Monday, October 25, 2010

A speech from a vigil for recent LGBTQ youth suicides, by TC Tolbert

TC Tolbert is a genderqueer, feminist poet and educator. TC earned his MFA in Poetry from UA in 2005 and currently teaches Composition at Pima Community College. S/he is the Assistant Director of Casa Libre en la Solana and is a member of Movement Salon, a compositional improvisation group in Tucson. S/he is a collective member of Read Between the Bars, a books-to-prisoners program, and s/he spends his summers leading wilderness trips for Outward Bound. TC’s poems can be found in Volt, The Pinch, Drunken Boat, Shampoo, A Trunk of Delirium, and jubilat. He won the Arizona Statewide Poetry competition in 2010 and his chapbook is forthcoming from Kore Press.

According to the American Association of Suicidology, 12 youth per day die by suicide. Suicide is the 3rd highest cause of death for youth between the ages of 15-24 – right behind accidents and homicides. Now even if we apply the most conservative estimate that 1 in 10 of those youth is LGBTQ, this still means that 1 queer kid a day is dying by suicide. That is over 365 queer youth per year. And yet, all we know of – what has pulled us here together – are 8. What about the other 350-something lgbtq youth who have died by suicide in the last year? What do we know of their stories? Why don’t we know their stories? When we look at these 8, who do we see reflected back at us? Who do we not see?

You may have also recently heard about the horrible attack of a transwoman in the Bronx (she has been mis-identified as a gay man in the media but she used female pronouns and went by the name La Reina – the Queen). 9 attackers, ranging in age from 16-23, brutally tortured her and two acquaintances for being queer. Some NY detectives are calling it “the worst hate crime they’ve seen in years.”

The grief we feel as a community and as individuals when faced with such violence is swift, tremendous, and just. When youth, the very embodiment of hope, growth, and change are snuffing themselves and each other out b/c they cannot find evidence of that hope, b/c they cannot see themselves reflected, or, perhaps, b/c they cannot stand the reflection that they do see – our response should be grief. We are losing something and we have lost people. I am proud of us tonight for being honest, for being vulnerable. For coming together in our grief.

And yet, I ask each of you not to let this grief become a weapon. I ask us, as a community, not to let our losses be compounded by separation, by a perpetuation of hate, violence, retribution, or otherness. If convicted of a hate crime, their perpetrators could get 3 years, 5 years more. Given 3 more years will La Reina feel safe walking in her neighborhood? Given 5 years will we hear Tyler’s violin again? No. Hate crimes legislation will not and does not make queer people safe. Prisons perpetuate violence, they do not end it. I’m sorry but hate crimes legislation won’t bring back Tyler Clementi, Asher Brown, Seth Walsh, Billy Lucas, Raymond Chase, Justin Aaberg, Zach Harrington, and Aiyisha Hassan. Hate crimes legislation won’t bring back the over 30 transwomen who have been murdered in the last year. We can punish the most obvious perpetrators but it won’t correct a system – a world - in which racism, homophobia, and transphobia are status quo.

Instead, I’m asking you to do two things. First, I ask that you take care of yourself. Nourish yourself with good food, time alone, time with loved ones, time with your body, fun. Take the kind of care of yourself that you would wish for your very best friend. That’s it. It’s simple but not easy. That is thing one. Take care of you.

Thing 2 is neither more important nor less. And I believe with every fiber of my being that if each of us do both of these things, we will see the radical shift we are asking for. I am asking you (and myself) to take responsibility for the privileges we do have in this world (and we’ve all got some – I’ve got an enormous of amount of it) – be it white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, socio-economic privilege, the privilege of education, of leisure, of time – whatever privilege we have, use it to advocate for someone who is unlike you yet who is also oppressed. Let’s stop acting as if there is such a thing as a migrant issue or a women’s issue or a people with disabilities issue. These are all queer issues. Put yourself in dialogue, in proximity, in solidarity work with people who do not look like you, think like you, believe like you. So we’ve come out on campus this week – that is the first step, not the last. Let us now be big brothers or big sisters and come out there. Let us now volunteer to teach in prisons and come out there. Let us volunteer at shelters, in schools, at migrants’ rights organization, at Palestinian liberation actions, at Jewish film festivals, and come out there. Give time, give money, give. The sooner we stop segregating ourselves from the issues that keep all of us down – the closer we come to eradicating oppression. If we want real change, if we want to end violence and bullying, we’ve got to know each other – we’ve got to work in solidarity, we’ve got to connect.

Please consider not just those stories you heard today but also the stories you didn’t hear. Search them out. Make room for them in our movement. And please, make movement any time you have room. Thank you.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Tucson is Buzzing About Coming in Hot

Since Coming in Hot wrapped up its Tucson, AZ performances and has hit the road for LA. We're sharing a collection of reflections from post-show audience free-writes, open forums, and facilitated discussions. During the month of September, Coming in Hot took the stage at six area high schools, Pima Community College, the Univeristy of Arizona Poetry Center, a Veterans in Higher Education conference, and a few local living roomgs. The diverse locales and audience sparked powerful, collaborative dialogues across generations:

Tucson High School

"I feel the weight of many years of history--the stories of men and women whose lives are forgotten but whose struggles mirror my own. . . [this is] a war memorial more meaningful than a statue or a wreath. War/anti-war; knowledge/awareness; compassion/grief."

"I feel a deep power from within, hearing a tale of . . . women in the army. It takes away the simplistic views I had about the army and threw them in the trash. I see that the army is fear, it is sadness, it is loneliness. The army, especially for a women, is a complex world."

"I feel sad not only because my mother is in the army and I wish she could be here with me, but because its not easy to be a woman soldier. It motivates me to want to be in the military even more. I feel grateful for our women who serve in the military."

"I feel really frightened by this play. When I first walked through these doors I was interested, maybe inspired, to join the military, now I'm afraid."

