Nonfiction 0 11 jorge armenteros
Use Everything: An Interview with Thalia Field JORGE ARMENTEROS: In your first book, Point and Line, we find pieces characterized by a clear symmetry and a well-defined mathematical framework. “Seven Veils” is a good example. Yet in another piece, “Walking,” we see the contours of language and movement. What do these pieces tell us about the poetics of form? THALIA FIELD: Visual features reflect my suspicion that to tell a story is in some way to enact it—and the senses play a valuable part—our eyes reading to an inner
Thalia Field. Photo © Richard Cummings, Courtesy of New Directions
12 0 Nonfiction hearing, with silences and pacing—in a theatrical sense—informing us kinetically. Why doesn’t everyone use the page as a visual and performative field? It seems second nature, not as a conceptual choice but as a way to use everything available. In “Seven Veils,” the story slowly reveals an absence—the character’s nonparticipation in her own narrative as it gets imposed by the various textual “veils” (metaphors). As they become thinner, nothing remains but color and unprocessable material. The veils allow the story without the dance or the dancer’s body, to retell Wilde’s Salome after my fashion. “Walking” enacts attention that scatters at the pace of walking—the sort of walk that coexists with story. In this case, the “story part” is only a small fraction of what’s going on in the world. ARMENTEROS: Do you consider form a veritable storyteller? FIELD: The form of a story gives energy—as inseparably as bodies are to being alive. We’re not alive in any abstract way, and a story can’t exist formlessly (I say that, but I am in fact quite intrigued with how formlessness can exist at the limit of a story or a story at the limit of formlessness…). Writing in forms that are “inherited” through traditions is only a small part of what’s imaginable. Each new piece demands its own behavior and shape, how it moves through moments, stalls, turns, leaps, or crashes. ARMENTEROS: In “Hours” and “Setting, the Table” you make use of bracketed prompts to ask for the reader’s conspiracy in telling the story. Do you expect the reader to respond to the prompts from the character’s perspective or from their own personal perspective? FIELD: I’m fascinated by the relationship between our “unique” selves and the communal, conceptual, and linguistic categories to which we also belong. Do we ever live as anything other than our mental content, even when we take account of others? Or are we more an amalgam of inherited language and narrative and bodies and social fabrics? Where is the line of empathy, of projection, of consolation? Our minds fill in as best we can with shared ideas, shared words—but as language generalizes, it both gains and loses its status as something properly “ours.” As my mind contributes to the story, so does yours, and each differently, and yet also similarly. Prompts originally come from my theater work, where the performers memorized the prompts and spoke uniquely in each performance, even though the dramatic situations and much stage business were rehearsed. Crucially, the prompts were projected so that the audience was also filling them in, so the distance between all these responses revealed both individual minds as well as specific historical and cultural references. Needless to say, it was often very poignant and funny. When I wrote Point and Line, I was transitioning from working in theater to writing for books, and these pieces were my attempts to bring some of this exploration into indeterminacy on the page.
