Interview with TC Tolbert — February 10, 2015
TC Tolbert often identifies as a trans and genderqueer feminist, collaborator, dancer, and poet but really s/he's just a human in love with humans doing human things. The author of Gephyromania (Ahsahta Press 2014), Conditions/Conditioning (a collaborative chapbook with Jen Hofer, New Lights Press 2014) I: Not He: Not I (Pity Milk chapbook 2014), Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics (co-editor with Trace Peterson, Nightboat Books 2013), spirare (Belladonna* chaplet 2012), and territories of folding (Kore Press chapbook 2011), his favorite thing in the world is Compositional Improvisation (which is another way of saying being alive). S/he is Assistant Director of Casa Libre, faculty in the low residency MFA program at OSU-Cascades, and lecturer at University of Arizona. S/he spends his summers leading wilderness trips for Outward Bound. Thanks to Movement Salon and the Architects, TC keeps showing up and paying attention. Gloria Anzaldúa said, Voyager, there are no bridges, one builds them as one walks. John Cage said, it's lighter than you think. www.tctolbert.com
Christopher Nelson: Let's begin by talking about Gephyromania. The title suggests a fondness for crossing from one place or state of being to another—the various bridges (and their difficulties and rewards) that make life dynamic.
TC Tolbert: The whole thing came from being annoyed at myself for having so many conversations about breaking up with the person I was dating and transitioning [from female to male]. Those were the two things I talked about; I was self-absorbed. So one day I pulled down the notebook and wrote bridge across it, and I decided that instead of boring my friends to death, I was going to write about it. That literally became this book. And I'd bought a reverse dictionary at a thrift store—I still don't know totally what "reverse dictionary" means—which has a list of manias and obsessions, and one of them was gephyromania, which means an addiction to or an obsession with bridges. I was like, "That's the title of my book!"
The truth is, I've always been obsessed with what it means to move from one world to another, from one landscape to another. Was it Richard Hugo who said we write the same poem our entire lives? I think anything I write can be titled Gephyromania because I'm constantly trying to navigate—or even just be curious about or playful with—what it means to navigate different spaces with this one body, or this singular self—not that I believe I'm a singular self. Gephyromania deals actively with transitioning from one embodiment to another and being in relationships—having my body connected to another body, and what being a single person means for me. I see the project of crossing bridges and making connections across disparate landscapes as a lifelong project. The book shows a specific way of approaching that in a particular time of my life. Some of it was written in grad school and some several years following. I was clearly working through some formal, disparate ways of thinking—with the landscape and all the white space, and the more experimental poetics and the sonnet crowns, and playing with form in the portrait sections—those all became a metaphor for me for how my body needed both constraint and space to discover who I am.
Nelson: Let's talk about the cover. It's mostly a red color field, but there's also a small black-and-white photo, and small within that photo is a woman squatting, pants down, in the rocks beside a river. It makes a curious atmosphere: her smallness in the wild suggests frailty, maybe insignificance; her nakedness suggests both freedom and lewdness. How do you see the cover in relation to the poems?
Tolbert: Tomiko Jones, the photographer, and I both went to grad school at the University of Arizona, so I was familiar with the series she did of women peeing in public, natural spaces. I love the image, as did the publishers. But when I first saw a draft of the cover, I was really struck by the color because I read it as pink, and you know, pink is kind of fun, but it felt oddly gendered. But when they told me the name of the color is "grapefruit flesh," I suddenly saw it in a whole new way, as a bridge between red and pink, and sort of like "stop" and "female." Anyway, I fell in love with the name of color! And paired with that image—I love what you said about the frailty and the lewdness of it, and I also like that she's peeing, but you have to really zoom in to see that she's peeing. So there's the "inappropriateness" of a female seen peeing in public—my god, I walk down the street in Tucson, and I see men peeing, but they don't have to expose their asses to do it. When a man just turns away and pees, we are all okay with that, so I like that she's sort of embodying audacity and saying that this is just natural; she's not doing something sexually suggestive, but it's our gaze that gives that to the image. I think that’s the same for trans bodies; we're hypersexualized because the emphasis of the change is on our genitalia, our "private parts," but what I think that actually exposes is the hypersexuality of the culture that's looking at us.
Nelson: That brings up the challenging but important idea that the viewer or the reader is in part responsible for the meaning of any text, be it a poem, a photo, a newspaper.
