Sunday, April 10, 2022

The Trans Poetics of Dysphoric History: A Talk with Jos Charles


The following are notes that introduced a Plenary Session 
at the Sewanee Medieval Colloqiuum, on April 9, 2022,
centered around the theme of Touch | Contact,
sponsored by the University of the South,
between Jos Charles and M.W. Bychowski
on Trans Poetics and History


If this plenary does the work it needs to do, we will have you rooting for a jar of pickles. It may ten minutes of introduction or it may take the whole hour but my aspiration today is that you will walk away telling people that you found some hope in a jar of pickles at a medieval conference in Sewanee, Tennessee. And hey, even if you don’t pickles will still be delicious. Really, it’s win-win! 

Our first step on this briny road is acknowledging that this plenary is actually pretty historic. At very least, in my own personal history, this is day worth remembering, when we had the rare gift of centering two trans women in conversation. It is so rare, in fact, I am tempted to say that it categorically does not happen in medieval studies that two trans women are in the same room at a conference. There are frightening few trans scholars in medieval studies. Nearly all of us are contingent faculty. Many have left the field or academia. And among those who are still here, for now, we are currently in the presence of around two thirds of the number of trans women in the field. Jos and Me. So for this reason alone, here in Sewanee in April of 2022, we are making history. 

That’s not the only reason we traveled hundreds of miles on that old dill road. I came here today because Jos, I want to pass along to you something I was once told by the sainted Sonya Sanchez. After a wonderful evening together celebrating books in Cleveland, she told me, “Sister Gabby, the world desperately needs your light. Protect yourself. Protect your light. It is precious.”  

Well, I feel this way about Jos Charles. Sister Jos, you and your light is precious. You are sacred in your embodiment of dysphoric time as a poet mediator to help us touch the discarded parts of our history, our language, and our other selves. 

But before we move on to all these parts, we should acknowledge why it is two White trans women standing before you. If we are salty, it is a drop in the bucket of a brine that has been festering for centuries, by all the parts of our society that are uninvited, unwelcome, broken down by this profession and the systems that created it. Because we cannot forget, the land and labor is salted by the trail of tears that has soaked the land beneath us, seized from indigenous peoples. At times the salt burns old wounds at the same time as it preserves the memory of reparations not yet made, hurts not yet healed, histories and hopes not yet forgotten. 



If we are to move forward, then, we must begin by inviting all parts of our embodied scholarship to participate in this conversation.

This means, if we are to engage in contact and touch, we must consider the role that contingency plays. We must speak the truth we know too well: not all touch, not all contact is good touch. 

Patriarchal touch is not good touch. Colonial contact is not good contact. White Supremacist touch burns. Ablest touch breaks. Classist touch sucks our souls. 

And we are here in defiance of those who have written our histories and those who are trying to write our futures. Just last year, over 100 laws were introduced in just three months targeting trans people, especially trans kids, especially trans girls. We are here in defiance of those who write our laws, who gain money and votes and power by telling people to be afraid of people like Jos and I, to kill people like Jos and I, to eradicate the future of young trans girls, so there will not more trans women, like Jos and I. 

We are here because trans poetics is not only about the symbolic or culturally constructed by about embodied truth, it is about speaking through wounds and broken bones – these bones broken in my body by one way, these bones broken in my skull by another – trans poetics speaks through blood that won’t clot and unregulated limbic systems. 

I invite us into critical contingency, the root of which means touch and contact, because I believe being trans and doing medieval studies does not have to hurt. It doesn’t have to hurt like this. We do not need to harm ourselves or one another like we have been hurt or told that we must hurt in order to be rigorous scholars. The hurt is not necessary. The hurt is not noble. The hurt is not just the cost of doing business. Lives and jobs do not need to be contingent. 

We are here for a conversation that invites us to participate in contingent contact and contingent touch; in the words of Jacques Derrida, to participate without belonging. We are present even if we are not all welcome. 

We are here because of the two spirit and black, indigenous, trans people of color who are not here, those who should be here, those who must come after us. We are here embodying the claim that how trans people write matters, how trans women write matters, how trans people read matters, how trans women read matters. 



