Jos Charles
Bowl of Oranges: An Interview with Kaveh Akbar


Kaveh Akbar: I first read Jos Charles’s feeld as a Word document two years ago. I admired her first book, Safe Space, and wanted to know what she was working on next. When I started to read the poems in the new manuscript, I felt like the words were physically lifting up off my laptop screen toward my eyeballs. It was that rarest thing—a totally new sound, riffing on Donne and Chaucer, yes (Celan and Lispector also loom large), but still totally new, an unprecedented syntax to accommodate an unprecedented experience. Every poet gropes their way towards this kind of sui generis utterance, but so few of us achieve it so absolutely. “i am speeching / materialie,” she writes. I recently chatted with Jos about the book (and about unwieldiness, and oranges, and transness, and hope) here.



K: I remember when we talked the first time you mentioned John Donne was your first favorite poet. That seems telling. I’ve been thinking about metaphysical loudness; how “Batter my heart, three person’d God, for you / As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend” for instance, those staccato bursts of stressed syllables amplify the quiet after. Like the silence that follows a gunshot—the silence of punctuated loudness that seems more quiet than regular silence. Feeld, I think, is interested in silence as an architecture—not as negative space to language, but as its bedrock. Language as negative space.


J: It is a quiet work—quiet in its clearing out of certain sounds or phrases I had learned or felt an injunction to write. It’s not particularly conversational; it’s not really “talk.” I like poems that “talk”—the anecdotal, personal, informal. Something that can at once be real, intimate, silly, irreverent. I think Safe Space was like that. For feeld I wanted to be severe though—to be trans and speak for and to severity, discipline, formality.


As for silence, I wasn’t thinking in terms of language and silence as much as structure and obstruction. I think obstruction is a thought poetry hasn’t dealt with much, not in my experience, or at least not when compared to say painting. Etel Adnan comes to mind; mostly in her landscapes. The sun that can be a red square imposing itself onto a sea, mountains seemingly in front of themselves, underpainting becoming foreground. There’s a history there—second-wave abstract expressionist painters like Helen Frankenthaler, Sam Gilliam, Anne Truitt, Diebenkorn.


I’ve been wanting to get to that same thought, obstruction. With Safe Space I was still thinking in terms of hiding and revealing, as a child might. There are secrets, things you don’t say, things you know not to say, the embarrassment of saying something you didn’t know you weren’t supposed to say, hiding yourself from parents, other people, actions that you did, that happened to you. That awful way hiding can create truth or identity—the thing that ought-to-be-confessed. Feeld approaches those similar silences or gaps but as necessary to structure as such. These can overlap though—I’m thinking of “shock is a struktured responce / a whord lost inn the mouthe off keepers.” Things are in front and behind things, are essential for things to appear as “things” in the first place. That the artwork can’t be without the gallery or, more properly, the experience of the gallery—the headache from not eating, the people in front discussing too loudly, the friend you brought along. Nothing’s extrinsic.


This exists on the level of how the work appears on the page—adjusting and line breaks that seem to reveal absent or covered lines. But also in terms of how the “I” identifies, or is identified, throughout the work—it being serial and also elegiac. A wandering “I” that cuts across discrete chunks, scenes without settings.


K: I’m fascinated by this idea of obstruction. There’s even the visual presentation of virgules, backslashes as obstructions rather than as notational gestures. Or, how many of the poems start in a psychic or rhetorical space but the final line motion outwards toward the pastoral or natural. For instance, “i kno no new waye / 2 speech this / the powre off lyons.” You begin in a rhetorical, psychic, embodied space that then pivots to an obstruction of it. It’s an interesting framework.


J: Yes, and that ties into the ways address can shift. Where the reader experiences a kind of denied center or resolution. A line can turn like “gashe inn that sintacks / a tran / her nayme sum flynt all redey inn the ash / i can’t stop riting tran.” The pronouncement becomes a characterization becomes psychic. It’s something, especially online, we’re very used to—you like a friend’s critique of someone, someone shares something personal, there’s a meme, an ad for a startup. The feed. Some of that inquiry comes through.


