by Robin Gow, Editor-at-Large
In the light sporadic rain, we huddled under a few people’s umbrellas outside the Dismantle, Change, Build Center in Portland, Oregon for a reading entitled SO Homo/no FOMO on the first night of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference. The space wasn’t open yet, which was kind of magical, because each time another person arrived, he or she or they would share where they were from: “New Jersey” “Washington” “New Mexico” “Pennsylvania.” This made me think about how we define ourselves, what elements we share at first to being to present our narrative to others. I always stumble on the “where are you from” question because I’m from a small town in Pennsylvania but I also feel “from” Philadelphia and I also, now, feel “from” New York City while actually living on Long Island.
I knew I was going to meet T.C. Tolbert in a few minutes. I was frustrated that my head felt so murky from having stayed up the whole night before to get on a 6am plane to Portland from Newark. I oscillated between listening to the conversations and thinking about how I might summarize in a few second handshake who I was and what impact Tolbert’s poetry and community building work has meant to me in my last few years of life.
T.C. is a bright person, and by that, I mean as he/she approached the whole energy of our cluster lightened. He/she hugged individuals and made his/her way through the group of us. My partner and fellow poet, Benny Sisson, worked with T.C. when she had a residency teaching middle schoolers in Tuscon, Arizona and introduced me briefly. Handshakes are a strange but comforting gesture and I felt thankful for the handshake as a way of sharing a brief contact with this person.
The space was a wonderful mixture of art studio, gallery, library and community center. We all helped populate the room in front of the short wooden stage with chairs. Taking a seat in the third row I noticed the shelves in the corners were piled with all sorts of books, and sitting there I wanted to pursue them, but didn’t, wanting to be respectful of a space I was a guest in.
“…no matter if our name was chosen or not, it is still a choice around which we construct our narratives.”
This essay started as a listicle titled “A Wallflower’s Guide to a Poetry Reading.” Me, the wallflower, navigating a reading where it seemed people in the audience all knew each other in some way through the wide spread work of the different readers. I wondered what these people thought of me and my small talk. I wanted so badly to talk about anything other than “where do you go to school?” and “what do you write.” Though, it did occur to me that “What is your name?” holds more significance than it might seem. Not just because this reading was clearly populated by many queer and trans people, who for whatever purpose, had chosen their names, but also because no matter if our name was chosen or not, it is still a choice around which we construct our narratives. We all have more than one name. I’m also often “professor” and sometimes, strangely “sir”, and sometimes still, occasionally, “Sarah,” though I would never introduce myself that way.
The only people who still refer to me as “Sarah” are my family…
and Uber drivers.
Sarah is my birth name. The only people who still refer to me as “Sarah” are my family and Uber drivers. We had actually taken an Uber to get to the reading and, being with Benny, we brushed away the usual question which the driver will ask which is “Are you Sarah?” I usually have to pause a moment, because, in a sense, I sometimes am “Sarah” at least in practice around my family. My usual response is something like “Oh that’s my girlfriend” or “My mom booked me this Uber.”
I also reference “Sarah” still in my poetry. It’s a choice that’s taken me a long time to come to, but for me, I need the name to explore who I have been and how I am who I am today.
The reading started about thirty-minutes late which was kind of nice because it allowed me to introduce myself, awkwardly, to everyone sitting around me. Each reader brought different energies ranging from creepy-beautiful persona poems from the perspective of Lizzie Borden by Zefyr Lisowski to a poetic and poignant essay by Aisha Sabatini Sloan weaving together an inciting incident of hearing a gunshot in the forest with an exploration on how the intersections we exist at impact how and where we’re allowed to feel comfortable to take up space.
T.C. Tolbert read a series of poems addressed to his/her birthname “Melissa.” This struck me as an act of creating space for a self in flux, gender or otherwise. T.C. writes in “Dear Melissa.”
who hasn’t killed herself by
growing into someone—I’m sorry you have
I realized that this is not only true for trans and gender queer poets. That, at least to me, each poem seems to be an act of admitting that you, yourself and your thoughts, have had and will have many names, that you are changing.
I see the poem as an act of naming yourself in a moment.
This is especially interesting to me, because I work hard to teach my creative writing students to distance the writer from the speaker of poems. Can the speaker of a poem both be the writer and not the writer at the same time? What role does our physical self and our physical history play in how our poems are read?
I found myself crying without realizing it, listening to T.C. read these poems. I thought about how his/her “Melissa” is not the same as my “Sarah,” but that they are in conversation with each other in some way, that our birth names underpin everything we write, to some extent.
Benny and I left right after the last reader finished that night, catching an Uber back to our hotel where we made small talk about donut shops in the city. The driver asked if we were writers and where we were from.