Thus I want to clarify a few terms I am going to use to read the trans poetics of Jos, trans methods I call dysphoric analysis, trans resonance, dysphoric time, and genres of embodiment. 

Let’s start with dysphoria. Dysphoria is one way my brain works differently than most of the brains in this room, Jos notwithstanding. Dysphoria is also social. The DSM-5 defines dysphoria this way: as the marked suffering that emerges at the point of conflict between ones identified or expressed gender and the gender assigned to one by society. I want to emphasize that the DSM locates the point of conflict as initially external. The conflict is between a self and the society. But it becomes internalized in part as suffering. 

Dysphoria shapes our embodied experience of time. The fact that experiences of time are gendered I will take as settled theory. Queer time differs from straight time, crip time differs from able-bodied or capitalist time. So too with trans temporality. Just as dysphoria emerges in the entanglement of self and society, so too does dysphoric time. Dysphoric time can be defined much like dysphoria itself: as the marked distortion that emerges at the point of conflict between one’s identified and expressed gendered temporality and the temporality or timelines assigned to one by society. 

This brings to resonance. Dysphoric time is asynchronous. Dysphoric time is polychronic. Those forces drawing us across boundaries of gender, language, era and discipline, I call trans resonances. Because there is something in your that resonates in something in me. There is something in Eleanor and Joan, in Marsha and Sylvia, that resonates with things in my body. There are objects, books, buildings, clothes, make-up, whole ecologies that resonate with my bodies across the lines of gender and genre, telling us: these things, these places, these time periods are not for you. Yet here we are. We come because we are called. We stay so we can amplify that call to others. 

But I argue dysphoria does more than hurt. It shapes. It creates. It forms and informs how we talk, walk, wear, eat, play. Between trans person and transphobic worlds, what emerges is dysphoric poetics. Thus we can read for and through what I call a dysphoric analysis that traces these knots of self and society that I call genres of embodiment. 



The work of Jos Charles exemplifies the ways that trans lives and trans poetics become co-constitutive. Trans-ness exists within every age and in every culture on this planet, but each trans life is articulated within the specific material and symbolic frameworks available. 

We know this about culture, we know this about language and history. Yet we do not talk enough about how genre and poetics inform the specific forms of trans-ness that emerges within a culture, not the ways specific forms of trans-ness produce particular forms of cultural poetics. 

Medievalists are beginning to discuss how Chivalric romance structure the fictional life of Sir Silence from Roman de Silence or the historical life of Joan of Arc. How does their trans masculinity emerge from Chivalric narratives and romance poetics? Likewise, with the recent publication of Trans and Genderqueer subjects in medieval hagiography, we are beginning to see the other side of the circuit: how does the medieval canon of transgender monks, many of them sainted, influence the genre of saint’s lives? 

But with the work of Jos Charles, we see the emerging potential of trans medieval poetics. In trans culture and transgender studies, we see the ways that anime, music, art, television, gaming, and meme culture has shaped various subcultures of trans identity. But what happens when it is not Against Me blasting on our earphones but rather Icelandic sagas or penitential manuals? 

The embodied writing of Jos Charles testifies to the ways that medieval history, and transgender medieval history, shapes the way that trans people live, speak, and articulate ourselves today. 

At the same time, the medieval trans poetics of Jos Charles is redefining how we might understand, organize, read, and write medieval history. She shows us how to write the medieval in a trans way, how to compose trans poetics in a medieval way. 

Jos Charles has done this as author of the poetry collections a Year and other poems (2022), feeld, a Pulitzer-finalist and winner of the 2017 National Poetry Series selected by Fady Joudah (2018), and Safe Space (2016). She does all this while currently teaching as a part of Randolph College's low-residency MFA program. She does all this after having completed an MFA from the University of Arizona and working on a PhD at UC Irvine. 

Jos Charles does all of this with body that lacks salt because HRT flushes sodium from the bodies of trans women. HRT also makes it easier for trans women to cry, so even more salt leaves our system! But we have good news: hope comes in a jar of pickles; pickles which have become a sign in trans feminine culture of community and shared food cravings. So, we have waited long enough, please enjoy!