I go to a lot of poetry readings – I think most poets do. Usually, I prefer to have read a bunch of the poet’s work beforehand, encountering their work first on the page, so I have some visual of their words and cadence, laid out in a mental map while I listen. If I haven’t been able to do that, I pick up the work soon after, and try to pair my memory of their audible voice to line endings & form. I’ll take notes during the reading, writing down particular lines & phrases that move me, and then catalogue these in some way – in a journal, or word doc, usually with the date and poet’s name. Yes, this identifies me as a certain kind of reader, a certain kind of listener: my aesthetics here are clear.
TC Tolbert’s reading, at the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets Fall Conference in November of this last year, in a ballroom of the Stevens Point Holiday Inn was a reading unlike any other. As a listener, I still had my notepad in front of me – I wrote down my little captured lines. Lines like:
“a taxonomy of afterthoughts”
“even though water is water-weary”
“appetite is aggressive”… but the similarities to other readings ended there.
At the beginning of the reading TC explained that s/he planned to read poems continuously, almost like one long body. Although in another context we might find those poems separated onto pages, some from his book Gephyromania, the reading would eliminate those distinctions, eliminate the titles, and string the words together – a series of bridges. “Gephyromania” literally means an obsession with bridges, so it makes sense that in the reading we the audience would be asked to traverse these linguistic structures along with TC – these poems wrought from the past & the present, with an eye toward forming a future, honoring all the work that went into creating the making of them.
TC explained at the beginning of the reading, with characteristic wit & charm that s/he was born a southern girl named Melissa. “Surprise!” s/he mock announced, teasing us with a drawl. In explaining the structure of the reading, s/he explained that we would hear a repeated line, “dear Melissa.” TC’s middle name is Melissa, and s/he explained that Melissa has shifted, is still present, now middle, a part of him, always – still. TC asked us to participate in the reading: to listen, and when we wished, to respond with “Dear Melissa” honoring the Melissa in TC, and in the poems. “You can say it over someone else, you can say it over me,” s/he continued – but we were asked to respond, bodily and with our voices to the experience of poetry in a present and audible way.
Dear Reader: this was a little bit out of my comfort zone. I listened and worried when & if I would be able to do as I was asked. My control-freak wrestled with my pleasure centers. My tongue tied down my limbic-linguistic system. I needn’t have worried. As I listened to TC’s lines – “one way to flinch is to stand absolutely still” and “to sharpen the body is never an accident” – Dear Melissa burbled out of me, without any conscious forethought.
At the front of the room, artist Andrew Linskens was responding to TC’s words as well. Working in black and white, on two identical squares he kept turning, shapes began at the edges of each canvas. Against the flow of TC’s poetry, Linskens would work a small area exactly in the center of one edge, step back, turn a canvas, and then continue the image onto the adjacent canvas. His method seemed a translation of TC’s overall metaphors: separation & bridges – time frames that are both collapsed & separate. You can view a short video of Linskens in process here. Hidden in the final images are an anatomical heart, a rabbit’s head, a cow’s skull, a seated woman, and at least two things with feathers – hawk & songbird. Swatches of black & white play hide & seek with our expectations, our eyes finding movement and stasis.
Since this amazing reading, requiring listeners to engage both intellectually and emotionally, I’ve been reconsidering the seams of my own work – thinking about missing bits and how the spaces between poems might end up being an ultimate linking feature. After the interactive reading with Tolbert and Linskens, I’ve reapproached a group of poems, revisioning how they might work together in a completely new way. I returned home with so much more than a sheaf of inspiring lines, but rather an idea for an entirely new structure – both on the page & off.
TC had asked us to write about a part of our bodies we loved – but I got caught up thinking about something else. A few weeks before my youngest brother had an emergency appendectomy (perhaps they are always an emergency), and I had gifted him a replacement plush appendix from an online purveyor of cute organs, all in bright colors with embroidered smiley faces. My brother had just posted a picture of him with his “replacement part”; like him, I am also sans appendix. When I went to write, I began to think about things missing, things taken out, things that connected us (maybe), things that made us unwhole, or maybe how those things (the things I didn’t have) were a part of the whole. After the weekend, returning home, I realized how many of my poems referenced literal missing bits, and so began to assemble those poems together – creating linkages of loss. But the articulated losses were also a construction of identity. I wanted this to be visible in words, but also on the page.
I began experimenting with printing the poems on heavy cold-press paper, then wetting and attempting to thicken it further. Finally, I created some prototypes that erased words with literal “holes” and stitched through & over them. I envision these in larger formats, where the yellowed paper has its own texture & flaws (not unlike skin), and the stitching appears irregular & painful, but also necessary to the integrity of the medium. Ideally, through the holes in the paper we’ll be able to see other words, other memories, other litanies of parts lost & found, and maybe each other as well.
Before our reading, TC led us through a workshop, which began with an exercise called “Present/Present,” where we were to gift each other something, acting out the gathering of that thing and placing it into each other’s hands. The Giver was not to picture (even in our minds) what we were giving as we touched fingertip to fingertip; the Receiver was not to anticipate the gift until we were holding its imaginary weight in our palms. Dear Melissa.
C. Kubasta is the Managing Editor of Bramble Literary Magazine. She writes poetry, prose & hybrid forms. She is the author of several poetry collections, most recently Of Covenants (Whitepoint Press), as well as the novels Girling (Brain Mill), and This Business of the Flesh (Apprentice House). Find her at ckubasta.com. Follow her @CKubastathePoet.