Clock time has really lost all meaning: An interview with Jos Charles
In her new book, a Year & other poems, Jos Charles excavates what she calls “geological time” to explore the contours of a single year: 2016. For Charles it was a year marked by material insecurity, lyric recurrence, and personal change set against the backdrop of the California wildfires and the 2016 US election. Writer of feeld (Milkweed Editions, 2018) a Pulitzer-finalist and winner of the 2017 National Poetry Series, and Safe Space (Ahsahta Press, 2016), Charles is a nimble and deep-thinking poet who is capable of enfolding a speculative homage to A Clockwork Orange and Chaucer in the same book of poems. Currently, she’s a doctoral candidate at UC Irvine and teaches as a part of Randolph College’s low-residency MFA program.
Charles follows up her linguistically innovative feeld by beckoning the reader to come in close and read her day-book on love and grief. a Year & other poems seems spare on the surface but reveals a beautiful fractal structure, line and language in self-similar scales repeating throughout the pages. We spoke in January, exchanging responses in a shared Google document, about the power of allusion, how a year can be turned into a container for grief, and whether Sappho might be considered her contemporary.
The Rumpus: I’m so glad to spend this time chatting with you.
Jos Charles: Me too. It’s been a while! I’m in doctoral research mode and, I suppose, combined with the global pandemic, clock time has really lost all meaning, or, I currently am a bit removed from the things naturalizing it.
Rumpus: “Clock time having lost all meaning” is a nice segue to talk about the organizing principle of your new collection, a Year & other poems, which is, obviously, time. What inspired you to write an entire book around a year?
Charles: I think time is a constitutive part of poetries pretty generally—the line, breath, performance. It’s a temporally performed thing. I wanted this kind of slow, weighted, gravitational velocity. Because that’s how the speed of things felt for me, like it was in the air. I wanted the calendric element of division to be as arbitrary yet real as it is off the page.
Rumpus: And does time have a different meaning to you now in comparison to when you were creating the work for this book?
Charles: I’d say time doesn’t feel different to me now, but going through that velocity on the page did affect me in the same way, I hope, it might affect other readers. I almost want to call it geologic? Or like, that feeling one gets when staring at a representation of the scale of geological time: glacial, hard, neither rapid nor slow, but like a steady and powerful pull.
Rumpus: As I was reading this collection, what stood out to me was this feeling of “arbitrary” time; like, yes, we’ve agreed to label and demarcate these months within the year, but the actual poems and work felt almost out of time, or not in the same scale of a year.
Charles: Scale is such an apt and operative word here. The short answer is, yes. Something larger than months, but that gained something by breaking them down that way. That’s the scale, I think. I was writing about things that happened within the span of these months in 2016. Once the year ended, I found myself returning to them. There seemed nothing else I could write about.
And, to me, a Year & other poems, is about moving through grief—grief and alienation—which can feel so totalizing. Having the limitation of months allowed the capacity to return to these arbitrary demarcations of growth and decay, to measure their proportion.
Rumpus: The poems felt older than contemporary poetry to me. It reminded me of reading Sappho collections: received lines, fragmentary in places, that seemed to have survived from another era. Your work, especially in feeld, drew explicit connection to work outside of contemporary poetry. Where did you find the influence to create a relationship with geologic time?
Charles: By putting grief ‘into’ a year, I felt I could put myself, even if only in the act of imagination, beyond it. And that, I think, is related to oldness—a looking back. Within such a speed, Sappho is a contemporary. In the broad sense that Sappho’s work is with us in ideology, language, the work of people influenced by her who influenced others—heritability. Also, despite the fragmentation, one can still read Sappho’s poems. I didn’t want the poems to feel, in that sense, like artifacts from a time past, but as a movement with a different relationship to what is contemporary. My griefs are not due to my limitations, but a part of delimitations—arbitrary but real and naturalized—like months, superimposed onto a stretch of living.
Rumpus: The subject of grief as it relates to time is a human obsession, I think. How long, and when, one should grieve. You said in an interview with The Adroit Journal that 2016 felt like a rift in a timeline to you, that it split some kind of trajectory in your life. Is the impulse to memorialize loss a type of hope for the end of grief?
Charles: I do not think there is an end to grief—or this is my feeling, now. One can’t go looking for its end. I think that’s melancholy—trying to hold onto the possibility of an end coming. So it’s not really the possibility of healing, I think, I’m imagining as beyond, but an after. Just a place—deictic—there. Something which might put the overwhelmingness and unspeakability into relation.
