From the couch in TC Tolbert's living room I hear snoring. It's low and soft, but it's definitely not coming from Tolbert, who is sitting calmly in shorts, a T-shirt and bare feet, talking about the process of becoming Tucson's new poet laureate.
The announcement was made last month by Mayor Jonathan Rothschild during the Tucson Festival of Books. The city's last poet laureate, selected in 2012, Rebecca Seiferle, moved out of state launching a new search by the city with the UA Poetry Center and the Arts Foundation of Tucson and Southern Arizona. Tucson's first poet laureate was William Pitt Root, who served from 1997 to 2002. He was followed by Ofelia Zepeda.
Life for the city's new champion of poetry seems pretty idyllic right now with two sleeping dogs by his side (hence the snoring), and a home s/he just purchased with his partner. Working to ignore the snores, Tolbert remembers that when the search for a new poet laureate was announced, a few friends had reached out to tell him they were planning to nominate Tolbert for the position.
"I got emails almost simultaneously from two different people ... I figured if this was the case, if there are two people who want to do this, maybe this is a good fit. If these people have faith in me, then let's do it," Tolbert says.
"Tucson is a place unlike any other. I moved here from southeast Tennessee 14 years ago and have been overjoyed to find a place where I can fully live all of my identities—transgender, queer, poet and teacher. Being appointed Tucson Poet Laureate means I have the opportunity to give and reflect back some of the inspiration and support I've received in this magical desert town."
Tolbert's book of poetry Gephyromania was published by Ahsahta Press in 2014. S/he co-edited with Tim Trace Peterson, Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry & Poetics, the first-ever collection of poetry by trans and genderqueer writers, published by Nightboat Books in 2013.
But before these well-received books and this new poet laureate title, Tolbert has been part of the Tucson literary, queer, transgender activist communities since s/he moved to Tucson from Tennessee. One particular project that came from what is now Tolbert's big Tucson heart was Made for Flight, a transgender youth and ally empowerment project and workshop series that involves transgender history, writing and kite building to commemorate the lives of transgender people who have been murdered. You probably remember the kites at several All Souls Processions and Transgender Day of Remembrance events.
Yet having two books so well received, especially Troubling the Line, was an interesting experience for Tolbert in how the book projects took on a life of their own through social media and the internet. Watching Troubling take off and at the same time make space for more transgender writers and poets to feel compelled to emerge is incredible, Tolbert says.
During the interview, I shared an observation that I've perceived Tolbert over the years as this Tucson poet who embraces joy. Tolbert, who always seems to smile easy, shrugs a bit at the thought.
"One's capacity for joy is in direct proportion for ones capacity for grief," rolls off of Tolbert's tongue as s/he thinks about my comment.
There are the natural pressures of writing a second book of poetry, and then there's Tolbert's body, in pain still after a car accident a year ago left him with broken ribs and a difficult recovery.
"The car accident was exactly one year ago just two days ago," Tolbert says, adding that s/he was riding in the back of a cab when the cab was t-boned. Trying to work, to write, has been difficult, slow and provided Tolbert with a sudden awareness of his fragility that s/he didn't expect.
"Because I'd finally gotten to this place in which my body is mine," Tolbert says, reflecting on being transgender and the challenges many transgender people experience in their transition—that deep desire to feel comfortable in your own body and working toward that, something most cisgender folks don't always understand.
"I could no longer sit at a desk and not write for more than five minutes. I wouldn't sit at a table to write for six months," Tolbert says. "I am writing, but just like the first book, I don't know what I'm writing toward. It's an interesting place to be."
Moving forward, healing, Tolbert has continued to teach through the UA Poetry Center's Writing Your Community, a school-based residency program for K-8 students that brings professional writers into classrooms to leader creative writing workshop for six to eight weeks. Tolbert's also studying to be an emergency medical technician.
"For me, it's always been this way, working to articulate. For me, poetry is a way of living. And so, for instance, studying to be an EMT. Am I ever going to get a job as an EMT? I have no idea, but there was something in me that just kept calling to get that knowledge," Tolbert says.
S/he recognizes that this might reflect the course of his life lined with a variety of radical left turns. It's also what poetry does, he says.
"As (poetry) is moving along, it falls in love or has seen something that has to be included, that may or may not make sense, but you keep writing and look back and look back and retrospectively makes sense of it. That's what I'm trying to doing with my life."
Between the classrooms of young future poets (hopefully), EMT classes and Tolbert's evolving second book, for the past three years he's traveled to Oregon to teach a low-residency program for Oregon State University. And yes, still doing Outward Bound, the international outdoor-education organization that helps youth gain personal growth and social skills outdoors. Tolbert says he'll probably be in Maine part of the summer. I think of my own walks seeing Tolbert carrying a pack up and down Tumamoc Hill every spring, getting ready to head into the woods with Outward Bound kids.
So it's not only joy tempered by suffering, or vice versa, but Tolbert wonders if it's a sense of fierceness inherited by his mother. The poet talks about his family, especially his single mom who gave birth to him when she was 19 and then his sister a couple of years later.
"I think my compass is loud and I listen to it," Tolbert says.
His mother straddled a world as a single mother in the Deep South; a Pentecostal who wanted to be a good girl.
"But she wasn't," Tolbert says with a smile.
"I remember from when I was very young, she would say, 'We are women and strong and we can do whatever we want.' Her philosophy was to go kick ass and try to beat them."
It's that fierceness Tolbert's mother instilled her children. After all, Tolbert says, when you don't have much to lose, you get used to risking it.
