163: Book Magic with poet and educator, Zoe Tuck

Mara Thomas got to know poet and educator Zoe Tuck through the School of the Alternative in Black Mountain, North Carolina where Zoe taught a class called “Book Magic.” 

“Book Magic” started from the premise that there is a grain of truth to the magic we remember from children’s books and other fantastical literature. And if those books contained a grain of truth, how might participants nurture that grain and write their own magical systems into being?

Enjoy this conversation about the mystical and intuitive parts of the creative process, ranging from friendship to trance poetics and patterned breath to the potency of shared creative spaces.

Check out the show notes below for links to many of the books, writers, and resources referenced in this episode.


Zoe Tuck (she/her) was born in Texas, became a person in California, and now lives in Massachusetts. She is the author of Terror Matrix (Timeless, Infinite Light) and the chapbooks “Vape Cloud of Unknowing” (Belladonna*) and “The Book of Bella” (DoubleCross Press), the latter of which is bound in a dos-a-dos edition with Emily Hunerwadel’s “Peach Woman.” In addition to teaching creative writing and literature classes, Zoe is the co-host of The But Also reading series with Britt Billmeyer-Finn and the co-editor of Hot Pink Magazine with Emily Brown.


IG: @zoe.tuck 

Website: zoetuck.com


School of the Alternative

Eliza Swann – Golden Dome, Alchemical Imagination

Julia Cameron – The Artist’s Way

Automatic Writing

Jack Spicer – San Francisco Renaissance Poet

Svetlana Boym – Scenography of Friendship

Renee Gladman – Adjacent Alterities 

Troubling the Line – first ever collection of poetry by trans & genderqueer poets

Cento Poetry Practice

KPrevalletTrance Poetics, Ecosomatic Poetics

James Nestor – Breath


Master Builder

The New Colossus

Declaration of Love audio anthology

ASBX Shorts


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Tamara Kissane:

This is artist soapbox. Through interviews and original scripted audio fiction. We deliver stories that speak to your hearts and your minds.

Mara Thomas:

Hello, soap boxers. Today, it's my pleasure to share with you my recent conversation with poet and educator, Zoe Tuck. I got to know Zoe through the School of the Alternative in Black Mountain, North Carolina, where she taught a class called Book Magic. Book Magic started from the premise that there is a grain of truth to the magic we remember from children's books and other fantastical literature. And if those books contained a grain of truth, how might participants nurture that grain and write their own magical systems into being as someone who loves to indulge in the mystical and intuitive parts of the creative process? I loved going on this journey with Zoe, our conversation ranges from friendship to trans poetics and patterned breath to the potency of shared creative spaces. Zoe shares so many fascinating ideas and resources. For anyone who loves traveling into research rabbit holes like I do check out the show notes for links to many of the books, writers and resources referenced in this episode, Zoe Tuck was born in Texas, became a person in California and now lives in Massachusetts. She is the author of Terror Matrix and the chapbooks Vape Cloud of Unknowing and The Book of Bella. In addition to teaching creative writing and literature classes, Zoe is the co-host of The But Also reading series and the co-editor of Hot Pink magazine. Without further ado onto the episode. Hello, Zoe tuck. Welcome to artist soapbox.

Zoe Tuck:

Hi, thank you.

Mara Thomas:

It's so wonderful to have you. I'm just thrilled that we get to have this time to talk with one another today. Me too. I'd really love to just jump right in. To a little bit of how we met, which was through the school of the alternative, where you were on the faculty this summer, summer of 2022 teaching a class called book magic. Could you please share with our listeners a little bit about book magic?

