yeah, I think representation is a tricky word that gets thrown around quite a bit and I think half the time we don’t really know what we mean when we say “representation.” But I do think the importance of just being there and having something to latch onto, having something available online. Even your bio, having your bio available to somebody, for somebody to search. Just even your bio is a blueprint in my mind and I think that that’s really great for somebody who’s searching and needs that.
Kayleb (17:24): I mean, what did I have when I was a kid?
Laura (17:27): I don’t know.
Kayleb (17:29): Rocket Power.
Laura (17:32): I loved Rocket Power.
Kayleb (17:33): So good, and every queer kid and anywhere in our bracket of generation was like, “All of these cartoons are queer, do you know? All of them.”
Laura (17:45): All of them.
Kayleb (17:46): All of them. Peter Pan, obviously, all of the Pokemon trainers were really twinky people. So I think that was wonderful and kind of fantastical, but why should I have to flex my imagination as an eight year old—
Laura (18:09): To fit yourself into something that’s not necessarily there.
Kayleb (18:14): It’s amazing that we can do it. That like we already have this innate ability to queer things, to make things camp, to take what we want and need. It’s amazing that we’re capable. It should just… That shouldn’t be the only way you get what you need.
Laura (18:38): You said that so, well, I can’t try to re-say it. And the motorcycle will not let me anyway.
Kayleb (18:44): Very campy, the motorcycle.
Laura (18:45): That’s no, exactly right, I know. Sound effects—who knew, on this poetry interview. Well, I’m wondering, would you at all be able to read us a poem from anything that you’ve written? It doesn’t even have to be a book and maybe give, if you’ve been reading anything lately that you want to give a shout out to, I would love to hear it if possible.
Kayleb (19:15): All right. So I’ll read from Water I Won’t Touch. And this poem was called “Water We Won’t Touch.” Very clever, huh? See what I put there? All right.
Reunited after years apart,
my sibling is how I imagined
they would be, hair pink
and lit up like a highway flare—
a fire that always tries
to keep itself alive, even
in the rain, or as the tide rolls up.
For years my father had my sibling
surrounded by the Pacific
and saline-flushed needles.
And still my sibling burned.
When we were young,
my father used his hands
for everything. He used his hands
to describe how lightning
almost took him. He
and the lightning
the only bodies on the beach.
His feet smoked up, charred
on the bottoms, a spider-
web of fire spun as the storm
lashed onto shore. The sand
turned to silica glass around him.
My father has always been spared
and my father is the closest thing I know
to a sinner. What is the third degree
if not a near smiting?
Sometimes, I wonder
about the vastness of the ocean,
and how best to avoid its anger.
My sibling and I loved each other
most during storms. I know this.
When my sibling tells me—
after all these years—about
the pink lightning that hovered
over a town full of pink houses, I know
that we haven’t been totally beaten.
What is a family if not preparation?
We can smell a storm coming
before anyone. I swear
we can taste it rolling in.
Laura (21:19): Thank you so much. The many forms of water in that are so good.
Kayleb (21:24): Thank you. Yes. Water I touch, water I don’t touch, water we touch. These people are in the pool, you know?
Laura (21:33): So they can touch the water. They’re touching the water, I know. What was I thinking?
Kayleb (21:40): I love it.
Kayleb (21:42): And then I’ve been reading Aeon Ginsberg’s work. And this is a book called Greyhound. So, so much transportation, so many buses, so much kind of queerness hurdled through space. Yeah, and they’re a poet I really care about and admire and think more people should be reading so, Greyhound.
Laura (22:10): That is fantastic. I appreciate that. That will be on my list. I promise you that. Thank you. Well, Kayleb, thank you so much for being here, for taking the time to do this and just reading us your work and talking about how it comes to be. So I really appreciate it. Thank you for taking the time.
Kayleb (22:33): Thank you for having me. It made my Friday better.
Laura (22:36): Oh, good. Well, I was competing with the dentist, so I think the bar was set low.
Kayleb (22:40): You made it very much better. It made it a good day.
Laura (22:43): Okay. Well thank you very much and we will see you next time. Thank you.