Nonfiction 0 13 ARMENTEROS: The use of prompts has implications for a wide variety of concerns relating to the way we view texts; it is a deeply profound revision of how meaning is created through the interaction of man and text. If literary meaning is constructed through mental processes irrevocably tied to each individual reader, do you then believe that reading is more central to a text’s intellectual “life” than its writing and, consequently, is the reader more important to a text than its writer? FIELD: From the process of creation to its existence in social space—it’s hard to pin down what’s most salient for a piece of art. Certainly a multiplicity emerges between creation and completion, as well as arguments and communion and laughter. Art worlds are experienced as overlapping but not always contiguous, and allowing and inviting multiple authorities into the creative process is how I reflect my experience of the polyphonic and dialectic multiverse where nothing agrees nor needs to resolve to be interesting and pleasurable. Stories hitch into this field of experience, sometimes for the length of a sentence or paragraph, sometimes longer. Readers hitch in too, I hope. ARMENTEROS: There are instances of metafiction in your pieces. For example, in “Walking,” the character struggles with the nature of the story. At one point she even asks, “How does the purposive nature of ‘going someplace’ affect the story?” Is literary art compelled to ask literary questions? FIELD: There are great works of art that don’t overtly ask questions about their own making, but I don’t think any art ignores the question, or can, anymore than we ever stop considering our life; the act of reflection is as basic as breathing. In “Walking,” the character’s inquiry is about the quality of story and how experience changes when we have a purpose, versus when we meander or proceed (for what choice do we have in this?) with only a vague sense of direction. Different sorts of walks may result in different sorts of stories because awareness and what a character perceives as story material differ. In this case, the walker has a few points of purpose in which her goals become acute, and then the rest of the walk engages questions of awareness, accident, thought, change. ARMENTEROS: The silence experienced by the character in “A ∴ I” creates a private space for the story to unfold. An interior monologue fills that space, allowing the reader to commune with the character. Is the interior monologue the most direct approach to the character’s mind? FIELD: I decided to use interior monologue for direct access to the funhouse mirror of interiority, the bizarre (and purely literary) fantasy of the ability to read interiority from external signs. The distance, then, between interior narrative (and the fantasy of its coherence) and exterior “action” is what interested me in this piece. Also, I wanted to explore how monologue is always dialogue, with the multiplicity of selves and potential stories that crowd even a straightforward situation. The therapist‘s chair
14 0 Nonfiction and what I sometimes think of as received notions of storytelling, have certain pitfalls in common, in this case the category confusion of “A” and “I.” This conflation is what bolsters the literary reliance on such an artificial device as the interior monologue (to heighten, I hope, its artificiality and seduction). I was contemplating the traps of believing in too singular and coherent reporting of one’s life, especially when it is expected to serve an explanatory or teleological function. ARMENTEROS: Your second book, Incarnate: Story Material, opens with “Autocartography,” a piece asking the reader to join you in a search for yourself. The exploration blurs the line between the self—Thalia Field—and the story. Can an author exist separately from his/her story? FIELD: That story serves as the first step in the journey of that collection, and as such it’s a bit the question that orients a quest. “What’s in a name?” Part of naming is personal and part an invitation into a global arena of histories, inevitably attached to other dreams. Searching my name (this was in the early Internet days) displayed a dispersal that overlapped my lifetime with others’. Who I happen to be, as an individual confronting information (stories as information, as well as experience), is partly embodied and undeniable fact-i-ness—but also an ever-evolving fiction. Names interest me for their bizarre ability to be so felt (private) and yet so collective. The feeling that our technologies give us of being able to enter other stories, in intense and yet disembodied ways, brings up questions of what being incarnate includes and maybe doesn’t. The project of this book begins here: in names and in searching for the boundaries of life. ARMENTEROS: There are multiple births in “Flickering,” or maybe manifold rebirthings of an original birth. Is the piece a commentary on the ephemeral nature of the self? FIELD: Unknowability preserves itself in “Flickering,” as you say, between one and many (or same and different) and whether we tend, confronted with stories, to join or to disunite them, to look for continuity or to assume that nothing relates. “Flickering”—the sudden ephemeral unaccountability of lifetimes—can fulfill either possibility. How is it to live for an instant—not from the perspective of what we think of as our one continuous life—but from another time frame? Given the mysteries of death and what passes from moment to moment, how do we incarnate this weird thing that is both particle and wave? ARMENTEROS: When reading “Land at Church City,” the image of Dalí’s Christ of Saint John of the Cross rushed into my mind. The piece forced me to consider churches from a different point of view. Are humans above the church? Can there be land and people without churches? FIELD: “Land at Church City” came to me as a rhythm and an image that soaked through, that pulled me into its world. That piece does try to look way way down
