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 adjunct faculty 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
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I grew up Pentecostal.
The Holy Spirit would sometimes send people running up and down the aisles (unclear if they were pursuing or being chased), it might make their bodies convulse. There was a kind of inspired and terrifying celebration that undulated between laughter, pleading, weeping, and cheers. But those most filled with God could be identified by how they were filled with language. To speak in tongues was to be spoken through – a language both intensely private and necessarily shared – glossolalia – a kind of benevolent wildfire on the tongue – to receive the most excruciating, exquisite untranslatable articulations as a gift.
I suppose I came to poetry first to speak my body out of and into existence. I write to speak in tongues and to prophecy. To know something I can’t know. To surrender. To be a good-bad body written into. To be read. To be a good-bad body gone bad-good.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
In Queer Space, Aaron Betsky says, we make and are made by our spaces. In this way, where I read a poem (and by where I mean the physical location - which includes the architecture and the bodies the poem interacts with and the spaces made by the poems around it) shapes how I read the poem. And since I also believe what Stein said (There is no such thing as repetition. Only insistence.), every reading is different. And so I don’t think of them as readings, so much, because I think that implies something stable about the text that I want to avoid. I get much more excited about what can happen when people gather in a room and trade noises. I absolutely love the collaborative process of showing up. Of creating installations.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
In the early 70’s, gay and bisexual men began using a hanky code to signal to other men what they were into (SM, fisting, oral, anal, etc), what they were looking for (tonight I want someone to hold me, or would anyone be willing to piss in my mouth?), and how they identify (bottom, top, or switch). This is known as flagging. Not only a way to clarify and communicate desire, but a public acknowledgment of a possibly dangerous combination of attraction and identity hidden in plain sight (queerness was, and often still is, met with social and individual violence). As a trans and queer writer, I say. And then: this is different, I think, than a writer who happens to be trans or queer. I am particularly interested in flagging and how this relates to language, audience, and accessibility. Can the subversive still be subversive if it passes into the realm of widely legible? How do we share the obscured, public confession? How are intimacy, desire, and connection wielded in common space? What passes as a body? What is the desire of form? What does it mean to be out?
Pema Chodron says, Everything that human beings feel, we feel. We can become extremely wise and sensitive to all of humanity and the whole universe simply by knowing ourselves, just as we are. How passing, for me, can be both a protection from violence and can perpetuate violence. A necessity and necessarily enigmatic. I write to experiment with passing, with being a self I can know, with flagging, with turning on. I think of the textual body as a gendered body. My trans(gender) body is an unreliable text. The narrative is ruptured. Trust may be built or it may be broken. The veneer of coherence and safety completely gives way. Kathy Couch says there is a difference between props and objects. She says, prop is a shortened form of property and we never expect our property will teach us anything. A poem isn’t exactly a performance. I hope it’s not a prop, either. But there’s an audience. And I worry about showing off instead of showing up. A reckoning with the ambivalence of form. And people are objects, too. Surrender and struggle with constraint.
As a body in a person, as a poet, as these lines in this order – white skin and male passing privilege, breasts I used to bind but no longer want to, soft belly, hips that could easily carry children but never will, facial hair that refuses my jaw while absolutely flourishing on the underside of my chin – I’m continually interested in the architecture we find ourselves in. At what point does construction become didactic? What is the space between container and constraint? What happens when we try, and is it possible, to subtract formula from form?
Also, there is generosity. And this is different, I think, from being nice. I want my work to be inhabited by vulnerability, experiment, risk. I want to be visible. A kind of accessibility that has more to do with being encountered than being understood. I want collaboration. And failure. And delight.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
For me, the worst that could happen to poetry would be that any given poet’s work (whether it be poems, criticism, or some combination there of – I inherently consider poetry to be political and personal, even though I recognize the shortcoming in that) the worst that could happen would be for poetry to end at the page. How do we compose in the moment? If attention is action? If one wants to undermine systemic violence, racism, capitalism, and/or compulsory heterosexuality through syntax or some other poetic project, one shouldn’t be a dick in real life.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I’ve encountered challenges with everything I truly care about. It’s an incredible gift to be read closely, carefully. I’m blessed. I’ve experienced all of these things.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“I know I’m in real trouble when I start to judge my insides against someone else’s outsides.” – said to a friend in Chattanooga at an Al Anon meeting.
Annie Dillard said: “How you live your days is how you live your life.”
John Cage said: “It’s lighter than you think.”
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (your own poetry to collaboration)? What do you see as the appeal?
Relatively easy, I suppose, in that I genuinely think of genre as gender. I’m not a theorist, or rather, critique is just my affection in drag. For a few years now I’ve been working on a series of lyric essays in which I am writing my body into existence though not necessarily through content. I’m looking for a textual body expansive (and constrictive) enough to inhabit. I want to live (t)here. For now, I find that space in hybrid forms. 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.
I not only think of the lyric essay as an assemblage in artistic terms (utilizing some found text and placing it in new contexts) but also as an extrapolation of Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of assemblage and “nomad thought” as open-ended - that parts of one body can be placed in a new body and still function. I’m especially curious about order and organization, when a piece of text is relevant, which component parts impact the entire body. When is the range of motion extended (or impacted) by relationship? What is a component part? What is a (w)hole?
I definitely think of these pieces as collaborative. I need you to help me make sense of them. 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 specifically and brutally, 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, investigate the relationship between proof and prose.