"I can feel each pain and struggle these women have been through! I felt as if i was there when I heard each story. I have a brand new respect for military women and it has opened my eyes about wanting to go to Westpoint after high school."

"I wouldn't join the military, but if a woman feels that God wants her to join, she should be able to without fearing the male soldiers and what they might do."

"This has got to be one of the hardest things I have ever listened to. Women don't deserve to be treated this way, especially by men they are working with."

"The Israeli army will be a different experience by far, as a family and community. I think because it is more expected that women will join. I will not get raped or harassed, like these women did."

"I plan on joining the military or Coast Guard after high school. To hear how many women in the military go through so much makes me want to be part of something bigger than myself."

University of Arizona Veterans in Higher Education Conference

"I believe this [play] would be a great program to not only spread to civilian women, but to try to assemble active duty women from all ranks and all forces. As an active duty female, I believe young sailors/soldiers/marines would benefit from exploring this side of combat, both male and female."

"Profound feelings. It took me back like I was there again. Not in a good way. I hated it. I loved it. Well done."

"This was some pretty powerful stuff. We have had a deaf ear to women's issues for way too long and still do not want to face the realities. This play is a wonderful means of awareness that just opens the doors slightly . . . and we need to bust it completely open."

"Too dark. Too sad. No one spoke about patriotism? Courage? Satisfaction?"

Hamilton High School

"These women go through hell and back more times than the male soldiers do."

"I feel shocked and ashamed of myself. I have never really thought twice about women in the military, let alone what they might be going through. . . this performance has reminded me of the things that go on outside of my little bubble of a world."

"I saw and felt all the women's stories. . . as a result I want to talk to anyone in my family who was in the military to see and understand any of their stories."

"I have never felt this way. I feel captivated and touched. . . taken all throughout the horrid experiences a woman has to endure so she can help serve her country. As a man, I feel guilty to have to share the title of "man," for what man has done."

"I feel like I want to do something more. I know I am a very strong girl and now I feel like I am wasting it. . . I am so impressed by how strong women can be. I am glad this is being performed for people."

House party/fundraising salon hosted by Shannon Cain, Kore Press Fiction Editor

"I feel grateful to the artists for giving me a meaningful way to engage with the overwhelming reality of what is occurring in the world--the cost of what my country is doing. I have not found other meaningful ways of engaging. I find most of the ways these issues are presented and discussed to be inhumane, alienating and even more painful."

"It was easy to visualize women in war---the conflicts, the intensity, the never-ending injustices--danger from within our military. I feel loss of life, permanent scaring--damaged souls. . . perhaps the lucky ones are the dead."

"I feel like I've overlooked and not honored my own military upbringing. Yes, Air Force brat was such a badge of pride, but the late 60s and 70s buried that and I buried that and all the families that I knew who lost---literally "lost": MIA. Dads, husbands. Thank you for bringing those memories to the surface."

House party/fundraising salon hosted by Linda Green, anthropology professor at the University of Arizona

"Glad you brought these voices forward. Really found the piece about the pow wow---the inability to speak---very significant! It really brought us back to the silenced voices of women!

"Coming in Hot" clearly opens the space rather than claiming triumph. Thank you for that honesty."

One audience member stated how conflicted she felt about her response to the play: being proud of the strength and courage depicted by the women warriors and at the same time being aware of how deeply anti-war she is.

Someone else raised a question about the status of women in the Israeli army, guessing that they do not experience the same levels of harassment and abuse that women soldiers in the US military do. He also wondered what women vets face when they return, what kind of community do they form or can they look to be received back into? As a Native American, he noted that the Pow wow is a place for warriors to return to and find a home in.

Catalina Foothills High School

"I don't support war, I don't know who would, but I really respect those strangers who live to die. Isn't that a cornerstone of the military, of war, in general? Death?"

"I feel confused as if I am not able to be the person needed for my country, where there is life free and bold. I cannot rise to the occasion of becoming one who protects others. Where do we find this strength, this liberty? How do we understand the unknown? Where do I fit in?. . ."

"I feel like I would like to serve my country but I couldn't do it. I feel like the government covers up the truth. I feel like most war isn't necessary."

"I feel incredibly lucky in the most absurd way. . .it seems completely wrong that I should be so lucky when so many more, the majority of the world is less lucky than me. Why do I get to be comfortable? Why do I have family and friends that love me? Why don't I ever have to pay some kind of steep price for all my good fortune? maybe it will come eventually. I am so selfish for wishing I won't have to."

"The most shocking message I got from the play was that of sexual harassment in the military. Here, servicemen are portrayed as being honorable and something to aspire to, but when they are pulled away from society they are reduced to basic instincts. i also think that the military doesn't share this information with the public."

City High School

"You should have more pro military stories. I know multiple soldiers who are women and they're experiences were much different. I heard some stories from the Gulf War and a lot has changed since then."

"I feel so heart broken that even living in the 21st century that women do not get the respect they deserve even with bravery, desperately fighting for their country. I actually cried. I never cry. Incredible. Truly incredible."

"I feel amazed at how much sexism there is among people who are supposed to be the heroes of our country."

"I can't get how people go about their business during the day let alone sleep at night knowing that people are being tortured, dying, starving and yet. . . we don't even bother to lift a finger."

"I feel sad and confused about the truth of what happens to women in the army. No one should be treated like that."

Monday, July 26, 2010


By Deborah Fries

A few years back, a reviewer introduced my first book of poetry with a caveat that landed like a sucker punch. She’s not in the under forty crowd, but he began. I imagined a haunting chorus of alternative dependent clauses. Some days, I heard but she’s amazingly hip and relevant. On cloudier days, I heard yet she’s still tuned in to some of what matters. And on my feeling marginalized days, I heard if you are curious about the alien world of the older woman, dig in.

It’s an alien world for me, as well. I am without role models for aging. Both of my grandmothers were smacked down before they were fifty and before I was born. Both were farm wives who raised their children during the Depression. While they may have sensed that something meaningful was eluding them, I’ll never know if that thing had a name. I very much doubt that it occurred to either of them that what was missing was their Voice. They were spared the urgent messages of the self-actualization movement that sang to my generation. They were spared aging.