Nonfiction 0 15 and then also climb up. In religion, there’s the striving to please, to erase one’s self, the looking at the empty architecture and bizarre constructions and seeing them filled with invisible sacredness. Churches, religions, often seem to be the pinnacle of issues of incarnation, of transubstantiation—visions of this body, this life, as a constant battle for the future—for a good death, and whatever follows that. The view from above, the city which can’t be anything solid, which glows in constant efforts to transcend, is still made of stone and earth—and is still mundane, pragmatic, godless. There’s a conflicted relationship—the holy, the winged, and the leaden and dusty. I’ve never been sure where pragmatism fits, or atheism, or nontranscendental pleasures. Do we see from the sky or from the dirt? Can we experience life without meaning, a sort of nonsense? I don’t have answers, and I think I was just riffing on the image—painterly—that obsessed me of that town. ARMENTEROS: “Incarnate” is the darkest piece in the collection. It exudes a somber mood with its depiction of hell, prison, devils, mysterious trains, and unbridled impulses. Incarnation of the mind appears to render a fragile self. Is incarnation the original sin, the ultimate crime? FIELD: Your question intuits that this story focuses on mistakes, mostly of the flesh—the incarnate sins, as you say, that entrap us or that we embody through living them. Without bodies, our minds have no actors, no weapons, no tongues, no sufferings, and therefore it’s the body (including the social body) that can be our worst enemy when it’s perceived as sinful. I guess maybe the story asks why it’s bodies we lock up, sacrifice, torture, fetishize? Is the body a curse? Incarnation the root of suffering? We are often taught this implicitly, to imagine the reality of the body as nothing but sheer bliss or ultimately a corpse, either way it isn’t just the weird, powerful, unavoidable, and incredible passport to being alive. I don’t have a whole worked-out position on this, but the mystery of our incarnation, that we can feel our minds somehow have been imprisoned or are just “passing through”(some would say souls, perhaps) is deeply challenging to explore. ARMENTEROS: On the other hand, considering the unconscious, Borges once explained: “Writing is nothing more then a guided dream.” Does it feel that way to you? FIELD: Yes, because when I write my stories they often come from a still image of a situation that is mysterious to me—a static, shimmering, flickering (if you will) almost stage set—and from this weirdly suspended scene I follow the mystery through engaging it, losing it, refinding it, constructing and then dismantling it. When you ask about the pieces after they are done—many years after in some instances—I know in hindsight about their mysteries, but I also know the odd journey I took in discovering them and in bringing them forward. There are never answers, but the stories have taken on materiality, and thus perhaps is the movement from dream.
16 0 Nonfiction ARMENTEROS: Is that journey a pleasurable one? FIELD: Sure! Writing is the torment of the beautiful. It’s painful for how fleeting and impossible to grasp, but when it works there’s nothing like it. For me it’s all about being in conversation, and this is my best way of engagement in the world. ARMENTEROS: At the center of “Story Material,” we find the question of identity. The character has no boundaries—one becomes all. If the mind exists in many bodies, do you write your stories from a collective consciousness in a Durkheimian mode? FIELD: That story is an adaptation of the Cyclops chapter of The Odyssey, and explores binocular versus singular vision—and by extension, how “all-is-one” is incompatible with our perception that we are “heroes” of our own epics. Another way to put it is the power of the all-is-one—the massing of energy that becomes hurricane-like with its “I”/”eye” but that also brings a violence to rip the hero from narrative attachments that may have more depth, be able to see the beauty and preciousness of life before it. But how is that possible? Again, the fight between the transcendent and the earthly, nihilism versus idealism (or is it pragmatism?)