"Ungentle and In-between": An Interview with TC Tolbert on Gephyromania
With his poetry collection, Gephyromania, recently chosen for Entropy’s Best of 2014 Poetry list, TC Tolbert is on fire. But he doesn’t use that fire to burn any bridges. He uses it to create them.
According to TC Tolbert’s website, Tolbert “is a genderqueer, feminist poet and teacher committed to social justice. S/he believes in working across communities—building bridges wherever possible” (http://www.tctolbert.com/about.html).
Gephyromania (which is defined as an addiction to or obsession with bridges) explores that “bridge” between the self and the self, and between the self and the other. This book speaks on a lot of topics—gender, queerness, bodies, families, relationships, sex, love, representations, identity, and transitional spaces. The vulnerability and raw honesty will reach out and touch you, a bridge of letters and words.
The aesthetically intriguing format of Tolbert’s book beckons the reader into a different consciousness. It brings up themes that are inside the book itself, such as pushing boundaries, subverting expectation, and existing in a space not properly recognized by society. Content-wise as well as structurally, Tolbert’s poetry confronts the reader with their assumptions of normality.
Chelsey Burden: Can you speak to why the title Gephyromania resounded with you?
TC Tolbert: In all honesty, I don’t know what I’m looking for until I find it/hear it and that title is the epitome of this practice of scavenging/combing/holding my ear to the ground and taking the whole world (or as much as I can hold) in. Maybe it’s not so much scavenging as it is a practice of collaborating. I find that the more I walk through the world and allow the points of connection to reveal themselves to me, they do. Sometimes I feel like I do very little work or have very little control over any of it (which is probably a good thing!).
I found a Reverse Dictionary at a thrift store and tossed it in my bathroom years ago and one day I was poking through it and came across a list of different types of obsessions and in that list was this word—Gephyromania—an addiction to, or an obsession with, bridges. And the thing was, I had been writing these poems for years in a notebook in which I had written the word “bridge” across the cover – at that time I was transitioning with many things (love, gender, physical location) and thinking of the bridge of a song as a way to get to a new sound/or at least a break in the rhythm but I didn’t know I was obsessed until I saw the word and it told me.
CB: What I love about this book is that certain lines are incredibly, almost unsettlingly personal. Yet, they strike something deep within me. For instance, a line that hit me was “Now that you’re dead, I can tell you. I ended up with your hand-towels.” Or the line “As of October 21, 2006, I will officially become a new kind of man./ You won’t forgive me for taking me away from you.” (For the record, you are one of the bravest people that I know.) How do you work up the courage to be so exposed and vulnerable?
TT: Hmmm. Thank you for saying that.
At some point I was taught, like many people, that vulnerability is shameful or, at best, cliché. This is not only a cultural message but one we perpetuate in poetry and it’s one I struggle with. I mean, on the one hand, I don’t want to read someone’s diary and I don’t want to publish my own. Strict confession often ignores the language it uses to reveal itself and that doesn’t interest me. I like to write into an admission. In other words, I don’t know how I feel until I hear what I say. In that way, I’m reading myself while I’m writing myself. That’s probably less courage and more necessity. I also really like being lost and then the way the world collects itself. Being alive as an act of discovery.
I’m also interested in those moments when the specificity of a line tears right through the fabric of our separateness. I’m infinitely interested in connection. And sometimes I think the most connected we can be are in moments of disconnection. So, that moment when a person leaves (takes themselves away – a thing you don’t have to be trans to have experienced) highlights the tether between the two almost more than when they were together. It’s stunning to me.
When one person is naked, everyone remembers they have a body.
CB: The cover picture of Gephyromnia is one of the more intriguing ones I’ve seen! What sparked that idea?
Tomiko Jones, the photographer and subject of the image (it’s a self portrait), was in the MFA program in photography at UA while I was in the MFA poetry program there, so I fell in love with her and her work about 10 years ago. But I didn’t really have a specific cover image in mind when I was trading ideas with the designer and publisher. They just asked what kinds of images I liked and I immediately thought of this series of Tomiko’s where she is peeing in public places. This image comes from that series but I hadn’t seen this one before. Much like the title, this image just made perfect sense when I saw it even though I didn’t know exactly what I needed.
CB: Do you write with a certain audience in mind?
TT: I try not to. I mean, when I create installations of my work (what some might think of as “readings,” I call installations because they are ephemeral and collaborative and incorporate some element of improvisation), I very much take into consideration audience and physical space. But when I’m writing (creating the work on the page), I hear voices but those are voices that I want to inhabit/embody/write toward and into. They aren’t really an audience. They are more like a chorus I want to join or collaborate with.
CB: I was blown away by the line “Even the mirrors have become bars we lean against.” Can you talk about this line? Do you see an intrinsic connection between identity and poetry?
