introduction by Christopher Soto
The first time that I heard TC Tolbert read was in April 2015 at the Poetry Project in NYC. He asked me (and several friends in the audience) to recite excerpts from a long poem with him. I had no clue who else was speaking with me or where they sat. As the event began, different voices from throughout the audience started erupting from wall to wall (in conversation with TC). The voices kept growing in number and frequency as the reading progressed. By the end of the reading all of the voices were overlapping one another in chorus, in community, in chaos. All of these voices in the room were united by TC and singing with him in an orchestra of pain.
TC Tolbert is the author of Gephyromania (Ahsahta Press, 2014). He is also the author of two chapbooks I:Not He:Not I (Pity Milk Press, 2014) and territories of folding (Kore Press, 2011) and a chaplet spirare (Belladonna* 2012). TC Tolbert is co-editor, along with Trace Peterson, of Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry & Poetics (Nightboat Books, 2013). TC Tolbert is a genderqueer, feminist poet, and teacher committed to social justice. He currently teaches in the Low Residency MFA program at OSU-Cascades. This interview will discuss TC’s reading at the Poetry Project, his latest book, and work in the trans poetry community.
CS: Can you tell us about your reading at the Poetry Project. How you decided to organize your set and why?
TC: I like the words you used to describe it – orchestra, chorus, conversation. And a conversation is nothing if not partial improvisation and when we enter into one, we accept that we must be flexible, porous, able to be changed. I’m less interested in giving a reading and more interested in sharing an experience with an audience – a conversation. For the last 2 years or so, I’ve committed to myself that I will not give readings but I will engage in site and audience-specific collaborations. This developed as a result of working with Movement Salon, a Compositional Improvisation collective I’ve been with for about 7 years. We compose together in the moment to create dynamic, complex, and fully realized pieces without rehearsal or planning and this practice has taught me to pay attention to the intersections of text, body, architecture, and space in ways that readings often don’t. Also, I’m exhausted by the idea of “performing” and I resent any experience in which I am expected to entertain. I want to feel people with me. Also, I grew up Pentecostal and the sound of speaking in tongues has always delighted and terrified me.
The Poetry Project readings happen at a church so I wanted to bring in the experience of chorus and glossolalia, the beautiful and the unspeakable. I also think of church as the place where I’ve experienced some of the worst pain of my life and the most intense healing. The arc of the evening was built around a challenge to god, which is another way of saying it was a prayer and a wish: Here, you hear this? The sexual abuse I endured as a kid – the abuses that so many children endure – the schism of gender identity – the horror of suicidal ideation – the realization of the violence I am not separate from – the all out war against trans and gender non-conforming folks (primarily trans women of color) – where the fuck are you? All of my work is, when it comes down to it, really just a practice of trying to find god in the midst of suffering.
CS: I was particularly interested in your choice to recite the names of our trans sisters,
brother, siblings (who have been murdered). This is not something that either of us take lightly. What response do you want from the audience? Is there a call to action?
TC: YES – I WANT THE AUDIENCE TO MAKE IT STOP. I WANT THEM TO QUIT LISTENING POLITELY AND I WANT THEM TO DO EVERYTHING IN THEIR POWER (including but not limited to donating large amounts of money to TWOC orgs like Trans Women of Color Collective or any of for trans women) TO MAKE THAT LIST OF NAMES COME TO AN END.
I chose to have the names read throughout the piece because this violence is largely unseen and unacknowledged yet it is utterly brutal and endless. Because even though most people in that room are protected from this information, it is still happening. And if all of the folks in the audience are going to support a white trans guy by listening to his poems, they damn well better realize that that one act is not enough to be an actual ally. IF WE ARE NOT ACTIVELY SUPPORTING TWOC IN LIVING FULL LIVES, WE ARE COMPLICIT IN THE VIOLENCE AGAINST THEM.
CS: At the reading (which was mostly cisgender white folks) you had your shirt taken off, exposing your chest. There is a lot of emotional labor involved with being a visibly trans person (both inside / outside community). How do you prepare to be so physically and emotionally vulnerable in a space? Why might such vulnerability be necessary?
TC: I was born female and about 9 years ago I transitioned to something less visibly female. And I often need and want to declare this publicly for many reasons. Regardless of previous visible embodiments and regardless of my own psychic and emotional connection to the skin I live in underneath these clothes – I’m also a white passing trans guy and that affords me a ton of privilege I didn’t have before taking testosterone. In other words, transition, for me at least, was participation in erasure. Some parts of my corporeal text have been made invisible while other parts seem to have become more clear. And I have questions about that erasure. Is transitioning a way of killing myself? If I have ostensibly erased Melissa in order to make visible TC, what other kinds of violence am I capable of? Am I, as a trans man, degrading women simply through the acts of transition (“acts” because there are many, both repetitive and cumulative, somehow seemingly never ending)? To present my particular acts of transition as a simple resilience narrative feels insincere, too neat. And although I am ambivalent about how transitioning has not just figuratively, but literally, saved me – I don’t take either my history or my current context lightly. All of this to say: my poems and my experiences and my love for the world – all of these things come from my body. And while I spend most of my time in public trying to force that body into a version of embodiment that feels safe – it would have felt like a lie to be that protected during that particular experience.
