In 2022, the Academy of American Poets invited twelve poets to each curate a month of poems. In this short Q&A, Jos Charles discusses her curatorial approach and her own creative work.
Poets.org: Welcome to the Guest Editor Q&A hosted by the Academy of American Poets. I’m Mary Sutton, senior content editor at the Academy, and I’m here with the guest editor for June, Jos Charles. Jos is the author of Feeld and A Year & Other Poems. Jos, thank you so much for joining me.
Jos Charles: Yeah. Thank you for having me.
Poets.org: No problem. All right, let’s get into it. How did you approach curating Poem-a-Day?
Charles: It’s not the most exciting answer, maybe, but I really just asked the poets I like to send me poems. I certainly thought about why and how I came to like the poets I do. Right? But, the curation of it all was really just quite to my taste. I think there’s maybe an attention in my taste toward work that exerts something peripheral to whatever is zeitgeisty in sort of the U.S. poetry world or peripheral[ly], or maybe work that moves the center... Yeah. Nudges, pushes, topples it a little, which is to say, work that I’m excited by, generally. But also, here, specifically, to see it in Poem-a-Day. In short, these are poets who I am hoping to see a book from soon or whose books are already on my shelves.
Poets.org: If you could direct readers to one poem in our collection at poets.org that you haven’t curated, what would it be and why?
Charles: I’m a big fan of Bob Kaufman, so I would direct them to “I Have Folded My Sorrows” by Kaufman. He was one of the first, or nearly the first, contemporary poet I read. I was being a California kid, I guess, drawn to the Beats. And it absolutely just changed what I thought was possible within this space of a poem. It’s got this... It’s oracular, yet it’s gentle. It’s got this kind of permanent, chiseled on stone quality, and yet it’s as light as the air. And I just prefer him so much more to a lot of the other Beats he is lumped in with.
There’s such a sincerity there over the affectation that... I don’t know […] someone might have. He was also among the first poets writing from... yeah, California, generally. I read there was a... I’m blanking on the name of the collection, but I had this little anthology of California poets and I remember it, just being so struck. I think it was the “Abomunist Manifesto” that was in that collection and just it blowing my mind. And, in this poem, specifically, the “and, yes I have” that repeats in that aphoristic-like way is just so joy-giving to me.
Poets.org: I want to alert our readers to the fact that the “Abomunist Manifesto” has just been added to our website. Yeah, Kaufman’s work is kind of a recent addition to our website. We’ve long had a bio page for him, but no poems, which is something we’ve sought to correct recently.
Kaufman’s work, that specific poem that you mentioned, has recently been included in Poetry and the Creative Mind, our event on April 28, because our Chancellor, Terrence Hayes, selected it for a reading. So, others can also enjoy “I Have Folded My Sorrows” if they haven’t yet read it. Jos, what are you reading right now?
Charles: Well, right now I’m in a dissertation writing mode for my PhD at UC Irvine, so I’m reading mostly stuff for that. And I was trying to think what from there might be exciting to readers, because I like honesty. I could name things that I’m not actually reading in that fake way, but yeah. A couple people I thought of was Paul Zumthor’s Oral Poetry, which is really great, Jessica Brantley’s Reading in the Wilderness, which has to do with sort of the performative aspect of manuscripts or Timothy Bahti’s End of the Lyric... Ends of the Lyric. Sorry, I’m also writing about Thomas Hoccleve, whose series is really great and great to read. It’s only for the Complaint and Dialogue, which are the first two of the five parts. It’s not terribly difficult as far as Middle English goes. It’s fifteenth-century, so maybe a little closer to Shakespeare or something for people, and definitely worth taking a look at, and it’s online.
As far as more contemporary poetry stuff, I just read Lucas Klein’s co-translated selection of Mang Ke’s poems. I’m in the middle of Carlos Lara’s translation of Blanca Varela’s Rough Song from the Song Cave, which was really... I actually just finished it. It’s really excellent. There’s this clarity to them both, not to lump them in necessarily together, but this rigorous clarity, carving down to something crystalline and hard. Renee Gladman’s Plans for Sentences I also read recently, which was really great.
Yeah. I also just started reading [Arcana:] A Stephen Jonas Reader. It’s really, really gorgeous. I hadn’t been introduced to his work and Kaveh Akbar, who’s in this, series actually introduced me to his work and it’s... As a fan of John Wieners and Jack Spicer and all these people [who are] just amazing to read, [it] sits so well beside their work and exceeds it in many ways.
Poets.org: Both Zumthor and Brantley’s works deal with the importance of voice and performance, as you’ve briefly mentioned. Brantley writes, too, about the community that we imagine when reading... Well, what I’ve noticed about Feeld, and others who’ve come across your work will also notice this, is that you write in Middle English. Is there anything beyond your studies that influenced that choice?
