Standardizing the Vernacular: Jos Charles Interviewed by S. Yarberry

The poet on creating a language that explores transness, history, and the pastoral. 

Charles Head Shot1 Cred Cybele Knowles

Photo by Cybele Knowles.

Jos Charles’ new collection, feeld (Milkweed Editions), is not only a reexamination of language, but a reinvention— words become unique, tricky, and wondrous, once again. Charles creates a completely original vocabulary that blends Middle English and text-speak, which leads to poems ladened with brilliantly placed homophones and puns. “Jim shortes” share a line with “tragick shaydes.” In so doing, humor offsets and dramatizes the long darknesses of history and culture. Against a neopastoral landscape overgrown with “swolen leef” and “boyish nectre,” Charles explores the permutations and perforations of identity— how “a folde squyshes or colapses a membraine” to make “struktur / or gendre or tellavision or a united stats.” We recently met for coffee to talk about the conception of feeld, influential texts, and the craft of poetry.

S. Yarberry How did you first conceive of this project?

Jos Charles My initial attempt was to think of something speculative— something like speculative fiction, or adjacent to speculative fiction, in a poetic world. I set out to construct a world with a language adjacent to ours that would reveal things about our world with a focus on transness. That was my initial impulse. Then I started thinking about language, and the question of what kind of language I want the world to have. There is something in feeld that is akin to Clockwork Orange—a colloquial language that is distinct from ours. In terms of people who have similar projects— maybe Renee Gladman or Cathy Park Hong. I then moved into exploring this text-speak meets Middle English idea when I was trying to figure out what I wanted the word and language to exactly look like.

SY Which Middle English, or Medieval writers, informed your work?

JC In terms of the spelling I was thinking of someone like Edmund Spenser with The Faerie Queene. I’m interested in this idea of trying to standardize something that is essentially vernacular. It’s meant to be read in a public context, so the spelling serves a pronunciation purpose for the reader, as a score does for a musician. But to move to standardized spelling, as a thought, means you are thinking, additionally, of the life the text has on the page. This means you’re thinking of the language as not necessarily being read out loud, but instead being read in silence— you’re thinking that someone has the book and is looking at it— you’re thinking that the audience has the page, compared to when you were thinking the performer has the page. Insofar as I knew, I wanted to call attention to the words and how they are read and produced— to put the onus on the reader to be aware of their role as a performer and to think: how do I speak, how do I come to speak, how do I find my place in the language.

In terms of influences, at the time I had started translating some early Anglo Saxon metrical charms—many were about how to heal certain kinds of pain, for example, one to heal a boil, another a wound, like a stab wound, all the different sorts of remedies that involve mixing different things and applying them and saying quasi-Christian prayers intermixed with non-Christian elements, or what we would consider non-Christian elements (of course to the person performing these charms it would seem very coherent, so I’m hesitant to commit to these kinds of words). I was drawn to the idea that reading the thing enacts the thing. I also like a lot of other early Anglo Saxon texts, like The Wife’s Lament, which has this big and elegiac “I”— which there’s a lot of in feeld. It includes riddles, which I love, and perhaps there’s something riddlesque about feeld too.

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SY In terms of process— when you spelled a word like hemorrhage as hemorage, or human as hewman, did you write everything out in a more contemporary English and then circle back to manipulate the language or did you make those decisions as they came?

JC I was making those decisions as they came, but of course I did a lot of editing. I wanted to be writing from the language, in the language, instead of translating it. The speculative aspect doesn’t remain as pronounced as it was when I started, but I do think in a sense feeld does have the feel of an artifact— something adjacent that was not quite there, and isn’t quite there. I think that comes from trying to wholly inhabit the language and vernacular.

SY feeld is a poetic sequence in 61 sections— can you speak to the experience of writing a collection in this way? Did you write each section with an idea of order, or narrative, in mind, or did you write the individual sections, then organize them into an order that felt right? What was that undertaking like for you?