My paternal grandmother, Jessie, died unexpectedly at forty-five during surgery. She had no opportunity to fear being invisible or irrelevant or to wonder whether she had fully explored her potential. My maternal grandmother, Inez, died at forty-nine after a long illness. Bedridden and emaciated, unlike Jessie, she knew that she had been short-changed. Melpomene was the only muse whispering in her ear.

I never had a sweet, silver-haired grandmother who taught me to knit or a wild, biker Gram who broke all the rules: I had no one to set that generational example. My mother’s last four decades gave me my first and most intimate exposure to how a woman ages. She lived for eighty-six years and for almost half of that long existence, she was bitter, envious, sad and disappointed.

She had opted for a small life, while longing for a large and vivid one. She became a wife once and a mother twice, and treated those relationships as occupational compromises in a weak job market --options that left her chronically underemployed and frustrated. None of her dreams could be realized by her alone: all were dependent on the effort and accomplishments of her husband and daughters. And to the extent that each of us failed to make them come true, her bitterness increased. It became huge.

In March, Robin Black wrote about the life-affirming phenomenon of the late bloomer who finds her voice, a possible antidote for the aging woman’s fear of invisibility. Even more than invisibility, I am afraid of the kind of unrelenting regret and bitterness my mother cultivated.

And so at some point in my thirties, I promised myself that I would live differently, that I would find ways to adapt to aging, with its many narcissistic wounds and personal losses, and remain open to possibilities. I would search for developmental muses, role models who lived their lives fully, who managed to do meaningful work for as long as possible, whose focus on mastery of their craft rather than on recognition provided balance, whose ties to family and friends sustained and tethered them to this world. I would battle regret and nurture a built-in immunity to the bitterness and despair that had gripped my mother in her fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties.

That was the plan. But as time passed, my sense of possibility eroded a bit, tempered by circumstance. The world is not indifferent to age, and some paths seem to be more age-friendly than others. I wanted to believe that no matter how my path meandered, no matter how much time passed, there would always be room for another writer. After all, there was Amy Clampitt.

Amy Clampitt, who published her first book of poetry at sixty-three, who I’d seen at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee the month I filed for divorce, who was there, reading from The Kingfisher, and holding out the possibility of never-too-late artistic accomplishment, just as I was taking a sudden detour from its pursuit.

Amy, whose focus on the external world transcended the ephemeral goals of the flesh, whose musical, Marianne Moore-ish diction was valued above her attractiveness, whose safe, sexless poems about reed beds, beach glass, meadowlarks and thrushes could hold their own against the flash of young sensualists and surrealists. She was proof that a woman’s voice could be embraced even in her sixties; that the literary world, unlike so many others, might choose to ignore age.

She was my age-blind muse of late debuts. For decades, I kept her narrative in a mental pocket, like a rabbit’s foot, to remind me of how I wanted to age: go about doing what you love, indifferent to the fickle prejudices and politics that can factor into how one is perceived; keep evolving, with or without applause. Applause, if it comes, is the frosting, not the cake.

And now? Above all, I want to be comfortable in the present. But I also want to live with a sense of personal and professional possibility, to believe that there is still more becoming to come. Last month, when I learned that eighty-two year-old Myrrha Stanford-Smith had received a three-book deal from Honno, a Welsh women’s press quite taken with her approach to children’s fiction, I heard a new muse whispering in my ear.

That Ms. Stanford-Smith’s literary accomplishment comes at a time when she is also teaching and directing repertory theater is more frosting on an already very tall cake. Yet she described her reaction to Honno’s offer as feeling “gobsmacked” -- the kind of speechlessness that an eighty-two year-old woman might experience when she is seen by the world as whole, vital, worthy of investment -- unsullied by time and its powers of reduction.

It’s the kind of smack that sends assumptions about age and invisibility flying. Its external source makes it newsworthy: most of us suspect that the larger world can no longer see a woman in her eighties, let alone see her potential.

But the editors at Honno could see -- see that Stanford-Smith was not in the under eighty crowd, yet capable of transporting children into an engaging imagined world, places she created when she wasn’t busy teaching or directing a play. When women publish women, it seems, the scope of our valued experiences broadens and our potential for remaining visible is extended through that sweet lens of appreciation.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

My Kind to Your Kind
by Niki Herd

To live in this country with the skin on my back is to always be suspect. I walk into a store—I become a potential thief—and am followed. I pick up the telephone to address an issue at the workplace and colleagues and clients marvel at how articulate I am. Just the other day, a server at one of my favorite, now-defunct, eating spots confided that the owners thought I was anti-white.


To live in this country with the skin on your back means you are the default button. In a game of spades you are the trump card. All that is not you is measured against you, and most often by you. To live in this country with the skin on your back may also mean listening to the rape and pillage song day in and day out. It may be living in a marriage in which past mistakes, indiscretions, moments of bad judgment and disloyalties are never laid to rest.


The important word here is past. Past mistakes. Past indiscretions. Past moments of bad judgment. Past disloyalties. The word assumes that which is not current, or ongoing, or systematic. When flocks of revolutionaries came to this land to flee political oppression, there was nothing wrong with them wanting to flourish in a new home, but the blood of blacks should not have been systematically imported to do so. Nor should tongues have been excised and rosaries placed around the necks of the people that enjoyed this land before you.


Since you may think this the rhetoric of the past, let me address the current issue to which I write which seems all too much like the past—that group of teenagers protesting outside of an Arizona high school today. How by law, one of them could be stopped by police, asked to prove his or her citizenship while inside the school, and schools throughout the state, courses like Mexican or African-American studies are being banned to prevent what you call ethnic chauvinism. What is clear to me as I drive by is that the focus should be on equipping these children with the tools they need to succeed. The problem rests with a state that de-values education and continuously refuses to educate its children properly. Mexican-American studies is not the problem. What is also clear to me as I drive by cardboard signs and honking horns, is that these children, who they are and their history, will never be accepted—and they share a lineage with the people south of us who are systematically pennied and pimped, who fold our bed sheets, wash our fine dining dishes, tile our floors and pick our poisonous crops. They have become the unacknowledged American workforce functioning to make our lives easier, comfortable and profitable in a country that befriends its Latin brothers and sisters only when convenient.