TT: 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.
CB: Can you speak on what your experience has been like regarding the presence of family members in many of your poems?
TT: Incorporating/using/working with the words, ideas, or experiences of family members is complex. I mean, part of that is that they aren’t writers and so if I take a liberty with something, shift the “truth” of an experience for the language that I think will get closer to the “truth” of the poem, then that can feel threatening or confusing to them. But it’s also been a tremendous way to integrate my family into my work. They (my family) made me as much as I’ve made me therefore their voices make my voice.
CB: You queer the English language in a variety of ways. Nouns are verbs, verbs are adjectives, and sometimes the word can be read multiple ways, eluding definition without losing meaning. Sometimes your syntax is off-kilter and unexpected. The reader is encouraged to really think about what is being said and how it is being communicated. Sometimes there is a difference between what a word usually represents, and what a word means within your poem. Can you discuss this ambiguous space you create?
TT: Well, honestly, I think you just discussed it better than I could! I would just add that I want a reader who is willing to collaborate with me to create meaning in the poem. An active reader. In this book I wanted that to be more explicit b/c I think it just reveals what readers do anyway – make meaning as much as the author does. CA Conrad points out that a thousand different readers of the same poem actually create a thousand different poems. And this is similar, to me, to how gender (or any identity) is a collaborative project of writing ourselves through acts and symbols that, at their core, have no meaning but which we have predetermined long before we know their context. I like thinking about the power of context.
CB: I’ve noticed repeating imagery of mouths, of brains, of erasure, and of repetition itself. Can you speak on why any of these elements continually return to you?
TT: I think the answer is as simple (and possibly as uninteresting) as lived experience. I am in a body with a mouth and brains and I’ve been taught (so many of us have been taught) to separate body and mind. I reject that segregation while also being seduced by it.
And life is nothing if not repetitive. A few hours pass and I have to eat again. I have to piss. I have to drink. I have to shit. I have to sleep. And so, what does all of this repetition prevent us from doing/thinking/feeling? Or, what does it give us the opportunity to do/think/feel that we wouldn’t have access to if we didn’t have to keep doing them, again and again.
Also, I was walking with my friend and fellow poet, Jen Hofer, through LA this morning and we were looking at graffiti (or, more specifically at the ways the state tries to cover up graffiti) and we couldn’t turn away from the fact that whiteness (and all of its implications) is used to cover up color. Or, as Jen said, “what we don’t have to say is more important than what you do have to say.” Erasure is everywhere. A force to be reckoned with.
CB: Throughout the book are equations, derivatives, symmetries and binaries. Do you remember what led you to incorporate this mathematical imagery?
TT: I’m a gleaner. I mean, I’m absolutely in love with the world. I don’t know shit about math and so I can get caught up in the magic of it. The language and the ideas. I took a statistics class (for fun – I was out of school and teaching at the community college so I could take classes at a discounted rate) around the time I was working on this, so that informed how I was thinking but not so much that any of it is accurate. I mean, I don’t know if I use those terms correctly. I just like playing with them. Imagining I know something about a thing I don’t know.
CB: I was first introduced to your work through your chapbook Territories of Folding. The book itself is put together and (literally) unfolds in a unique way. In much of your work, I’ve noticed that you play with structure and layout, using a mix of horizontal and vertical pages, stanza variations, white space, and different font sizes. Can you talk about your structure?
TT: In 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, the way 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?
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. 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?
CB: You have done so much amazing work, especially with queer and trans communities. You’re co-editor of Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry & Poetics. You’re creator and director of Made for Flight, “a youth empowerment project that utilizes creative writing and kite building to create a living memorial commemorating transgender people who were murdered.” Would you like to speak on your experience with the relationship between poetry, trans and queer communities, and these projects?
TT: In addiction and recovery communities, you will often hear this phrase: “The way you do one thing is the way you do everything.” And I believe this is pretty damn true. What I’m getting at here is that I don’t think of my poetry as separate from my activism. And my activism isn’t separate from my poetry and neither of these is separate from my life. I do all of these things from a place of fierce love and admiration. I fuck up a lot but I work like hell. I’m a Capricorn and just like any old goat, I’ll climb the most precarious places and not really think much about it. I like the focus it gives me. Also, like a goat, I like to climb sort of by myself but always near my family.
CB: I love that you incorporate the riddle “less than three.” Thank you for this interview and for all the amazing things you do with words. Less than three! <3
TT: EXACTLY. <3!!!
Chelsey Burden is originally from Kingman, Arizona. She is earning her MFA in Creative Writing at Northern Arizona University, where she also received her Bachelor’s degree in Women’s and Gender Studies/Sociology. She works on Thin Air Magazine as well as at the Flagstaff Public Library.
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