Zoe Tuck:

Absolutely. Yeah. It was based on a sort of fantastical premise, which is that, which I don't know if I fully believe, and yet I also believe it at the same time, if that makes any sense, sort of that all of the magical systems that are in children's books, fairy tales, you know, sort of YA fantasy have some grain of truth to them. And that was the seed of the class. And then at the same time, I had heard from a friend about school of the alternative. And I thought that that might be a good home for something a little, a little woo. A little strange, a little

Mara Thomas:

woo. A little strange. You're just speaking my language. So please please continue. And just maybe talk a little bit about what went into. The development of it. So after you had this grain of an idea around, all right, these children's books, what if there's a little bit of truth there, and then as you sort of pulled that thread, what did you start to find?

Zoe Tuck:

I always researched sometimes I over research, so I started to reread some of my favorite children's books. and see, see what it felt like in there. And also see if I could try to translate what it was they were doing into something that would be intelligible and maybe even useful for other people, the sort of like possibilities for transformation that they were modeling. And then I also tried to do some research on, you know, I was like, okay, I know what a book is. I think even if it's this sort of fantastical hyper object that has many facets, but what's magic. And so I was trying to do some research there as well as just bringing in my sort of own personal spiritual experience. And I actually did a trial run lecture for a few friends called preface to book magic, just as a way of sort of talking out my thought process so far, which was very sweet. I pitched it as a lecture, but among the people who came, it ended up being a sort of impromptu workshop for the idea. And then in terms of the coming to the structure, there is a witchy school that I like called golden dome. And one of the people in it is artist witch, Eliza Swan. Uh, and I had recently taken a class of hers called the alchemical imagination. And I really liked her structure because she used a bit of lecturing and then these guided meditations and sometimes some writing exercises or things like that. And there'd be some sharing at the end. I loved the idea of the guided meditation. So this was actually my first opportunity to try that in a teaching setting.

Mara Thomas:

Well, and I know that several people who participated in your book magic class this summer responded to that meditation. They said it was really one of their favorite elements of the class. So I'm curious how, you know, what went into adding that meditation in and how do you think it served the overall magic element?

Zoe Tuck:

Okay. That's yes, that's a really good question. Well, I think that, you know, one of the tropes of magic or one of the methodologies of magic is to cast the spell to affect some sort of change in the world. And fortunately for me being a poet, You often use words to cast the spell. And I think the guided meditation part also came out of an increasing consideration, or I, I feel like I've been on a journey to try to figure out how to get out of my head and a purely like intellectual cerebral place into a more embodied place, both in the process of my own writing, but then also in the destination of my writing. So how can I. Using breath, rhythm. You know, certain like storytelling techniques, help people to get into sort of, I mean, I don't even know. I could say these words, but I don't, I don't fully know what they mean. Like some sort of trance state or hypnagogic state, because I feel like that is a place where, uh, you can get in and, and do that sort of personal magic, internal magic, I guess. Does that make any sense?

Mara Thomas:

Absolutely makes complete sense. And in fact, you know, one of the methodologies that I've been training in, in my mental health training is one that the, the goal of the exercise is to get people out of their prefrontal brain and sub subcortical, because we, we spend way too much time in our thinking brain and trying to, we can't think through our trauma. We know, we, we can intellectualize it for sure, but other, you know, this particular practice that I'm training in is about accessing places where memory lives in the brain. Yeah. And felt sense. So. I'm right there with you. Anything that can help us get, you know, just get into a different head space. And I feel like that's also part of the juice of creativity, you know, I'm just thinking about my own process and I, I kind of have to put some music on and get myself in a space before I sit down and, you know, attempt to open a conduit. Right. So I'm just curious, like what that process looks like for you.

Zoe Tuck:

Yeah, absolutely. Well sort of wanna jump back to something earlier. You said the word memory. Mm. And I feel like I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that as part of the impulse of the class. You know, for me, the stuff that I read as a kid is such like, I feel it so deeply and I sort of carry it with me. So that was also part of my motivation for centering book magic on general children's magical lid, because I feel like if that's true for me, it must be true for other people that this could be a potential portal. Not only back to something that might have been an early, like pleasurable encounter with literature, but also something personally meaningful from, from a, an earlier time in people's lives and a way a way to get there. So that was, I was sidestepping your question, but I can, I can go back to the actual question.

