As part of the 2020 Dear Poet project, students around the country and the world wrote letters to TC Tolbert in response to Tolbert's poem “What Space Faith Can Occupy.” S/he wrote letters back to one of these students; their letters and Tolbert's replies are included below, along with several additional responses from students.
TC Tolbert also wrote a response to all of the participants of this year's Dear Poet project.
Dear Poet/Reader: Oct. 2, 2020
I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between confusion and mystery. Earlier today I was texting with M. about Trump’s recent positive COVID-19 diagnosis. Even now when I text with her, I cannot help but flash on the moment that, 10 years ago, instigated the poem “What Space Faith Can Occupy.” The specific moment was eventually edited out and replaced with something a little more coy. I appreciated the honesty with which so many of you said poems confuse me. I was delighted by your questions and each of your reflections taught me something I wouldn’t be able, without you, to know.
Many of you asked about my relationship to M. (the “you”/”woman I love” in the poem). I love her now as I loved her then each time I read the poem and also we were only together for 9 months and she is my family and our relationship utterly shaped me and I’m in a committed partnership with someone else now and M and I have only spoken a handful of times in the last 8 years. Trans theorist, Riki Wilchins, says, “binaries are the black holes of knowledge.”
And is generous. Relational. True.
But is scared. Desperate for separation. Control.
Do you know Congressman John Lewis and his work in the Civil Rights movement? He actually died this past summer and if you don’t know his work, I hope you’ll check out his graphic novel trilogy, March. Anyway, I mention him because many of you talked about lines 2-4 in the poem and this concept of love as noun or a verb (or both), whether we control it or it controls us (or both), whether our love ends when we end or continues on infinitely… Lewis talks about “love in action,” which I think is also related to Cornel West’s statement: “Justice is what love looks like in public.” And bell hooks’: “We do not have to love. We choose to love.”
A possibility for the next time you sit down to read/write a poem:
What if confusion is really only possible if there is a message/information you are supposed to receive and it is frustrated, interrupted, or obfuscated in some way? What if the poem is not a message but an experience? Can you engage with it, without trying to solve it? What if you choose to stay present to the mystery? How does it feel to wander inside all that you do not know?
Being a trans and queer person has taught me the value of chosen family – even as relationships shift, choosing love means always learning bigger ways to live. Being a trans and queer poet invites me to live the and I write. To write the and I live. To live the and I love.
It’s a blessing and a necessity to know that you and folx like you will soon be leading the world. Adrienne Rich said that “War is an absolute failure of imagination,” and I think the same can be said of every kind of oppression. The future and perhaps, more urgently, the present need you and your clarity in the face of confusion, your comfort with mystery, and your imaginations infused with love.