When I say love, what I mean is not a feeling
Nor a promise of a feeling
I believe in attention
My love for you is a monolith of try.
So reads the first stanza of TC Tolbert’s poem “What Space Faith Can Occupy,” which filled the air of Morrison Library on Thursday afternoon during the Library’s Lunch Poems program.
The stanza comes from Gephyromania, a collection of poetry from Tolbert, who is the poet laureate of Tucson, Arizona. “Gephyromania” refers, literally, to an obsession with bridges — and it’s an idea that’s come to define much of Tolbert’s work.
Tolbert is transgender and writes often about the transition and experience of the body. Tolbert uses poetry as a bridge into and through his experiences, both painful and joyous.
As a preface to his reading, Tolbert shared personal details about his childhood with the audience. Tolbert is a survivor of childhood sexual and physical abuse, and was derided by his mother after coming out.
“All of those things have made me,” Tolbert told the audience. “And I’m finally at a place where I’m thankful for my life.”
During the reading, Tolbert shared a poem written to a woman named Melissa — his former self. Melissa is Tolbert’s birth name. By reading the poem, Tolbert said, he would “bring her into the room,” and thank her “for what she made possible for me, TC, now.”
The end of the poem reads:
Who hasn’t killed herself by growing into someone?
I’m sorry you have never been born
Because here, roughly here, here is what breaks from our breathing
Here is the blade of our breath …
What I wanted was not to breathe, but to be breathing
What I wanted was for everything to stop, but not end.
Leon Barros, a recent UC Berkeley graduate, found the reading special and powerful. Barros had previously read Gephyromania after stumbling upon it in the Library as a student. (He then checked it out and held on to it for eight months, constantly renewing it.)
“It was incredibly moving,” Barros said, “to see someone who tries to reconcile these sides of themselves and not necessarily feel that they have to choose a side, but inhabit all sides.”
Barros said that the concept of being in between identities touched him and resonated.
Many of Tolbert’s poems feel deeply personal and empathetic. Geoffrey O’Brien, the director of the Lunch Poems series, praised Tolbert for his ability to write poetry that not only examines his own identity, but incorporates the experiences and lives of others, as well.
In 2017, Tolbert was named poet laureate by Tucson’s mayor. In his community, Tolbert uses poetry to connect with others and uplift the voices those often silenced, particularly those of LGBTQ youths, immigrants, refugees, and youths of color.
“I’ve never seen a poet who’s more sensitive to a room, to the people populating it, and to everything that’s happening outside of this room in history as the poetry reading transpires,” O’Brien said to the audience while introducing the poet.
ABOUT LUNCH POEMS
Lunch Poems is a noontime poetry reading on the first Thursday of the month. Admission to the Morrison Library event is free. Check out the spring semester schedule. Watch videos of past readings. Support for this series is provided by Dr. and Mrs. Tom Colby, the Library, The Morrison Library Fund, the Dean’s office of the College of Letters and Sciences, and the Townsend Center for the Humanities. These events are also partially supported by Poets & Writers Inc., through a grant it has received from The James Irvine Foundation.