Education Afield: TC Tolbert on Trans/Space: A Trans*, Non-binary, and Queer+ Poetry Project


A couple Saturdays ago, I sat around a table at Woods Memorial Library with a dozen or so folks, all of us drawn together to participate in one of Tucson Poet Laureate TC Tolbert’s free poetry workshops for trans*, non-binary, and queer+ identified individuals and allies. Tolbert began by asking us to describe the most boring food we ate over the last 24 hours in the most delicious way possible, modeling the exercise by offering a truly luscious description of eating a banana slathered in peanut butter. The rest of the two-hour workshop unfolded with as much magic: we borrowed words from one another to start our own poems, close-read work by Jamie Mortara and Joshua Jennifer Espinoza and, at the very end, each picked out a book to take home (I selected Kristen E. Nelson’s the length of this gap). 

A few weeks before the workshop I had the opportunity to sit down with Tolbert and talk about his year-long Trans/Space: A Trans*, Non-binary, and Queer+ Poetry Project, which includes workshops in Fall 2019 followed by an installation of queer poetry in bathrooms across the city in Spring 2020. Between bites of lemon pound cake in a corner of Bentley’s House of Coffee and Tea, we spoke about how the project began over a decade ago as a conversation between friends, the importance of valuing process over product, the collective genius of children, and Tolbert’s hope that Trans/Space will allow people of all genders and sexualities to connect through language, poetry, and storytelling. 

Could you tell me a bit about your year-long project Trans/Space: A Trans*, Non-binary, and Queer+ Poetry Project? What will it entail?

It is, as the title says, a trans, non-binary, and queer+ poetry project that's really meant to foreground the voices of Tucson's trans, non-binary and queer+ people who may or may not be poets. It’s a slightly sneaky way to get poetry into the community, with the focus on getting the voices of people in my expanded community out into the world. And I do mean the world because while there will be installations that are Tucson specific, there's also a website, and some of those installations will be made accessible on the internet and through a phone tree. It's both hyperlocal and meant to filter out as far as people will share. 

There's so much attention, whether that be positive or negative, on LGBTQ folks--and I use that acronym to participate in the dominant narratives and ways of talking about queer folks and trans folks. But I want to switch some of that around with this project and highlight folks who, even within LGBTQ+ communities, have identities that are often subjugated or almost ignored. 

Trans/Space grew directly out of your position as Tucson’s Poet Laureate as well as the Academy of American Poet Laureates Fellowship you recently received, but you’ve been thinking about a project like this for over a decade. Where did the idea come from? How has it changed and evolved from the initial idea you had all those years ago?

Ultimately, my position as Poet Laureate and receiving this fellowship from the Academy has given me the funds, the ability and the time to make these things happen that, as you pointed out, I’ve been dreaming about for over a decade. In 2004, I was beginning what I consider my social transition. What I was experiencing at the time was a lot of bathroom anxiety, challenges, sometimes a lack of safety, and certainly a lot of discomfort. Other trans friends that I had--in particular my friend Rae Strozzo who’s a visual artist--we would just sit and talk about this [discomfort] and make jokes about it, trying to navigate this space. We had this idea over coffee one day, “What if we just filled all the bathrooms with trans art, trans voices?” It was a way of comforting ourselves, I think. Like, “Oh, other trans people have been here, will be here, are here,” but also reflecting ourselves back to each other and to the community, to anyone who uses the bathroom. Saying we're not the only trans people in the bathroom or in their world. 

We kicked that idea around. Over the next couple years I started to really play with it and consider how it could happen. I was at a bit more of a confrontational place in my life, so I wanted to do things like have trans people stand in the bathroom and read poems as people were coming in and out.

Low tech!

Exactly, super low tech and also like, “You're going to see me, you're going to have interact with me,” which, of course, now I realize could have put people in danger. Obviously, I wouldn't have anyone do it who wasn’t signing up to do it, but still. 

In 2016, when all the bathroom bills started really bringing bathroom safety and awareness to the fore of any conversation about LGBTQ issues, that felt like one of the first times that trans people and trans safety were even acknowledged as an issue within the larger LGBT political discussions. Even though, again, as trans people, we’re thinking about that all the time. As that blossomed into a more national conversation it became clear to me that, “Oh my God, this project could do some actual good and is still relevant,” which kind of surprised me, you know?  In some ways, it's actually more relevant now because people outside of the trans community are starting to understand how bathrooms can put trans folks in precarious positions. Either the social policing or the ways bathrooms are constructed can be a danger. So, it's absolutely developed in some of the ways of thinking about the project and also its political and cultural relevancy.

