This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Robin Gow: One of the lines in the first poem really resonated with my own experience with gender and then understanding the complexities of gender for speakers in the book. You write, “I think I knew I was a boy / when the boy touched me.” It made me curious about how you understand gender’s relationship to touch and the physical body?
Kayleb Rae Candrilli: This is such a complicated question, hence my delay in answering! But after sitting on it awhile, I think this poem might be different from some others in the collection, re: the relationship of touch & gender. This poem is something of a prelude, one that discusses a formative trauma—something of a chronological arching device. Its relationship to gender is really just a desire for the power and the agency that men are typically and historically afforded. When I question myself, I view that desire for power as not at all related to my lived gender and instead regard it as much more closely related to capital, both monetary capital and social capital.
There were some edits to that poem, and the original has an additional couplet:
I think I knew I was a boy
when the boy touched me.
I don’t know what this says
about me or the world
I say, “I don’t know,” but don’t we all know what it says about the world? In the end, I think we are all clambering for power, and if we are relatively pure of heart, the power we crave is just the power to control our own lives and our own bodies. That power is so often taken from us.
But as the book moves along, the discussion of gender paired with the tactile is more tied to euphoric memories, I think. Moments that aren’t a desire for capital, but instead moments that are a manifestation of a very particular type of peace and calm—calm that can only exist in a short-lived vacuum in which you forget gender is a tool in the belt of capitalism, in which you forget your origin story, in which you forget language and meaning and are left with only some elemental sense, or senses. Perhaps wildflowers on the wind.
I think of these lines as the most important in the book when prying at your question:
I wish I could tell every
trans child a story about running through
the forest shirtless, about how the wind
licks when only the trees are staring.
I promise, sunrise can feel sweet.
I remember in 2015, I had a little frozen pizza dinner party with my best friends. We all did our laundry together and watched Mean Girls. I excused myself to the restroom and while I was in there, one of those little vacuums formed. I forgot my gender entirely. No origin story. No arch to a new destination. No clue what my body meant to the world and no clue what it meant to me. That was true euphoria, though maybe it doesn’t seem as though it would be. I like to think those moments peak through in the book, though in different forms, like light cutting through the blinds, or Pop Rocks on your tongue. Hopefully that answers a bit of the question.
RG: What do you feel the poetry/lyric’s role is in articulating these kinds of euphoric moments? What does it allow/ generate for you? And then, given your reflection on touch, I’m curious what your relationship to the speaker in the book is.
KRC: What does lyricism exist for if not to try to articulate the inarticulable? There is no way to truly succeed at articulating euphoria, or grief, or love. What makes writing interesting at all is the histories’ long attempts to convey completely abstract and individual lived experiences—that are simultaneously not individual or unique at all. I feel like that all sounds silly and intentionally circling, but when I write, it feels like a failure from a jump. It can never be enough. Language doesn’t have the reach to achieve that which we all strive for, and that’s why we do it—or that’s why I do it, anyway. Writing is Sisyphean in a way that motivates me and challenges me and insults me daily. I often have to remind myself, when the business side of writing overwhelms me, that there is a reason I am drawn to this very particular and unending type of human medium. How many stabs can I take one emotion, how many angles to approach it? It’s both so limited and so limitless. I think that simultaneity is what lyricism generates for me.
And in terms of my relationship to the speaker of Water I Won’t Touch, it’s just me. I’ve always been open about that in all my work. There is no veil between me and the poetry, or at least no veil I’ve hung intentionally. So far in my writing life, I’ve decided I’m of more use to myself and my readers without that veil. Perhaps one day that will change, and I will announce it as such, should the time ever come. Maybe I’m projecting, but I like to think somewhere a kid reads one of my poems and says, look at this trans person, alive and well and loved and writing about being so. I could have used a moment like that growing up.
RG: Oh, interesting, do you think about audience when creating poems / assembling a book?
KRC: Thinking about audience is so elemental to writers, but also so presumptuous, don’t you think? Such hubris to assume an audience, lol.
But jokes aside, I do draw up an imaginary audience when I write. That imagined audience looks an awful lot like I did as a kid or as a younger adult. I write what I needed, and I spend an awful lot of time hoping it ends up being helpful for someone. I do regard it as a responsibility.
This particular book is following my debut, which was all trauma and reclamation of agency and following my sophomore, which was all love poems and flamboyance and joy. Well life’s not all trauma, and it’s certainly not all joy. That’s the line I wanted to straddle for my audience, which I hope has a large contingent of queer people. There’s something to being trans in America and just making dinner for yourself, and maybe a partner. A simplicity to it that, I believe, deserves its place in contemporary literature.
RG: I couldn’t agree more about giving space for all aspects of being trans, and I think you do that really beautifully in this book!
Kind of a pivot, but I’m wondering, what does water represent for you in this collection? I see how in the first “Water I Won’t Touch,” alcohol is a form of water, but then we have other kinds of water as the poem’s title is repeated.
KRC: Well, anytime I talk about water, it’s kind of a joke with myself about being a terrible swimmer. But, over time, it stretches and hopefully takes on new meanings. So yes, the alcohol and an often-failed desire to abstain, but also storm clouds out of reach, and oceans between siblings I did not have the strength to traverse, and of course, my perennial dehydration. If I had to boil it down, I suppose it all, to me, becomes a moniker of self-preservation—however flawed. Which water gets touched? Which rapids could end me at will? At what, if any, beach can I take off my shirt without fear of death? WIWT is my constant discerning of the differences—my expressing my desire to stay alive for as long as I can.
