“We must let our unknowabilities exist.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
J: Hey Kaveh, how’s it going?
K: Hello! You beat me to the salutation. Usually, even when someone knows who's going to be on the other end, it's still a “Hello?” It’s a faux interrogative. But you did the salutation. And I was all excited to deliver an exuberant “Hello, Jos!”
Well, I was very understated and it sort of deflated your exuberance.
No, it’s good! I think that we’re good for each other in that way.
You’re much more exuberant than me.
And you level me out. It’s a nice balance. Are you in L.A. right now?
Yeah, I'm in Long Beach.
Are you feeling full of energy right now or are you feeling drained? I don’t know what your day was like.
My day hasn't been much. I haven’t really been doing a lot besides looking for work. I’m applying to a lot, hopefully I’ll get something soon.
Yeah, I hope that you can figure that out, too. I know that was a thing you were nervous about back during the Dodge Festival.
That wasn’t really that long ago when you think about it.
Yeah. What was that? November?
Yeah, three and a half months ago or so.
Oh, Jesus Christ.
It feels like a long time ago.
I feel like since November 9th I’ve been aging in dog years or something. I feel like that was a year ago. On that cheery note—you say you wrote Safe Space late in your undergrad and early in your MFA, right?
That’s wild. Did you sit on it for a number of years? How did that publication process happen?
I began working on a number of the poems during my undergrad. Then I had about a four-year period in which I was working, applying to grad schools, and writing. For the first year I was applying to music composition grad programs, but then I began applying to MFA programs.
You studied Music Composition as an undergrad?
Yes! I wrote little chamber works. Art songs. But, after applying to programs, I wasn’t feeling it. I became discouraged. But I'd written my own text for songs, and I started getting into poetry. I'd submitted to my undergrad’s journal and things like that, so I was aware that I was interested in poetry. And I'd read and liked poetry since I was quite young. John Donne was my first real poetic love.
That’s so funny—I remember the first time I read Safe Space I kept thinking about the “Batter-my-heart-three-person'd-God”-Donne. The Holy Sonnets Donne. And then you’ve got the bit in there where “John Donne would say something about suffering, John Donne had everything going for him in terms of identity and was a miserable shit baby.”
I remember the first time I read that—I was just sitting there thinking about how John Donne seemed to be the presiding intelligence over these poems, and then you call him "a miserable shit baby" and it was this glorious moment of serendipity in my head. Sorry, I didn’t mean to derail you.
No, it’s fine. John Donne was an overwhelming figure for me. I got into metaphysical poets from there; that was my first pet project. I move through projects like that, where I will focus on something, read or write through it, and find one or two things that I carry with me. I enjoy the whole process of delving into a school, or a time period, or specific writers. So there was that period. Undergrad happened and I got into Robert Hass and Brenda Hillman.
Who you got to meet at Dodge!
Who I got to meet at Dodge, yeah. I liked Robert Hass and Brenda Hillman. I went to a number of events at Dodge and I'd see them in the audience. I thought that was very sweet. You'd think that'd be what everyone does, but that wasn’t the case.
No, it’s definitely not. I remember talking to Patricia Smith for this and she said that she used to see Gwendolyn Brooks, like post-Pulitzer Gwendolyn Brooks, sitting at open mics in Chicago to listen to the teenage poets. I love thinking about Gwendolyn Brooks just sitting at open mics, really excited to hear the seventeen-year-old poets.
I keep interrupting you. I keep getting excited about the things you're saying.
No, it’s okay. I won’t lose track, or I will lose track and that means it’s not particularly worth sustaining.
That’s a very generous way to think about it.
Speaking of Gwendolyn Brooks, I also read her for the first time in undergrad. I loved her work. There was something about me that was very formal during that time—I think I was writing sonnets, but I was also trying to write like I talked. She is amazing at using different vocal registers within form. At that time, I was also into Jack Spicer, who I feel is somewhat similar. Robert Creeley. Lucille Clifton’s Good Woman was a book that I had and loved, too.