—anyway—this piece was always more ambitious than successful. Like the monster, it wouldn’t let me go. ARMENTEROS: In “Crewel,” we find an embroidery of physical elements. There are cells, teeth, sugar, pure nitrogen, phosphorescence, marine flesh… The natural world fills the piece. Is this how we incarnate a story? FIELD: I like your question because “Crewel” is the end stage, the natural decomposition of age into old age (if we’re lucky!) and how it looks from outside—the point of view of the young, the guitar-picking, the insouciant. It shows how incarnation fails us irretrievably. Nothing really new here of course—but that sense of the helplessness of oldness that returns us to babies, and the hallucinogenic creatures we become, beacons of our destitution and strangeness, estranged and glowing—and the silent nonsense that is made of our well-wrought work. This looks odd, and is unknowable, as death is, outside itself. ARMENTEROS: Tessella—one of the characters in “Zoologic”—“went to become an individual but everyone had become it.” Are characters viable as individuals? FIELD: Tessella and her odd house and her weird dance and her fear of being touched—there’s a lot of her that came to me conjured as one normally thinks characters are conjured. I see and hear Tessella, and often that is true of my characters—though I have been accused of having no characters in my stories. I beg to differ, of course, since, as you ask, characters as individuals is merely a convention we can fight for, or relinquish. Tessella is a special kind of person who cannot imagine she is anything less than unique and that everything she owns has become hers through this special amazingness. That’s one kind of storyline, especially in places that put huge premiums on selling us our self-stories based on things we own,
Nonfiction 0 17 control, or put in bank accounts. But there are many other things that could define us as characters and individuals, and that’s the way we overlap, rather than abut. The other “character,” Heine Hediger (not Heidegger as a few have misread it) is a historical figure, one of the first I used explicitly in my work. So…somehow in all that, “Zoologic” came forward. It’s got some flaws, though, and…well, I love this piece because I’m still in it, but for that reason, it (like “Story Material”) is a piece I consider partly failed. I never could get it right completely. And right, before you ask, means achieving a balance of its mysteries and their elaborations. I’m not satisfied with this one yet. Probably because it contains so many messy questions I’m still working through. I’m not bothered that it’s in the book, or anything like that. We (it and me) did all we could. Some stories just have to hover in conditions of failure like that… No problem. ARMENTEROS: Your third book, ULULU (Clown Shrapnel), emerges as a novel structured as a five-act play, drawing on the rituals of opera, music, poetry, film, and fiction. Different from your first two books where we find discrete pieces, this book flows like water over pebbles of history. What inspired you to make that change? FIELD: I become obsessed with things and then follow them and maybe that is a mark of insanity. ULULU was really a crazy book—it was never under control in any sense whatsoever. It was always escaping me—bigger and wilder than anything I could imagine, and so I think it bears the mark of this in its utter extremity. This is definitely one of those failures I mentioned before—an obsession that must play itself out but…I don’t know…it was born of obsession and love, so it’s an honest failure, but still… I hadn’t ever written anything long like that and I’m not particularly in tune with plot, as it can be used to structure the audience’s experience. So I think the small sections (which are the original skeleton bones of the libretto) were the only way I could find the rhythms in the overall piece. Over time I did find the structures I cared about—the odd U-shaped parabola of its characters and events (derived from the opera of course) and the mirror events and moments that start to shape the book after the film section. ARMENTEROS: A plot is a plot is a plot, or is it not? FIELD: There is plot, but I’m always more interested in situations. Situations change and that’s a kind of plot. Language is a plot, too, and so are mix-ups and nonsense. Really, any situation can be a plot because as it changes, time moves forward. ARMENTEROS: Did Lulu need a mask? Could her sexually unconstrained persona have existed outside the realm of commedia? FIELD: I found her masked by the others, and this is what’s important about commedia—whose conveniences are difficult to undermine or survive. As a character, she is a type I’d touched on in “Seven Veils”—the paradoxical position of the adolescent girl, the ambisexual or presexual situation where one is no longer under
