Genderqueer guest poet reads works about binaries, abuse

Pictured above is poet and activist T.C. Tolbert, who read from s/his book Gephyromania for the campus community on Friday April 5 in the Doty Tower Room. The pieces Tolbert read focused on the development and effects of s/his life as a genderqueer individual. (courtesy of T.C. Tolbert )

Gephyrophobia is the anxiety disorder characterized by the fear of bridges. Gephyromania is the exact opposite; it means an obsession with bridges.

Gephyromania is the name of T.C. Tolbert’s poetry book, in which the genderqueer and feminist poet explores the places where binaries meet and connect like a bridge. Tolbert explores binaries like male and female, lover and self and loss and relief. 

The Geneseo Literary Forum invited Tolbert to host an intimate and powerful reading from s/his book in the Doty Tower Room on Friday April 5. 

Tolbert grew up in Tennessee, where s/he endured sexual and physical abuse during s/his childhood. Tolbert’s poems stem from that past because s/he thinks about queerness and whiteness through the lens of growing up in the South. 

Tolbert explained to those in attendance that s/he was told, “I wish you had never been born” several times growing up, and that the statement is echoed and evolves in s/his poetry.

Assistant professor of English Lytton Smith began the night with a heartfelt and  generous introduction of Tolbert. Smith described the work before getting to the core of what the evening was about: giving students the opportunity to experience Tolbert’s poetry. 

Tolbert read a series of poems called “Dear Melissa” to the room of approximately 50 Geneseo students and faculty. Melissa was Tolbert’s birth name, and these poems centered around the question of what a body is. The series tackled hard truths and personal experiences from the poet’s past.

During the reading, Tolbert requested that people in attendance call out “dear Melissa” anytime a passage or line of a poem resonated with them. One line from a poem early on in the reading set the tone for what the experience would be like: “It is nothing to be proud of although definitively I am proud/Five push pins with nothing in between them, an incomplete suicide.”

Tolbert later opened the floor for questions from the audience. Several people in attendance were writers themselves, and many of the questions therefore revolved around the creative process.

Tolbert emphasized that it was important to try and take care of oneself during any particularly traumatic periods of writing.

“I can treat my body well because I don’t know what’s going to happen out there [in the world],” Tolbert said.

Childhood special education major sophomore Heather McElligott was moved by the reading, even though poetry is an unfamiliar medium to her.

“I found it to be really open and honest about issues that our society tends to shy away from,” McElligott said. “Due to the lack of discussion on these sensitive topics, we don’t really get to hear about a lot of ‘success stories’ from people who endure horrific circumstances like T.C. Tolbert.”

The Geneseo Literary Forum will host more readings in the next academic year and invites anyone interested to attend.

The ability to affect students in an emotional way is part of the reason why Tolbert does these readings to show that visibility is important, Tolbert said. 

“I’m able to offer something that I didn’t have,” Tolbert said. “I’m able to, just by showing up, share my work and let myself be seen, make space for other people to let themselves be seen and find who they are and discover themselves.”