Some of that shows in Safe Space, where there’s a desire to be both attentive to a certain register of talking and engaging, like calling John Donne "a miserable shit baby." That’s something I would say in real life, but the ‘poetry’ is trying to make it work in a poem, in a formal manner. That’s one of the pleasures of the book that I was learning about at that time. So, four years after I finished undergrad, I applied to MFA programs. I got into some, but they weren’t funded. I was holding out for a fully-funded program because, you know, I couldn’t afford it otherwise. Then I got into the University of Arizona and went there.
But during those interim four years I was working on what was to become Safe Space. Many, many drafts. I think the only thing that remained unchanged from those undergrad years is “Something Like It.” That was how I wrote then. The end of that poem, “even carrots do it,” is similar to the Hass-ian “blackberry, blackberry, blackberry” kind of thing. During that later time of editing, I compiled the anchor poem, “The World is Flat,” which was basically taking around thirty different poems I wrote and just shoving them all together. I kept returning to this thing, it was incessant and I couldn’t turn away, which is like trauma, specifically sexual trauma, one keeps, or is forced to keep, returning.
I didn't think any of those poems that ended up being "The World is Flat" were particularly good. I felt I was writing mostly for me, not for anyone else. It was just something I couldn’t not be doing. But then I found these bits that I liked from the poems, and there was something about the repetition of it, of being unable to write anything else, that I wanted to embody. I wanted to have some poem-remnant of that experience of repetition of trauma as constituting trauma. I just sort of assembled it from these bits and pieces. It required a lot of editing, it wasn’t like I just tossed it together—which would’ve been fine if I did—but it was a lot of editing and paring down. The refrain “he who does not work does not eat” then became part of it, which I felt helped anchor the reader into these jarringly distinct scenes. And so it gained shape in this way. So, even though I had written all that material during those four years, I was assembling it right before and during grad school.
That poem is such a force. I think it’s definitely the crescendo. It really builds, and then you end with “even in Kyoto, I miss Kyoto” from Hass. And then everything is burning. It does have the footholds in there to keep you going, as does the rest of the book, even when it’s about a horrible, horrible topic. Like, in this poem, the writing is still delightful. It seems like delight and pleasure in language are central parts of the engine that drives this book, even when the poems are about darker topics. Do you want to talk about that sort of balancing act? You have to earn the attention of someone, and it would be easy to burn them out if the nerve is too raw.
There’s a cuteness that pervades the work that I’m very aware of. It’s my cuteness. I like cute things. I like everything I’m talking about, so it’s not untrue. Right now, the way I’m talking isn’t all the “John Donne is a miserable shit baby” kind of tone, but this is also just as true to me. This is one way I talk. For me, that cute register in Safe Space does two main things. One, it brings this history of juvenilia into poetry—something often dismissed as childish, cute, not ‘worth’ anything—and tries to take it seriously. Tries to treat it as something capable of being just as poetic as anything. And two, when I talk about trauma, childhood trauma, this juvenilia is the world in which the trauma exists. At least for me. It’s difficult to try and talk about it without using the world of metaphors, symbols, and language that was available at that time.
Yeah, that’s so interesting. The effect is staggering because of the charge that exists between the poles of the cuteness and the really bone-hard discussion of trauma—the gulf between those lands is so wide. I’ve been reading your manuscript for your second book—and I don’t want to talk too much about that because people won’t be able to look at the poems that I’m talking about, but in the intro you talk about how to deprivatize is not the same as to make public. I’m so interested in that idea and how it relates to both books, but especially how it relates to the way Safe Space is framed.
To use that language, 'deprivatization' and 'public,' is referencing the language of private versus national property, whether one ought to nationalize or privatize the means of production. I like how deprivatization as a concept sits in that discussion and brings some clarity to the protocols inherent to the discussion. It is quite possible, at least theoretically, to disempower a corporation without giving that power to the state in power. I think that the same framework is at play with the ‘I’ in poetry, particularly in trauma literature. It’s either the public ‘I’ of witness, or the private ‘I’ of confession. But in our lives we’re constantly oscillating between these public and private ‘I’s, public and private traumas. Traumas that can at once hurt and benefit us. Especially when we’re talking about identity-forming or informed trauma. So, there’s this injunction to make public the trauma, make it legible to me—the public and objective someone who hasn’t experienced it. Then this ‘I’ listens, and sympathizes, and grows, and it’s like, “Wow, what a great and understanding liberal I am.” That rendering it ‘public’ has made it true. But that injunction to let an objective ‘I’ have a say, a kind of control of the thing, is terrifying, right? But equally, “Just shut up and don’t tell me” is also terrifying, right?
