BY BRAD TRUMPFHELLER
Jos Charles is a poet, translator, editor, and author of feeld (Milkweed Editions, 2018), a winner of the 2017 National Poetry Series, and Safe Space (Ahsahta Press, 2016). Charles has an MFA from the University of Arizona and is pursuing a PhD in English at UC Irvine. She currently resides in Long Beach, CA.
Brad Trumpfheller: Hello! How are you?
Jos Charles: Hi Brad! I’m good, how are you?
BT: I’m good! Could have slept better, but at this point that’s not a deviation from the normal.
JC: I wish there was an easy solution to that. It’s a life of perpetual under sleep, bad eating habits, and just, coping.
BT: That’s very, very real. What does your day look like today?
JC: Well, I’m starting in the fall at UC Irvine for a PhD in English with a focus on Medieval Literature, and I got summer funding contingent on going to these professionalization workshops and orientation.
BT: Are you finding the time, in the midst of getting ready for the PhD and everything, to keep up some sort of writing practice?
JC: Probably not writing in the sense of creating new work every day. I have a newer manuscript that’s not done, but it’s to the point where I am editing it every day.
BT: You know, I wasn’t planning to start with the newer stuff, but I’m excited: do you want to talk at all about this newer manuscript?
JC: Yeah! I guess after writing feeld, a couple of things... I found that I was liking the process of observing things and writing about them, which occurs a lot in feeld. There’s a lot of particularizing that happens in the book, but also these general statements that Safe Space had a lot of. So with this newer work, it’s a bit less of, like, analysis as much as it is looking at things and the relationships between them, whether that be the so-called natural, the metropolitan, or the political.
When I was in the voice that is feeld—and I think this is just what happens after working on something for a few years—I was at the point where I wanted to write straightforward poems. Poems that weren’t part of some constricted, conceptual project that feeld very much was. Though there’s some underlying conceptual work happening in this project, in that it’s following a one year period, 2016. It was a weird year.
BT: Yeah, that’s very, very true.
JC: For everyone, right? But there was also a lot of personal things. Financial stuff, I had a few friends who were hospitalized. And then the election happened. Also, I was in Tuscon at the time, and the mountain that overlooked the city was on fire, and then I moved back to LA in the middle of the year, when all those fires were going on. Everything was quite actually on fire. I keep on returning to figure out what happened in that time. It feels like it was a significant year. You know, there are those periods to which we return, these dates that impact beyond themselves, and 2016 felt like that for me, personally. So, I’m charting that, this new timeline that’s opened up. It’s like you know, in sci-fi, when the dark timeline breaks into the regular timeline: we’re in the underbelly timeline now. There was a rift in the curtain, then the Demigorgon came in.
BT: Haha, exactly. Were you still working on feeld in 2016, or had you pretty much wrapped it up?
JC: By then I was more or less finished with what would be feeld. I started writing some of the work that I’d consider part of this newer manuscript, though that’s all been heavily edited or scrapped by this point in the process. There was some period of overlap. I would be writing these newer things alongside the, like, exiting from feeld. But yeah, feeld was mostly written between like, the summer of 2014 to the summer of 2015, I’d say.
BT: Was there any similar kind of overlap in the progression, or not progression, but the movement from the poems in Safe Space to writing feeld?
JC: The expression I’ve used before for Safe Space is that it’s the early collected works. It spans a gamut of, like, eight years, I think. And I did edit a lot of it. At one point there was a manuscript that looked one way, and I submitted that around; it didn’t get in anywhere. I left it, started new work, just like considered it... I don’t know. Like Brahms, light it on fire and this will never happen again, you know? And then in that new work, I was seeing these connections back to what I had written in undergrad. So I sat down, revisiting a lot of it. Even the work that came out of that period that’s in there, it’s all severely edited. Then that would eventually become Safe Space, which I compiled in 2014. There was a gap in the writing process, this big gap, between the writing of Safe Space and feeld. But in terms of publication, it was pretty back to back.
BT: Gotcha. This is a super general question, but I wanna circle back to something you said earlier, that “voice of feeld,” and just the notion of considering it a unified voice. Can you talk a little bit about how you arrived at that voice, with its apparent weirdnesses in the spelling and syntaxes?
JC: So there’s a number of different things. Let me try and sort of chart what I was feeling, and walk concentrically around it, hopefully finding the center by the time I’m done.
Growing up, my first introduction to poetry was early modern poets—Shakespeare, Milton. The first real poet who I really liked, whose collected poems I went to go buy from the used bookstore was John Donne.