K: Do you think of the work as an inquiry, a kind of scientific method?


J: I would say its phenomenological, albeit speculative. “i reache out mye hole 2 grasp the reel” seems like Husserl or Merleau-Ponty. Though I’m not systematically investigating experience or perception as much as trying to start at the periphery of an experience of an imagined world and, from there, work in towards the center of that world, in order to place that world alongside ours. There is something that emerges, hopefully, in that friction that’s useful. What worlds we can imagine inevitably says something about ours.


K: That motion seems consistent with the poems if you imagine the perspective of the “I” as being that periphery, the world as its center. That is the opposite of how we go about our lives, how our world is usually oriented.


J: A poem would be at its most beautiful, for me as a reader, if it could be purely tautological. “A tree is a tree”—that’s a great poem. The world revealing itself to itself. The problem is once you commit to “a tree is a tree” it’s abstract; it lacks sensation enough to be enterable. If I say “look, a tree being a tree,” it in no way encapsulates the experience of that particular tree in its time, place. I’ve already given over to signification. But likewise I could lean heavily toward specificity: “look at the beautiful unfolding foliage of the birch’s majestic rondure in the spring of a northern Washington sunset.” And a reader goes, “Oh, that’s lovely, but I have no idea what that experience is like.” There is that tension of giving oneself over to the tautological, the abstract, versus giving oneself over to the concrete.


K: One of the poetic cousins of tautology is anaphora which you lean on heavily throughout feeld: “treees the boyes speeche wen theye gro / the treees theye speeche wen ther growne.” That notion is so beautiful. I am writing all these poems right now that will become a second book, and I see that move so often, where the most beautiful thing to me is saying the thing is like the thing it is. I remember when I used to teach middle school seeing this list of “funniest test answers.” One of the questions was to give an example of a simile and one answer was “the man is as tall as a six-foot tree.” It was supposed to be a joke, but I thought it was extraordinary. It brought me pure delight.


J: It’s the joy of observation. To write an observation, one writes their perception, how one is, the place, the time, how one is a body and how that body is, and all that. The particular is inevitable. One exercise I like to do to “warm up” is just sit before an object and describe it. It’s my scales and arpeggios.


K: It’s a still-life, a bowl of oranges.


J: Yes—it’s enjoyable because, again, you may start with supposedly concrete things like colors, line, shape, but one discovers their own idiosyncratic perceptions of those. Or what language brings with it. It’s a gesture that mirrors how we often think—that there is perceivable, objective data out there that we start with, and then work outwards from there to experience, our biases, our pre-judgements, and so on. With feeld I wanted to operate the other way around—to start with where one is coming from, circle the thing, until something like a center is found. Not only is one aware of the biases first and foremost, but, hopefully, we can end with, if not some object-itself, at least a more robust description of the perception of its world. Winding lines like “wut sirfase wil wee visit then / cum sprynge tide / undre the wited linden / ther r thynges / manie u culdve knowne.” To move from Eliot-like specificity, characterization, to something simple, a heart—the object, potentiality. 


K: It reminds me of Henry James’ definition of the author: “one on whom nothing is lost.” There’s color, shape, and texture, but also deep down, there’s the essence, and you get it all.


J: In terms of a center. In terms of a poem’s usefulness as an experience for a reader. There are, I think, uses to poetry, uses to beauty. Which doesn’t mean the poem is didactic or has a clear moral—“here’s what I learned about grief”—but it could very well be about grief and then turn towards an image or something contrasting, pastoral. And it can be useful to identify oneself with the “I” of a poem or its objects—passing through it to wherever else. There can be something useful too to uselessness, trying to hold the unwieldy. It can give something—maybe as simple as a feeling, deep down, of something pleasant or lasting, from childhood, like biting into forgotten, familiar food. Or in its unwieldiness it might say something about what can or can’t be held.


K: Can you say more about what you mean by “unwieldy”?


J: We’ve spoken about the heart, the nucleus of the poem. But what if the poem doesn’t have a nucleus, but is spread out, or is empty in the middle, or just a hunk of words, or a list of say—I’m thinking of a Robert Hass’ poem—things one is cooking.