Let me begin again.


Let me introduce the players. Let me clarify what is at stake.


Good people, good friends are in my life, many of whom retain beliefs significantly different from my own about those topics that change the tenor of dinner such as the choice between war or non-violence, abortion or god. They are friends because their actions do not at all minimize my humanity. Despite their beliefs, there is some kind common ground we share and cherish. But you and I are not really friends, and we are on two separate sides of the bible or the flag if you will. And I am not sure where to go from here.



Several years ago an ex-NFL player drove his Bronco onto the Los Angeles freeway after killing his white ex-wife, and I watched the racial river widen. In my own back yard, it widened again when folks were protesting the re-naming of a non-descript university building in honor of Cesar Chavez. The latter happened here in Arizona, the same state getting the attention recently for legalizing racial profiling and removing ethnic studies from the elementary and secondary school curriculum. It is the same state that did not want to honor a Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. But I think it unfair that Arizona is making all the headlines for the state is only enacting what you have taught her. More than seven letters and four syllables connect you. Arizona is your daughter child, and with your history of Eurocentricsm, you have educated her well.


Perhaps I am wrong. Tell me I am wrong. I think we need to talk.                                                                                


We need to talk. We need to talk to each other—to do what my people call speak truth. We need to talk. We need to listen. We need to listen to some things neither of us wants to hear. We need this before another apology is given from a police officer who physically attacks a Mexican suspect while hurling racial curse words, as was the case in Seattle. No more do we want apologies.  In these days of propaganda, political correctness, and reactionary communication, we need honest dialogue, and we need it soon.


It was James Baldwin who alluded that the relationship of my kind to your kind was like a marriage, and I have never been into until death do us part, but since the children are here having shed baby teeth, ready to assert themselves in this world, and we find ourselves joined at a time when folks are being arrested for mopping floors, or having a rake in their so brown hands, don’t you think we need to be honest about where we are and how we got here? See—the honeymoon is over. Actually, there never was a honeymoon. And the children say all hell is about to break loose.

 ---Niki Herd, May 12, 2010

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

We Are All Arizonans: SB1070 Reflections by Adela Licona

Reflections on Why I am opposed to SB 1070…

I am opposed to SB1070.

I am opposed to SB1070 because this bill is unconstitutional. Its content and what it calls for cannot be reconciled with the concept of equal protection. It ignores constitutional rights and it ignores human rights. This bill will make some of us more equal than others before the law – and that should trouble all of us.

I am opposed to SB 1070 because this bill is dangerous. This bill conflates and consolidates federal and state power – and that should trouble all of us.

I am opposed to SB 1070 because it’s regressive. It moves us backwards in time and practice towards division, separation, and segregation. It promotes anti-immigrant sentiment and hostility and fuels a new cultural racism. It can and it will lead to racial profiling – and that should trouble all of us.

I am opposed to SB 1070 because this bill is impractical. The bill calls on local police officers to do more with less. The bill calls on officers to determine the status of an “alien” based upon “reasonable suspicion.” It will distract police officers in their efforts to keep us safe – and this should trouble all of us.

I am opposed to SB1070 because it dishonors hard-working laborers and in so doing, it promotes discrimination. The language in the bill serves to dehumanize immigrants. It is no way to go about immigration reform.

SB 1070 is immoral. It will produce an environment of threat that allows for even grosser and more exploitative laboring and living conditions. It validates uncivil discourse and unleashes hateful rhetoric that has material consequences particularly for the least among us.

I am opposed to SB1070 because it is a bill constructed on questionable premises.

We must not be deluded by the language of this bill, as there is a difference between immigration, safety, and security.

We must question the assertions that Arizona is less safe because of the presence of migrants. Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico is a most dangerous city that is forcing migrants to flee into El Paso and yet El Paso continues to be considered among the safer cities in the US and was even a named 2010 finalist for the “All American City Award.”

I’m opposed to SB 1070 because it is a smokescreen that keeps us from seeking answers to questions such was what motivates migration? And not only who benefits from exploitative labor and its productions - but who is accountable for it? Why, if migrants are actively recruited to labor in our agricultural and service industries - and more - must they alone bear the burden of laws such as SB1070?

In my research, I have visited meatpacking plants and the “new destinations” or local communities in which they are situated and continue to wonder how a bill such as SB 1070 can become law while migrants are actively recruited to labor in and for our country.

Beyond the meatpacking industry, migrants are the reasons Arizonans and others across the US enjoy cheap produce, and clothes, and subsidized child care. Migrant labor is present in hotels, motels, private homes, restaurants and construction projects across the US.

As not only a participant but as a beneficiary of such a subsidized economy – the state of Arizona is complicit in the presence of migrant labor.

We must promote public dialogue, awareness, and understanding about the motivations for migration. The issue of migrant labor is a global issue made ever more urgent in the context of neoliberalism because of the unevenness globalization in such a context imposes, aggravates, and entrenches.

Make no mistake about it though – SB 1070 is not just about migrants - documented or undocumented. It is about all of us. Those of us who are brown. And those of us who aren’t. This bill clearly makes some of us more equal than others before the law – and that’s unconstitutional. And immoral. Simply stated, it’s wrong.

SB1070 is insidious.

It breeds a politics of fear that promotes suspicion that is not reasonable. Instead, it is UNreasonable and unjust.

I’m opposed SB1070 in the name of my father. During WWII my father worked in the navy shipyards where service men and civilians alike called him “Chile” as a nickname. Bills like SB1070 promote such degradation and that should be unacceptable to all of us.

