From Teen Witch to Techno-shaman: An Interview with Tina Hyland

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Written by Yesenia Padilla

Tina Hyland is a brilliant poet, published in The Best American Experimental Writing 2015, among other publications and journals, as well as a masterful performer. Tina’s command of her audience while she performs is skilled and nuanced; she is graceful and astute, engaging listeners at every turn, making each of her performances a uniquely powerful experience. And, on top of all of that, Tina is a skilled witch, incorporating her extensive knowledge of magical practice into her academic work as a Master of Fine Arts candidate at University of California, San Diego (more on that later). So, it almost goes without saying that the first time I met Tina Hyland, I was basically blown away by her presence. Fortunately, Tina is also extremely gracious and kind, and agreed to sit down for an interview about her art, her magical practice, and more. Enjoy!


Thanks so much for sitting down with us, Tina! Can you describe your introduction to your magical practice? Were there any experiences that you care to share that moved you toward your practice today?

I come from a generation raised on The Craft, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, a whole lot of magic and witchy prime time moments. When I was 14, my first job was at a shoe store in a weird Florida mall. The manager, Debbie,was a 40-something solitary witch of the Scott Cunningham brand, and that was a huge deal to me. Witchcraft wasn’t just the stuff of television, movies or daydreams—it was something adults could take seriously, and something I could live and practice. At the same time, it was rebellious and needed to be hidden from my parents. Basically, perfect. Over time, I asked a lot of religious questions and soaked up her answers. I wanted to be Debbie, and I followed her magical lead from books to tarot decks to deities. She told me her cat was a familiar named Taboo, so I named my first cat Taboo, and I didn’t really know what that meant—I only knew that when she told me her cat’s name, she smiled like it was mischievous. That was enough for me.

Like a lot of young witches without covens, I had a marked up copy of Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner and a small fleet of Llewelyn titles. Llewellyn books make me feel nostalgic, like I should bust out some black lipstick and bad attitude, get back in touch with that mall witch teen vibe. I’ve never put it that way before, but I totally was a mall witch. My supplies and my knowledge came from malls and mall store managers, and that’s where I met other witches too. I would sit in the New Age section of a Barnes & Noble for hours, just waiting ’til someone cool was in the aisle. Before the internet was ubiquitous, everyone was a bit of a creepy lurker, I guess.
Aside from the tarot, most of that is in my past. I still reference a few of those Llewelyn books. Especially Cunningham’s encyclopedias of stones and herbs. I’m also powerfully attracted to a good rhyming couplet.  

Can you talk a little bit about your current practice? What traditions/experiences are you currently drawing from, what is the focus of your practice? What are some of your favorite tools within your practice now?

I’m a neophyte in the IOT, so currently, I work a lot with chaos magic. That means different things to different people, but for me, it’s a kind of ritual flexibility—a willingness to experiment outside my comfort zones and to create new magical and collaborative experiences with fellow chaos magicians. I have adopted, tried out and discarded a lot of magical paradigms and practices, and I’m very influenced by what other pact members are doing and thinking. It’s a lovely community, and I’m grateful to be a part of it.

As for my own practice, I’m interested in objects, the ways they are alive and interactive, and how I’m able to enter into conversation with them through magic. Lately, I’ve been collecting Victorian mourning jewelry. I’ve got buttons that were plaited with hair and taken from a moth-eaten dress. They feel like holy objects, full of love and care and grief. I’ve also got a locket with a beautiful woman’s image set across from a braided section of her hair. I’d like to be haunted by them. I’m thinking about ways to incite a haunting with these “objects” that are very alive to me, maybe visit with them in my dreams.

Tina Hyland showcases her Victorian hair button. 

Tina Hyland showcases her Victorian hair button. 

Tina's hands holding an antique locket.

Tina's hands holding an antique locket.

