Poets in Conversation:

Poets in Conversation: TC Tolbert

How did The Quiet Practices come into being? Tell us a little about the origin, inspiration or circumstances surrounding it.

I started writing “Dear Melissa” poems after a cab accident at AWP in 2016. My back was injured in such a way that I couldn’t sit or write by hand (my favorite way to write!) or type at all. I spent months speaking fragments into my phone while either lying flat or walking and even still, I cannot write in the ways that I used to. That accident changed my entire relationship to my body and to writing—in many ways, more so than my gender transition.

I was re-reading Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde and found myself wanting to talk to Melissa (my birthname, my-self of 30 years, and a girl/woman I am grateful to know and love and have been). I wanted to bring her into my/TC’s life, show her around. Just now I see that this accident and burgeoning conversation with Melissa coincided with my 10th year on testosterone. I think I needed a very distinct split from Melissa during that first decade of transition and it’s been interesting (delightful, complicated, and ultimately freeing) to integrate Melissa into my being through these poems and the last 7 years of writing to and with her.

As a title, I hope The Quiet Practices is my trans embodiment on the page. There’s the (likely) way of reading Quiet as an adjective modifying the noun, Practices—a kind of normie-passing, descriptive title for what is inside the book. Although the poems were created in and by quiet, I don’t think they are quiet poems. So I’m partial to a more subversive, active reading: Quiet is the subject that Practices. Like my own body/life, these poems are the Quiet that makes and is made by the Practicing.

Many of your poems invoke a long line, a deep breath, which can be difficult to replicate on the limited space of the printed page. What were aspects of a poem's form and scale that you prioritized when formatting the chapbook?

I like a book that moves the reader physically (in addition to emotionally, mentally, etc.) so I’m happy when my poems have to be placed in various orientations to accommodate the line and stretch the page. As a genderqueer trans person, I’m interested in various forms of reach—when is the poet (and/or poem) reaching toward the reader, when is the reader reaching toward the poem (and/or poet), toward what/whom are the lines reaching, what parts of the body-mind are reaching when a poem is read. I’m also interested in il/legibility and the joyous tension of working within constraint. So, my priority is process, really. The poems as finished versions in my word docs are sometimes different than they are in a tangibly collected space–in this case, that of a “perfect bound” chapbook–and I delight in those shifts and differences because the poems (much like people) get to become new depending on their relationships and containers.

Before winning the Chad Walsh Prize in 2023, The Quiet Practices was a runner up in 2020. We don't always talk about what a long process poetry can be. What advice might you offer others who find themselves finalists?

I don’t know if it’s advice, exactly, but my practice is to do a lot of reading across publishers, to get to know various presses and the books they make, and then to wait until I have an intuitive clarity about the fit between the piece (I think) I’m ready to publish and the press. I don’t scattershot submit. I’m looking for relationship. Once I have that clarity, I’m stubborn (which may or may not be related to patience). At the same time, I want to be porous. I believe in taking the non-publishing time to let the piece (and/or myself) evolve. In this case, being a finalist in 2020 was a little rub against my ego, but ultimately a relief because I wasn’t ready for The Quiet Practices to be in the world then. And we all got the good fortune to read Katie Farris’ A Net to Catch My Body in its Weaving.

Also, it was the work I’d done personally (on my life and my relationship to revising) since 2020 that made the process of editing/revising with Jessica Jacobs (at BPJ) so joyful and expansive in 2023. I would have been intimidated and/or protective in ways that wouldn’t have served the book three years ago. Ultimately, I try to treat time as a collaborator and a friend. Not being selected as the winner in 2020 but then being selected when I was ready to resubmit in 2023 was the absolute best thing that could have happened for The Quiet Practices and me.

What do you wish you'd known when you first began writing?

Hmmm. I’m glad I didn’t know anything other than that I needed to write and I needed to listen to myself. And I’m proud of myself for responding to that desire-need. As a girl (later a woman, and then a trans-masc genderqueer fella), this allegiance to myself was not always comfortable for me or for those around me. One’s needs for connection can be supplanted by a million things (for a lifetime, I suppose—isn’t that what capitalism is about, manufacturing needs we don’t have and obscuring the deeper ones we do?) and I’m thankful there is enough self-preservation instinct in me to write (which is to say, connect) when I need to. I hope anyone who feels that urge is able to find their way to the page. It was (and often still is) writing that helps me hear who I am trying to be.  

When the BPJ Editorial Board gathers for selecting poems, it has been our tradition to cook and share soups and stews.  Do you have a favorite comfort food (or food tradition) that sustains you? Would you be willing to share a recipe?

Well, I’m a sugar junkie and I’m no stranger to comfort food. I could eat scrambled eggs, biscuits and gravy, fried okra, and green beans every day. My nanaw’s chocolate chip cake or peanut butter balls, my mom’s “doo-doo bars” (no-bake cookies) or chocolate icing (straight off the mixers) are all heaven for me. I chug water and unsweetened almond milk in equal measure. For food to truly be comforting, I won’t have to do much to prepare it. So I have no relationship to recipes!