I’m opposed to SB 1070 in the name of my daughters. I don’t want my daughters to believe that life in the US must be lived in fear of difference. Or that reasonable suspicion can be determined by the status of one’s immigration, or one’s class, or the color of one’s skin. I want them to know that the discourses we engage in – civil and uncivil - have import and consequence.

I was raised on the US/Mexico border and all my life I have witnessed the exploitation and the unjust treatment of working people of color. SB1070 is a wake up call to me. Living in Arizona is a wake up call to me. We are not only in a recession, we are in a regression. We are headed in a backward direction and we must act. 

Please read the bill. Re-read the 14th Amendment. Use your heart together with your mind. Use the privilege and power of your education. Use your voice. Speak up for others who are too afraid or otherwise can’t speak for themselves, speak up for yourself and for our community.

S1070 must be repealed. Adela C. Licona


Feminist Action Research in Rhetoric (FARR) Opposed to SB1070

As a collective of scholars and activists who live in the borderlands of Southern Arizona, we stand in united, steadfast opposition of the signing and enforcement of SB1070, as well as HB2162. As feminists, we believe in actively addressing issues of inequality, exclusion, and oppression. While this new law affects each of us individually in a variety of ways, it affects all of us because it threatens to intimidate and incarcerate us, our families, our neighbors, and our colleagues.

While we acknowledge that the law does not explicitly state that racial profiling and harassment will be part of the enforcement of this law, we have experienced first- hand the role racializing practices already play in law and border enforcement, political action, and public discourse in Southern Arizona. This law gives additional legitimacy to a regressive politics of fear and suspicion that will further divide our beleaguered community. Moreover, the unsettling speed and viciousness with which some of our fellow Arizona citizens have dismissed the clearly racist heart of SB1070's assumptions are only further evidence of our current need for coalition as we openly challenge institutionalized and legislated racism wherever it exists.

We call on the members of our community, law enforcement, state government, and the rest of the country to speak out against this bill. We must educate those who may not understand the specific problems and long-lasting consequences with the wording and intent of this measure. SB1070 will not make our borders more secure or our neighborhoods safer; it threatens the humanity of all people living and working in this border state. We are Arizonans--migrant, native, transitional, and transnational--who stand against the intimidation and/or harassment of people in the borderlands and elsewhere.

*Feminist Action Research in Rhetoric, FARR

Marissa Juárez, Regina Kelly, Adela C. Licona, Londie Martin, Rebecca Richards, Shannon Ritchie, Jenna Vinson, Amanda Wray

*FARR is a collective of public scholars and activists who are committed to public scholarship, public rhetoric, civic, and civil discourse.  For more information contact

Monday, May 10, 2010

TC Tolbert Interviews Sonya Renee

Sonya Renee is an internationally acclaimed Performance Poet, Actress, Educator, and Activist. She has been seen on HBO, CNN, BET, MTV, Oxygen Network; performing on stages from New Zealand to Scotland to New York. Sonya Renee is heralded as a "force of nature on stage" and "humanity in action.” Her work is published in numerous anthologies and has been translated into multiple languages. Her work is transformative, raw, honest and powerful. Her first full length collection of poetry, A Little Truth on Your Shirt, was just released from GirlChild Press.

TC Tolbert is a genderqueer, feminist poet and educator. TC earned his MFA in Poetry from UA in 2005 and currently teaches Composition at Pima Community College. S/he is the Assistant Director of Casa Libre en la Solana and is a member of Movement Salon, a compositional improvisation group in Tucson. S/he is a collective member of Read Between the Bars, a books-to-prisoners program, and s/he spends his summers leading wilderness trips for Outward Bound. TC’s poems can be found in Volt, The Pinch, Drunken Boat, Shampoo, A Trunk of Delirium, and jubilat. He won the Arizona Statewide Poetry competition in 2010 and his chapbook is forthcoming from Kore Press.

Container Malfunction: Grace

by TC Tolbert

Ever since starting testosterone, back in 2006, it’s been hard for me to cry. If you had tried to convince me that this was a possible side effect before I actually started hormones, I would have thought you were a misogynist. Even now, when I feel tears climbing up some unnamed part of my throat and lodging themselves as pillows behind my eyes, I’m shocked when they can’t quite get through.

I didn’t know this when she walked on stage at Hotel Congress on Saturday, April 3 but Sonya Renee has no respect for side effects. She is not interested in who you thought you were when you walked in the door. She is more interested in the alchemy of collision. The things that happen when she tells you a story. And instead of a story it feels like she’s just handing you a mirror. No big deal. She found it in her purse, thought you would need it – you’ve got that spinach in your teeth. But you can’t decide if the mirror is a paintbrush. Because in this light you think that the mirror might be a gun. But she’s telling you now not to worry, get comfortable. Maybe sleep on it. This could be a thing with which you decorate – no, protect – your terrible ears.

You should not read Sonya Renee’s new book, A Little Truth on Your Shirt, if you don’t like poems that want to fondle you. If you are used to poems that don’t ask you any hard questions, this probably isn’t your kind of scene. If you are looking for a poet who stands at a safe and comfortable distance, don’t bother with the interview below. It’s probably just time to walk away.

Sonya Renee made me cry and I want to thank her for it. But I’m a sicko, I’ve already proven that, I’m a trannyfag. I can tell you that I love her and her work, but that’s beside the point. She doesn’t answer, she just nods when I ask her, “Is there grace enough for a poor wretch like me?”

TC: Maybe the 1st question relates to the title, A Little Truth On Your Shirt, what is the truth that you want to spill?

