Katie: I’ve read What Runs Over a few different ways now– straight through, with pauses, and at random, and it works every which way. The way you work with pace and temper creates this tension that holds a reader and is deeply unsettling throughout. The conversation between pieces, the movement through themes, the return to place and time– I’m curious about how you decided to tell the story, and the individual stories. Did you know from the start or was there a choice in there?
Kayleb: Well to start off, thank you for reading, and an extra thank you for reading more than once! That’s so surreal and beautiful to me. I’m so glad you were held, and unsettled, and found a way to understand the space of What Runs Over.
I think there are a few ways answer your question, and I’ll start with the nitty gritty/technical part of writing WRO:
When I started WRO I definitely didn’t know that I had started a book, or any type of project with longevity. I was in a class at the University of Alabama that called for one long prose piece per week. So I was like (lol yikes)….. But what I CAN do is hand in 13 really manic pages of memoir that’s lineated???? Anyway, that particular class perhaps wasn’t the best initial audience for WRO, so I left it alone for a while.
That summer (2015) I was lucky enough to attend the Lambda Literary Retreat as a fellow in non-fiction. I didn’t have any prose to hand in for the workshop, so I gave them 13 pages of WRO, at the time titled “Cartography of the Tri-State Area.” I positioned it as an experimental lyric essay. After having been met with a pretty lackluster response at school, I was really jazzed when the Lambda Fellows were excited, like super-duper excited. And they kindly informed me that I was going to have to write another 60 to 70 pages, and that the lyric essay would be my first book. I’ll never forget how inspired I felt in that room, with all those queer-identified writers giving me the permission to take up space. I appreciate all of them very much.
Then, in the immediate months that followed I wrote the 60 pages. I wrote them quickly, in chunks of 5-10 pages at a time. And as I was starting to compile them all, into this big living document, I looked back at all my old poems, and realized lots and lots of them fit right into the project. It was one of those quintessential writer moments, where you’re like “Ahhh yes, I’ve been writing this book my whole life.” lol
Then, as one will, I printed everything out and threw it all over the floor and tried to make sense of what I’d done. I started a really simple system for myself to get organized. I made a color-coded key, with a bunch of different highlighters. The highlighters denoted particular themes, key words, settings, etc. Then I would tag the tops of the pages with the highlighters, so when I was looking at them, all scattered on the floor, I could see where the themes and key words were overlapping TOO much. I wanted to give certain violences more space. I mean there’s only so much a reader can handle right in a row, and I wanted to as contentious of that as possible. And just in terms of craft, it’s much more satisfying for readers to return to themes after an absence, rather than get hit over the head.
I used this system to order my second book, and worked well in that instance too. Also I know this color system isn’t necessarily accessible for all folx, I think the idea can be tailored to needs and person. ❤
And then the not so nitty gritty / technical (aka: lots of feelings):
I think it’s really important to note that your question asks about “choice.” When I was writing these pages, I didn’t feel as though I had much choice at all. I didn’t feel like I was exercising my agency.
And I think it’s important to say that it wasn’t good feeling, to feel so out of control. It’s not like I was taken by the “muse” and it just flowed out of me. It felt like I was sleeping on sandpaper every night for years.
I think much of that had to do with the material, the reality of the traumas, but also how young I was (and am). WRO is a first book. I love it for precisely that reason. I’ll never have to write it again, and it will always be there for the folx that need it. But it feels really amazing not be inside the trauma anymore. That’s what it was all about really, running over, running off, running away, getting out.
Katie: What was it like to come out of that? How have you approached your work since?
Kayleb: After WRO I spent a few months in a kind of limbo. I didn’t know what was next; all I knew was that I didn’t have the energy for something so entrenched in my own trauma. Which meant I wasn’t going to be writing any essays or memoir either.
When I teach creative writing, I try to give my students techniques to combat “writer’s block.” And two of the techniques I try to sell the most are ekphrasis and erasure. If you always have those to fall back on, you always have prompts. So, after WRO I decided to take my own advice and pursue an wholly ekphrasitic project. Every poem I wrote for months was a maximalist prose poem in conversation with a painting of Hernan Bas (whose work y’all should check out). It provided structure. I never had an excuse to not write. And it also really changed my style//helped me come to my transness in a productive way.
Here’s one from that maximalist period: http://storysouth.com/2016/09/when-the-sissies-make-love-to-every-cardinal-direction.html
Then I started to feel claustrophobic with the routine of prose poems and got back to the line, and started to practice more reserve and minimalism:
And finally, I found myself looking for Hernan Bas paintings that looked most like the poem I had already written. And that’s when I knew I didn’t need ekphrasis to guide me anymore, that I had successfully moved on from WRO, in content and style. And here’s one of those: http://tinderboxpoetry.com/during-my-top-surgery-consultation-my-partner-says-to-the-doctor-tell-me-what-you-will-do-to-their-veins-runner-up
I think too, in this second book length project, I was able to focus on queerness in a more explicit way. Which lead to a lot of clarity for me personally. I came to understand my transness, and my body, and the ways I experience joy. For all intents and purposes, it’s a really happy book. It’s a bunch of love poems, to my partner, to my body, to trans folx.
That’s the way I dealt with WRO honestly. I focused on my own happiness, worked hard to make it happen, and then wrote about it. And for that reason, it’s a very, very different kind of book.
Katie: That’s great advice, and also such good, soft news. What led you to Hernan Bas? What did that conversation look like?
Kayleb: I mean, it’s just beautiful work. Beautiful work that showcases a slice of queerness. And just in terms of ekphrasis, there are so many concurrent narratives in his paintings, and such strong subtextual strains. There is a lot to see; I was never bored.
I think too, his work helped me see my childhood more clearly. His work helped me re-contextualize my youth, so that I might see my own boyhood. Which feels important to me, and the way I understand my place in this world.
I don’t believe in the binary, or anything silly like that (lol), but it’s nice to finally see that I had both a girlhood and a boyhood—and that’s why I’m me.
Katie: What’s making you excited about making art right now?
Kayleb: I think the people making art around me are what inspires me to continue writing. Some poet folx I’ve really been into lately are: Noor Ibn Najam, Spencer Williams, Quinn Flom & Faye Chevalier! And I’ve really been loving the paintings of Will Carpenter who you can follow on IG @gaypainting.
It’s beautiful to create art en tandem with these folx.
Kayleb Rae Candrilli is the author of What Runs Over with YesYes Books, which was a 2017 finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in transgender poetry. Candrilli is published or forthcoming in TriQuarterly Review, Booth, Bettering American Poetry, and many others. You can read more here.
Katie Clark is a non-binary southerner studying in the Pioneer Valley. Katie is also an interviews editor for Vagabond City Lit. You can find Katie on Twitter @octupiwallst.