Charles: Sure. Yeah. It’s definitely a kind of blend of maybe Middle English and text-speak, or I thought of it as kind of speculative, like if Middle English went off the rails, if things had deviated and went a slightly different course. My hope was that... Less to embrace Middle English as some kind of corrective... Like we should all be talking like that or something, as a way of highlighting the contingency of what we assumed to be “normal” spoken and written English. But, other things I was influenced by... Absolutely. I can think of Bill Bissett or Peter Orlovsky, there was this childlike sincerity I wanted there, too. Something about spelling things in a kind of spoken way appealed to me a lot. Especially as a neurodivergent poet, something about that struggling to even know how to spell words consistently is there and that’s a part of it. Yeah. And I think there’s just... Yeah, a long rich history too. Like, Stephen Jonas, for instance, also often embraced this kind of spelling as well... Trying to think of other people... I have shied away from it a little bit, but even someone like E. E. Cummings has that same kind of childlike hyper-sincerity or Russell Atkins is another poet who I like who does some of that spelling stuff as well, sort of high formal style.
Poets.org: What are... I’m sorry, what are you currently working on in your writing, teaching, or publishing life?
Charles: Yeah, so I’m in the midst of the dissertation research. That’s kind of one big thing. I’m also teaching at Randolph College as part of their low-residency MFA, doing poetry readings and events here and there, following the release of A Year & Other Poems. But, mostly and always, I’m just excited by the writing I’m working on right now. I’m in the midst of a thread of poems, which sort of extended out of the year. Started as this tiny sonnet cycle that was part of the other poems of that [thread], but just kept growing and growing and they were different. They have a life of their own, a little more praise-like, a little more joyful, ideally, maybe the paradisiacal... Yeah, to the infernal and... I don’t know... purgation of the other two, little pentacles. To my mind, it’s a kind of bookend to that.
I’m also, incidentally, journaling for maybe the first time in my life. I always had great difficulty with that, and that’s been exciting. I really had to read a lot of author’s memoirs and letters before I could figure out how to do it. It was just kind of silly, but, oh, I get it now. You can just write what you were feeling. Very shocking to me, but who knows where all this work will lead or if it will lead anywhere? It’s hard to say if things [will] coalesce into a book. I have as many abandoned projects as I do ones that make it up. But, that’s where I’m at right now.
Poets.org: And journaling always seems more daunting than we initially think. And I think for writers, particularly, who tend to be so self-conscious about what we put down on paper, it’s difficult to simply, as you mentioned, write what you’re feeling and accept it for what it is. Has your recent reading of the Stephen Jonas Reader influenced your decision to start journaling a bit or...?
Charles: Actually the thing that really did it was The Mausoleum of Lovers, the [Hervé] Guibert... Yeah, translated by Nathanaël. Yeah. That’s what really did it for me, this very notional, put everything in the book kind of... I’m trying to not use the word “obsessional,” but something like that, like insistent, maybe, that kind of insistence. Yeah. That’s been really useful. The strange thing is, with journaling is, I find speech to be so difficult and so kind of permanent in a way. And maybe this is back to the, yeah, neurodivergence. Maybe I just won’t say something unless I practice saying it or said it to someone else before. But, with writing, somehow, because it can be in a little nook between pages that… Or between skins, animal skins, or something. Yeah, that no one else will ever open. It has this private, non-performative element that I can give myself permission to be so much more associational. And I don’t know. I remember more. Yeah, that’s been the curious thing. I’m remembering much more, maybe too much. It’s a little bit of the open the flood gates and, oh, no. Remembering what it's like to be a child again, the poor thing… But it’s… Yeah, no, it’s been good. I recommend it. If you haven’t journaled, I recommend it.
Poets.org: I’ll use that advice to prod me to get back into journaling because… Yeah. I’ll start an entry and then not write anything again for months. It’s not a habit that I’ve been able to stick to with age. When I was a teenager...
Poets.org: ... it was much easier, but now I find it much, much more difficult to get back into it. But, you’ve inspired me to try again and hopefully you’ll inspire someone else to get back into journaling too.
Charles: Yes. I’m glad. Yeah. My junior high self, I just wrote really, really emo poems about spiders. Very different. Yeah, it’s a new experience for me, but maybe I need to get back to that too, need to write more spider-based poems.
Poets.org: Why not?
Charles: Yeah. Journal or write a spider poem. That’s my recommendation to the audience of Poem-a-Day.
Poets.org: Wonderful. Thank you so much, Jos, for taking the time to do this.
Charles: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.