Three Questions with TC Tolbert
TC Tolbert will serve as a guest editor of the PEN Poetry Series beginning in October 2015. Read Tolbert’s poem “Word Problems” here.
Danniel Schoonebeek: There’s a fragment that I love in your recent collection, Gephyromania: “To stand between the text and its articulation.” To me the preposition is essential to that line, as the line deals with how the self, the body, the identity are positioned in relation to what one writes. “Gephyromania,” defined as “an addiction to, or an obsession with, bridges,” is a book that deals beautifully with transitional structures, from gender identity to gender identity, from draft to book, from inarticulate to articulated. What’s your sense, as we talk now, about a year after Gephyromania was published, of the self in relation to the work that the self creates?
TC Tolbert: The word obliterated comes from the Latin, meaning “to strike out, or erase, what has been written.” This must be why I take everything so seriously. Because I believe I (my-self) am both obliterator and obliterated. I was made by words. And then the words changed. Or, the self wrote new words. Or, the self wrote different words for old things.
And then it’s all so grandiose, so biblical. I grew up Pentecostal and I remember the old church sign: “We don’t change the words, the words change us.” And I love that—remembering I’m not god, even over my tiny poem world. But I think it’s true, that the self has to be willing to be obliterated by what the self creates (or is exposed to). Still, I don’t think that means the self is erased. To strike through
space is to create a bridge. My job, as a writer, is to show up for the words (which are bodies) and pay attention to how they assemble themselves. To celebrate the selves words create.
DS: When it comes to free expression, people in this country often have a hard time reconciling their constitutional privilege, and the many other privileges out of which they speak, with the act of speaking itself. How do you define and negotiate the responsibility, as a writer in this country, of challenging our privileges and our sensibilities? And how do you handle that responsibility editorially?
TCT: At some point I was taught, like many people, that vulnerability is shameful or, at best, cliché. This is not only a cultural (and political and privileged) message but one we perpetuate in poetry. I’m committed to a writing and reading practice of revelation (again, from the Latin, “to lay bare”)—I want to engage with whatever can lay bare that which was covered or clothed. It’s not meant to be comfortable or even necessarily uncomfortable—I just want to be alive there—close to the bone.
My responsibility is to connection. I don’t see my politics as separate from my writing or my reading or my editorial work. I seek out a specificity that tears right through the fabric of our separateness. And sometimes I believe the most connected we can be is when we are disconnected. So, that moment when a person leaves (takes themselves away—a thing you don’t have to be trans to have experienced), it highlights the tether between the two almost more than when they were together. It goes back to a poetics of revelation: when one person is naked, everyone remembers they have a body.
DS: One of the poems in your sonnet sequence “Ir)retrieval” begins, “disappearing wheelbarrow, I wish you wheelbarrow.” It’s a line that embodies the striking generosity throughout your work, and I think the verb is incredibly precise here as well: you don’t give but rather wish for the wheelbarrow to remain itself and not disappear. It’s an incantatory, prayer-like kind of empathy. How do you think (or not think) these big nouns—generosity, empathy, incantation—live inside your work?
TCT: Thank you for the generosity of your reading, Danniel. In short, I hope they do—all of them—for the very reason I was talking about earlier. If those big nouns—generosity, empathy, incantation— are alive in my work, then they are alive in my body—they are making me. And I hope to be made like that. I hope to be alive in that/this body.