Like the project found its moment?

 Yeah. Which is weird. It's part of the process. I experienced some frustration about ten years ago when I sent [the idea] out to a couple of people just like, “Maybe you would want to support this or maybe we could get some funding for this.” It wasn't that folks were flat-out uninterested or anything like that. It was more that it didn't have the grab, I think because it seemed like an insular project. It seemed like, “Oh, this is cute for trans people.” But this is larger and is ultimately both trying to speak to trans people and to cis people, but in different ways. There's a different message for each audience.

What, and who, inspired this project?

The inspiration was truly just a shared bathroom discomfort with other trans folks--and I say discomfort, which really is a polite way of saying actual lack of safety or fear, right? So that lived experience is really what inspired it, and it wasn't just mine, it was one that I can still pretty much talk to any trans person about regardless of whether they identify as non-binary, transsexual, transgender . . . Bathrooms are like the original gender police--it's almost like they encourage bathroom goers to police each other in ways that can feel really, really scary. They're also this weird space that's entirely private and entirely public. I'm always a little unsettled by that. Because people, they're looking at you in there, even though it's supposed to be this private experience. 

You’ve taught K-12 students through the Poetry Center’s Writing the Community program, and Trans/Space includes poetry workshops specifically for children and youth. Why is centering young voices so important to you? 

Because they're brilliant! [Growing up] is a process of socialization that talks us out of so many passions, so much clarity, so much imagining about what the world could look like or how certain systems that we think of as natural or inherent to living in this world [could be changed]. Young folks haven't been trained into or are in the process of being acculturated into certain kinds of thinking. To me, these are the folks whose imaginations and passions are more expansive. To me they're teachers. That's why I love working with them cause I'm like, “Oh shit, my brain has gotten stiff.” Just through this accumulation of living and following certain rules, I have forgotten that these are rules, that they're made up.  [Working with kids] feels important to me because they really have a lot to teach us. 

What do you hope members of the Tucson community—including individuals who don’t identify as trans, non-binary, or queer+--take from Trans/Space?

I love this question because I do have very different goals for different audiences. 

What I hope trans, non-binary and queer+ folks get out of this project--so imagine you're trans, you walk into a bathroom, you hear a voice reading a poem and maybe don't know what's happening, what's going on, and then you see the flyer that explains what you're listening to. For that person, I want them to feel a sense of recognition, solidarity, empowerment, excitement, a little tingle of, “Ooh, I'm not alone. At least one other trans person has been here in this bathroom before me, ‘cause they installed this. And there is this voice that is filling this space. So, in some ways, I don't have to. I get to just be here and be really part of the norm of this space because the trans voice is everywhere here.” It's almost a way of taking the pressure off of that trans person to be the only trans presence in that space. 

Then for cisgender folks, I really hope that they'll hear this, see this and also have a tingle of excitement but in a way that’s like, “Oh, I thought I knew who trans people were, I thought I knew something about trans and queer people, but this is a moment where I'm hearing a voice that I don't know. That I’m meeting someone new.” To me that is the beauty of poetry, right? It’s that bridge space, where you get to connect across something that you didn’t know how to connect across previously. So, I hope there is some excitement from cis folks and also hope that there's a way that it activates cis folks to recognize how rarely, if ever, they're in spaces where trans, queer and non-binary voices are the primary voices, where they're the only voices, where as a cis person they are strictly listening to trans, non-binary, and queer folks. Because my guess is that’s either never happened or rarely happened. 

I also want all audiences to hear reflected the beauty, the power, the clarity, the fact that trans, non-binary and queer folks, we don't just have to be relegated to teaching [and saying], “This is who I am and this is why you should respect me.” We also get to be artists. We get to be scientists, really get to be full humans. To me that's also a part of the voice thing--I want people to hear our voices, our actual embodied physical selves, without putting our physical bodies in danger.

One thing that I find so inspiring about you is that you’re more interested in process than in product. You run a series called Poet’s Corner on the UA Poetry Center blog which features several drafts and revisions of a poet’s work, and I remember being struck by your conversation with Rachel Zucker on Commonplace Podcast, where you pushed back against the idea that a poet always needs to have a writing project. This investment in process feels particularly queer to me, like it’s linked to a willingness to dwell in unknown and in between places. How does this approach influence Trans/Space? How is process part of the project itself?

It’s so much my approach to being alive that it's hard to pull it out and think of it as if there could be another way. Maybe that's my lived experience as a trans person, right? Living into my identity, improvising into my identity, searching for language, trying out different language. It’s been all process. I don't have that trans narrative that’s like, “I was three years old and I woke up and I knew,” so it’s forty-four years at this point of process. 

