(Author's Note: I met Thalia Field July
2004 in a workshop titled “Time, Matter, Mind”
during Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program.
Focusing on the exploration of “the limits of
non-traditional materials” and “literary,
artistic or dramatic uses of time-based, procedural,
indeterminate and collaborative processes,” this
workshop addressed issues of surrender, disappearance
of constraints, indeterminacy of outcome and the emergence
of the unknown. Thalia stressed the importance of engagement
with rather than absorption in the writing process and
its results. Her first book, Point and Line, seems to
value engagement over absorption. Thalia seems relaxed,
patient and open during class. It’s interesting
to note that she is a Buddhist practitioner.)
You teach at Brown and have taught at Bard and Naropa.
In what ways is it valuable for you as a writer to also
be you as a teacher?
Your repetition of “you” in the question
is instructive: that multiple selves truly carry on
multiple lives. I am a series of “yous”
and the teaching-me has quite a different history than
the writing-me. In some ways, these two selves barely
know each other. My experiences as a teacher come from
my theatrical background and my commitment to creativity
as something one can directly experience, sort of the
“cold boredom” of buddhism meets the “infinite
sense of time” which a mentor of mine, Paul -----
of Bard College used to describe as the optimal feeling
of creative thinking in the classroom. I also believe
quite strongly in the reflective space of writing in
the classroom (writing, that is, functioning as a form
of discussion) and the potential of poetry to awaken
genuine presence, in all its dense and mysterious forms.
In these ways, teaching relates to my own writing, but
they are quite different practices.
In the March-April 2004 issue of Teachers and Writers,
you said in a dialogue with Michelle Naka Pierce, “I
think there is a common experience to all teaching,
which is about opening oneself as a guide to experience,
becoming a ratty little questioner, some sort of spritely
presence who prods with tiny needles or eases with soft
feathers.” This statement seems to convey a sense
of responsibility around your role as Teacher. Is there
a similar sense around your vocation as Writer?
As a writer, I think it is more difficult to frame
oneself, to model oneself. It is more hidden and subtle,
the auratic presence of a writer appears in various
degrees in various forms of expression. The process
of writing tells one sort of story, the forms and final
products others. And in my work, which often takes print
as well as performance forms, there is a large continuum
on the lifeline of any single work. The question of
“responsibility” is different, I suppose,
in the sense that an audience or reader encounters pedagogy
(should it exist) in writing in a vastly different manner
than in a classroom. My responsibilities as a writer
are in many ways to tearing down habits and revealing
expression which transcends boundaries of myself which
I previously might have held dear. In this way, I am
more my own student than a teacher.
You are an advocate of defamiliarization. Will you
explain this method in terms of your own practice and
evolution as a writer?
I am an advocate of using structure and form inseparably
from content, and of allowing changes in form to reflect
the infinitely complex changes in time and emergent
situations. In this way I follow the old formalists
who believed more in historical moments of art than
in universal symbolisms. The ability of deep structure
to reveal aspects of our minds (as well as cultural
awareness and perceptive valence) feels real to me,
and I guess that’s why I think defamiliarization
is a useful tool to think about. It is not deterministic,
however, and any dogma which becomes associated with
it misunderstands the point. I’m more an ecologist,
having faith in unknowable complex and interdependent
systems which simultaneously are meaningfully expressive.
What risks are involved with the technique of defamiliarization?
What container(s) do you perceive regarding this technique?
How are we to understand “communication”
within this context?
I’m not sure what you mean by “container”
here… And risks? There is courage to any genuine
artistic expression because it “risks” not
being “nice”, not being “polite”
and not conforming to the comfort level of a sort of
focus-group mentality which prefers familiar challenges
and maneageable ideas. Defamiliarization was historically
conceived as “making strange” or the ability
to slow down a reader’s attention so that the
greased-wheels of common discourse could become a vehicle
for new awareness of the world. This awakening to one’s
world is not a transcendence, therefore, but reflects
the ideal of seeing things as they are with fewer preconceived
or habitual filters. This is the only true “risk”
of any art, that we gain a sensation of awareness which
permeates our otherwise more habit-driven lives. To
feel like one sees with fresh perspective is a pleasure
accompanied by loss and pain. Any artistic communication
is thereby one filled with noise (in the sense of information
theory, a unique communication) and more “difficult”
than might be expected from common cultural sources.
This question of “difficulty” is one which
is hotly contested due to the confusion between artistic
expression and other forms of cultural communication.
Defamiliarization is somehow key to this difference
and thereby perhaps constitutes some form of risk.