RG: Thinking about form, I love the sestina as a form and what you do with it. What does that particular form yield for you? Inside this book and out, do you have forms you gravitate towards (thinking of form broadly as not just formal forms but also how you construct free verse too)?
KRC: Form in any of its incarnations, for me, is a useful constraint for sense-making—a way to both harness and organize lyric or metaphoric commentary of a world that makes little sense. I think too, I so often gravitate toward the stacking of vignettes, the stacking of moments, that together hopefully work in tandem to a larger commentary—about rural America, about transness, about inequity that results in widespread opioid addiction, about toxic masculinity and its ripples. That stacking of moments and images suits itself extremely well to the Sestina, the Crown of Sonnets, and even some of my free verse poems that employ vignette.
For me, it’s always the parts that paint the whole. I want to find ways to connect what maybe seems unrelated, until they are tied inexorably in the world of the poem or the book. Form provided me a fitting shell to fill. I love form so much I even designed one! I call it the Marble Run and you can find one here. But it’s another form conducive to vignettes.
Maybe in the end, all my grasping for form is about my appreciation for the epic. And since I completely lack the stamina for true epic, I’ve tried to find different outfits for my little mini epics.
RG: Your response leads well into another question I had about approaching capturing life in rural Pennsylvania through your poetry. You’ve already done a little bit here but can you speak a little bit about your relationship to rural PA, both as a queer person and how it emerges in your writing? I also grew up in a farm town in rural Pennsylvania and I feel like it’s a unique, beautiful, and often isolating location for a trans person. The state is bigger than it seems. Then, to take it broader, do you feel like the location you live in or have lived in impacts your poetry?
KRC: I, generally speaking, really love and cherish rural spaces. I don’t know that I always feel safe while inside them, but I think the same can be said of all places. I grew up homeschooled on around 100 acres of land, 20 minutes outside Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania. I wonder a lot, in retrospect, how much of the isolation I felt was born from homeschooling, and how much from such overt queerness. It’s really hard to separate the two, and probably isn’t a worthwhile exercise anyways. But I will say, at least for me, there was a time where my queerness manifested as a display of toxic masculinity. During that time, I felt completely at home in the rural space—hunting, guns, collecting antique belt buckles, real tree camo all year round, etc. I think more than an honest display, it was a technique of risk aversion, of camouflage. 15 years later, in my muscle tanks and athletic shorts, I felt at home at Penn State frat parties (albeit only the daytime parties). Not long after that, in my trans body, I felt at home in local Alabama bars, simply because I was beating everyone in dart games.
What I take away from these spaces, is an inherently queer ability to camouflage oneself. To chameleon for the sake of safety, but also for sake of the campiness of it all.
But at the end of the day, the truly rural Pennsylvanian landscape creeps into nearly everything I do, everything I write. And it’s not fear that makes it creep in, it’s reverence, respect, admiration, and wonder. The crickets are telling you the temperature. How could it not amaze and confound you?
And to the second prong of your question, I think everywhere I’ve lived has impacted or is impacting my writing. Pennsylvania is all over my poems. The Amtrak Crescent Line cutting through Georgia to Alabama finds its way into all poems about friendship. And here, in Philadelphia, a place I moved to for love and love alone, the cherry blossoms. Always the cherry blossoms.
RG: Among many other achievements of this collection, I found this book is a lesson in pacing and generative pauses—not just between stanzas but between pages and then unique punctuation to make beats in poems. Could you talk about your relationship to pauses and beats between and within poems? The poem where I started to consider this most is “I Challenge My Father to an Arm-Wrestling Challenge and Finally Win,” because of the use of the double-slash and how I could feel its contrast in comparison to a poem like “Valentine, Nebraska, Cherry County” that uses the dotted square to mark breaks.
KRC: I’m so glad you took to some of those beats and pauses! I think my relationship to pause, to those larger beats between vignettes is a lot about catching breath—almost like taking a moment on a landing before the next flight of steps. You can continue up, or not. You have a moment to consider what came before and hypothesize what might come after. And for me, at least, I’m always trying to conflate and combine moments or images that might not, on the surface, seems all too related. Those beats help me make sense of my conflations, and I hope they give readers the time to do the same.
And specifically, in regard to the two poems you mention, during the editing process, we waffled on making them both either the triple colons or the double slashes but settled on them staying different and as is. ‘Valentine Nebraska’ is so much more about continuation and stacking, which is the colon’s forte. Whereas ‘Arm Wresting’ is more violent and cutting and slicing—so the slashes fit the bill a little more formally, I think.
RG: Does community play a role in your writing process, and if so, how does it? I started thinking about this in the “My Partner Tells Me to Write a Poem About ___” poems because I just kind of love the ways that speaks to the beautiful ways poetry can contain rich moments of relationships.
KRC: For me, community takes the form of both friendship and partnership outside of traditional discussions about writing. I want to talk with my friends about their favorite 90s video games, their new house plants, their pets, their favorite problematic pop stars, and of course, the resilience of both Drew Barrymore and Paris Hilton. Then in my quiet moments, when I sit down to write, all our interests rush in. I think that’s how my community influences my writing—and its immense and constant influence. I show love by loving what my friends have decided to love, what my partner loves. I will protect, and treat with respect, whatever it is that makes them happy on any given day. I’m on this life ride with them. <3
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, 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.
ROBIN GOW is a trans poet and young adult author from rural Pennsylvania. They are the author of Our Lady of Perpetual Degeneracy (Tolsun Books 2020) and the chapbook Honeysuckle (Finishing Line Press 2019). Their first young adult novel, A Million Quiet Revolutions, is forthcoming in 2022 with FSG Books for Young Readers. Gow’s poetry has recently been published in POETRY, New Delta Review, and Washington Square Review.