SR: The place that I write from personally is very much about “what is the relationship between knowing and how does the knowing impact the individual and how does knowing impact other people – your own knowing?” So truth, for me, is the knowing. What things do I know, what things do I know in my body, what things do I know intellectually, what things do I know socially, politically…and how does that get interpreted? And what is the thread that connects my knowing with the rest of the world? We often exist in our own cylinders where our knowing is exclusive to us and our experience we believe to be exclusive to us and I don’t believe that. I believe that our knowing is often many other people’s knowings. We all have fear that it is not – but if we start sharing our knowings with each other, we’ll realize that there is far more that connects us than divides us. It’s cliché but true. And, I’m messy, by nature. I spill shit all the time. You can know what I ate for lunch because it will be on my boobs. There is a way in which my work is that way too. It is a spilling. Sometimes that spill is not a mistake, it is an intentional spill and sometimes it’s just that the container can’t hold it and then sometimes it’s just that I was trying to hold it all and I tripped and it all fell out. But it doesn’t just fall on me. My existence is not isolated in the world and so other people experience that spill as well which is why that truth isn’t just on my shirt it’s on your shirt, too.

TC: I’m interested in the difference between the spill that is a mistake and when it is a container malfunction. In your book (which I love) are there moments when you found, in the writing of the poems, where you thought, “Whoa, I didn’t mean to say that,” or “I had no idea that was in me”? Where you were surprised by what emerged?

SR: Yeah, yeah definitely. Those moments are there, a lot. Which relates to an email question you asked me about my biggest fears in my writing. There are things in this book that were not written with the intention of publishing or with the intention of sharing them with the world. They feel phenomenally vulnerable and frightening and they conflict with the way I present in the world and that is scary for me. I’m thinking of “Penance” about my mother who for years had a crack addiction and she got clean in 2000 and in the last 3 years or so started drinking and is veering into alcoholism. I originally started to write the poem and I couldn’t. It became a blog where I could just say how I angry I was with my mother for returning to addiction and there was just nothing. I didn’t have anything poetic to say about this shit I was just fucking angry. Later on, I went back and added things to it. It started off solely as a space for me to be angry with my mom. So, that was a sort of accidental spill. And the choice to include it in the book was about knowing that that was not some singular, secretive, shameful place for me to exist. There are plenty of other people out there – I find hope in at least believing that.

Which is the difference between the work on the page and the work on the stage; on the stage I get the opportunity, in that moment, to get folks to rally behind the knowing with me and in their own knowing. And in the book, it’s all about the hope that there are other people who can find truth in that truth.

TC: There are so many things there that I’d like to know about. In reading this morning, I was thinking about the trajectory or arc of the book – the organization. I noticed what you are talking about around that poem, “Penance,” – about half way through the book, there is a sort of epicenter of anger. Then the book shifts again and moves into a place of redemption/hope. And I was curious about that, which led me to the email question of how it relates to Sonya Renee the poet, Sonya Renee the performer, and Sonya Renee the person. Which you mentioned a little bit, how those poems seem to conflict a bit with how you present.

SR: This question is an interesting one because it gets posed to me only by those people who know me very intimately and so the fact that you would ask it as a result of reading the book is so scary to me because it means that I’ve let people in intimately. And yes. There is a difference. If you were to read the book backwards, if you were to start with the “Bonus” section and then read to “What a Body Knows,” I think you would have the answer to that question. SR the performer is always self assured. She knows what she knows what she knows and she never questions it. Even if what she knows is vulnerability and fear. She is solid in that. And owns it without question, without wavering. The reason is that I’ve only got that moment on stage engaged with those individuals in front of me to share with those individuals what I’m going to share. And if I question it, in that moment, then they leave questioning it. And they don’t get the opportunity to go back and revisit it because it is gone. So, in that moment as an artist, I have to own that moment. SR the poet on the page doesn’t know in the same way, at all. She is full of questions and very few answers. It’s all about the discovery. On the page it is very much about the process and inviting the reader into that process because as long as that work exists on page I can keep going back to it, I can keep discovering it. I can keep discovering what the nuance is and I can keep having that experience every time I pick it up – and the reader does too. They don’t have to know in that moment b/c it is on that shelf and they can go back and pick it up and say, “oh, I’ve thought about that now, let me go and see what is different about it today.” So, there is a way in which when I am writing that work, I don’t feel like I need to know. I get to not know. And there is safety in that. Until I publish it! It feels safe in the creation. And it feels terrifying in the sharing. And so the choice to share it is one that is against my instinct. SR the person exists in between those two spaces, really. There are moments when I feel assured and completely in my power and strong and there are moments when I am totally in my process and afraid. I am in between those two things.

TC: At what point when you are writing a poem does it become clear that it is for the page or for the stage? Or is it ever that clear?

SR: They are really different spaces. I feel it when I am writing for the stage and mostly that is because the writing is different. The construction happens in a very different way and there is a level of intentionality that I have to have around that to make them translate. One of the constant debates in the slam world is, “Is slam about writing a poem and reading it on stage or is performance poetry something different?” There are lots of different opinions. Personally, I believe that when I am writing for the page, I am always writing with the understanding that the reader has the opportunity to dig endlessly and constantly uncover and excavate. And when I’m writing for the stage I am always certain that the listener only has that moment to get that – so what do I construct to let them get that in that moment. Also, when I write for the page I don’t have an intention. I have an experience, I have a desire to explore language visually. It is often about the word looks and appears and feels in my mouth alone. When I write for the stage, I am generally telling a story. About 90% of the time I am telling a story. And I want people to leave understanding that story. They can make their own inferences about intention or meaning or what they got from that later but I want them to understand the story so they can ask themselves those questions later.

TC: How do we, as artists, – or, do we - consider the reader or audience? At what point do their needs influence what we create?

SR: It’s difficult. Nothing starts, for me, with the reader. It starts with me and my place in the experience, in the observation, in the thought process. That’s where it starts, for me. My decision to share that is about where I believe the reader exists in the work. There are things that I have written that I feel very clear that the reader does not exist at all in that work. And I feel very clear about that. Usually the poem will tell me if it is for more than just me. And if the poem tells me that, then I share it.

TC: A personal question I found myself wondering – has her mom read this? Has her dad read this? How do the folks who are very much present in this work, how do they respond? How do you navigate that?