Sure, sure, sure.
So, the challenge is to be given the space to speak in however a way, to be true or not true to one’s self, to be able to listen and speak while recognizing how much collapses when something so large and exhaustive is put into words. To me that’s the challenge of these projects, both Safe Space and feeld. I imagine it will be the center to all I write. With Safe Space, the register leans more toward confession, where it’s situated in a self-aware and autobiographic ‘I.’ It’s like, as you've said before, someone elbowing you and whispering in your ear. It’s sincere, but it’s also very clear about its self-awareness, its distance, its playfulness. It’s a joke we are all in on. feeld takes the register of earnestness and urgency while, on the level of the language and form, it has this distance and awareness.
I think sincerity is a little staggering in an age of veils. There are these valences of irony that we negotiate at every moment, especially with our public selves. And I think there is a kind of stagger that comes with an encounter with true sincerity, and the disorientation of that stagger is something that feeld builds off of with its use of non-traditional spelling and non-traditional syntax. They are orbiting the same nucleus of sincerity. Does that make sense?
Mmhmm. In both Safe Space and feeld I’m trying to make it clear that the ‘I’ isn’t entirely one’s own, nor is it just an ‘I’ situated somewhere else. That we must let our unknowabilities exist. In Safe Space we’re kind of in a bonkers, exaggerated world. Everything is very hyperbolic. In that first poem, it’s obvious—you have people buying pathologies with Cirque du Soleil tickets and so on. It’s goofy. Its joke is exaggeration, the truth to hyperbole—it’s not resignation, it’s not lying. It’s just exaggerated. I think the whole book moves through this way in which things are exaggerated, very internet, Tumblr-like. It’s juvenilia again—these extremes to convey how all-encompassing a feeling or a structure can be. The ‘I’ is an excuse, an ‘in’ to that world.
With feeld, it’s slightly different because it’s less like an exaggeration of this world. It's a world that exists quite like ours, but it took a slight turn, so things are off-kilter. That’s reflective of how anyone comes to write or speak, I think. You choose, or you come across, or are given the texts, your sex, your family. And maybe you choose a different family, imagine other texts or sexes, or maybe you take up what you're given. You reject it or choose it, or any number of possibilities, and you end up with something like a history that, yes, participates in these broad structures, but also remains quite distinct and idiosyncratic.
I wanted to embrace and run with all of the idiosyncrasies, the ways that gender or language are or aren’t similar to what they are presumed to be for me, and to push that as far as I can. Of course, I wanted to keep it within the realm of intelligibility to a reader, or at least clear enough that it doesn’t shove them out of the work at any point. Like, in Safe Space there's this line, “red like an apple or photograph of an apple,” where the ‘I’ is a child and they’re embarrassed or ashamed or whatever it means as an expression for someone to be ‘red.’ Which, of course, carries with it tons of other connotations and power and so on. But for me, this idea of the photograph of the apple has a personal resonance. It needn’t be explained, and I find it much more effective unexplained. The challenge is to render the image in a way that’s immediate and carries that weight without betraying it in language. To me, that’s the same gesture that’s happening again and again in feeld, it’s just that I’m taking a little bit more liberty, which means I have to back off with taking liberties in some other instances, so as to keep it intelligible.
Yeah, it goes back to the kind of balance we were talking about.
Yeah, so there’s something much more formal to feeld. It references social justice lingo and internet-y things less in order to take liberties elsewhere. But it’s equally a world-building project.
It does feel like a world, both books feel like worlds. I think feeld especially feels more open. I was reading another interview you did where you talked about how there’s an editorial expectation of trans lit to fall into the coming out story, or the happy trans person, or the dead trans person. And you talked about wanting to create space outside of those things. And so it’s this thing where creating a complete lush, replete eco-system is almost charged with this political valence. That’s the great ambition of any poet, but for a trans poet it also has this political charge. As if to say, "I’m more than these three narratives." I think the quote was in reference to founding THEM, your journal for trans lit.
