Tucson's Poet Laureate Builds Homes, Community, and Hope
There’s something very humbling about coming to the Habitat build site as a volunteer. To be welcomed – whether or not you’ve ever swung a hammer before. To make a visible impact in just a few short hours. That’s what happened to a troupe of local poets, who set out in the early morning to build homes with Habitat Tucson. Leading the team was Tucson’s Poet Laureate, TC Tolbert.
“The idea of the laureate is to help get poetry out into the world – out into Tucson,” explains TC. “As I sort of discovered when I first moved to Tucson, Tucson is a place that’s poetry-filled already. And by the time I was selected for the position, I thought, what in the world will I do? That’s part of where the Habitat idea came from.”
“Having poets go build a house seemed like a real poetic gesture – bridging two unlike things.”
An accomplished poet and educator, TC wanted to find a way to connect the work of poetry with acts of service. Volunteering with Habitat felt like the perfect fit.
“You start building in the morning, and 6 hours later you can literally see the work that’s been done,” says TC. “It’s so satisfying.”
The group of poets and writers arrived and shared a haiku with their fellow volunteers and builders before beginning the build. TC watched with amazement as his fellow poets and writers slowly grew more confident as the hours went by. Some poets had never even held a hammer before, and were quite intimidated at first! But the environment was totally supportive. “Not even remotely critical,” TC says. “Just a lot of folks hanging out swinging hammers.”
As our poet laurate, TC is excited about integrating poetry into our community, bringing poetry to other acts of service – and in fact, TC was recently awarded $100,000 from the Academy of American Poets to create LGBTQ poetry programs in Tucson!
For TC, poetry is a doorway into social justice. “Anytime we encounter something that stretches our understanding of what is possible, that to me feels social justice,” s/he explains. “It feels like potential for change, growth, all of these radical ways of living. And—and and and! I think if it stops at the page, it’s missed a whole deeply, deeply important step in changing the world.”
Doing acts of service is an extension of that poetic living for TC. TC sees it as an essential act of courage – stepping outside of one’s comfort zone, one’s areas of mastery, to create a more just and compassionate world.
“This is what I teach my students day in and day out,” says TC. “I’m begging them – be brave. Do something you don’t know how to do. How can I say that over and over to them if I’m not going to try it myself?”
That’s part of what brought TC to the build site in the first place – and what continues to draw him towards the service of building homes, community, and hope.
TC says, “I think of a home as a place to both sort of remember who I am and to create who I am.” And that’s the gift TC builds for hardworking families in Tucson every time s/he picks up a hammer and steps onto the build site. Not just walls and roofs. Volunteers like TC are building a place to grow, to thrive, to discover who we truly are. A place, for generations, to call home.