Improvisational, Container, Tension, Humor, Tenderness



I met up with TC at Bentley’s off of Speedway and Campbell, one of my favorite spots in Tucson. I wrote these questions in hope that not only I could learn from TC’s perspective, but I could also utilize some of the points he discusses into my own teaching and poetry.


So, instead of asking what got you into poetry, I’d like to know how you feel when you revise a poem?

That's hard! I mean, I’m not actually a great reviser. I tend to—I tend to essentially sort of work at a poem for a long period of time, you know instead of then taking a break and going back to it. I may go back and do some editing, but in terms of actual revision, taking off into a new direction, that’s all very much happening as I’m writing the so-called “first draft.” But that first draft could take weeks. Sometimes I do sit down and think about what I’m going to write about. Or this feeling, whatever this feeling is in that moment. And almost as soon as I think that, or as soon as I start to write from that place, it changes. I’m a writer who really thinks through line breaks, as how can the line break both function as a unit, and then also continue onto the next unit. So I’m interested really in, how revision happens as the poem is in progress I guess is what I’m saying.

So it’s not something that you sit down and think about before, you’re thinking as you’re going

I’m really revising as I’m going. Because I think if you know what you’re writing about and you really stick to it, and hold the poem in place like that, it can kind of kill it. So I’m really interested in, “Oh! I really wanna write about my friend’s death, or whatever,” which happened a couple weeks ago. I really want to write about this, I need to write about this and her death was certainly in the poem, but so much of the poem became the act of looking at something and seeing it change. And that being with, any number of things. So I thought that was both cool and unsurprising. That just what happens, the change is what we sit down to do. I hope that answered your question!

It did, I like that. Better than my answer! As a genderqueer poet, how have you dealt with tokenism versus being a viable asset as a minority poet?

That’s a good question. I mean, I guess I feel the idea of tokenism is on the other person. I can’t really sus out if I’m being tokenized or not, I have some guesses. There’s definitely times where, “Mm, you wanted the trans person here!” But I tend to, and I don’t know if this is audacity or obnoxious, I don’t know what this is in me, but regardless I just tend to think, I’m going to use this opportunity to really sort of further awareness of trans people and trans issues outside of me. It’s kind of, “Oh you gave me a microphone? I don't think you realized who you were giving the microphone to!” And so I don’t so much care if I’m being tokenized because I still see it as an opportunity to, tear shit up.

So you use that platform in a way like “You guys are using me, so I’m going to use you guys!”

Sure yeah! I mean you’re here, you’re my audience, you wanted to hear from me. So this is what I think, or this the research I’ve done. If I just talked about myself, and my tiny little personal experience as a trans person, I do feel like I’m a token. Whereas if I’m talking about “Hey let’s look at the issues that affect trans women, or trans people of color, or trans youth” you know I’m literally trying to stretch people’s perceptions and understandings of transness. And that feels good regardless of why I’m invited there.

Okay, and to a much more lighter question, how would you describe your teaching style in five words and why?

Five words?

Doesn’t have to be a full sentence!

Okay good! Improvisational, Container, which sometimes seems at odds with improvisational but let’s just say improvisational, container, tension, humor, tenderness.

Can you give a very brief explanation about why you picked those words?

Well, I start with a container. I’m one of those folks who start with a very detailed lesson plan. And then when I get into the room I almost always throw it away. And so having that tight container helps me feel like there is a thing I can pull from. But that, I also want to be very attentive to the room and my own mood, so if I just stick to that plan it’s like writing a poem that I thought I was going to sit down and write which is not as fun as “well this is a new poem that’s showing up from this old poem!” Tenderness, because I do think the more I can soften myself and open my heart with students, in that way I’m having that different kind of relationship with them rather than the hierarchal sort of thing. I want to genuinely connect with them, they’re people. I want to role model and experience a different dynamic with them. Humor, I like to be funny, I like them to be funny, humor is fun! Oh Tension! Well I think there’s tension in that I often try to hold in the tension of this is really serious, and this isn’t serious at all at the same time. This is really fun, and, you should take this seriously. Because I actually do believe that both things are true about it.

In poetry or in teaching?

Both. And especially in teaching poetry. It feels like nothing could be more serious, but then also nothing could absolutely less lower stakes, you know what I’m saying? Because I do think that the way you do one thing is the way you do everything. I think that's an AA quote, but I think it’s really applicable. How I pay attention to this poem also tells me how I’m going to pay attention to feeding myself, or to my friendships.

So you see poetry having a correlation to life?

Otherwise, I don’t know why we should do it. I feel like everything we do is a metaphor for everything else we do.

Were there ever moments you’ve had with a classroom, meaning with students, staff, or administration, that you had an issue with and how did you respond to it?