Rumpus: Many people right now are struggling with personal grief in addition to global/national/institutional grief. Do you think there is a way to memorialize something or move beyond when the same material conditions are creating new tragedies or loss? How do you attempt a memorial when there is always more to mourn?
Charles: A place like hope maybe. Then I think mourning can begin. But, for me, mourning is ongoing, a constant. Mourning puts the grieving in scope and puts me, at least, back into the world, into struggle. I don’t think there’s an end or beyond to grief as such, but there is mourning and there is redress for loss.
Rumpus: You’ve been clear about your influences in feeld. I imagine people were preoccupied by that lineage precisely because of how linguistically distinct that collection is. I am curious about how you see your new book in conversation with its predecessors and influences?
Charles: A number of the poems in a Year & other poems are after people, some friends, some poets, some poet-friends. Really, they were the predominating influence on the text: Hoa Nguyen, Russell Atkins, Harryette Mullen, Ariana Reines, Éduoard Glissant, Paul Celan. There are certainly other favorites who influenced me—I was reading César Vallejo again while writing it and was introduced to Alejandra Pizarnik and Ghassan Zaqtan. Fred Moten’s All That Beauty came out while I was revising a lot of the titular poem. As it neared its published form, I was beginning some preliminary doctoral research in Middle English penitential poems which is certainly in there, even if only anticipatorily. Something about the ‘poetriness’ of the poetry being the act of climbing inside the “I,” how that can permit one to orient themself to instruction. That rather than giving, a poem can demonstrate a posture of reception. That guiding belief in a poem’s capacity towards consolation. Not like, thematically, as in detailing trauma and recovery, but in the very act of performing it like an icon.
Rumpus: You’ve compared your work to speculative fiction. I believe you said there was a relationship to A Clockwork Orange with feeld—is that a lens, world building, specifically, that you bring to all of your writing, and a Year & other poems, explicitly?
Charles: The short answer is yes. The slightly longer answer would be I’m inclined to think every world is speculative: There are just some which have naturalized themselves through violence in order to mask their own contingency. There are lines from the new book that represent this idea: “But the world is / gone But the world is // a lake the shape of / a lake.” The world is already a negation of the negation, as they say. The world is an idea of the world which requires, to be ‘there’ at all, a clearing away of there. It’s one of the poems after Celan too, “the world is gone” being a direct quotation from the poem translated as “Vast, Glowing Vault” or “Great, Glowing Vault.” That poem always struck me as, among other things, an intervention on that kind of worldhood project that’s in Hegel, Heidegger, Rilke, running from Rome right on through Christendom and with us today, as much on the US left as the right. It’s empire shit. So it’s not building, really, [that] I think he’s doing, but countering. With either feeld or Safe Space, I was interested in trying to do something like that—though far worse than Celan—with the word or letter. That didn’t feel right, to me, for A Year & other poems. But speculation is there at the level of the line, the thought, the image, the voice, countering a way of relating, addressing, and a poetic “I” which is not unlike the “I” of ‘the world.’
Rumpus: Looking for order, structure, composure in that countering may help us manage the day-to-day experience of being alive and available to grief and loss. I think that a Year & other poems is layered with these forms/containers. Why did you create this particular line structure, a stacking of identical words, reinforcing an image or phrase? Like the lines you mentioned above look like this on the page:
“a lake the shape of
or in the first section of “February”:
aenigma past each house”
How does this poetic structure fit in with the thematic content of the work?
Charles Like the calendar’s repetitions, or the hours, they promise a kind of equivalency in time. I wanted repetition throughout the work to call attention to the non-equivalence of parts. Saying a thing twice fundamentally changes the first iteration, right? So, an easy example as above, a lake is one thing, the shape of a lake is another, but a lake the shape of a lake is yet another which calls attention to the contingent non-equivalence of both instances of lake.
In the place of non-equivalence, I hope, something else emerges: A relationship begs the question of what the relationship is between the two. That asking is where I find joy in reading poetry.
Rumpus: I think allusion works similarly in this book. I’m struck by how allusive your work can be in such limited space. For instance, in the October section you write:
“I see you
at night Our
Goethe like becomes its arm
We peek then ate
We the fruit”
It made me think of still life portraiture, queers being called “fruits,” the biblical allusion to fruit. I did an Internet deep-dive on Goethe and what the Goethe oak meant in Germany in relationship to the Holocaust. What weight for a twenty-three-word poem!