Tolbert: And I really think about that when writing. For me it comes from my embodied experience of feeling like identity—particularly gendered identity—is a collaborative act between self and viewer. I really felt that when I hadn't started testosterone yet but was dressing [like a guy], trying to guide the "reader" in how to read me, but knowing ultimately that if they didn't want to read me that way, there was nothing I could do about it. Everybody gets to have their own reading.
Nelson: One of the challenges and pleasures of your book is that the "I" and "you" in the poems are ambiguously gendered. Why is it important that the characters could, at times, be either he or she, or both?
Tolbert: At some point in writing about the loss of my romantic relationship, I realized that embedded in that loss was a loss of self. And when I would find myself thinking about the deepest kinds of loss we can experience, I realized that those losses tend to mirror our feelings about ourselves. And because I was—and sort of am—fluidly situated on the gender spectrum, I wanted to talk about all of myself, and the pronoun for that is slippery, or there's not one. It's hard because I don't want to say that gender doesn’t matter because I don't think that's true—the world sees gender. But there's a way that I want to get at some experience of loss and resiliency that I hope drives through gender and lands in some human place that I imagine all of us share.
Nelson: There's a powerful moment from the poem "Territories of Folding" that I think does just what you're saying; the line is: "It's spelled s-h-e but the s is silent." It is both simultaneously she and he, and the thing being perceived and the perceiver are involved in that interpretation.
Tolbert: Admittedly at times I feel more generous about guiding the reader. That was a playful moment, like "Here's the deal: this is how it's spelled, and this is how it's pronounced."
Nelson: Well, it's playful, but it's actually quite serious at the same time, which is my favorite kind of playfulness.
Tolbert: Exactly, and that's something I'd like to develop more in my work—sort of bridging those modes.
Nelson: You begin "Territories of Folding" with an epigraph by CD Wright: "We leave to be who we will become. We go back to see who we are." Such a poignant insight about personal development. I can also read it as a description of writing a poem—the micro and macro journeys of understanding.
Tolbert: Yeah. I love that you see it also as a way of thinking about writing poems. Do you ever say something to someone, and you don't realize that's what you think until you say it? That is exactly what happens to me when writing poems. I feel that poetry has been so integral to me becoming who I am because it's like a rough draft for living, which is not to denigrate the poem at all; it's crucial for how I'm going to be alive. It shows me a field of what is possible. And eventually I look back on the poem or on the place I came from, and I can see the space that I've crossed or the distance I've traveled, but I usually can't see it ahead of time. I can't necessarily look forward and know that I'm going there—which I'm so thankful for, frankly. I like to think I know where I'm going, but it's usually a lot better when I end up somewhere I didn't know I was going.
Nelson: And I think it wouldn't be understandable to us if we could see who we would become without all the circumstances and changes we go through in bridging the gap, in crossing the distance.
Tolbert: Yeah. Exactly.
Nelson: For the Gay and Lesbian Review, Eileen Myles described your work as, "Poetry that patterns and dives and chants and guts the mundane corpus of lyric expectation." Building on her metaphor, are there aspects of the lyric that would be better dead or left behind—or ways in which you'd like to see the tradition advance?
Tolbert: I don't know if this is going to directly answer your question, but when I think about how I hope lyric would advance I honestly just end up thinking even more broadly about poetry in general—how I hope it would advance. I hope that the "schools"—you know, conceptual poetry, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, talky poetry, documentary poetry, whatever—I hope that these all continue, but in their continuation I hope that they multiply. I want the whole thing to get bigger, not smaller. I feel like one of the things that happens when schools develop is that there's an attempt to make it all smaller, as in "This is how it should be done." As opposed to "This is how it should be done," AND "This is how it should be done," AND "This is how it should be done"—I think it should be done every way. To me that's what is so exciting! Lyric is in some ways without end. And what I define as lyric will be different from what you define as lyric; we're going to be able to find different lyric moments in a poem. That's what's most interesting to me: our different ways of seeing it, as opposed to our similar ways of seeing it.
I distinctly remember in grad school having a moment where it was like, "Oh, this is how a poem is made!" As if I was taught the trick to it. But then later I had a moment where it was like, "Oh, wait, this is how you do it!" The more one learns about anything, the more one realizes there's not a this. So it's funny to me when people get so entrenched because it seems the joy of learning more about poetry is finding out all the different kinds of poetry. There's really no end to it.