K: But that has a heart though.


J: Sure, but it’s not what one may think of as a prototypically “useful” poem. It spreads off in many directions with no clear, usable center. What I mean is that doesn’t foreclose usefulness. Now, the use would be contingent from reader-to-reader and, ultimately, for the reader to decide. A list of what one is cooking could have formal qualities that are highlighted by letting denotation slip back, be used as a literal recipe, be experienced as just pleasant objects or words, or, in context of a collection, it might be a reprieve. It doesn’t prioritize one interpretation over another. That very lack of prioritization, its unwieldiness, can be useful. The poem denies letting an “I” into another “I,” denies letting one from having that feeling of being a “good, liberal reader.” It can be helpful to not get inside a poem, to experience someone saying “no, I’m only letting you so far.”


I think of Celan, Édouard Glissant, Woolf. An “I” going through a setting, experiences, and yet the “I” won’t, at times, let one enter. Unwieldiness as in handing the reader something they can’t handle. This gets back to obstruction. In order for something to be obstructed, there must be the appearance or implication of structure. And then the author doesn’t just deny it, but gives the sense that it’s there, veiled. It’s behind it. A trace of glory. Being denied a lesson then becomes the lesson. The experience of dropping something. 


K: One of the ways I see the reception of this book going is people presenting it as challenging, an avant-garde work. But I feel like the spirit of it is one of radical simplicity, in exactly this way. It’s not a book that leans upon heavily latinate vocabulary. It’s full of monosyllables and sentences that aren’t particularly ornate, despite the re-spellings.


J: There’s a few things to speak to about that, the re-spellings, the perceived difficulty of that. It reminds me of trying to learn to read or come to grasp with words. The insecurity of not being sure how to pronounce things or what something means. I don’t want it to defeat meaning or push a reader out of the poem—unintelligibility for its own sake. But the coming to learn how to be in language, figuring out where one’s place already is in language, where one fits—horribly, surprisingly, pleasantly—and doesn’t fit.


And there’s transness. What transness has to say about language. Trans discourses are often developed, argued, rejected, picked up again, and so on, online, rapidly. While I was writing feeld there was anxiety over the right language, what the right language is, and, inevitably, who has access to the supposed right language. What it means to assume one must have internet access, free time, the right profiles on the right sites, availability to find the “right language.” And in order to what? To describe one’s very own body, experience? So there was this thought too of wanting to sit inside non-corrective language, speculative language. To respect our mutual, respective creations: that trans people have developed community at all, imagined, as we have, language, art, in the face of such proximity to death, our constant loss.


Then there’s the medieval quality, the false nostalgia, implying an imagined past. Putting these experiences into a form that claims importance in language highlights its absence, that it’s not represented in the history. It presents the reader with loss, opacity, grief.


K: For all the book’s obsession, and there are many—holes, wood, horses, lions—there’s a persistent bend towards awe. The gesture I keep returning to in many of the poems seems to be its looking outwards, a radical turn towards the world. It seems founded in wonder. The “I” is not trying to convince us of a fatalistic worldview, despite presenting difficult psychic and external spaces.


J: I believe in hope. Not as in “I hope things get better,” but in a very basic sense: if things indeed occurred as they occurred, then there was a moment before it, when possibilities existed, latent, before the worst, the unspeakable. That things could be other than they are. By looking at that moment, we can not only see the possible undoing, the seams, but direct ourselves towards the directions before us now. Hope as a structure of things. Poem LVIII of feeld ends “& u / a rushd thynge / singeing wut u culd / off mye drye strings / its good / it meens wee can change.” It’s not optimism. It’s looking to the possible, outward, what might now be coming, even now, on the horizon.




Found In Volume 47, No. 05
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Jos Charles
About the Author

Jos Charles is a trans poet, editor, and author of feeld, a winner of the 2017 National Poetry Series, selected by Fady Joudah and Safe Space, a finalist for the 2016 Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Poetry. She is a recipient of the 2016 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship and the 2015 Monique Wittig Writer's Scholarship. She received an MFA from the University of Arizona and is pursuing a PhD in English from UC Irvine.