SR: They know that they are in the book. There are a lot of pieces that they have heard already. I read “Penance” to my mother long before I considered publishing. We were having a conversation about how I could establish boundaries around her drinking and what I could do that does not re-traumatize me and I didn’t know what to say so I said let me read you this poem. Just yesterday I read the piece, “Dreams for My Father,” on the radio in Portland, Oregon and my father called me b/c he had heard me read it and he said, “When I hear the poem it reminds me that I need to call and tell you I love you unconditionally. So I’m calling to tell you I love you unconditionally.” And this is its own art in that experience b/c that is not where we started when I wrote that piece. The piece, “Fragility of Eggs,” I read to my mother when I first wrote it and she cried and asked me to never do it publicly. I obviously didn’t honor that. And here is my perspective. Whenever the experience impacts me, it becomes my experience. And as an artist, I want to honor the space where that came from. And I’m not going to not tell my truth b/c that makes you uncomfortable. Because it is mine. But what I feel committed to doing is writing from a space that honors, that doesn’t exploit, that shows the humanity in the experience. I can do that. I feel committed to doing that. But I don’t feel committed to keeping other’s secrets, for their sake. Not when it makes them my secrets too.

TC: That is interesting as it relates to other kinds of writing, like memoir, and the expectation that everything that is written is factual. I wonder what is the line in your work between what is factual and what is true?

SR: There is a difference. Truth is often conceptual. Knowing isn’t about detail. It is about core and spirit and synthesis. That is not about detail. That is not about making a left turn instead of a right turn at two in the afternoon. In my work, knowing and truth are about destination. And facts are about roads. How did you get there? Sometimes I absolutely believe in factuality. I am interested often in how do you make fact poetic. Fact is newspaper and newspaper isn’t often poetic and I’m interested in that line between fact and poetry and where do you create that. But I think poetry is about creation and creativity and nuance and language and I feel free to utilize that when I need to. And I feel like the truth in my work is always present. The other thing is that truth, in my work, is never about exploitation. I have read work that is more about exploiting the subject, reader, or audience to get the reaction you want but I never want to exist in that space. My story is about truth and people’s ability to find their own truth in my truth.

Here is a concrete example. In the Bonus section “Liking Me” it is about me and an interaction with a guy who does not want to use a condom. Did that scenario happen in that exact way? No. Have lots of scenarios similar to that happened? Yes. Have those always ended with me being super strong and saying “Get the fuck out of here – I’d rather masturbate.” No. Sometimes I’ve bent. But the truth of my spirit is that I know that I am more important than someone who is getting me to compromise my safety. That is my knowing. And that work is a vehicle to get me to live in my knowing and to get other people to live in their knowing.

TC: As a woman, as an African American woman, as a woman who writes about sex with men and women, is there ever a moment when you feel a pressure to stand for a community?

SR: There is always that pressure. I identify as queer. That is a new identity for me. One I’ve picked up in the last year and a half. I’ve called myself bisexual for the last 8 years but I am just now learning to exist in the queer community and to consider myself part of the queer community and that is a new space and yes, there is a lot of pressure to belong to a community. Other people want you to belong to their community and, for me, it is about safety. Does the community take as much ownership in me as they want me to take in it? As I get to that space, I get to figure out if that can happen or if it doesn’t feel right.

I tour with a group of women called Salt Lines. We began the tour last year and we are all women who exist in varying degrees on the spectrum of sexuality but I had not, at that point, decided to identify with the queer community. I always felt like an ally but there was something about that term that did not feel like it included me. I felt like some of the LGBTQQA terms included some of those letters just by happenstance. And the discussions that I had been having with lesbians and gay men, I oftentimes just felt like they did not really like bisexuals – like they were annoyed by them, feeling like they were riding the fence. I felt like my identity was not respected in a lot of ways. Coming to feel myself included in the queer community was very much a process. Feeling safe, like there was space for me without being annoyed that I was at the table – or people not believing my experience to be true. And there are lots of communities where I am still figuring out my role or relationship in that. It is a constant re-engaging. I am always investigating that.

I am in the black community by virtue of the fact that when you look at me I am very clearly black. But there are ways in which I have been challenged in that despite the fact that I am very clearly black. There are ways in which I am challenged around feminism. It is a constant dance.

TC: I wonder also about your femme identity – how does being a feminine queer woman impacted your ability to connect with community, if it has at all?

SR: It absolutely has! If you are asking my gender identity, I am a drag queen! That’s my gender identity and there is a way in which that feels very very true for me. As soon as I wrap up the prep for the book, I start on my one woman show which are talks with a biological drag queen. My femme identity is constant. There is a way in which being as femme as I am challenges my relationship with women. And often in communities with butch-femme dichotomies, which is not my orientation, I am attracted to other femmes – which creates its own special dynamic of difficulty to access – because I am so femme it makes it difficult to read me as queer – people make assumptions about my sexuality based on the fact that I have on heels, a dress, and a wig.

Because my femme identity is not subtle, I don’t think a lot of the assumptions about femininity get played out with me. Because my femme is so in your face, I don’t get “oh she must be soft or dainty,” people treat me totally different. I think that is also a relationship between my identity as a black woman, as well. All of these things interact.

Patricia Hill Collins, the feminist sociologist, talks about the “matrix of oppression” where all of these different marginalized identities and their relationship to each other – there are a thousand Venn diagrams and with fifteen million circles in them all and there’s overlap everywhere and ways of being excluded at every corner depending on what other circle you exist in at the time. I feel like I am simply going back and forth within all of that. And there are ways in which my femininity frightens the world sometimes – it scares folks. There is a piece that I wrote in the workshop the other day called “Oh I’m Overdoing It” which is about my lover’s reaction to me meeting her family and how much I am. In one of the quotes in Alice In Wonderland the mad hatter tells Alice she has “lost her muchness.” It’s awesome, I love it. And it’s all about how muchness I have in the world and how many assumptions can exist around that and how much my identity plays a role in me being allowed at the table in a very universal sense. And in a very social and political sense. Being seen, you are already a person whose identity is on the margin. To be seen in a way that allows you to construct the seeing, based on what you know of yourself rather than based on what people want to tag to you, you have to carve that out for yourself. And if you are quiet or subdued or understated it makes it so much easier for people to make you invisible. Or, to make you present but to stick their own labels on you. But, my muchness allows for me to force my way to the table and then to guide the conversation around me that happens there.

