Summer 2005


Summer 2005


(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 ( 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 unseen.

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 goal.

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?

Thank you

Jason Rawn is an MFA candidate at Naropa University's Kerouac School. He is currently researching his thesis on Edward Sanders, Investigative Poetry and 1968: A History in Verse. His work has been greatly influenced by investigating Investigative Poetry. Interviews, epigraphs, a fuller use of the page, a more playful approach and intentions to "surround an item of time/with thick vector-clustors of/Gnosis" and to "Interrogate the Abyss!" are some specifics he's picked up during the process.



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