How do I prepare to be physically and emotionally vulnerable? Honestly, I pray for an open heart. I pray to be present. Pema Chödrön says: “Our own suffering, if we turn toward it, can open us to a loving relationship with the world.” In that instance, removing my shirt was a way to turn toward suffering and open myself up.
CS: I’d like to talk a bit about the body in your work. Of all the references that you had to the body, I was most intrigued by your relationship to the knees. The knees as a site of
prayer (and penance), pleasure (oral sex), the knees as a reoccurring site of submission to rise from. It was interesting for me to think about the knees in relationship to the conversations about gender throughout your book. Can you elaborate?
TC: The knees are very important to me as a site of resistance and surrender. Multivalence. Yes – it seems to me there is something about one’s relationship to the knees that insinuates gender (or at least gendered expectations) in all of the ways you listed – penance, submission, pleasure. Who gets to feel pleasure when one is on the knees? Who has power? Who can be broken and who needs to be forgiven? Knees also indicate motion – or at least the possibility of motion. Every bend in the body, a turning. The knees also make possible the liminal space between prostrate and standing. In most of my life I feel as though I live there (and I don’t imagine this is unique to my trans embodiment – perhaps this is just embodiment, generally speaking) – in the motion of rising and supplicating simultaneously.
CS: Your book, as a tangible object, felt like a bridge in itself (referencing the title, Gephyromania). The font was constantly shifting size and shape. The book could be read vertically and horizontally. I was always traveling from one place (one experience) to the next. Can we talk about aesthetic choices?
TC: Gephyromania literally means an addiction to or an obsession with bridges. Bridges, themselves, are so many things: a musical interlude, a passage over, a joining, a contrast, a way across.
I wrote this book because I kept losing track of the differences between us. The woman I was in love with was leaving. I was beginning to transition away from visibly female to something the world would call “man.” Who was disappearing? Who was showing up? Gephyromania was written between bodies – between who I loved and who was leaving, between who I was and who I would become.
The poems started as a notebook with the word “bridge” written across it. I was wicked sad. I was so tired of talking about me/her/us. My friends were tired of hearing about me/her/us. I needed a place to put me/her/us down. I needed something else to carry us/her/me.
For a long time I’ve been more interested in the form a poem takes than it’s content. That might be an overstatement but it’s at least true that I’m as interested in the form as I am the content. So, even though I have a trans and genderqueer narrative and some of these poems are explicitly about that, most are trying to work that out through form while talking about love. And maybe the body is just love made visible anyhow.
I see the page as a body and how I have used that body, or it has used me, for experimentation, silence, shape, music, rupture, image, etc. interests me. It is, undoubtedly, experiments in poetry and with language that led me to and into and through my transition – which is something I’m still in and probably will be forever – there is no endpoint, as far as I can tell, to the transitioning body – and so even what I’m writing today (9 years into my transition), I see as a formal representation of my gender. My question is always: how to get the body in the poem, how to find my body on the page.
The writing is the body :: the freedom is the constraint.
I feel like I’m always thinking about silence and white space. At a time when I felt like I was leaking out everywhere, my breasts constantly spilling out of my shirt, my voice undermining any attempts to pass – I wrote territories of folding – and you can see how I was aching for silence – to be smaller and smaller (to have a smaller and smaller voice but, perhaps, to begin to learn to take up more space?) – and then to succumb to the page. And then take the sonnet crown. How I would vacillate between needing this expansive silence, white noise to swallow me whole, and then composing these tightly wound 3-5 page poems. How I needed the rigor, the dancing in a straight jacket of form. 7 sonnets back to back, the last line of one becoming the first line of the next until the last line of the poem curls back to the first line of the first sonnet – the form seems to evolve back into itself. I push out against that always while also willingly taking it on – so there is tension that interests me – the tension between holding and being held – sense and perhaps not sense – music and not music – the story of the thing and the embodiment of the thing and the thing itself and then the hand.
CS: Are you currently working on a second book? What should we expect thematically, stylistically?
TC: Yes, I’m working on several somethings but I’m very unsure of where or how they will bear (bare?) themselves finally to me or the world. Part of me just wants to leave it at that. But I also feel like this unknown territory – the process of risking and failing – is important, so I’ll share some of what I’m wading through.