TC: That sparks some questions for me about horizontal hostility, where this marginalized group is pitted against another marginalized group. For instance, queers are somehow separated from people of color. I was reading another interview with a writer who is gay, Mexican, and male and he was talking about the queer community’s cold reception to stories by people of color. And I wondered what your experience has been. How have your different communities, which I think there has been an imposed separation on, how have they responded to your work?

SR: It varies. There is definitely a lot of work in both communities that needs to happen to bridge the divide. My professional background, before poetry, I spent a lot of time doing work around HIV/AIDS specifically in the African American community so I constantly was in the battle between homophobia and homophobic ideas and its relationship to the black community and the black community’s health with serious life and death shit around homophobia. You know, we’re the most disproportionately impacted community with HIV/AIDS nationally and then, black people are the most disproportionately impacted group of people around HIV/AIDS in the world. So, how does our unwillingness to deal with homophobia in our community impact community health. So, having those conversations is constantly a challenge. My own dance around my sexual identity and its relationship to my community has been a very tricky and nuanced and difficult one. And a space where I had to deal with my own fear around it. I didn’t come out to my family until last year. I was out in all of my other social circles, my work circles. some of that is my relationship with my family. some of that is not feeling comfortable enough to let them into certain parts of my life. Is it worth the disruption? Is there going to be a disruption? All of the fears that come up around coming out. So that was a dance I had to navigate.

Because I get to exist in this empowered space as a stage artist, I love to use that space to challenge black people around their notions of homophobia. I try to access it from places where I feel like they can get it. How is homophobia personally impacting you? Where is the intersection between homophobia and black people’s existence? which I think doesn’t happen. we don’t create, as our society, a space to recognize another group’s oppression in our own experience. in that reach. and that is exactly how it is supposed to be because if someone always gets to be the bottom rung, then you don’t have to feel like shit about yourself. Right? Because at least you’re not the bottom rung. There are a lot of challenging conversations that I’ve had in the last month around race and the queer community. In the queer community, again, it is an interesting dynamic. Again, doing this tour with Salt Lines with three other queer women, in most of the shows – most of the schools that bring us have queer groups but I’m not in the audience. I’m often THE black person in the audience or one of two or three. Bridging the gap starts in the conversation but the conversation is so challenging without having all of every group’s years of oppression show up to speak first. And all of the defensiveness and hurt and trauma around the issue show up to speak first. So people just pass on having the conversation. I think there is no way to begin to bridge the gap unless we push ourselves to have the conversation - totally uncomfortable and difficult and all of that. It is in the process. My writing about it seems to be in the process phase.

TC: I am so thankful for your work because it does openly raise those questions without saying this is the answer. But you are so vulnerable and you say, these are the questions that we need to be asking.

SR: Because that is what I want. I don’t have any answers but I am so down to have the hard, ugly, difficult conversations. I’ve been having race conversations in the poetry slam community for the last two months. Someone posted a blog that I found really insensitive and culturally elitist and bigoted and I posted a response that kind of created this huge storm of conversation. Lots of stuff came up. And I don’t have any answers.

Particularly around race and sexuality, those are identities that we feel in our bodies first. I feel it cellularly before I am ever able to intellectualize it. Before I am ever able to say “Oh, this clerk is following me around the store b/c I’m a black woman,” my body knows it first. Before I ever can say, “Oh, I’m in danger for holding my girlfriend’s hand in the space,” my body knows it first. So, our bodies show up to the conversation before our minds do. Which makes the conversations really hard to have but I’m willing. I’m willing to work through the process while my mind catches up with my body. And I’m willing to exist in grace and create grace and compassion for other people who are willing to show up for that conversation.

TC: Hmmm. That is so beautiful it kind of catches me off guard. And it makes me think of something Cherrie Moraga said in This Bridge Called My Back. She said, “Sometimes in the face of my own/our own limitations, in the face of such world-wide suffering, I doubt even the significance of books.” But then she goes on to say, “The political writer, then, is the ultimate optimist, believing people are capable of change and using words as one way to try and penetrate the privatism of our lives. A privatism which keeps us back and away from each other, which renders us politically useless.” And it seems like your work uses your personal experience and story to connect to that larger truth, and so it seems like you are, at your core, an optimist. Would you agree with that?

SR: Absolutely, I am at my core an optimist. I absolutely believe in the possibility of human change. For where my mother is at this moment, watching my mother go from horrific crack addiction – selling my Easter dress when I was 10 years old, selling our TV, taking the money my father sent when he was overseas and buying drugs with it when there was just water and baking soda in the refrigerator. And being gone for four days and leaving me home alone. And then seeing who my mother became when she got off drugs. And having my mother restored to me. I can’t help but believe in the possibility of change. I’ve seen it.

I wrote a poem that reminds my father to call me and tell me he loves me unconditionally. I’ve had that conversation with my father for fifteen years and then I write this poem and he remembers to call me. That poem has made people leave my show and call their parents and reconcile the relationship.

Absolutely. I’m totally an optimist. From the top of my head to the painted toenails on my feet. I totally believe in the capacity for humans to change. And we see it all the time. And when we are connected through our stories, the more possible it is to extrapolate it to the larger world. We don’t look for it in our small, microcosms so we can’t see it in our macrocosms. But it exists. But it exists with the correction of those smaller experiences. Each time one person is individually changed, they add to the number of people who create change in the world. So, the more we add to that number and have our own human individual experiences, the more powerful we become to switch that possibility on a world level – on a universal level.