Mara Thomas:

Well, thank you for that aside because that's yeah, just so helpful. You know, so many of these developmental things that we come back to time and time again in our lives. That's when they're set, they're set in childhood and consciously or unconsciously, we play them out with the people in our lives, through our process. And so maybe that's a good segue back into just talking a little bit about your personal creative process.

Zoe Tuck:

Yeah. What is my personal creative process? That's a good question. I, for a while I had a very robust notebook habit. I'm looking across the room at a cabinet full of Moleskins which I have a dream of scanning someday. You know, that's sort of inspired by the Julia Cameron artist way daily writing practice, which has some similarities to automatic writing, like the surrealist technique of just not, not lifting your hand, letting whatever comes through, come through. And then as, as you do that, I think, again, this is a mental process where the part of your brain that is trying to steer things realizes that you're not going to let it. And so it backs off a little bit and then other things start to come through. But on the witchy side, I I'm a fan of people like the San Francisco Renaissance poet, Jack Spicer, who famously said that he got his inspiration and his poems from a Martian radio that he was tuning into mm-hmm so I think there is something. I mean, I don't know if I literally believe that there's something out there that I'm pulling from, or that's sending messages to me, or if it's something more like the unconscious that's like inside, but not immediately accessible. And so it feels foreign or other. And I, I kind of don't care I like, I like the feeling of otherness. I like the feeling of pulling it from an unknown place. So that's, that's part of my process.

Mara Thomas:

I love that so much. And I'm really glad that you mentioned the artist's way, because that was also the book that turned me into a journaler. You know, every morning writing at least a page, you know, they say three in the book. I write one, but you know, it's better than nothing because for me, part of it is just engaging with the process. Even if it's just kind of regurgitating, like, and then I did this and then I did that, like going through my day, it still is the process of writing. In a way kind of clears the decks and allows for that opening for those messages that, you know, maybe they do come from that Martian radio satellite. Maybe they come from internal sources or just like you. I don't really care either. I just know that the more that I am actively just doing the process, the less, it really matters if that makes any sense. And because I also believe that teaching is a creative process. You know, we've talked a little bit just personally, about the ulterior motives, perhaps you may have while you're teaching. And I'm wondering if you could share a little bit about that with our listeners?

Zoe Tuck:

Well, my main motive I, you know, is I love to facilitate spaces. I host a reading series with my partner. I've hosted other reading series. I like the thing that happens in a room where it's centered around someone's work. and we all click into the same rhythm. I think something really beautiful happens in those moments. Something about presence, but teaching is this way too. And I think part of why teaching at soda felt so meaningful is that it was my first in person teaching experience. So it's the beginning of the pandemic mm-hmm and I don't know whether it went well for reasons related to the class or whether. It went well and by went well, I mean, felt good to me. And I, I seemed to get positive feedback because it felt so good to be there in an embodied way, in the same room as other people. And that mysterious physical thing that happens happens. Yeah. That's a, that's a motive. and I mean, I think what are, what are other ulterior motive? I always like to try to make a gentle space and a porous space and for people to feel invited in, in a low stakes way to play and imagine together, because I feel like I have benefited from that just as a pleasant thing to do, but also as a potential site for transformation, which is often a thing that we need in life or a thing that comes for us, whether we need it or. Yeah, I guess one of the motives is just the desire to share that as a resource and facilitate that process for people.

Mara Thomas:

Well, and I think just like what you said often what's up for one person is up for multiple people in the group and there's sort of this trope or, you know, Old saying in the theater community, like whatever play you're working on right then is like a metaphor for your life. Mm. And, you know, so thinking about these group dynamics and facilitating these spaces for people to sort of tap into one another's frequencies and the potential for. Whether that's metabolizing something together or transforming transmuting something, you know, it's almost like the person who's leading it is offering, Hey, here's this topic, and then we all sort of collectively add an ingredient to the mix. That's that ultimately to me can feel very healing.