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. Much like J. Halberstam, I believe failure on one level creates a grammar of possibility on another. But this failure is different, I think (I hope), from being sloppy. Or careless. Or lazy. Lisa Kraus, a dance critic and former dancer with Trisha Brown, says that rigor is no longer about the pointed foot but about the precisely timed collision, the exact harnessing of weight falling through space. These essays, I’m afraid, won’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. The appeal is that they are rigorous in their failure – I hope.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
Right now my days aren’t nearly as regularized as they have been at other times in my life. (That’s both true and not true.) My days begin with a banana and peanut butter. And that’s how they’ve begun since 2002.
For 5 years I would get up every morning and do my “morning pages” based on The Artist’s Way. Like so many constraints, this practice taught me the kinds of boundaries I need to feel safe enough to let go.
(I might be in a period of letting go.)
(I might always be in a period of letting go.)
(To always be anything may be a way of not letting go.)
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I get out of my own way and get out in the world. I get off the internet. I go for a hike.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Icy hot. Salmon patties. Mentholatum rub.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Modern dance. The body. The body in relationship. The body in nature. Architecture.
The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Button says: The significance of architecture is premised on the notion that we are different people in different places and on the conviction that it is architecture’s task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be. I look at my house, my relationships, the things I’m writing, my body. These are synonyms. And I wonder how non-trans people (and other trans people) experience these things. Is your body an architecture? Is your name? What are you constructing now? Can you visit it, and therefore, can you leave?
Also: Compositional Improvisation (which is different from, although related to, Contact Improvisation). (Although neither of these are comedic improv, all three are grounded in the practice of paying attention to exactly what is happening right now and figuring out how to say yes.)
Compositional Improvisation (a phrase coined by Katherine Ferrier and the Architects) explores intersections of text, body, architecture, space, collaboration, and attention in order to expand the range of what is possible for composition – specifically composition with the body. I think of all of this as just another way of saying “being alive.” It is built on the chance, (Soma)tic, conceptual, and collaborative techniques of poets, dancers, and musicians from the last 60 years and emphasizes composing (individually and collaboratively) in the moment to create dynamic, rigorous, complex, and fully realized pieces without rehearsal or planning.
For me, it’s a practice in embodied consciousness that is experimental, risky, playful, vulnerable, and radically open - an opportunity to experience Jack Halberstam’s “queer art of failure” (as if I somehow don’t have enough of that in my life!).
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
All of them. I mean that.
The fact that people write, and dance, and put paint on things, and grow gardens, and create exquisite compositions out of a few vegetables and grains (I know absolutely nothing about food). That fabrics are dyed. Stones are laid side by side and rooms are arranged. Re-arranged. That there is singing.
I’m housesitting for a friend right now and all I can see when I look over my computer screen is 5 pieces of telephone pole stood upright – no longer useful for keeping words off the ground but somehow this little pile of desert sand is now a yard.
Malebranche said that Attention is the natural prayer of the soul and as long as something singular can become multiple, I feel ok about the world. CA Conrad is right: It’s all collaboration. I need all of these others to collaborate.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Honestly, I’m both audacious and naïve enough to attempt just about everything I’ve wanted to do. That doesn’t mean I always get it right, just that I’m fool enough to try. I’m happy to sleep in my car and/or camp all summer if it means I can go wherever I want to go. And so I do. Most of my “to do list” is more interpersonal right now – practice more intimacy, ask for help when I’m scared, be more vulnerable with my mom and dad, stop trying to prove my self worth all the time, let myself be seen...
I hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2001 (yep, all of it, with my dog, Isabella) and I’d like to do another long trail. I’d like to run a marathon. I’d also like to travel internationally but I’m not that interested in being a tourist so I’m still trying to figure out how to navigate that desire. I like doing things that scare me. I recently fell in love again and it had been almost 4 years since I dated anyone so this feels scary and exciting. (and may be small.) (but also may be huge.)
One time, when I was on staff training for Outward Bound, we did this reflective activity where we had to identify our gender, race, religion/spirituality, sexual orientation, name, and one life goal. Then we had to give up one of those identities. Then another. Then another until we were left with just one identity. In my life goal section I had written, “publish 3-5 books.” I got rid of that rather quickly. The thing I couldn’t part with was my name. But that wasn’t true for anyone else. For them it was “to be happy” which, as it turned out, was a completely allowable life goal.
I want my life to be meaningful. I want to contribute to more tangible and intangible goodness in the world.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
My first answer would be a dancer. I also always wanted to be on Broadway. But I think I’m cheating. When you say, “what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?” I think you are asking me to consider what would I do if my art were more objectively measurable.
I’d be a doctor for Doctors Without Borders. Or I’d help build houses for Habitat for Humanity. My life isn’t over so I still may do one. Or both.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Well, I tried to do something else. I mean, I was in my last year of undergrad getting a degree in English Education – I was just about to start student teaching and was well on my way to becoming a high school English teacher. It was 1998 and I was a 23-year-old white, Pentecostal woman. I was married to a pretty great guy and I was about to become the first person in my family to earn a college degree. Still living in my hometown - Chattanooga, Tennessee - I had never really spent time outside of the south.
That spring I took a feminist theory class. Even though it wasn’t a required text, my professor gave me her copy of This Bridge Called my Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. In my first poetry class, we read the poem “Fiddleheads” by Maureen Seaton. Both This Bridge and “Fiddleheads” did something with language that I needed. They exhilarated me. Made me feel less alone. These were women’s voices, queer voices – marginalized and fierce. They held me accountable. Showed me how silent I was becoming (had become, had been forced to become, had been expected to become).
Both of these said: OPEN YOUR FUCKING MOUTH.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Citizen by Claudia Rankine and New Organism: Essais by Andrea Rexilius.
I wish I watched more films than I do. I don’t know if this is a great film but it’s a film I can’t stop thinking about – particularly the opening sequence – Melancholia, directed by Lars von Trier.
20 - What are you currently working on?
Becoming better friends with god.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;