Anastacia Renee Tolbert: a conversation with the civic poet of Seattle

March 2, 2018

“What’s your emergency. One cop to another: we are out of chalk.”
A pause, then suddenly, as realization dawns across the audience, heads shake and eyes widen as
audible reactions echo through the auditorium.
Anastacia Renee Tolbert delivers just two lines, seemingly simple, yet as powerful as a punch to the
stomach. As the keynote speaker of Literary Career Day, held at the Seattle Central Library on February 3rd, Tolbert began her speech with a selection of poems from her books (V.) and Forget Me.

Her tone of speech, combined with musical elements and body language, allowed her to present her art
in its rawest, truest form, and she captivated the audience. At one particularly powerful moment in her
reading of her poem “No”, Tolbert placed her hand over her mouth, purposely muffling her words.
Tolbert’s poetry captured every person sitting in the auditorium, goosebumps and chills traveling across
the crowd.

Tolbert, a writer,  mother,  wife,  creative workshop facilitator,  performance artist, and Civic Poet of
Seattle, has been writing for over 20 years and has lived in Seattle for 11 of these years. The Seattle Civic
Poet program is run by the Office of Arts Culture, and a new poet is selected every two years as a
representation of Seattle’s diverse community of artists. The civic poet serves as a “cultural ambassador
for Seattle’s rich, multi-hued literary landscape,” as said by the official website. She has published a total
of six books, including Forget It, (V.), 26, Kiss Me Doll Face, and Answer (Me), and has her work featured
in various publications. She is also a former Poet-in- Residence at Richard Hugo House.

In contrast to her dynamic intensity while reading her work, a warm atmosphere filled the auditorium as
Tolbert answered questions about her life and career. Tolbert’s road to her successes today was far
from easy. She described how she discovered her passion for writing when she was eleven, as it was the
only coping mechanism for her to process a traumatic experience.

“It’s been hard. My journey is quite different, I would say, from my colleagues. I spent half that time
raising children, and so my writing practices developed from the way I was mothering,” said Tolbert.
She recounts how her habit of writing at times when most people are asleep stems from her prior daily
routines revolving around her kids, and 4-hour round-trip drives from Mukilteo to Seattle Academy to
teach.

Her story is an inspiration to many, particularly people within the city. Many of Tolbert’s readers see
their own experiences reflected in her writing, as writing is utilized as an outlet for pain. Even today, the habits and creative outlets she has developed help her with the struggles she faces on a daily basis.

“As a queer woman of color who’s also a mother, as someone who isn’t wealthy and doesn’t have the
best connections, I should’ve stopped a long time ago…but I couldn’t. I write because I have to. […] This
is my way for me to survive, internally and spiritually. I feel really fortunate that I get to share my
survival technique with the world,” Tolbert explains.

Tolbert’s craft has a deliberate focus: to fill the silence, to discuss uncomfortable topics that others shy
away from, and to spark change. “I write, and then I decide what I’m going to share,” says Tolbert. “I’m not writing for audience participation. I’m actually writing for marginalized people, for people who don’t have voices. I’m writing
to discuss issues nobody wants to talk about. …I’m not writing anything to say. ‘Am I getting a standing
ovation for this?’”

Tolbert, as the Civic Poet of Seattle, also strives to promote literacy and writing and inspire her
audiences, especially younger people, to explore their individuality within literary endeavors.
A few key pieces of advice Tolbert offers include, “You should develop some kind of writing practice that
works for you… You are the guide of your world of writing.”

She continues by saying, “Do not give up. I need you. You gotta hang in there. We, writers, and artists,
are becoming extinct. Why? Because we’re catching apathy and sadness. We’re beginning to our words,
our art, our songs, our plays are not good anymore, and when that happens to you, stay in it. Don't give
up.”

When asked what challenges she has faced throughout her years in comparison to the challenges she
still faces, Tolbert named self-doubt, racism, and classism as issues that have followed her to this day.
“The only difference between then and now is I have even more energy to get through it, because I can
look back…at the long list of things I’ve made it through,” Tolbert elaborates.
Although the hurdles in her life are ones that are not easily conquered over her lifetime, Tolbert has
found strength within herself and the tenacity to face her fears head on. With every word, she
encompasses the passion it takes to inspire change in others, of all ethnicities, genders, backgrounds,
and identities, to find the strength and passion within themselves as well.
“Bring on all the -isms,” Tolbert challenges, crossing one leg over the other. “It’s cool.”

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