Zoe Tuck:

Absolutely. Yeah. I felt so inspired. By Luan's class also, which I, I only got to go to one session of, but about fertile, fertile fear and just the very simple, but profound notion that if there's something that one person needs, you assemble a group and someone there will have. Some kind of relevant support to offer, I think, yeah, that's, that's a different kind of, that's like community magic.

Mara Thomas:

Mm, yeah. Community magic. And I'm wondering if you could share a little bit about your experience teaching. I think you were teaching a class about friendship or friendship in literature and it was also something that was really personal for you at the time.

Zoe Tuck:

Yeah. Well, you used the word metabolize, which is a word that I love. Yeah. I'm often using my, either my own creative work or teaching as a, as a way to understand what's happening with me. On a personal visceral level on an emotional level. And then to kind of externalize it and get some, a bit of a remove to be able to safely engage with something that otherwise feels a little like too hot or too painful. But yeah, I did a series, so I've been teaching private workshops since I got out of grad school, I decided I didn't, wasn't really suitedto the academic track, but I I've always enjoyed a sort of small informal class environment and I also like following my whimsy. I had experienced friendship, a friendship breakup. Well, the breakup never really happened, but it was a defacto friendship breakup in the sense that I, there was someone I felt very close to and then we weren't talking anymore. And it was a friendship that I had felt that was very generative to me. It was the site of like a lot. The inspiration of a lot of poems in the site of a lot of shared thought. And so I decided I would, you know, friendship is such an interesting topic and it's very, I, I mean, part of why it's interesting is that it's so ambiguous. I feel like friendship encompasses everything from like a nodding acquaintance to something deeply like intimate, almost romantic. And, you know, again, like literature is something that is so suited to thinking through feelings, thinking through interiority. So that was the, that was the inspiration for that. And I think also literally the inspiration was an essay by the critics, Svetlana Boim. Called, I believe it was called like the sonography of friendship. And it was written about Hannah Arent and Mary McCarthy's letters. I really liked how Boim analyzed their friendship. She talked about it as being a sort of. Well, now I'm using someone else's word. This is Renee Gladman's term, but like adjacent alterities, they had mutually intelligible otherness. And I feel like, you know, their, their differences in background, you know, McCarthy was American, Arent was German Jew who had had to immigrate to the us. You know, this is mid 20th century, but there was something about, there was a productive edge to their differences. If that makes any sense, which was something that I had, I had fought with the friendship that I was lamenting. So we started there, we read the letters and then we moved on to other. I mean, the class could easily have been like 10 years long because I, I there's. So once you start digging for friendship, if friendship is your limiting term, you, you have a glut. Yeah. yes.

Mara Thomas:

As you talk about creativity and interiority, I believe that I've also come to know myself through my creativity and as a creative person. It's just been this like lifelong dance, a little bit of trying things on and, and learning about myself and, and creativity, giving me the ability to try different things and see how it feels. Try it on for size. You know, and you've talked with me about your own personal transformation and how writing played a part in that. And I'm just would love it if you could share some of that with us today.

Zoe Tuck:

Yeah, absolutely. I mean the most, the most direct thing that I'm thinking of is, you know, being, being a trans woman, I started writing poetry in my teens and nobody's good when they start writing poetry uh,

Mara Thomas:

or anything or anything it's okay to, to make bad art really is. Okay. I wanna normalize bad art