18 0 Nonfiction the sway of a mother, where one is not also yet an adult. This challenge presses others into behavioral back alleys and crevices that are necessarily uncomfortable at best, criminal at worst. We find the emergence of the girl from the chrysalis, but without romance; with the stark honesty of the child, and the brutality reflecting the world she encounters. Lulu’s character, seen through the mask, is impossible to find, even though she appears to us in moments as genuine. The triple mirror of commedia, of the familiar character we see because of the costume, mask, and type of utterance—and then the actor behind the character and the authors who invent the containers for it all. ARMENTEROS: Obsessions seem to unleash your creativity. Do they ever frighten you? FIELD: Only in that they can go on seemingly interminably. Controlling them enough to wrangle them into viable works of art—that’s the challenge. ARMENTEROS: In the “silent film” section, we find text paired with film stills. Surgical images on the edge of the page flank tarnished celluloid images of a man and a woman dancing “like a burning building,” or perhaps the woman is “fighting to free herself.” Is the text intending to illuminate film’s irrational space? FIELD: The silent film in the book is crucial because it kept being ignored in stage productions. I finally did see a production with the film, and it was riveting. I was interested in the question of its usage at the turning point—at the very bottom of the “U”—the point of contact with the mirror, so to speak, the narrative mirror. I’m in no way a theorist of anything, so I think my work here is much more mundane. The film needs to deliver Lulu’s escape, and show that damage was done. I wanted to bring up some of film’s early history, since this was contemporary with Wedekind and Berg’s time. Using Bill Morrison’s work was always my plan, because he’s been the prime force in resurrecting history through film, and film from history, and also in theatricalizing it. His work provides the perfect accompaniment and counterpoint. ARMENTEROS: Is ULULU proposing a synesthetic approach to art? Are we to transcend the limits of our cognitive and perceptual processes? FIELD: I wanted to stage the novel. I definitely hoped to create a sense of a persistent musicality—where different kinds of language combine so that we’re both “caught up” in meaning, but also continually forced into a theatricality that loosens it up and puts other aspects of textual experience—texture, tone, rhythm, nonsense, jokes, etc.—into play. The theatricality of what’s possible in a novel, that a novel can perform, I hope there is an expanse of pleasure. I continually flashed to Finnegans Wake as a teacher for this project. It gave me courage and permission. ARMENTEROS: Your fourth book, Bird Lovers, Backyard, continues to blend literary genres. In the opening piece, “Apparatus for the Inscription of a Falling Body,” the group addressing the “pigeon problem” has at their disposal what appears to
Nonfiction 0 19 be Corbusier’s The City of To-Morrow and Its Planning. In this 1929 classic, the great architect turned from the design of houses to the planning of cities, articulating concepts and ideas that helped shape our world. An architect turned philosopher. Likewise, are we to read this piece, and most others in this and past collections, as the rendering of a new literary practice? FIELD: The group uses texts to try to relate theory to practice. They want to get how the container relates to the contents, form to force, to farce. Their basic issue is how understanding, or contemplation/philosophy, leads to action, or whether action itself is a form of theory. Questions of language and its relationship to behavior (maybe how constructing problems can become a violence) are considered in different ways by the group as they struggle to resolve, in this instance, why pigeons have fallen to the level of a problem—unwanted, discarded, waste or by-product, polluting. ARMENTEROS: The seaside sparrow in “This Crime Has a Name” is cast as a philosopher. He considers challenging questions. For example, “You say species, I say illusion, past-present, accident, karma, nonsense, or simply say nothing.” Or even more poignant, “Am I a unit of life, a unit of evolution, or am I simply the latest in a long series of mistakes?” Would having a private language help him answer his questions? FIELD: He says right up front that a private language isn’t possible, because it would ultimately be nonsense. Is there one narrator in this piece, or six? There are one and six. The paradox of extinction renders common understandings meaningless, and looking for ways to describe being on the verge of extinction, told from hindsight, renders the narrative even more ridiculous. There are answers but there are no answers, so the bird(s) who supposedly tell this story can’t be resolved. Language finds ways to construct definitions but can’t untangle the truths that exist in their contradictions. This isn’t a private language, it’s a story that might be beyond language but still has to live in it to survive. ARMENTEROS: The boundary line between the sea and the earth, that sinusoidal line that backs away and enters the land or the sea at the same time, is at the heart of “Parting.” In what ways does this line resemble the boundaries of the self? FIELD: There is an ecology of work in “Parting”—the deep sort of labor that ends by transcending the actor and the action. The labor of the sea and of the beach. There are nuns involved. There are attempts to make solid what is passing. There is the freight of what washes up and what washes away, and time and its futile highrises. The labor of the impossible and changing. ARMENTEROS: “Exposition: He Told Animal Stories” reveals Konrad Lorenz’s contradictions in his attempt to extrapolate from animal experiments a pseudo-scientific and politically convenient notion of human hybridity. Different from most other pieces, here we can feel the narrator’s emotions. I sense anger, sarcasm. What does this piece mean to you?