"We grew up pretty broke. Well shit what's the worse that can happen? We're going to be poor, or kicked out of our apartment. We got kicked out of our last apartment. Probably didn't hurt that she was a young single mom."
Tolbert, however, says his life isn't about risk for risk's sake, but about daring life a bit. "If there is some pocket wisdom it is 'Do it even when you are scared."'
How that translates as our city's poet laureate, especially one who is unabashedly genderqueer and embraced transition and life with some of us always thought of as a fierce joy, well, it's as a bridge, s/he says.
The title of his first book, Gephyromania, translates into an obsession with bridges. Bridges or that bridge space is how Tolbert sees himself. The saying in AA that the way you do one thing is the way you do everything. "That's resonated with me since I heard it."
"My job is to bring people to poetry," Tolbert says. "Truthfully, Tucson does not need me to bring people to poetry. There are so many people doing that in. ... With its deep commitment to the arts and social justice, Tucson is already filled with many unacknowledged poet laureates. Teré Fowler Chapman and Words on the Avenue, Logan Phillips and Sarah Gonzales and Tucson Youth Poetry Slam, Kristen Nelson and Casa Libre, Lisa Bowden and Kore Press, Em Bowen and the Tucson Poetry Festival, Samuel Ace and POG, and of course, Tyler Meier and Hannah Ensor at the Poetry Center—these are all folks who work tirelessly to bring poetry to people, to create space for self-reflection and expression, and to celebrate the many voices of Tucson. I'm continually inspired by them and their work and lucky to get to work alongside them."
But that doesn't mean Tolbert isn't thinking about what s/he wants to do as Tucson Poet Laureate. Bringing poetry to the people, not people to the poetry, is the first step in this business of being poetry's champion.
"I think of poetry as life, maybe that means poets donating blood or giving a reading to people who are donating blood," Tolbert says.
Thinking about the insidious bathroom and gender legislature that's grown out of states like North Carolina, Tolbert says s/he thinks about driving the human connection further with a dream project of putting transgender people's voices on a loop recording of them reading in bathrooms.
How poetry is delivered to the people will be on Tolbert's mind this summer, planning and thinking in the sticky heat of monsoon and in the woods of Maine during his Outward Bound venture. Honored to follow in Rebecca Sieferle's footsteps and continue to be a public servant in schools and in the community, Tolbert adds that for him, it's about continuing to uplift the voices of those too often silenced.
"With particular emphasis on LGBTQ youth and elders, femme-identified people, youth of color, migrants, and refugees and creating occasion for collaboration and community building across identities," Tolbert says. "I don't turn to poetry for its ability to take me out of, I turn to poetry for its ability to bring me back into the company of this world."
This world, in all its joy and suffering, and snoring dogs.
Poetry By TC Tolbert
Thoughts on the Dear Melissa series
Last spring I was in a cab accident that displaced four ribs. The healing process, although still ongoing, was at its most intense during the 6 months following the accident. During that time, I couldn't sit for any extended period of time (anything over 15-20 minutes was excruciating) and I couldn't read, type, or write. In other words, I was completely cut off from the tools I use not only to make a living, but to understand the world and my place in it. There's no beautifying it—in addition to the physical pain, that was an emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually demanding time. Anyway, as I lay in bed (and on the couch, and mostly on the ground), I would watch and envy the birds. I learned their names and behaviors and began to notice (wake up to, fall in love with) the many slight shifts which precede and then create large movements. I became a student of accretion and accumulation. I wrote haiku by speaking 5, then 7, then 5 syllables into my phone.
All of this waiting and watching for my body to change brought to mind my experience of going on testosterone (and thus entering into a physical gender transition back in 2006). Although there are, of course, many differences between a gender transition and recovery from an accident or illness, some things they seem to have in common are the need for interminable patience, surrender to asking for help, accurately seeing the flaw in capitalism that says we are only worth what we produce (and rejecting that logic), in addition to holding the heart open for whatever might come and then change.
Lying there, I kept wanting to talk to the girl I had been–Melissa–and get her take on things. I wanted to know what she made of the life I was living, had I made her proud. This turned into several epistolary poems to Melissa–a way of bringing her into my world and showing her around:
The unbroken neck
turning to hear the last leaves
of stargazer fall
Every morning god
I make of my body a
bridge, a cat, a corpse
A gray horse painted
on the side of a building –
holy – to be caught
abandoned – inside
the self – every neck and back
My white face over
my white face – who
would not crack
if they needed to
the shell of a walnut with
the heel of a boot
I love the fully
inflated tire upright in
gravel – near the car
the finches threaten
one another simply through
acts of moving close
I long to meet who
I most fear – my mother and
her body in mine
tracing the boy I
see his mother – her hand out -
lined under us both
the empty garden
partially tilled – everything
hurts to be so loved
the gate is inside
of me – I am holding it
open with a rock
is the role of the body
technically there are
too many of us
at the exact same moment
we are not enough
A quartered orange
held to the air by the hand
of a hanger. If
hunger isn't love,
why do I take your body
into my mouth? Mourn-
ing is shorthand for
praise the light and what it let
the darkness become.
cultivates many desires
in me I did not
know I had. Old men
too – how much relief it has
been to never try
to be a young man.
The vermillion flycatcher
has disturbed all sense
of what the backyard
of a rental should do. That
woman said hello
and now suddenly
I am desperate to be
in your company.
Poems are in the way
of writing. I did not know
how hungry I was.