Zoe Tuck:

oh my gosh. And I still make so much of So a part of my poetry then was just, I was figuring out how to write. And trying to close that chasm between my taste and my abilities, but I, I really believe that in my, in my first few years of writing, I was also encrypting something. I had something big to talk about. I mean, I had multiple big things to talk about, but it just, in terms of, of transition stuff, I had this big thing that I wanted to share or process or. Leave some breadcrumbs around. So I ended up producing these strange poems that nobody really got because they were just encrypted enough to. Make me feel protected and safe. And then, you know, I sort of hovered on the edge of, you know, just thinking, thinking about, you know, knowing I was trans for about a decade, but really only dipping a toe into the waters. And then finally it was writing that catalyzed my actual coming out. I saw that there was a call. I was, I was starting to feel a little bit braver. I, you know, I had moved to the bay area like you do when you're a yeah. When you're little baby queer and trans person from Texas. Well, that's not totally true. Some people stay, some people go to New York, some people, you know, do anything, but for me, I was being obsessed with literature. There was also that cannon of writers there. So I was very drawn to that place. So I was there, I had a supportive partner and I was like, okay, okay. It's time. And then I saw a call for an anthology for at the time. This dates me also. It was for trans and gender queer writers. And I feel like poor gender queer as a term has been left by the wayside as people have embraced non-binary, which is fine, but I have a soft spot for gender queer, same. Um, but I, I sense some work in and was accepted and it was a really big moment for me because it was my not only was it my first big acceptance, my first big publication as a writer. My first big publication as a writer was staking a claim with this name that I hadn't used publicly and a gender that I hadn't really used publicly. So I felt like I was sort of announcing myself as like, here I am. My name is Zoe. I'm a woman. I'm a poet. I'm a trans woman who's a poet. And the anthology is really it's called, uh, Troubling the Line it was co-edited by Trace Peterson and TC Tulbert and I love the way they did it because they, you included a picture, some poems and then a poetic statement. So, you know, one of, I mean, one of the dangers, if you're sort of any kind of, you know, scare quotes, minoritarian writer, is that other people will represent you and they'll represent you according to your own. Interests and agenda. And so I thought it was a very generous thing for an anthology edited by two trans people to say, here, you have this whole section in which to make your own context. Yeah. And then I guess interior to, to that work, I had this whole, I don't know if I still believe it, but I guess the theory in my head was sort of, I. Sort of like, I couldn't, I wasn't sure how to claim my voice as a, as a trans woman at the time. I was like, I knew one. I mean, I, okay. I knew two trans women writers. One of them was dead Mm. and so there weren't abundant models. So part of what I did was engage in this cento practice, which I don't really know how to pronounce it's either Sento or Chatto or Kento, but what it is is a form in which you borrow language from a multitude of other sources. I was doing that very purposefully. I was like, okay. I don't feel like I can speak as myself yet, but I feel like I can speak in borrowed voices. So I had this practice where I assigned different tarot cards to different books, according to what I felt like they represented, you know, their, their energetic qualities. I would ask a question, do a reading and then produce a poem using, you know, language from all of the books that came up. So, you know, and this, this process both in and of itself and the process of publication in this anthology really began the next part of my life. So literally, yeah, when I say whenever I tell people, I feel like I wrote myself into being I'm like, no, literally. Right. Uh, I, yeah, it, it wrapped a lot of things up for me. I was like using my spirituality, my poetry, uh, to take myself over this threshold that I was so scared.

Mara Thomas:

That just gives me goosebumps, Zoe, you know, to hear about your practice, the I'm just still kind of hung up on this, like centro, tarot, almost your trans training wheels in some ways to like, all right, how can I familiarize myself with the work of these other important people to help me find my own words around my own experience, but knowing that I'm also in this collective experience as well, and using that kind of divination element, I just think is so inspired and very you, if I must say so

Zoe Tuck:

thank you. Yeah. I mean, I love, I love tarot in part because it's, it's people refer to it as an unbound book and mm-hmm you can endlessly recombine and recontextualize. Which to me carries that implicit message of change is possible.

Mara Thomas:

Yes. And, you know, as we kind of come around to wrapping up here in a little bit earlier, you mentioned the phrase patterned breath, and I would love to dig into that just a little bit. If you could tell me a little bit more about what that means to you, how you use that practice or exercise.