20 0 Nonfiction FIELD: There’s a sadness to Lorenz’s lost childhood friend that belies the trap he seems to have set for himself throughout the rest of his work and life. The original issue of friendship, or companion behavior, joins his work and his biography as he struggles to make sense of his species-jumping analogies. The work of analogies runs in different ways throughout Bird Lovers, Backyard, so looking at Lorenz’s use of them felt crucial, considering the questions the book poses about literary and scientific hybridities. Lorenz stands at the junction—being both a storyteller and a scientist—and truly mixes both in ways he may or may not have intended. The overlapping nature of language as it moves between those registers allows specific questions of how stories bridge science and art. ARMENTEROS: In “Development: Another Case for Television,” a developmentally delayed girl is being studied by a questionable scientist. She has no language, forms no attachments, and has compulsive behaviors (hoarding liquid containers in her room). These are characteristics also found in people with Autistic Disorder. Can this girl, or anyone else with a similar condition, have a meaningful life without language? FIELD: The girl is based on Genie, the second child in modern times to have been studied after extreme social and linguistic isolation. This has nothing to do with autism, as she was essentially tortured and abused. Her lack of language was not a biological given, and the efforts to disentangle the scientific from the personal behaviors of all concerned is what the story explores. There’s no way to know how to answer your question because it’s not from her point of view that the piece is based. If anything, the book insists that to know another point of view without shared language is one of the most interesting challenges (narrative or otherwise) I can think of. The same challenge occurs in “This Crime” and in “Youthful Folly” and certainly in “He Told Animal Stories,” even in “Discussion Group”—how to make sense of other minds? How to tell stories of those minds or make sense of them for our purposes? It’s a fool’s errand… So what can be done? ARMENTEROS: “Recapitulation: Youthful Folly” is a keen exploration of the precincts of language. Are you suggesting that language exists beyond the boundaries of genres, of species? FIELD: I’m suggesting that it’s difficult to know other minds and therefore what can we do when we must construct others in language or in stories? We tell all manner of stories involving people or animals we don’t have any way to understand, so we look for every possible guideline—decoding behaviors, applying paradigms of theories—etc.—to gain a foothold and stake a claim. This effort, this storytelling apparatus, results in good dogs being put to death, in failures of imagination, and in a slowness to recognize good teaching. That is the “youthful folly” referred to in that piece—the easy reflex to put language where awareness should go. So…I’m sort of saying that defining things like species and genres is a language game too much of the time, to detrimental effect.
