An Invitation to the feeld: an Interview with Jos Charles
Last year, we had the honor to share a number of poems by the wonderfully talented Jos Charles—in 2017, their debut collection won the National Poetry Series prize and has just been published by Milkweed Editions. feeld investigates language, identity, politics, the body, place—all through a masterwork of Middle English language poems. The book delivers an experience like no other, and today we got to ask a few questions in response.
feeld is bold, if it’s anything! How did that choice to write in Middle English happen for you? It couldn’t have been easy, could it? — and, who supported you in that choice early on?
Jos Charles: When I was first getting into poetry I only knew the writers I’d been presented—largely early modern writers like Shakespeare or Donne—so I wrote like them before stumbling onward to Blake, cummings, Spicer, Pound. Later on I grew more restless and edgy and discovered poets like Peter Orlovsky and Bill Bissett: authors who’d utilize unconventional re-spelling as a kind of earnestness. While writing feeld I was looking to writers like Cathy Park Hong, M. Nourbese Philip, Julian Talamantez Brolaski, Harryette Mullen, Caroline Bergvall—all who have works engaged with the re-spelling of words, the time of words, working outward toward the world from there. I draw this narrative line less to put feeld into a lineage as to say these authors were, and remain, my first and primary support—I looked towards their work, what they initiated, to find technique, drive, and precedent. I’d also be remiss not to mention the people at the University of Arizona who supported me while I began writing feeld—Liam Swanson, Taneum Bambrick, tc tolbert, Eva Hayward, and Farid Matuk, in particular. I don’t know if this was easy but it was certainly not the most difficult aspect of coming to write. Or it’s easier to write with reference to Middle English than it is to write as a trans woman—which is easier than finding a job or housing or friends as a trans woman. Which I say not to try to employ pity but that, in context—and I’m speaking for myself here, not the aforementioned authors—it seemed quite a simple, “natural” thing.
You’ve talked about how the choice to use Chaucerian English for feeld is about reclaiming a sense of absence of trans stories in the language, in the history. There’s a pleasure, you’ve said, in subverting big things. I couldn’t help but see a parallel in the way you use biblical language and imagery of the garden in this book—there’s a reclamation there as well, in that faith language of your youth. Could you expand on that some? How do you see the relationship between feeld and the garden of eden?
Jos Charles: While I sympathize with the impulse, I am hesitant to use the language of reclamation. It’s less about taking something “not mine” and making it “mine” as identifying what is useful in what is adjacent. It is like cracking a nut with the butt-end of a knife or opening a bottle with a lighter. These are not questions of reclamation or even efficiency, but immediacy, practicality. It may very well be not worth leaving one’s apartment, getting in the car, driving to a store, buying the proper tool, when there is this particular other tool, however impractical to one’s end, before us.
That’s how I see language: instruments left strewn about a house appropriate for tasks relevant to a particular set of people for a particular set of ends. And, yes, there could be better instruments to be invented or to convince one of, outside the room—new words and new uses for words happen all the time and, in many ways, I hope my little book is an instance of that. Yet there’s also a lot of old language, and feeld appeals to it, not because it’s correct or “worth” claiming, as much as because it is near, and it is late, and many in the room distrust what’s outside of it.
As to the garden—there is this juxtaposition in the work of the field to the garden that seems similar to me of many dichotomies: body to mind, material to art. Gardens can be very beautiful, and yet they require waste, wilderness, and, at the most basic, a clearing, a field—which unlike the garden can be naturally occurring or forced, a designated space that awaits the thing, that will be be built on, worked upon, or fallow. The field is that moment of anticipation where the structure, possibly a garden, has yet to be actualized. It’s an opaque, available, and ready image. Maybe that’s like the Garden of Eden. I suppose it depends which book we’re asking, whose Garden of Eden.
feeld seems to me a deeply paradoxical place where we can all meet and exist without the violence of being understood, being identified. Have there been any real feelds in your life? What were they like?
Jos Charles: I think of a field as also a network, an energy field, and, given the spelling of feeld, an especially affective one. Which is to say we live under specters of many significant feelds in that sense, temporally, concentrically, of varying weight and scope. At times they are horrible, world-ending things. Some say these are blips on a trajectory that is, ultimately, good. Others will say these are precursors for a coming utopia or end. These ruptures, call it the real or the impossible or revolution or origin or the inevitable, signify, for me, that things are mutable—that, yes, the unimaginable is possible, yes, the world is over and “it’s all fucked,” but even in that, despite it, to me there is hope—things could be other than they are, that one can revolt for utopia and revolt against utopia. This is the old socialist struggle, and “the struggle,” and the struggle against “the struggle.”
Where is poetry’s place in the “wharing masckulin economyes”?
Jos Charles: Poetry is exactly the size it is. I don’t know where or how it fits, or rather, I don’t feel it occupies a space vertically distinct from anything else—a higher or lower place. We’re in the market selling our labor like everyone else, at times for “more than we should,” more often than not for much, much less. Use persists, words persist, yes, that astounding and horrifying fact. Words save us only in a word-like way, and even then, in the face of the other words, the one’s that hurt us, the one’s that may very well be the condition for our needing saving. So there are good writers and bad, those who help, those who further disempower the disempowered, those who empower the powerful, and so on. And history is not just moral, but in the blood, the word, the skin; it precedes any kind of place poetry has in any kind of market. It constitutes it. And in that there is much harm; and in that there is some wonder.
Jos Charles’s book, feeld, is the winner of the 2017 National Poetry Series and was just published by Milkweed Editions.