I do that often—find objects that speak to me and set up rituals around them. Recently, I was working a lot in sex magic, and I found a 2nd century Roman eyeliner tool. It’s bronze, with a swan sitting on top, just above a talisman to protect against the evil eye. Through that, I constructed an idea of who had owned it—I imagined she was a wealthy pagan prostitute. Pliny the Elder wrote that if you have too much sex, all of your eyelashes fall out. For that reason, prostitutes were very much about emphasizing the eye, as though the lushness of the eye correlated directly to the freshness of the vagina. Then there’s the swan, a symbol of Venus, goddess of whores, and the evil eye ward. Something about the owner’s beauty regimen was drawing in envy that she needed to deflect. Together, those facts built a beautiful Roman prostitute in my mind. So, I spent a night burning almonds and mixing them with oil to make my own kohl. Now, I apply that kohl with the eyeliner tool whenever I need to muster some serious sexual energy and allure.

Because of that tendency to find and honor objects, my favorite tools change pretty often. There are a few staples I’m always working with: tarot cards, stones, candles, herbs, high tech devices and the internet.

You're an academic (soon to be MFA - Congratulations! Next year, you’ll be a PhD Candidate in Literature), and a poet, and your magical work shows up quite a bit in your academic/literary work. How do these two seemingly-separate worlds play with one another? In what ways do they gel, and in what ways do they experience tension? How do you react to those areas of tension?

All of those things have become entangled for me. I can’t really imagine one practice without the others. A lot of the theory I read in a seminar space inspires me toward new conceptions of magic and practice and writing. Just as an example, right now I am thinking about an affect theory of magic, drawing mostly from Deleuze and Guattari, and Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter. For them everything is made of the same energetic material. The main difference between my body and a rock is that we are moving at different speeds and intensities, with different affects or ways of interacting in the world. I’m moving so fast, in my human speed, that I perceive the rock as inert. But it’s moving too, in geological time. We all have a series of tendencies, ways we act in the world and on each other; when things meet at the same speed and intensity, they can enter into an assemblage, or a temporary and unnatural union. Applying that kind of thinking to magic, Cunningham’s encyclopedia of stones and metals reads like as a list of affects particular to each stone. Clear quartz has a tendency to hold and direct energy, amethyst has a tendency toward sobriety, bloodstone tends toward healing, etc. If I want to enter into assemblage with a stone, so that the stone and I can truly interact and see how our affects blend, the magic ritual becomes a speed matching game. I am going to slow myself while the stone is excited. Taking that out of a speculative interaction with a stone and into common magical techniques, when you do group workings—maybe you’re all panting or chanting or drumming to enter a trance simultaneously—this can be seen as a way of matching speed and intensity to achieve a desired effect in the room or in the world.

So academic work easily moves into the magical, but the reverse—being a witch with witchy contributions in a seminar, that’s not always as smooth. For the most part, grad students are curious and kind people, and if you know what you’re talking about, they will listen and jot a few notes. But there are definitely times where I’ve gotten some eye rolls. Recently, I was in a great seminar with Page DuBois, whose book A Million and One Gods should be on every pagan’s required reading list. It was a course on New Materialism, which is a movement rethinking the roles and capacities of materials in the world. We were talking about objects that act—something that is a major part of any magical practice and especially dear to mine. I brought in a few Roman objects, like evil eye talismans and a fascinus—which is a little penis hung around the necks of children or soldiers to protect them—and passed them around the room, making a case for how in the Roman world, the gaze or a feeling of envy had real consequence, was a thing that could penetrate you, and to protect yourself, it was crucial to have an object that acted as concretely on the world as that gaze. Some people were into it, other people were like, oh my fucking god, this witch. But really though, New Materialism is the world of the witch, and it’s the academic who should enter it with the humility of a guest. Not the other way around. Academics can forget how often they are intellectually vacationing in the spaces where others have built a life. One of the great ironies of being both a writer and a future scholar of literature is seeing just how often PhD students think that MFA students are not as smart or as serious. It’s outrageous. We write the kinds of materials that students of literature devote their lives to studying. But some have an attitude. They seem to think writers are accidentally brilliant, and that it’s through analysis—or being selected for analysis—that our work is given meaning. As a writer, let me just say—the smart stuff I’m trying to put in my art, I’m trying to put it there on purpose, with intention, through thoughtful engagements with a lot of ideas and a carefully developed set of tools.