JC The first feeld poem I wrote that made it into feeld is “the mothe bloomes inn the yuca” and I conceived it as being the opening poem, because I had thought of the collection, initially, as more treatise-like or phenomenological, where an “I” reaches out and touches things (insides are becoming outsides, outsides are becoming insides). A strain of that is still there thematically; however, this ended up not being what I felt was primary to the collection. Instead, it felt like the trajectory of this “I” in the world is what needed to be the focal point. In light of this I felt like it was important to begin with the poem that begins it, which is this poem where the “I” is in the feeding mart, wanting the dress, wanting the skirt, and sort of playing around with the trans narrative and the expectations that a reader might bring to that narrative. Because of the way feeld moves and accrues, you start to not really know where you are and wind up having to find some sense of how to navigate the text. I spent a lot of time editing and arranging— I didn’t write through it. I think that I had about two thirds of the poems, or what felt like two thirds of the poems, when I started to arrange them and have some sense of the order and then write according to what was needed, but then I edited and scrapped a lot of those two thirds— and who knows how much gets left.

SY Moving off the language itself and more into thematic ideas, one of the texts that came to my mind was William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience where there’s this pastoral landscape that keeps getting infiltrated by the trauma of experience, or something sinister, and I was hoping you could talk about the landscape or the literal world in which feeld takes place.

JC The later William Blake’s self-perpetuating mythology, The Four Zoas, had an influence, since it has a similar artifact feel— where you’re very specific with characters, and in his case deities, or personas. Or like in Milton, which is one of Blake’s “Epic” poems that explores his relationship and interest in John Milton; for instance, in Milton, Blake has to make those decisions on how related is the character Milton to the actual person Milton. That work had a pretty big impact on me at one stage as a writer, so I’m sure that has slipped into my current work.

In regard to the Songs of Innocence and Experience, specifically, there’s a lot that I love about those poems— I always try to think what’s the center of the poem? What’s presented as if it’s the center of the poem? Where is the poem calling attention to itself? Which might be in an image, or in an ending, conclusion, a particular moment that might be effective. With that being said, what I love about the Songs of Innocence and Experience is that you have to put yourself into this “I”, into these characters, and ask Who would say this? Who would do this? And then the differences between the “Who would say this?” creates tension that’s not necessarily akin to persona or dramatic monologue. I like that.

The “I” is pretty consistent throughout feeld, but it is a very empty feeling to me. It’s not my “I” but it’s also not-not my “I,” it’s an “I” that I can climb inside very easily, because it is adjacent to me, yet it is also not me specifically. There are moments of autobiographical detail that slip in, but there are also clear moments of non-biographical detail. In that sense there might be some similarity in Milton where one might think what is me and what is not, what is Milton and what is the fictional Milton, as well as some of the Songs of Innocence and Experience where one has to think, what have I gone through to put myself in this “I”?

SY Going back to the idea of place—in her work Renee Gladman, for instance, builds this other world that becomes a very physical place as well as an idea. In regard to feeld, what was the physical place you imagined the “I” existing in? There are moments where a factoree comes in, but there’s also the pastoral imagery of treees. Mylky treees is an image that stuck out to me.

JC With the work of Cathy Park Hong or Renee Gladman, you have a very tangible sense of place. That being said, I wasn’t as concerned with that aspect of the project— the landscape in feeld feels to me like a conceptual space, or an affective space. The purpose of bringing in the factory is to bring in the history of talking about the factory and what it has meant in critical discourse in all its seriousness, in all its rudeness. And to bring in the field, and to bring in the pastoral, is to bring in the capital “P” Pastoral. Now that doesn’t mean I don’t want to take things seriously— trees can be very beautiful— but beside the Linden there’s not a lot of specificity; instead, I use the trees, the bees, not “the poplar” or the “mulberry tree.” What interests me is a sense of the pastoral, the language of it, the tropes of it, the history of it, and the empty space of it.

S. Yarberry is a queer poet and writer. Their work has appeared in FIVE:2:ONE‘s #thesideshow, Touchstone Magazine, Broken Yolk, and zines. They are currently pursuing a MFA in Poetry at Washington University in St. Louis. 

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