Nonfiction 0 21 ARMENTEROS: Your most recent book, A Prank of Georges, introduces the reader to a mischievous group of machines. One of the stories, “Machine for Food,” contains the following verses: “with a name, there’s a plot to be buried in/ with a name, you’re an individual grave with funerals.” Are you suggesting that the act of naming defines an individual while killing his/her potential at the same time? FIELD: No, not really, it’s not that serious. That machine deals with the production of food and names, how food has proper names sometimes, or how the name that we become if we are food is a new name. The thing about graves is that if we want our own, we’re expected to have a name, and if not there’s a certain kind of conundrum about where to put us, and it also goes to the relationship of geography and names. It’s hard to make these particular machines make absolute sense, you may discover. They are playful and quickly make hash of what’s put in. In this machine, it’s partly food and partly as always about proper names, which forms the general playground of the book. ARMENTEROS: You conjure the myth of the chimera. A creature who, according to Hesiod’s Theogony, “breathed raging fire, a creature fearful, great, swift-footed and strong, who had three heads, one of a grim-eyed lion; in her hinderpart, a dragon; and in her middle, a goat, breathing forth a fearful blast of blazing fire.” Is the chimera the ultimate individual? FIELD: Again, I can’t make a generalization about it—but in Prank of Georges, the chimeras stand for a certain language play that results in new creatures. These new beasts exist in odd taxonomies and are studied with great seriousness for their properties, which, true enough, are often hard to distinguish among individuals and populations. The chimeras here are made by machine, the same machines which are producing other names and oddities throughout the book. Then of course there’s the issue of George Washington’s mouth. ARMENTEROS: The chorus in “Machine for Making Eggs” proclaims: “Any statement which mentions a particular individual is spatio-temporally restricted and thus can’t be a law of nature.” Are we all then “event entities”? FIELD: I sense your desire to make sweeping proclamations from this stuff, but I can’t help with that, for the same reason that Thalia Field cannot be a law of nature according to some logicians. Can I be a property of something? Or am I merely an event passing through space-time? Who is being talked about in the statement, “Everybody counts”? What do I share with someone else named Thalia? I don’t have any answer—the whole purpose of these machines is only to pose and repose questions. As the book then says, “Why are we stuck with just two choices?” ARMENTEROS: At one point in A Prank of Georges, you explore the location of the self. The head is suggested but readily questioned. Are you proposing individuality lies outside the body proper?
22 0 Nonfiction FIELD: No, I’m clowning around with the seriousness with which folks ask such questions! I’m not interested in the answer per se, but I am amused by the attempts to make answers. Those particular answers are from Descartes (and others) who spent many good hours thinking about where the soul (“selfe”) might be located. To prove or unprove such a thing they cut earthworms into pieces and saw that they still moved around, even without their souls. Or did they? Humans trying to find answers to unsolvable questions are particularly entertaining (to me, likely less so to the worm). ARMENTEROS: Do you think I am reading too much into these pieces? FIELD: Yes, I think you are—no insult intended! There are playful uses of historical material and of serious theories—but all to run them through our inventive machines so that one can begin to tease out the more fundamental issues which have to do with characters, populations, ancestries. ARMENTEROS: You seem to enjoy investigating ancestry. Or more precisely, how names evolve, morph, and turn into surprising versions of their original selves. What’s in a name? Why is the act of naming so important for you? FIELD: This book of pranking machines plays with the relationships of proper names to places, geographies, birthdays, and bottom natures as put forward in the works of Gertrude Stein. So our interest in names also has to do with the relationship of proper names to categorical nouns, and hence to how individuals and populations relate. Our machines make a web of this inquiry in which Gertrude Stein, and others, appear. There are stories, play fragments, and bits of what might be called essay. All the questions about names are important because they don’t have single or simple answers and so we don’t have to answer any of them and can still satisfy ourselves with the thoroughness of the asking. ARMENTEROS: Most of your work, thus far, employs experimental syntax while exploring the limits of linguistic semantics. What is your next frontier? The intersection of literature and music? The convergence of diverse media and art forms? Where do we go from here? FIELD: I’m finishing up a novel that brings a constellation of historic characters into play—an amusingly unwieldy adventure. I hope you will get to see it soon. I’m also working on a second collaborative book with Abigail Lang. ARMENTEROS: How do collaborations affect your creative process? FIELD: I’ve been very lucky to have had tremendous collaborators. Collaborations—even if not the primary project I’m working on—feed back into the whole system a lot of new and playful freedoms that might have got gunked up elsewhere. ARMENTEROS: If you belong to a tradition, what would you call it? Where are the roots of your genealogical tree, and in which directions do its branches grow?