In your essay “Music Theater: Texts and Traces”
published in the Spring 1997 issue of Conjunctions,
you write, “Perhaps it was becoming clear to composers
and dramatists influenced by the upheavels of the media
century that war and peace, high and low culture, east,
west, north, south, speech, music and noise were not
so far apart after all. Stories, they learned, are dramatized
less through text or music primarily, but by the strategies
of the whole event (and that traditional values of musical
or textual intelligibility are overrated). Thus the
repertoire differs place to place, person to person
- but carried in the mumbles, whispers, screeches and
melodies we can either find or produce are all the treasures
of time.” This suggests that “stories”
are contingent upon much more than what is “officially”
presented. Will you elaborate on your idea of “the
strategies of the whole event”? How do mumbles,
whispers, screeches and melodies carry “all the
treasures of time”? What does this imply about
creation and its appreciation?
This quote refers to the tendency of experimental opera/music/dancetheater
to rely as much on mise-en-scene and on what might be
called a phenomenology of the multimedia stage, as on
traditional “scripts” for their meaning.
I believe the most interesting theatrical work is moving
away from the suffocated “closed” playscript
into the more open texts of multimedia, poetry, sound-based,
ritual and other forms of performance writing. In many
ways what I’m refering to above is a critique
of the theater industry as it is hamstrung in America
by the overprofessionalization of actors, writers, directors,
managers and literary hangers-on, as well as the real-estate
and subscriber-based aesthetics which suffocate theatrical
franchises. The people I curated in that issue of Conjunctions
are all working beyond these professional overcategorizations,
and their combination of expertise and naivety, working
between the narrow roles normally assigned, allow new
forms to emerge both on the stage and the page.
“…we kept it pretty simple, allowing the
blank space/black screen its thematic resonance with
the story implicit in the piece,” you write about
“Zoologic,” a collaboration with Jamie Jewett
published online in How2 (http://www.departments.bucknell.edu/stadler_center/how2/index.shtm).
The film consists of a black screen on which text appears
and disappears as you read in a soft monotone. Does
this description seem accurate?
Since I wrote that little blurb, I’m not sure
what you’re asking about its “accuracy”.
The blank space and white type reflect themes in the
piece about what is visible and what should be left
Rather than a “follow-the-bouncing-ball”
style of narrative, “Zoologic” seems to
have more in common with the prologues to “Star
Wars,” “Battlestar Galactica” and
“Star Trek,” all of which set the scene
for the tenuous struggle to survive amidst the darkness,
desolation and dread of deep space. Still, the stalwart
nature and ultimate triumph of enlightened humanity
is implied. How does “Zoologic” relate to
science fiction? To what extent do you address astronautical
and/or psychonautical concepts in your work?
Sadly, I don’t think I’m very much a science
fiction writer. However, I do tend to make use of scientific
thinking in my work, mostly to highlight its discourse-dimensions
(i.e. its artifices and maneuvres of thought) and the
narratives which lurk behind it. I’m fascinated
with how science tries to posit and prove truths, and
many of the justifications of behavior which accompany
this. I’m not, despite the way this may sound,
trying to debunk scientists, only reveal the more linguistic
and social dimensions to some of what passes as neutral.
Each piece I write may have some science or technological
discourse in it, but there are no overarching concepts
beyond the scope of each work.
Is the concluding line, “Don’t pour all
the animal out,” a command? A warning? Friendly
advice? Does this have anything to do with Darth Vader?
I don’t know how to answer that.
In his bestselling The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan
writes that, “To smell a raw potato is to stand
on the very threshhold of the domestic and the wild.”
What experience has opened a similar vantage point to
you? Do you ever launch yourself across the threshold?
How do you stay engaged in this type of situation?
I practice Buddhism which is a constant commitment
to trying my very darndest to stay awake, aware and
not to impose too much in the way of categorical thinking
on things. I hope that my work is therefore exploratory
and probative, not normative or habitual. I travel and
encounter a lot of what might be called “new”
though keeping things new every day is the ultimate
What advice can you offer that others might identify
and experience this type of threshhold via the ordinary?
What should we keep in mind as we stand on the brink?
I think anyone interested in awareness should study
awareness and mindfulness practices, keeping in mind
that any pursuit or goal can become “theistic”
in and of itself, and the greatest task of all is to
stay vigilent and mindful with one’s own mind.
In this way, habitual dualisms, especially in art practice,
can be avoided or troubled: nature/culture, prose/poetry,
form/content. etc etc etc etc.
Is there anything you’d like to add?