Jos Charles is author of Safe Space (Ahsahta Press, 2016). They are founding-editor of THEM: a trans literary journal. They have writing published (and/or publications forthcoming) with POETRY, Denver Quarterly, Washington Square Review, PEN America, Action Yes, GLAAD, LAMBDA Literary, and elsewhere. In 2016 they were awarded a Ruth Lilly & Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship through the Poetry Foundation. Jos Charles received their MFA from the University of Arizona. They reside in Long Beach, CA.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book was something I had to write, for me. Of course, I considered audience, whether it was worth sharing, the histories I was giving it unto. I was however firmly its first audience. I understand that, sympathize with who I was, and have no regrets in writing or seeking publication, but my writing has shifted increasingly to considering form first and foremost, that the most important audience for me to first commit to and consider is ‘poetry’, its histories, how I both am and am not implicated or intelligible within it, and this messy matter of aesthetics. Naturally, aesthetics is not something outside identity, obstruction, power. So, there is also that consistency of being aware or trying to make aware where one is, the things around oneself, one’s people.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
The first poem I remember writing was 2 or 3 pages long, I was 7, I believe. It was a detailed semi-fictionalized elegy on the crucifixion of Jesus. It was very bad, but I liked trying to make this ugly and, what I considered bad, event beautiful, or show what I considered to be beautiful about it. I think in many ways I haven’t changed in that regard.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes? and 4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I usually begin with something simple and affective, an abstraction like say (opening my phone now to see what was last written in my notes) “an empire / no way to run / an empire [action/something],” the lone word “national,” and “in front of everyone [ending?].” When those “[somethings]” become apparent to me, which they don’t always, I begin constructing something that convinces me the lines are worth a poem. Often the original lines don’t take to it or make it. I work outward from there to something like a poem, typically in a burst of energy over a day or two. I’m usually fine-tuning a handful at any given time. Once edited I consider them “done” though they may receive more editing depending on what work they want to sit alongside. I assemble something like a book or project around that and I’d guess about 15-20% get scrapped. Another 15-20% get rewritten significantly and maybe another 15-20% get minor edits (I notice too heavy a reliance on a certain image, gesture, turn, and so on). My first book is maybe 10% of the poems I wrote in that period, but I think I’m getting more concise, realizing what poems, for me, aren’t worth writing.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I used to dislike readings. I felt like they were too formal for a get together and too casual for a performance, like going to the symphony and getting a house party or going to a punk show and getting a rough sight-read performance. I’ve been learning to like house parties and rough sight-reading. Readings seem neither part or not part of my creating process, just this other thing, like a sleepover. It can be very fun if you like the people who are staying over.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I don’t think a poem can ask or answer the Big Questions, but then again I’m suspect of Big Questions. I have no problem with a poem trying to answer or posit a question, I enjoy the trying, but I doubt a poem will, for example, dismantle structural power all by itself, i.e. a State, white supremacy, violence against trans people. I think people work towards dismantling power and that work might include writing a poem or reacting with or to a poem. Many of the great revolutionaries were poets after all. But what I mean is the work includes much that isn’t on the page. I say this not to dismiss identity or political poetry, but the opposite, to point to how much work surrounds a poem, how much poetry is in the work. The work within and around the poem is the theoretic, poetic, through and through.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I tend to think, rather than in terms of ought or necessity, in terms of trust. The writer makes themself trustworthy to their audience, and respectively an audience has a varying degree of trust or distrust they lend towards a writer. As with the previous question, this includes not just the writers work—though, as a reader, it certainly will be a big factor—but also the author’s life work. I don’t think I could ever “blame” someone for distrusting an author, or for an author to commit to something that will incur distrust. People will do a lot in their life that incurs trust with one group over and against another. But then one has to reckon with that distrust.