Nelson: Poetry as a manifestation of the infinite. To insist on any kind of boundary is folly.
Tolbert: Yeah. It kind of breaks my heart when people do that.
Nelson: Tell us about Made for Flight—what it is and why you founded it.
Tolbert: Made for Flight is a youth empowerment project designed specifically for cisgender and straight allies in the fight against transphobia, and it's specifically geared toward teenagers and college-age folks. I go into schools and youth groups and use poetry to teach what it means to be trans, sort of a Trans 101, and then I introduce them to the reality of violence trans people face. I point out to them that I'm a trans person, but I'm a particular kind of trans person: I'm a white trans guy who passes. I walk through the world and no one bats an eye. I'm pretty damn safe, whereas trans women of color get killed literally one every other day. So I use my privilege to raise awareness and build an in-road to connect with them and see what can we do for the larger scope of trans people, because I'm a limited representation of what trans is. Then I introduce them to the statistics of violence and show them images of trans women who've been murdered and give them a list of names of people who've been murdered. At this point, I give them a handmade kite, and they decorate it for that person. Then I teach them about elegy, litany, and ode, and then they compose a poem for that person. So it's a writing workshop and social justice workshop wrapped into one. I started that four or five years ago. It's so powerful to see high school students realize that so much of what is happening in the world they're not hearing about, but they learn that they can participate in this seemingly small way—which is to make a kite or poem or whatever—but they’re also participating in a huge way by interrupting transphobic language. Afterward they talk to their friends about making a kite for this person, and they use the correct language and that starts to filter out to the larger culture. So it's been really powerful. We've made hundreds of kites in the years. The folks at City High in Tucson have been really amazing. The math teacher there has incorporated this into their curriculum; they make the kites themselves and learn about angles, and the film students do a film project around it. It's really taken off, which has been incredible. And I do it around the country. It's pretty great. I feel really lucky to have the opportunity to use the skills I have to share information that simply isn't getting out.
Nelson: How do you remain optimistic about the future for transgender and genderqueer people? I'm assuming you're optimistic.
Tolbert: I am optimistic. There have been times when I was not, but I am. I guess I'm optimistic because I'm in motion. Things change, that's just what happens in life; I've never seen anything not change, and so it makes sense that this would too. And hopefully that change can be escalated, or sped up, by my participation in some way. That's not to say that I'm without incredibly bleak pessimisms, but I try to stay hopeful. And hopeful that it's not just people like me—white passing people—who are going to have it better in the world, while people who don't pass, or people of color, or people with less access to resources are going to be killed and brutalized. So I have to temper my optimism sometimes because my world has gotten better through my transition, and I know that's not the case for a lot of people.
Nelson: Another way you've been positively escalating the possibility of change for trans people is with Troubling the Line (Nightboat 2014), the anthology you co-edited with Trace Peterson, which gathers fifty-five trans and genderqueer poets. Thanks, first of all, for bringing these voices to everyone. I wouldn't have read many of them without your efforts. What was most surprising or insightful about the project?
Tolbert: I'm like you; I wouldn't have read them otherwise. Most surprising was all the people who submitted. I was like, No way, there are that many trans poets!? It was really cool. I don't know how a book like this could have happened without the internet. It was a shot in the dark. Trace and I could think of fifteen other trans poets, but then we got submissions from over two hundred people. And there are so many people I'm meeting now who didn't submit for whatever reason. It's like we're all groping around in this big dark room, we just need someone to turn on the lights—and then, look, there you are!
Nelson: In your introduction to Troubling the Line you quote bell hooks: "The function of art is to do more than tell it like it is—it's to imagine what is possible." What possibilities are this book symbolic of?
Tolbert: One of the things that I think is really common in any marginalized community is horizontal hostility, where people sort of turn on each other instead of working together to fight oppression. The stressors can be so great that you just take it out on the nearest person, and if they look like you, all the better. So one of the things I hope this anthology represents is trans people coming together at different places in their transitions, in their lives, in their writing and not policing each others trans-ness, but just celebrating how we each do language and each do our bodies. It feels like a sort of utopian vision—that what it means to be part of a trans community is just celebrating each other's voices. One thing that I definitely love about the anthology is that, while it skews towards the experimental, it's not without what might be called traditional poetics. Often I feel like when I go to an anthology I'll find the same kind of writing over and over again, but I definitely wanted to create an anthology that had a narrative poem next to a slam poem next to a lyric poem. I love that.