As for the art itself, that’s my preferred mode for communicating all of this stuff. And as an artist, I get away with a lot of shit other people don’t. I’m a cross-genre experimental writer—that gives me a license to be weird. People expect it. You could even say it’s my job to be weird. I might not be so willing to say, for example, that I’m in the IOT if I were a lawyer or a social worker, or some other profession where people have a very different set of expectations for how you should be in the world, which is why the secrecy of a secret society is so important. The only people I have to worry about insulting are my family, most of whom think I’m wild. And that’s just fine. I am fully committed to being the weird aunt who reads your tarot at the family reunion. Amor fati.

You're currently working on a Grimoire of Internet Spells; can you tell us a little bit about the project? What draws you to technology in your creative and magical practices, and in what ways do you think technology has changed magical practices as a whole?

My manuscript-in-progress is The Technoshaman’s Grimoire. It’s a cross-genre work: a sometimes practical and other times impractical manual for magic colliding with poetry, parable, speculative fiction, and tied together with an old internet aesthetic. If you’ve seen the cover of Donna Haraway’s Simians, Cyborgs, and Women—my project lives in that image. That woman’s voice is the one I’m listening to and attempting to translate. Imagine technoshamans working through social media and search engines. Then try to remember the forgotten corners of cyberspace, like StumbleUpon, LiveJournal, ASCII art galleries. Picture those places being squatted by witches and harvested for spell materials. That’s more or less my grimoire.

I can divide my life into two distinct parts: before and after the ubiquity of the internet. Right now, I am writing, talking, acting as a fully post-internet human: I am inflected by search engines and links, and some aspects of my life exist as much online as they do in the analog world. It wasn’t so long ago that I had a beeper, and when my mom sent me a 911, I knew I should find a payphone and jam a whole message into the collect call name prompt. Now, my mom texts me pictures of the birds at her feeder and is fluent in text abbreviations. I think that’s wild, how quickly and irrevocably the world has changed, and I’m not ready to give up that tension of being born between low and high tech worlds. My grimoire tries to act as a collision space for the pre- and post- internet, filled with updated versions of real or speculative ancient practices.

I also think it’s important to bend these internet technologies away from their intended use—as advertising and commercial platforms. In that, I’m inspired by Evan Calder Williams and his work on salvagepunk, and the artist Jesse Darling, who thinks a lot about the internet as something we produce by doing and living. A space is created and defined by how it is used, not by its intended use. I take a lot of branded websites in order to reconstruct their use and steal them away from their intended purposes.

It’s a bit of a gambit, really. Google, for instance, is an advertising platform that pretends to be universal information access. It would like us to think of it as a mere and humble tool that anyone can use for whatever purpose they see fit. So, a lot of my spells do that—they take the advertiser’s platform and force it to embody its mystifications through another kind of mystification, the spell. If the tools are indeed as open as Google would have us believe, then they can be put to uses other than googlebombing or mutually-destructive advertising wars. If a spell fails, or fails to become a legitimate use of the technology, then the ideological construction of the device fails with it. There’s something Evan Calder Williams said that stays with me as I work: “[T]o put the punk into salvage is to occupy it too well, not to stand outside the logic of the game, but to track it to its far horizons. There we see the frayed hems of a mode of thought.” And I hope my spells can do that, play Google’s own game so hard that we can see what it’s really made of.

And the ways we’ve already bent technology to serve radical communities is under attack. Like I said before, it would be incredibly weird to sit in the New Age aisle of a bookstore and hope to make a new friend. It’s weird because, of course, we are making those connections across social media. But when websites are deciding whether or not to release deleted posts so activists can be legally pursued and punished, I feel it is incredibly important for us to define and defend this practiced commons we have built. And I happen to think that turning the whole internet into a magical space is a fine way to go about that. While my manuscript can be read passively, as a work of weird literature, I also that people will try some of the spells.