I was going to try to guess--when did the process feel deeply intertwined with my queerness? I feel like it is--one of the first times I thought like someone else had words for it was reading Jack Halberstam's The Queer Art of Failure. That felt like, “Oh yes, this is resonating with something that I've experienced before which is this idea that if you're a queer, trans, non-binary you’re existing as a kind of failure of heteropatriarchy, so you [maybe] love it and live in that failure and process.”

I think also, really and truly, I was lucky enough to grow up in a family that through various social limitations--growing up broke and in the South, et cetera--process was kind of all you had. You don't have the fancy car to show for your process, you just have your process.  So, the value, the integrity inherent in engaging with a process, that is the reward. 

That’s a really nice nugget of wisdom. 

Yeah! I hadn’t thought about that before. 

What have been the best parts of Trans/Space so far?

This actually goes back to the idea of the process part of the project because I had not intended to make a trans poetry resource--that was never on the list of things I was doing. But what I realized as I was preparing for the workshops is that I was essentially making a private resource list for myself. I was pulling from the trans, non-binary and queer books of poetry that I have on my shelf, was making these stacks and doing all of this work and it was like, “Why is this not shared?” Part of the reason I didn't want to share it was I was afraid I would miss someone and afraid I would misgender someone. But that's ridiculous. The ultimate goal of getting people exposed to trans, non-binary and queer poets--and hopefully reading, sharing, falling in love with, supporting, bringing them to speak, and all this stuff--that goal is so much bigger than my own embarrassment if I don't do it correctly, or if I mess up. I have to trust myself that I can take responsibility, I can correct my mistakes, and that I can still move toward this larger vision. So that was a huge shift and I feel really excited now to have this space that says very clearly that it's an evolving resource. And I have to tell you, literally every day I get an email to add someone to it, which has just been thrilling. Literally making new connections every day. That's been one of the best parts, connecting with trans poets and trans poetry across the world. I'm getting submissions from Australia, New Zealand, certainly the UK, lots of folks in Europe. 

One of the parts that I knew was going to be amazing and just is is doing the workshops. That’s why I'm doing [the project], to be in the room with other trans, non-binary, and queer folks writing, talking about writing, sharing our work, reading other people's work--it's been so powerful to bring in a poem, share it, and watch other people connect with it.

As part of getting this funding, I've set it up so that if you attend a workshop and you participate, then you get a free book of trans, queer, non-binary poetry. I carry with me this evolving library and at the end [of the workshop] I'm like, “Okay, come get a book!” It's so fun, because by that point I've heard a little bit about each person and I can say, “You might want to check out this one.” It's not just like, “Good luck, pull a book out of there.” I feel like I can make an actual connection.

How can potential participants get involved in Trans/Space?

There's certainly the website, so folks could share the project and the resources, and buy the [poets’] books, you know? But for folks in Tucson, we have workshops happening this Fall at three different libraries (so in different quadrants of the city—that’s been very intentional), different gay-straight alliances, various schools, EON/[Thornhill Lopez] Center on 4th, Antigone, and I think we're going to do one at the Poetry Center. There's a couple of other community spaces that are going to host, as well. Come to a workshop. Just come, you don't have to be a writer, the whole point is that truly, truly this is made for people who are not writers. And I know that people who are writers will get a lot out of it as well. Kind of going back to this idea of having taught at a lot of different levels, I'm really used to and am invigorated by creating lesson plans that speak to multiple audiences and meet people where they are. So, the idea that there might be a workshop with fifteen people who are scared of poetry and three people who have their Masters [in it] is like, “Oh my God, yes, give me that workshop.” 

If you're not able to come to a workshop and you want to host one, holler at me cause I can certainly set up a new workshop somewhere else. I'm kind of dreaming of someone calling or writing and being like, “Hey, I want to do a workshop with my five or ten friends.” I know that for some folks, [being] in a public space with this particular sort of brand can out people. I understand people may not want to be out in that kind of public way. Somebody call me. I’d be so happy. 

Somebody will come across this interview and ask! 

Please, please!

Then the other thing is, if you're unable to do a workshop or are uninterested or whatever it is, but still would like to either share a poem or share some thoughts for the audio recordings that will then be the installations in the bathrooms, get in touch. I can bring a microphone to you, I can record your work, I can get a little snippet of your voice and incorporate it into the larger installation that will go into the bathrooms. 

Anything else?

Oh yeah, also you need to be really effin’ nice to trans, non-binary, and queer-plus people. That's how you can get involved. Real nice.

That’s a good note to end on!