I’ve been thinking a lot about whiteness as erasure. A culture of silence. And how when white people don’t talk about racism or transphobia, when we talk about other things, we are committing an erasure of what is always happening – which is to say violence against trans people and people of color. And I am thinking through that in my work (which isn’t limited to poetry or even writing, really). Maybe it’s more accurate to say that my life project is to work through these realities.
So, one thing I’m working on is a series of hybrid essays. I’m not a theorist, or rather, critique is just my affection in drag. Utilizing elements of poetry, research, and personal narrative, I think of these essays as embodied meditative investigations on the trans body – my trans body – and its relationship to architecture, intimacy, and public space. They are, to me, genderqueer bodies, much like my physical genderqueer body – nonlinear, dynamic, a kind of textual bricolage, sometimes awkward or halting, passing as narrative at one turn, then full of ruptures in logic, vulnerable and visible and joyously so.
Lately I’m realizing that all of the work that interests me is collaborative. I need you (the reader) to make sense of who I am or what I’m doing. This is similar, I think, to how we collaborate to create meaning from each of our gender expressions and identities, trans or not. But public space is often a dangerous place for trans and genderqueer bodies (most brutally, bodies that either cannot or do not wish to be invisible, and specifically the bodies of trans women of color). What could be collaboration, or celebration, becomes violence, oppression, and control. My hope is that reading (and writing) these essays is a practice in shifting that dynamic. That we can play, be curious, wander among tangents, delight in the previously undefined, decorate, find connections where they are not obvious, unhinge our expectations, say yes to what we don’t yet know.
In this way, I want to celebrate trans and genderqueer bodies – how we pass and sometimes don’t, how we spill over, slip, call out, miss the point. These essays don’t defend anything or even prove a good point. They bump into things. They might make illegible what was just starting to come into focus. They are rigorous but they refuse to pass. They “fail,” for sure.
The other thing I’m working on is a series of erasures of news reports about the violent deaths of trans people – news reports that show us this violence is primarily enacted against trans women of color. In the first 3 months of 2015, ten trans people – almost all of whom were trans women of color – were murdered here in the US. According to the Trans Murder Monitoring Project, a trans person – again, almost always a trans woman of color – is murdered every other day worldwide. In 2014, the total number of reported murders was 226. 1612 murders have been reported since 2008. It’s also worth noting that these are only the reported numbers. In the first 3.5 months of 2015, at least 10 trans youth have died by suicide.
By erasing these reports, I hope to deal with this atrocity head-on, with a deep awareness of my own and other trans people’s vulnerability – while also acknowledging my white skin and passing privilege and how this has actually given me access to a vulnerability and resilience narrative that QTPOC may not have access to. In other words, I am suddenly a marketable trans body – often positioned as a version of trans success – but this does not mean that my trans siblings are ever, even in the most “progressive” spaces, safe. As Adam Phillips points out in an essay on agoraphobia, “James’ open space is full of potential predators, but in Freud’s open space a person may turn into a predator.” In these acts of erasure I am thinking about who my potential predators are and what kind of predator I may be.
But I also don’t think it’s enough to call out privilege and power. I want to expose sites of privilege and vulnerability while also inspiring action and connection. I also want to insist that trans writing and trans lives must be able to become more than documented suffering. Healing, I think, is too lofty. But relationship. M. NourbeSe Philip said at the most recent &Now conference: “Poetry generates relationships” and that’s really my goal. Touching people seems to be the best I can do.
CS: Lastly, you’re very involved in the trans poetry community (having co-edited Troubling the Line). Are there any poets or upcoming projects that we should know about?
TC: I want to mention two authors here whose work I was introduced to after Troubling the Line came out. Joshua Jennifer Espinoza’s book I’m alive/it hurts/I love it is un-fucking-believably good. I also love Jos Charles’ poems and their thinking and I hope they have a book out soon. I feel incredibly lucky to read and learn from these two.
CS: Closing thoughts?
TC: Thank you, my friend, for these questions. And for giving me the space to continue to think carefully and critically about my work, its intention, and its reception. Lord knows interviewing folks is an invisible labor of love and I appreciate you taking this time with me.
Christopher Soto (aka Loma) is a queer latin@ punk poet and prison abolitionist. They have poems, essays, and book reviews published in print and online. They edit Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color with the Lambda Literary Foundation. They are an MFA candidate in poetry at NYU and the 2014-2015 intern at Poetry Society of America. In 2015, they co-founded the Undocupoets Campaign (with Javier Zamora and Marcelo Hernandez Castillo) to protest the discriminatory guidelines which many publishers used, barring undocumented people from applying to first book contests. They currently reside in Brooklyn but will soon be moving to the Bay Area.