Microinterview with Thalia Field

John Madera
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This issue features a microinterview with Thalia Field, conducted by John Madera. Field’s work as a prose writer involves philosophical inquiries, topographies, dismantling of form, and fragmentation of narrative. She questions notions of genre, and her work often steps off the page in other forms, like dance, theater, silent film, and various multimedia amalgamations. The results don’t offer neat conclusions, but provide catalysts for further exploration. Field is on the literary arts faculty at Brown University, where she teaches experimental fiction and performance.


THE BELIEVER: In your book Bird Lovers, Backyard, the birds ask: “Does art merely say things that aren’t facts, but assert them just as strongly? Assert things but refuse to prove them? Argue but not corroborate?” If it’s true that art asserts things as strongly as if they were facts, asserts them without proof, argues them without corroboration, should we trust those assertions?

THALIA FIELD: Asserting is a key word, and I’m glad you used it—it’s in the nature of every character to assert, to want to make ourselves believed (to believe ourselves). Finally, trust is maybe not in the assertion of belief but in compassion toward the confusion behind all assertions. It’s a condition of living to assert as much as we can, but if you’re the first or the last—as those birds are or Neil Armstrong is—are you beyond description? An assertion disrupts like any obstacle, creating form. We take it under consideration when others assert themselves, because they’re part of our world. But trust them? Maybe art can be honest in not requiring an economy of trust, while demonstrating the powerful contingency of beliefs and systems. Maybe.


THE BELIEVER: In A Prank of Georges, Gertrude Stein is quoted as saying that “poetry is concerned with using with abusing, with losing with wanting.” How does poetry manifest these concerns?

THALIA FIELD: The full phrase in the book is: “Poetry is concerned with using with abusing, with losing with wanting, with denying with avoiding with adoring with replacing the noun.” It is the noun and the naming function which A Prank of Georges spirals around—via Stein—via a number of discourses and practices. Poetry (writ large) is textually represented by Stein, and argued only in her voice… a variety of proposals about nouns, and a parallel infatuation with proper nouns, or names—their provenance, and, most importantly, what they say about personality. What is the difference between noun and proper name?


THE BELIEVER: You quote Gertrude Stein in “Machine for Making Spare Parts”: “And a list. A list of names a list of names a list of names and nearly a list of names and nearly a list of names and told nicely and made yesterday and nearly and a list of names and made yesterday and nearly and a list of names and nearly and nearly a list. And nearly a list.” Would you describe the impulse behind inventorying and cataloging? What do lists evoke for you?

THALIA FIELD: Lists have appeared in my pieces from the very beginning, so, yes—an interest in the problem there—though now, many years later, we live in a world in which “information” has become ever more paradigmatic: the archive, the data-mining, the merging of the personal and the social via—even as—textual media. There was, perhaps already in my lists, a sense of the haphazard, the chance encounter, the abutment, where fragments of larger things are assembled through the intervention of strange orders. At basis, this is a list: a new reason for association, a logic. I find an ugly accidental beauty in this list-logic, when it flowers. The list, fundamentally, collects, making categorical superposition, which influences and recasts the individual members, so this listing becomes also an echo, or questions in some way the functioning of the individual, the protagonist/hero, and the chorus. What members have in common, what the common good says about the individual, I feel an impressive tension between the parts and the whole, no matter how provisional the whole (of necessity) is, and the infinite regression of parts into new wholes and those parts ever partier


THE BELIEVER: In “Machine for Sentences,” Gertrude Stein is quoted: “I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences.” Taking apart sentences is a prevailing concern of yours. How did this interest develop for you?

THALIA FIELD: Where Stein’s interest was in diagrams, mine has always been in the legacy of analytic philosophy: the dream that there is a mathematical truth basis to language, the fantasy of an ideal toward which our utterances reach. The tension between these fantasies, and the messy displays of our confusions—this, to me, makes a lovely cacophony, a polyphony, a mangled chorus of desiring mud-men and so-called angels. Also, the aura of energy which is the situation surrounding language, which escapes language and becomes awareness, some more basic sense of “what’s happening”—this flow of awareness ruins any allegiance to language as the highest definition of consciousness. That quest for logic, when defiled, is both tragicomic and deeply great. Of course, the tetralemma, or the catuskoti of Buddhist philosophy, provides another basis for undermining the impulse to give language too much solidity. The fecundity of annihilated logic is endlessly magnificent somehow.


THE BELIEVER: Your poems and essays often probe and question. They rarely directly answer the questions posed, seemingly to stimulate critical thinking and to illuminate ideas. Why are you concerned with this dialectical method of inquiry?

THALIA FIELD: I’m not concerned, as an academic might be, with the truthiness of ideas. In fact, I mostly find theories amusing for how seriously they are taken. (When I catch myself believing them, it’s often at the price of a good laugh.) The freedom of literature is having no need to be consistent, truthful, or demonstratively systematic, and, in fact, I’m more interested in that upswell of existence where questions overtly conflict. Embodied in characters and situations, conflicting “truths” create tensions, or muddy dramatic situations, in often urgent and silly ways, the results of obsessive, half-dreamed, overworked theories. If the questions change, the story shifts, or runs into new obstacles, and new alliances and problems arise. The tragicomic outcome of this profound capacity to believe ourselves is what you might be calling dialectic. Out of apparently intransigent opposition often comes nonsense or newsense. We inherit questions and assertions and language from our elders, whether they live in our books, our televisions, our houses, our imaginations, our computers, city hall, or just the condo complex next door. Where a person (species?) begins and ends includes all the verbiage that has spun into and out of us—gunked us up—or provided relief. I often think people seem like walking, talking, motley philosophies, trying to assert ourselves—and this is perhaps the basis of any method you’re detecting.


THE BELIEVER: Most things designated “innovative” are merely demonstrative of past practices, and “experimental” usually means a set of routines with an expected outcome. What do terms like innovation and experimental mean to you?

THALIA FIELD: You’re right that innovation cannot be about dull habit, dull mind. The weather does and doesn’t experiment. A child does and doesn’t innovate. A tree does and doesn’t experiment. Runoff from the mountain: does it innovate? Change tempts me to make meaning to act (build, learn) on. But that’s too much like building on beaches—never a great notion. So how the hell do I have any idea what to do? “Don’t just do something, sit there!” Against the pressure of the stream, I try to find answers and assert things, or there can’t be shape at all. So sitting there making shapes, I allow experiment (experience) by letting things grow. Die. Then next. So maybe “innovation” tells me to make virtues from my failings, and try not to plan or aim or look too hard for a mirror. What I remind myself: Relax. Hold your peace turtle. Let the situation lead, and try to put answers in the refrigerator, not the freezer.

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