Zoe Tuck:

Totally. I mean, with, with the caveat that I still feel like a total novice, but I guess literally it's a way of describing poetry, which is language, which involves breathing, but with rhythm to it, you know, whether that's like a formal, like traditional rhythm, you know, of a sonnet or you know, a sistena or something like that, or, you know, something like, like free verse still has a rhythm. Uh, it just might be a more idiosyncratic one, but I think that, yeah, I mean, this is sort of me having the poetry as a healing method mm-hmm conversation. And it involves me telling a story that my friend was having a hard time. And I remembered how good I had felt in my body when I read the words of her particular poet out loud. And luckily my friend was a poet. So when I asked her, I was like, Hey, would it make you feel better? If I read to you? You know, she was already primed to be up for it. And so I, I read the words of this poet and sure enough, it did. I feel like it helped her calm down. And there's something about, yeah, there was something I noticed that was like both part of the content of the writing, you know, the themes that it was dealing with, but also something about the long lines and the particular cadence. And this was, this is now like, I don't know, like a few years ago, but it really got me thinking on a certain path. I was like, oh, I, I stumbled on this accidentally, but what would it be like to explore this more purposefully and which has gotten me interested in people like the writer, Kay Prevelay who does this, you know, somatic practice and has yeah. Has a book called Trance Poetics, which I think goes back to what I was trying to do with the guided meditation is, you know, how to use both the techniques of narrative, but also just like slow, careful speech and modeling a kind of breathing. That invites other people in yeah. To enter this sort of shared, shared rhythm.

Mara Thomas:

That speaks to me so deeply as a somatic therapist. Cuz I think what you're talking about is co-regulation yes. And bringing our nervous systems into a align. There's this through line, even through our whole talk of sharing space, being in these, you know, community or class group settings, where we can kind of be in healing community with one another and even something I definitely wanna look up tramps poetics, and for the listeners, we're gonna have links to all of these wonderful resources in the show notes. Makes me think about another book I recently read called breath by James nester. That is essentially how we've lost the ability to breathe. like in a efficient way that serves our bodies and he found this among many other things in the book, this common thread of. Chanting and traditional prayer being a method that actually sort of soothes the nervous system, that it, it kind of falls right into this natural rhythm that allows people to take deep breaths. And I wonder if we're even getting back into that, what we talked about earlier, like getting into an altered state of consciousness and even just doing that through the breath. Or if nothing else just calming our nervous systems from this consistently anxious world that we all inhabit. Yeah. And what a, what a lovely way to do that through speaking of the written word, I just think that's such a beautiful idea.

Zoe Tuck:

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I, it's part of why I like poetry because it's, it's such an old art form. And I feel like just intuitively I I'm sure I could find something historical to back this up, but just in my heart, I believe that it's more than a genre or it has roots in something that's more than a genre. Yeah. Um, and I think that goes back to book magic too. On like a poem can be a spell. A poem can be a chant. Poem can be cure for something

Mara Thomas:

that's beautiful. I wish we had all the time in the world to talk. Maybe we'll have to do another whole episode just on bringing tarot into creativity, because I am fascinated by that idea. But Zoe, I wanna thank you so much for taking this time and sharing all this beautiful knowledge with us today. Thanks so much.

Zoe Tuck:

Oh my gosh. Thank you for inviting me. It's lovely to share space with you, whether on this podcast or at SOTA. So. Hopefully we get to do it again soon,

Mara Thomas:

right back at you. All right.

Tamara Kissane:

Established in 2017, artist soapbox is a podcast production studio based in North Carolina. Artist soapbox produces original scripted audio fiction and an ongoing interview podcast about the creative process. We cultivate aspiring audio Dramatists and producers, and we partner with organizations and individuals to create new audio content for more information and ways to support our work. Check out artistsoapbox.org, or find us on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. The artist soapbox theme song is ashes by Juliana Finch

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