To speak to the journal, I think that was one of the big impulses for me and the other editors, Emerson & SA—to have a space that trans people could submit with less of these pressures and presumptions about what a trans person ought to be or be writing like. Because there are a lot of pressures—external from the self, and internal, and whatever the difference is between that. I don’t think we’ve eliminated all these pressures, but I think a certain pressure is taken off once it’s like, “Okay, I’m a trans person and I’m writing something that is or isn’t about being trans, and I can submit to someone who is feeling a lot of these similar pressures. Of course to different extents, there’s class, and there’s race, and there’s everything that goes into a person and gender—but, at least with regard to this, they are aware of the pressure I am facing.”
That was the impetus behind that quote, regarding the journal. Regarding my writing, I’ll speak not with regard to being trans, but with regard to sexual assault and trauma, just because it’s similar for me and more pertinent to Safe Space than transness. So, for instance, there are these two tropes that I think of immediately with regard to writing about trauma in general, but especially child sexual trauma—of the survivor and the victim, right?
I’m sure we’re familiar with these with regard to any number of violences, the difficulty that it brings with it. Its set of gestures, and forms, and clichés, that we expect or don’t expect to see. And the problem is, there is some truth at times to some of them, for me personally, and then at other times they aren’t true. At times they are true-ish, you know?
And so if I write in such a way that I communicate a kind of victim status, I know what that looks like and what that does, and then I can write it in another way that creates this idea of me as a strong person who has survived. But what excites me in my work has very little to do with the portrait of my ‘I.' I don’t read work, mine or others, in order to be like, “Wow, what a cool person.” Or “Wow, what a strong person.” This might be an effect of someone’s work though and that’s fine. I know it’s healing for some people. I don’t want to critique that because some people have been through a lot of shit and they have survived it and that's great and strong. But it’s not exclusively or even centrally what I read or write for.
I don’t like to focus on rendering myself as these or those things because as soon as I do, it becomes not true in a lot of ways. So, the ‘I’ is just this rough and vague center in my sights. Like taking aim—there’s a whole horizon, a whole field of vision of true things that I can see, and to focus in on the right one, the right angle, the right aspect of the picture, is only done in order to render the whole thing clearer.
Yeah, that’s really well said.
It’s like a photograph, right? One can’t take a photo of the entire city and render every person’s story within the city intelligible by this one ultimate photo of everything. You end up with a landscape. You are paying attention to the sky and the land and the attention is no longer on the thing you were trying to render. This is fine, too. Landscapes are beautiful. But if you want to render something more particular than a landscape, you have to pick the detail and let everything else fall away and hope that the detail can give a sense of everything else. For me, that’s the challenge with something like Safe Space. I don’t want to try and totalize myself, reveal the "truth" of "who I am." That’s not what I’m interested in for this work. I want to give a detail, one small detail, a person, certain instances of this ‘I,’ only in order to give a sense of something beyond that 'I'—power-structures, history, how they are structured in the 'I' and how the 'I' is structuring them, the exchange that is happening there.
With Safe Space, I try to do that by taking up that private ‘I,’ very specifically and consciously, by talking about many things that are autobiographically true. But then there are visions, exaggerations, and alternate experiences that don’t 100% correspond to a 'verifiable' reality. But that’s not the point; it’s not invested in that. That's not what it’s trying to do. With feeld, I’m taking up something else. It’s a more public or visible ‘I,’ a more modernist ‘I,’ and it's much less concerned with interrogating the post-confessional register that Safe Space is.
That was a beautiful answer. Safe Space ends on the word “field.” Did you already have feeld conceived? Was that a deliberate motion into it, a passage?
As I was finishing up Safe Space, I started getting the idea for feeld, and I started working at it. I knew that ‘the field,’ as an image, was going to be central to it. But I hadn’t thought it was going to be the title, no.
I didn’t notice that until I was looking at the book today and thinking about this phone call. I saw it and thought it was really great.
Well, thank you! I think I have the images that are close to me, and I imagine I’m going to carry them, and they are going to carry me, through all my work.
Interview Posted: April 10, 2017
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