BT: “John Donne had everything going for him in terms of identity and was a miserable shit baby.”
JC: Haha, exactly. God, that poem was so long back when I wrote it. I’m glad it got edited down. But, yeah, who I was thinking of in terms of the orthography, the spelling, was Spenser. That beginning of the standardization of spelling, and what that means, what that says about the world moving from the oral, the aural, from the public, to something that is meant to be read in private, in silence. Which is a new thought. A new thought for what poetry would be in Western Europe. So you go from public space to the private home. And so there was this thought, that had to happen in order for standardized spelling to come to exist as it did. Which something like the printing press would facilitate further.
I was also thinking about, after Safe Space, that I like the internet, am a true millennial. I love text speak. So I kept trying to get text speak in a poem that didn’t seem disingenuously trendy. Because I enjoyed it. I like the interpretive possibilities it opens up. And also it’s just how we talk.
There’s also this discourse in queer and trans communities, that was happening online, where suddenly using the correct terminology became indicative of what subcultural sphere you belonged to, or were speaking about. Where like, oh, I know to say “trans women and femmes” as opposed to “MTF transsexuals.” People wanted to find the right thing to say, which is good, you know. But then there are these questions of like, who has access to it and who doesn’t?
BT: Sure, sure.
JC: It was in part dictated by whether or not you had internet access, who has time to be one hundred percent updated, every day.
So out of these things I’ve been walking around, I had the thought that it would be cool to have some sort of language that didn’t seek to situate itself as corrective, nor did it ironically break into incorrectness. The very idea was to write not a world situated adjacent to ours that was speculative, but to have the language itself be speculative. One of the ways I thought about it, or how I described it to myself, because at the time I was finishing up Safe Space, was to have something I could say to myself before sitting down to write, to like orient myself to whatever particular project I was working on. So for feeld it was “What if the Wife of Bath was trans?” How would language have developed differently?
And of course it’s nonsense in one sense. And it’s just unknowable. But it was a way for me to frame myself to this question, if language had taken a slightly different turn to accommodate certain kinds of experiences, yet we wound up where we are today. How would language be failing us and how would it be succeeding us? As I started writing it, certain things fell by the wayside, and certain things would fall more into focus. I was tinkering away at the marble to find the shape of what the book would eventually become. For the speculative side, I was initially conceiving it very much in line with something like Cathy Park Hong’s Engine Empire, which is a more literal speculative work. But things came about in writing it; like I came into the treatise-like quality of it, where it enters a phenomenological kind of language. I wasn’t expecting that; I wandered into that.
BT: There’s so much you said that I want to ask you about! One thing I’m thinking about now is sort of the way, in certain kinds of contemporary discourse, queer and trans people are sort of categorized or prescribed as being predominantly younger, that queerness is some kind of new phenomenon. Which of course is not true. But I think about how Safe Space spoke back to that by inhabiting the space of juvenellia, and then how feeld might, like, embody the impossibility of that anachronism on the level of these formal things we’re talking about.
JC: Yeah, that’s a nice kind of trajectory. I’ve thought about that kind of thing for both works separately, but I like that way of drawing a connection between them.
BT: When you were talking earlier about Spenser and that groundshift in English language poetics that happened, I was wondering about feeld’s relationship to that duality of the written and the spoken. There’s a very different kind of experience, and they’re both valuable, but there’s a different experience in hearing these particular poems read aloud and reading them on the page, and how the audience experiences that speculative language. How do you navigate those kinds of distinctions?
JC: Right. I try to think about readings as their own life. To me, it’s no different than, for the purposes of analogy, a score for a piece of music. The performances can have such a large range of variety. You can play it very slow or you can play it very fast, and people will probably still recognize it. At some point you hit unintelligibility, when people will say, “No, you just played Drake, that’s not the same thing!” And maybe that’s helpful to do, I don’t know. It’d be kind of fun, though, to have a big bougie concert and you play Drake. Then the point becomes being unrecognizable to an audience. But as long as you’re within the realm of “acceptable” interpretation, as long as it’s still intelligible as the thing it presents as, then it’s all good. When I do readings, I try to think about what people are there for, what would be useful in that context. Depending on the audience, depending on what I’m reading for, it varies. Usually I try to highlight intelligibility.
BT: Was that at all something you were thinking about in the process of editing feeld? Like, did you have any moments where you were concerned with readers being unable to make sense of the poems?