Nonfiction 0 23 FIELD: For inspiration and discipline, I sometimes create a collage portrait of my artistic genealogy—and it includes particular works as much as authors. Some of those works—the ones I consistently return to—include: Brecht’s Mother Courage, Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet, Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, Ellison’s Invisible Man, the I Ching, Beckett’s novels, Finnegans Wake, Tristram Shandy, Don Quixote, the films of Charlie Chaplin and much of Groucho Marx, Monty Python, Fellini, and other comedian-authors. Other authors whose works I feel in conversation with include Natalie Sarraute, Milan Kundera, Gertrude Stein, Ann Carson, Laslo Krasnahorkai, Anton Chekhov. Of course there are many more whom I consider part of my working conversation but that gives a sense. I’m drawn to artists whose projects exist beyond easy generic definition—and often works where the author’s voice disrupts other narrative surfaces, or where there is a tendency toward polyvocality, clowning, or argument combined with humorous or ludicrous logical paradoxes. ARMENTEROS: Do you think Mallarmé would have approved of your books? FIELD: Since I’m really in conversation with works, it’s the works that I return to as one would to trusted teachers. A trusted teacher never gives answers but rather gives permissions, and as such there’s an obvious one-way-ness of the mentorship.” The gift of art is that it inspires and provokes and, if one is disposed, teaches—but I don’t expect more than that—and certainly approval is beside the point since works can’t approve or not. Definitely Mallarmé’s works give permissions, and for that they are in the conversation. Artists give the courage and strangeness of their work—nothing more. I would much rather experience someone’s work than meet them in person. ARMENTEROS: Roberto Bolaño once said: “Let’s say the story and plot arise by chance, that they belong to the realm of chance, that is chaos, disorder, or the realm that’s in constant turmoil (some call it apocalyptic). Form, on the other hand, is a choice made through intelligence, cunning and silence, all the weapons used by Ulysses in his battle against death.” Does this resonate with your own creative process? FIELD: That’s lovely—and I too find creative process an impossible journey—different for each idiosyncrasy, different for each book, with different departures, itineraries, and modes of development, argument, and arrival. One of the only consistencies I’ve found in creative process is the importance of staying patient with how bad writing can be along the way, combined with a terrible impatience and stubborn unwillingness to stop until it’s working. I often hold a feeling of an ending in mind—a feeling of its conundrum or its temperature or even how it feels to turn the eventual last page (what question remains? What is hovering there? What new direction is being indicated beyond the last word…?). This feeling is similar to sensing the top of a mountain while hiking—there’s no way to skip any step, but it’s also good to feel desire for a particular place. I find desire and also repulsion very instructive humors. Also, pure amusement. Pure cussedness. I guess there’s Ulysses for you.
24 0 Nonfiction Another way I feel the process of a piece is theatrically—as I would direct a theater performance—feeling my way through it in time, from the first instant to situations or knots along the way, and then a sense of what the last moments may feel like. There’s an important linearity (or an accumulation through time) that’s essential to my books—I think of them like albums or performances—order matters. Inviting multiple points of authority, or dispersing the arguments in a piece, keeps me from feeling worn out by a project, like I’m knowing too much or quieting any voices that have something to say. ARMENTEROS: The natural sciences pervade your books. Do you have a scientific background? FIELD: I was an errant student of evolutionary biology, history of science, and sociolinguistics—but I never could be a professional researcher—I have absolutely no ability to stay with details of that sort or ask scientific questions that weren’t ultimately more about storytelling or language. I never fit easily into the existing confines of disciplinary methodology—so I sort of took the questions that interested me and ran. ARMENTEROS: Your writing lures the reader, it asks for his/her conspiracy. Do you expect them to be experimentalists or wonderers? FIELD: I think I try to give my writings enough different forms of energy that the reader can enjoy what’s inside as well as outside them—a porousness when it comes to the dispersal of authority. Though I’ve been accused of it, I have zero intention of making muddled or difficult reading for anyone—no nefarious intention toward obfuscation. I truly write what I like to read—and when I’m satisfied with a project, all I can hope is that someone else will find it pleasurable and provocative, interesting and certainly amusing. The work I like the best makes me think, laugh, eventually feel that I’ve spent my time in the company of a great conversationalist or composer. When I love a work, I feel I have journeyed with a great storytelling mind and that the journey was really refreshing. That’s all I hope to do myself. ARMENTEROS: Do you consider yourself a poet, a narrator, an essayist, a dramaturge, all of the above? FIELD: A storyteller. Motto: use everything.