Do you have a specific vision for how you want readers to interact with this allusive quality in your work?
Charles: It’s back to geologic time, I suppose. I wanted the poems to feel layered. You describe a lot of the stuff that I see in the poem, too. I don’t have a program, really, for how people are to enter the poem, but I try to be aware of the effect an allusion has. At times I don’t want to push people out with an allusion you ‘have to get,’ but other times I do. Some readers need to be pushed out of some poems. I like to embrace allusions, too, that are necessarily beyond recognition sometimes. Not everything needs to be surveilled, cataloged, understood.
Rumpus: Do you respond to allusion differently as a reader versus as a writer of poetry?
Charles: Perhaps this is the medievalist in me, but I’m disinclined to make much of a distinction between myself as a reader versus me as a writer. When I’m writing, my readerly aspect is constantly inserting and editing. My favorite poems of mine are the ones when the writerly side shuts up a bit and the poem and my readerly self moves in some other direction. There’s an oft-cited Bonaventure passage which draws the distinction between scribe, compiler, commentator, and author. Scribes copy work, compilers compile and rearrange it, commentators add their own words to it. Importantly, authors add the others’ work to their own. It’s about the relationship between writing and what’s written, not the belief in something like a sovereign author(ity). I like to think I do strike upon commentary sometimes, and the allusions are like that: a citation from which commentary might start to circulate, a place for reading to open up.
Rumpus: Yes, allusion as an act of commentary and an invitation for the reader to go off on their own—I’d never considered it in that light before. In an interview you did with Pleiades you said that you love the intimate-address but that it felt “incorrect” in feeld. The poems in a Year & other poems are rife with writing toward a “you.” Why do you think you’ve found a place for an intimate-address in the new collection?
Charles: My best friend described the voice of feeld to me as that of someone at a distance, perhaps with a stretch of water between, inviting you to come across. The “I” is like a guide. She described the voice of a Year & other poems, though, as like a whisper in the ear. There’s no beckoning, but also no distance.
feeld was about distance, the distance between me as a material thing—who is, yes, a trans woman, with mental illness, and so on—and the voice of a high lyric, a political, courtly lyric, which, generally, had little interest in some aspects of me as a speaker or people like me. So I was aware of and negotiating that distance, and it was reflected in the spelling, line breaks, references.
a Year, though, is intimate, not courtly love, but sentimental, really. Its references are the solitary romantic kind of lyric, the epistolary, the day-book, the flaneur. I suppose I landed on that difference in voice because of grief. There’s both the day-to-day dealing with grief, but also the daily abstraction of it.
Like the way in which one can say trans death and it’s already been transmogrified, like a thing to not whisper in shame, like death, but, at times, with a kind of pride, even, for accessing the phrase, for getting it. That even in death, ultimately, it’s about (cis) recognition, life. And I felt this sentimental lyric speaks plainly, in a way, by avoiding the particularity of the adjectival (‘trans’ death), and rushing right on through to the universal, empty noun. No, I wanted to say, this death is universal, not too or in addition, a supplement, but at the heart. I think that intimacy in a Year is premised on that—the opaque, universality-claiming I which, in a poem, one might let in very close. Some work must be done up very close.
Rumpus: I appreciate the idea of writing something that perhaps can’t be co-opted by cis-recogntion as a means of signaling getting it, where the it means a surface-level acknowledgement of trans death and lacking the emotional connection of all that phrase represents, a second death, one of material meaning. It is one thing to construct your work so that it resists that type of cis-signaling-recognition, but how does one guard against it as an author/public person?
Charles: Well, it’s not me who is doing it, so, there’s really no avoiding it. I suppose I’m not trying to resist or guard against that kind of (mis)recognition—I’m trying to demonstrate another way, however small, one rabbit hole, maybe. It’s a truism that this world, but especially this place, the US, loves celebrating the dead while killing the living. Trans women are no exception though certainly not alone. I don’t know if a poet can avoid that qua being a poet. Poems alone, alas, will not collapse the United States empire. There are fights which require militant organization, and there are others where a handful of words will do. A time to scatter or gather stones. But, in poems, with respect to their own struggles–signification, perception, address, relation, and so on—action is possible. One can testify, relate, remember, dismember, reorient, instruct, speculate. And that is not unrelated to that other struggle: The poetics of US exceptionalism is a mirror-image of its imperialism; it too needs to go. Before and after all that, though, another poetics, after all, is possible. It must be.
Author photo by Sergio De La Torre