In my work, for instance, as a white trans writer, I try to make myself trustworthy to trans people and/or other marginalized identities, and, given my identity and life, that might demand a fair amount from a cis reader. I’m fine with that. I am also always already writing my white American-ness too, so I try to do that without alienating people of color and/or inter/transnational people, to be critical of whiteness as supremacist while being wholly white. This is to say there is much in my work that could bring on distrust, whether genuine critique or ideological reaction. I don’t think people owe me or my work trust. If someone responds with distrust, vocalized or not, I then get to listen or reflect and decide if I’m ok with continuing that distrust, which distrust to commit to. I try to then commit to making myself trustworthy to the people whose trust I want, who I consider to be “the good people,” to make myself into a good person. It’s not always clear what is good, but it often is. I think, ultimately, writers ought to be good people.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Working with an outside editor seems no different than working with a boss. Maybe they aren’t an owner of the means of production, maybe they’re a wonderful person, maybe they’re poor. They’re also still a boss. This is a typical kind of difficulty.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Saeed Jones once said at an AWP panel something to the effect of writers, people trying to make it as writers, don’t earn money; if someone is a writer it means they got money from somewhere else. I think writers should be transparent about when they have money, to not affect poorness when they aren’t poor. I don’t like secretly rich people, having to accommodate that. If you have money that’s great, I wish everyone did. I’ve been fortunate enough to get money here and there through a grant or school funding, and I am nothing but grateful, amazed. But surely it can’t fall to aspiring poor writers to accommodate wealthy writer’s shame about their wealth. It’s especially annoying when the ashamed rich think they have something to say, and there are a lot of those in the arts. Knowing that, that I don’t have to accommodate that, could’ve saved a young Jos some heartache.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose/non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
It’s all just different form, differently historically situated commitments. You arrive at a different kind of truth, a different kind of speaking, when using different conventions. The limits of their truths are the limits of their history (until suddenly they aren’t, until there are other, new limits). I’m more interested in committing to poetry than those others forms, but I get their appeal. I like how in prose for instance the idea of the never-ending line break, the never taken breath, emerged by this technological innovation, typeset and justification. It seems very appealing, being contingent on the ‘idea’ as machine-like, silent. It’s very romantic. I think of St. Augustine being scandalized by St. Ambrose’s ability to read without moving his lips, without mouthing the words. I have a very hard time not moving my lips when reading though. I feel stuck with poetry. I like music, mouths, too much.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
See 3 & 4.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
As far as poets, I read Paul Celan most of all, he’s my saint, but Hoa Nguyen or Fred Moten are in the pantheon. I’ve returned to Ariana Reines’ The Cow a lot; it’s what first led me to become a poet. I think I’m often writing alongside and against the modernist tradition of the grand American poetic work, with its various relations to distancing from or embracing fascism (Oppen, Tolson, Pound, Olson, Williams, etc). Sometimes I’ll dip into that, but it’s depressing, like an autopsy. I respond to a lot, I feel, but some other recurring things seem to be Medieval Christian texts, neorealist film, dodecaphonic composition, second-wave abstract expressionism, and midcentury liberation movements.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I have an anti-memoir I’ve worked at and scrapped and worked at for a while. It variously has been an autobiography except set in a modernized Tolkien universe, a werewolf memoir, typical lyric memoir that ends with me blowing up an Opera house, and the journal of Frankenstein’s monster. I have the idea of it, the form, but just keep going the wrong way about it. I’ll get it right one of these days.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I studied music composition in undergrad, my first love was film, and I’ve made visual art from a very young age. I don’t imagine—and I mean this with no hyperbole—that I would be alive without art. I’ve done different jobs to support my art-making throughout my life of course, and I can imagine a world, very likely this one now, where I go on doing that. I think most any work is beautiful, so I’m content with anything as long as it affords me a place to live, food, healthcare, time to make my art, agitate the things that need agitation, and so on. Of course, this is a rarity. But I have no pretense towards surviving financially on poetry, I just want to survive financially, and then poetry.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I didn’t think my music was good enough.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Robert Bresson’s Notes sur le Cinématographe or Clarice Lispector’s short stories; Pedro Costa’s Cavao Dinheiro / Horse Money.
20 - What are you currently working on?
Tiny little winding fugal things, the closest I’ll get to late Celan.