By Corey Dahl
Stories start in our heads, and somehow, we have to translate that vision into words and paper, poems and novels. What if your story can’t be told by words alone though? Or what if it’s a poem but also, maybe, a novel? Steven Wingate gets it.
Wingate’s work ranges from print to interactive media, from his prose poem collection Thirty One Octets: Incantations and Meditations to his digital lyric memoir daddylabyrinth. He’s teaching three classes at Lit Fest this year, talking about hybrid forms, new media, literary filmmaking, and more.
Ahead of his visit to Denver—Wingate teaches creative writing, film, and digital media at South Dakota State University—he chatted about new media tools, experimental literature, and the importance of wearing multiple hats.
How did you get involved with literary experiment and hybrid forms?
Being exposed to Kafka at sixteen probably ruined me. And the very first real artist I learned under was an experimental filmmaker, Ken Jacobs, at SUNY–Binghamton. I started the process of transferring there in 1982 to study fiction with John Gardner, but by the time I got there, he’d died in a motorcycle accident. So I found a home in the film community and saw artists taking tremendous risks—asking audiences to connect visual ideas that didn’t “belong” together at all and doing things with form that were elemental and astonishing. I got hooked immediately on the adrenaline rush of finding new forms and new collisions of meaning. Try as I might to get away from that spirit and toward something more commercially viable, I’ve always kept one foot in the experimental world because that’s where the artist in me was born.
What about new media—how did you get started there?
As I mentioned, I had a background in film, though fiction was my first love. I’ve always been looking for ways to combine the joy of writing sentences with the joy of making images, and in the past decade, there’s been an explosion of tools for doing that. There are programs you can teach yourself in a few days, while not long ago, you needed to know programming languages.
One of those programs is called Scalar, which comes out of the University of Southern California and allows for polylinear storytelling—creating story environments in which there isn’t just a single narrative line, but many of them nested inside each other and intersecting with each other. I ran into Scalar at a conference and immediately knew it was the tool I’d been hoping for that would allow me to write about my experience with my father and as a father. There were so many threads in that nest of stories that I could never write a book straight through about it, but this software allowed me to write daddylabyrinth: a digital lyric memoir, a “book that can’t be printed.” It was a real treat to premiere daddylabyrinth at the ArtScience Museum of Singapore, which has to be the creative highlight of my life. From there I got fascinated with technology and how it could change the way we conceive story, and that’s where most of my energy has gone since.
What’s most challenging about working in a variety of forms?
It’s a bear. Having deadlines in various forms at various times really drives me crazy. I’ve learned to compartmentalize myself, and for that I have teaching and parenthood to thank. I take off one hat, put on another. Dad hat, professor hat, fictionist hat, new media hat. I move through the roles and get the job done. But in a way that’s too professional of a metaphor. At the very bottom, I’m about the exploration of art and the emotional experience of art. I write because I have to; it’s the essence of my life.
A more organic way to look at it is to see the various forms I work in as little garden plots scattered across the borders between genres. I wander through them, checking in on what’s growing in cinema or seeing whether a tree I planted where prose poetry meets new media has managed to bloom yet. When something’s ready, I harvest it and bring it to the market. I like this metaphor better than those involving production and getting jobs done, because I can live it in my old age. When I’m eighty, if I’m lucky enough to get there, I won’t give a rat’s bottom about professionalism. But I will give a rat’s bottom about what’s growing in my creative garden. So why wait until I’m eighty to live by the healthier metaphor?
What’s your current project?
Right now I’m working on an interactive novel set in Colorado. I can’t reveal too many details, but I’m developing it for a game company—so it’s another border to straddle, another new territory to edge into and learn. It’s also a fortuitous intersection between experiment and commerce, which would be nice to engage in for a change. With forms of literature that rely on computation, there’s not only a great opportunity for us to experiment with and re-shape the way we tell stories, but a chance to change the way we do distribution. Because this will be available on several different platforms and app stores, it’s probable that more people will see this project on day one of its release than have seen all my other projects combined. For someone who grew up in the print era, that’s positively mind-blowing. And it convinces me that the scene of experiment in literature right now, the scene of our greatest change and growth, is in those areas where literature intersects with computation.