Well, yes! I mean I feel it’s inevitable, if not every class period at least every class, maybe semester. So, maybe I shouldn’t talk about something that came up with these students! Or maybe I should, you know one thing that came up without naming any names was having a couple of students who, I think were really disengaged from the beginning because they were scared. Scared of not having anything to say, or it’s a lot of times disinterest is covering that fear. Saying “I don’t care,” when it’s really “I don’t know how to do any of this!” And, I mean I go through a range of emotions when I encounter that. At first, I can take it personally, I can feel hurt, I can feel grumpy. So at one point in this, in one of my classes I did eventually have to ask the teacher “hey will you take this person aside, because they’re not only not participating but they’re being distracting.” And that was fine, it didn’t get us anywhere that day. And then the next time I came back I kept trying to get rapport, and I eventually squatted down next to their desk, just “what’s going on,” “well, why don’t you try this,” “c’mon I know you have it,” and changing tack “what do you want in your life,” and “what are you hoping for?” Just trying to get at all and as many angles as I could to connect with them. And really feel stone cold, and not getting much traction, honestly I just have to let it go. Because you know what, I’m not going to connect with everyone, and it’s fine. And then I did this next day, came in and did a, sort of dream, a meditation, where I had them close their eyes and I walked them through a scenario. And I could see this student actually getting into it, wow this is amazing! This is the last thing I expected. And it just became this, not trying so much towards this student, or draw them out and get them engaged, gave them room to engage me.

It’s kind of like the thing with parents too, like your parent tells you to clean your room and you’re just “no,” because they’re telling you to. But the moment you don’t have that and you look at your dirty room you’re just like “I’m going to clean my room!”

Yeah, exactly. And he did! It was really cool, he was really into that particular one and he wrote something from it. I think it was the only one out of the seven days that he wrote something.

I understand that you work in social justice movements, and I’m wondering as to if and how you’ve integrated those ideals in classrooms, and if you’ve ever faced any problems with it.

Yeah. I mean, with my last class just the other day, they were writing their dreams and hopes for the political and social landscape.

This was post-election?

Exactly, because I kept noticing my students were writing about how much they fear Trump, which I know you had in your class. And, so we watched Martin Luther King’s speech “I Have a Dream,” we talked about Black Lives Matter, we talked about Boston Tea Party, we really put protest into a historical context. In my 4th grade, it was amazing. And we talked about standing Rock, and how protests are built often on lines of poems in ways. There’s chants, or songs, or tag-lines, and how do you take language to make people move. Anaphora, repetition, all that stuff comes back. And I had them write their “I Had a Dream” poems. It was amazing, totally incredible. So that went really well. But, have I ever pushed back? Totally. I didn’t in these classrooms. I have in composition classes, not in poetry classrooms. I think that’s pretty much true, and its not that I think that everyone in poetry classes agree, I don't know if that’s why, I just think in these classes you can interpret wildly, to whatever you’re looking at. And the pushback I’ve had towards social justice in composition classrooms just has to do with folks being surprised, confronted by their own biases. Whether I’m teaching about queerness, or I’m teaching about race or racism, it makes them realize that “I’m uncomfortable with this,” and a lot of people don’t like to be uncomfortable.

Out of your experience in teaching, what would you say is your favorite lesson to teach?

I think one of my favorite lessons, well I should say it’s totally different with 4th and 5th graders, because this is the first time I’m teaching 4th grade for an extended period of time, not just a one-time off. And so it’s a whole new thing, and my favorite thing to do with them was to do those mad-lib poems. Giving them that repetitive structure, we talked about earlier with those repetitive poems, sometimes anaphora, and we build off of it and riff. And really it comes back to that idea of constraint and improvisation, all in the same idea. But that’s with the younger kids though. With anyone older, middle school and up, I do this thing where you pass a word, and the way you pass it is that the other person has to pick it up and kind of guess what I’m going to say. For instance, I’m going to say “Grrrr”


Oh but I started with “Gur”

Oh sorry it’s really loud in here! Let me try again... Growl?

Growl! Great. So yeah we just created a word together, I didn’t know you were going to say growl but you finished the word. So yeah you go around in a circle when one person starts sounding the word, the other person picks it up and finishes it and goes to the next person to start a new one and it’s so fun! I think it really gets folks to introduce them to this idea that we’re playing with language with language, and we can make stuff with it, but first lets remember that it’s in our bodies and it’s fun.

What would you say is the most rewarding aspect of teaching poetry, from any age group?

I mean I really do think its just connecting with people, and/or, seeing people connect with themselves. In some ways I can kind of care less if someone becomes a poet or if they ever write again, or even if they write something great that time. It’s much more important to me that the people in the room have paid attention to them and responded to them, and they’ve been given an opportunity to pay attention to the world in a different way, and/or themselves in a different way. And that’s why in teaching poetry in a school setting can really do. Okay, you’re not getting graded on this or the ways that you’re being evaluated with have nothing to do with the system you understand school to be. It’s a totally new way. And I think that’s beautiful, and exciting. And I love it when people have self discovery, those moments of “this is really true to me and I didn’t even know it was true to me.”


Julia Kinu is a poet and an undergraduate at the University of Arizona. She recently took a class offered through the Poetry Center called Writing Your Community. As part of the requirements for the class she taught an 8-week long creative writing residency at a local Tucson Public School.