JC: For me, the poet is the first reader. You hear the work first. You have to edit then as that reader, asking if the work makes sense, if it’s useful, to you. But the question of, is this useful to other readers not like me is a question of publication. It becomes, at some point, a question of how the work is to exist, circulate, in the world.
There was a time when I thought about it much more. But now, I have a surety that I’ve found for myself as a reader, not just myself as a writer. And once I found that, I found this faith that there are other readers like me who my work could also be useful for. But y’know, that’s ultimately for readers to decide, not me.
BT: Sure, sure, sure. That’s interesting. I feel like I asked that question, and then like, the other voice in my head was immediately unsure about its use, like, of course the poems don’t need to be “understood” by everyone who reads it, whatever that means.
JC: Haha, and that’s the thing, right? What does it mean to understand something? If I look at it as a piece of art and it causes pleasure, or it reminds me of something in a nostalgic kind of way, or gives me some flush of happiness, or I am challenged by it, whatever response I have to it—that’s fine, I’m just not preoccupied with the level of meaning. I’m stuck on what is the work doing, in an active way. And if it’s not doing anything, that can be fine too.
BT: I think, sort of going off these question of availability, or access, I wanted to ask you about this author’s note that got shipped with the ARC of feeld. I guess its kind of a stupid logistical question, but what I have is just two or three printed pages stapled together and tucked into the front cover of the book. Is this going to be a part of the book that will be in bookstores and what not?
JC: No, it’s not going to be in the book at all. I wrote that to be—initially when I was sending the book around—an abstract for the book. You know, for blurbs or reviews, or whatever, if they didn’t have time to read the whole thing. I also made a trailer for it, which is out in the world. But it won’t be in the copy people can purchase. I had thought about including it, but sort of decided that it attempted to explain what the book was doing. I do like it, though.
BT: Yeah, I really enjoyed reading it! I found it a cool little accompaniment to the book. But now I feel bad for talking about this text that someone reading this doesn’t have.
JC: No, no, I think it’s good; it’s going to have a life in the world, so it’s something worth talking about. I do like that they folded it up and slipped it in the book, I may have them do that for all of them. But that may be too enormous an amount of labor for such little payoff.
BT: It’s an enormous payoff, though I don’t envy being those marketing interns. I feel like I’m bridging outside of the book itself, the poems themselves, now, but I did want to ask you about the acknowledgements, if only because I was very drawn to you naming Paul Celan specifically as a forebear. Can I ask how you see Celan in conversation with feeld, or with your poems more generally?
JC: I like Celan, I like his poems a lot. There is something technically, on the level of the word, beyond thematics or anything, that I’m drawn to in his work. Repetition, the economy of language. The way that turning outward towards an object can be an opening rather than a closing. How his poems can be so highly personal but not anecdotal. Which I think something like feeld—and Safe Space, too, maybe in a longer format—also has. Like you don’t leave either book with a sense, I think, that you’ve gotten memoir. The personality of the “I” is not the focal point. And yeah, in feeld, there’s a bit more of a lyric “I,” there’s very little overlap with my “I” beyond like an analogical sense. So, there’s that impulse we share. Celan will have poems that include events that happened. Like I’m thinking when he visited Heidegger’s hut, Todtnauberg, the one that begins with the well that’s shaped like a star. And becomes about “Celan’s” self, but only as much as that’s a weight pressing onto the poem, it doesn’t come with an explanation. You don’t need one. And of course, none of this is to make any kind of lineage, between Celan and me, any biographical or psychological comparisons. Only in terms of what I learned from his work that I try to apply, that I hope, technically, comes across in the poems. Does that make sense?
BT: It does, it does.
JC: It’s a difficult question to fully answer, I think, but it’s a good one to ask.
BT: We’ve been chatting for about forty minutes, so I do think we’re nearing the end, but is there anything else you’d like to talk about? We began with what you’re working on now, so the anti-chronology of all this is in full affect now.
JC: I can definitely talk about some of the things I’d recommend, what’s been exciting to me right now. Jamie Berrout has these wonderful translations of Esdras Parra, as well this wonderful group (Trans Women Writing Collective) she’s an editor for, where you sign up and every month you get a new booklet of writing by a trans woman. It’s a fantastic series. And Incalcuable Loss by manuel arturo abreu is available for pre-order—it’s sure to be a beautiful, gracious work.
Brad Trumpfheller is a writer & bookseller from the South, currently living in Boston. With Nabila Lovelace, they are the co-editor of Divedapper. Their work has appeared in or is forthcoming from DIAGRAM, Colorado Review, West Branch, the Nation, and elsewhere.