Nelson: I'd like to hear more about another idea you address in Troubling the Line: that when encountering an anthology of trans and genderqueer poets, some readers might judge the work as being irrelevant to cisgendered and straight people and that the biographical context would trump artistic quality. Talk to us about how such judgments are a kind of violence.
Tolbert: I do think it's a violence of erasure. It's a really quick way to say that your experience—and therefore your identity—doesn't exist. That [is an attitude that comes from a place of] privilege. One is privileged in the utmost way by not even having to recognize how privileged they are. That came up for me because I heard some poets—they'll remain unnamed, but they were white straight guys—saying things like, "This is the last thing I need to read," and "Why would I read a book like that? I don't care about that subject." And I felt ultimately confused by those statements because I believe in reading widely across the field of poetry, and I believe in a poetics of inclusion and curiosity. So the idea that one wouldn't be interested in what this group of poets is doing because their identity is foregrounded is confusing to me. And, yeah, ultimately it does feel like an erasure, an attempt to silence voices.
Nelson: It reminds me of Carolyn Forché's line: "And so we revolt against silence with a bit of speaking." The act of the poem becomes a sort of revolution, an understated rebellion.
Tolbert: Yeah. And let's face it, that's what this is. And I will say—if I can brag a little bit—it's going into its second printing.
Tolbert: It's so exciting! But what does that mean for a book of poems? It's sold 1,500 copies, so it's not a New York Times bestseller. It is "a bit of speaking," and the silence is so huge. I constantly have that in my awareness. The anthology has been really important for me, and for the poets in the book, it's had a positive impact; but there's so much work to be done that I'm often aware of how little the speaking is. Anyway, it's still cause for celebration.
Nelson: Absolutely. What projects have your attention right now? If you're willing to talk about them. I'm a little superstitious about discussing my work while I'm in the middle of it, as if even my descriptive attention to it can break its spell, can change my orientation to it.
Tolbert: I'm so glad you said that. In the funny world of grant writing and trying to get writing residencies, we're often asked to describe our projects, and I want to say, "I am applying because I don't know what I want to do."
Nelson: And, of course, that seems like a cop out, but it's honest. How often do poets really know what they're doing before they've done it.
Tolbert: Exactly—and isn't that the joy of it?
Nelson: That mysterious engagement, that making in which you don't know what's going to happen next. It's part of the pleasure.
Tolbert: A big part. But because I have been applying for grants and residencies, I've been trying to describe what I'm doing, and it's been interesting to watch myself tack in certain directions. After describing a project in an application, I'll sit down to do the work and wonder, Am I influenced by what I said I'm going to do? Is there a pressure now to do exactly what I said I would do? And now that I've described it, do I even want to do that? Did I already do it in the description of it? I feel like I should just publish a collection of my grant applications. That's the next book. [Laughter.]
Anyway, all of that said, for about five years I have been working on what I hope will one day be a book of erasures of news reports of trans people who have been murdered. I've also been working with the idea of what it means to erase and to repeat in the face of erasure. I've got like 140 pages worth of stuff. It's still not a thing, which sometimes makes me feel like I'm going to lose my mind. So I'm definitely still writing it, just trying to be present with not knowing what the book looks like yet. Like the title of Gephyromania did, it will announce itself to me when it's done, and I apparently can't hurry it up, as much as I want to.
Nelson: It's interesting, given the subject matter, that it is resisting closure. I think that there might be a lot to that—not having seen a page of it, but just from what you've told me.
Tolbert: It will, like you said, resist closure because there is not closure to be had. I think that's it; that's the sweet spot: How to resist closure in a way that feels somewhat coherent. Plus I like lyric; I want it to sing a little bit.
Nelson: Which is probably tough when using news reports.
Tolbert: It's really tough, but that was the challenge I wanted. And part of what I want to address head on is the way so many news reports dehumanize trans people. So there's already this other layer of violence, where they call people by the wrong names and by the wrong pronouns, and they highlight what "terrible" people they were. So there's a lot of wading through the layers of language.
Nelson: I'm excited to read it. Thank you, TC, the conversation and for your poetry and activism.