One of my favorite spells I've seen you perform/cast (as magical work does contain a performative quality, I think, it's definitely one of the things that draws me to it, anyway) is your glamour spell.  The spell uses selfies, which have become a tool of empowerment for many of us in Gen Z/Millennials. Can you speak to the ways in which performing that spell can be empowering for you? 

 There are all these competing messages about how to have a body in the world.  You should love and be comfortable with yourself--but don’t love yourself too much, never be too comfortable. You should look in the mirror, but not too often or for too long and always with a purpose—to check and correct, to fix or fixate. So much of how we feel and deal with our bodies circulates around a panoptic sense of how we are seen by others, that we are seen by others. A selfie is a radical grab—it is taking control of your image and its curation and distribution. It’s deciding how you will appear, how often, and where. That’s powerful stuff. I don’t have to wait until someone tags me in an unflattering photo that I never saw coming, mouth full of half-chewed food and eyes closed in a blink. I can capture and present what I feel is my best self, with my own vision and full ownership of my image. When people complain about selfie narcissism, they are saying someone has strayed too far from that panoptic sense of what’s appropriate, that my image and its distribution belongs more to someone else than it does to me. I think that’s nonsense. I love selfies, and I love the sudden communities of care that spring up when a selfie is posted on social media.

My spell attempts to push what’s great about selfies a step further. It is as much about the process as it is the product, the selfie. I ask people to stare into their reflections, to gaze into their eyes. To really look at themselves as they meditate on how beautiful they are. And that’s different from the functional gesture of posing. It makes some people uncomfortable, to look at themselves with love and to pause there for a while, suspended in that moment. I think it’s important to rest in those moments of self-love, to give them time to really penetrate.

Speaking of power and performance, what are your favorite looks for when you're really feeling yourself, or feeling really powerful?

I’ve got different answers for the magical and the mundane. First of all, I think everyone should have a ritual robe. It doesn’t necessarily need to be the standard black hooded thing you might think of when you imagine a magician. What’s important is that you have a designated piece of comfortable clothing to help transport you from the mundane to an elsewhere. By putting it on, you are agreeing to leave your usual world for a bit, in a particular and intentional way. It is something for every closet, every life—like a textile transition or a soft escape hatch. Alternatives for the standard ritual robe could be your nude body after a decadent bath, an elegant nightgown that makes you feel royal, or a cozy bath robe and slippers after a warm cup of tea or cocoa. All of these things work very well.

When I’m feeling powerful in the mundane world, I’m definitely wearing makeup. I love to play with cosmetics. I’m also really into braided updos and how they can be used to signify both youth and something more matronly. I can braid that updo playful or severe, and sometimes I try to do both at once. In clothes, I usually wear dresses and skirts and am very into vintage looks. I like to combine contrary time periods, playing in a space between the anachronistic and the contemporary, which is kind of my whole vibe—visually, intellectually, creatively. That might look like 1960’s styled dress in a bold print with an ancient artifact as a pendant, some bright lavender lipstick and a turn of the 20th century braided updo . Like I’m unstuck in time. I really want to get unstuck in time.

What are some tips you'd like to share with our readers about developing their spellwork and magical practice?

Be creative. Know that every time you look at an established book of spells, you are looking at something someone created, and you have just as much ability to build your own practice and magical style. That said, explore a lot of existing practices, so you have some magical grammar and inspiration. If you find yourself stuck in particular dogma, it’s time to experiment, play, get weird. Also, if you can, find a group of people to work with, who are ready to listen and aid you and try things out. I could as easily say, “If you like masturbating, just wait til you try sex.” Because it’s a lot like that—solo vs. group work. Both are nice and both are necessary, if you’re really into experiencing what magic has to offer.

Tina shared a few of her spells for ourreaders and they can be found here:  SPELLS

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