Indebted to Our Digitality: an Interview with Mike Oliphant

By Jamie Shrewsbury

In our most recent issue, we hosted the Gas Station Prize, celebrating and seeking out hybrid forms. The contest’s winner, Mike Oliphant’s “Medium Warp: Excerpt’s of a Digital Consciousness,” inhabits shapes and forms present in code and web landscapes to explore the boundaries and relationships present in a digital consciousness.

Our own Jamie Shrewsbury connected with him for some questions about his work, his life, and his thoughts on hybrid forms.

Tell us a little about your background as a writer.  How/when did you become interested in writing?

Thanks to my parents, language and writing were around me from a very early age, so I read and wrote pretty regularly growing up (both on computers and off). But it wasn’t until late in college that I started writing seriously. Slowly but surely, I think I recognized how good the act of writing was for me. It wasn’t about wanting to be a writer but needing to write to make sense of things.

And once I got a hold of poetry, reading and writing ceased to become an escape for me, which isn’t to say I don’t get lost in the acts (I do), but that they’ve become tools. Poetry changed the way I approached fiction, and the reverse is also true. I’m a firm believer in writing in different genres, because I find it intolerable to stand in one place forever.

So, for me, writing emerges from a personal need, but it doesn’t end there. A mentor posed this question to me recently, “What is your work in service to?” It was her way of reminding me that my writing enters into the world, whether I like it or not, and once it’s out there I have to consider what it might do. I try to research and revise with this question in mind, to keep the work (and my attitude towards it) from atrophying.

The piece you wrote for us is a hybrid piece.  Do you have a preferred genre, or do you tend to lean more towards hybrid in your work?

Four years ago, I was a poet. Three years ago, I wrote short fiction. Last year, I was dedicated to flash. These days I’m back to being a poet. But even that feels…untrue? More than anything, I’m drawn to write in forms that have no name, that build unfamiliar landscapes from the familiar, that push the boundaries of what’s possible. This is why the sheer notion of a hybrid category is so intriguing to me. Something deemed hybrid can often create a space to “unknow” what we’ve come to accept, to disrupt our complacency. In my opinion, that’s an essential asset of art.

As a (begrudgingly) formally driven writer, I like to start by developing form from the familiar, the near-invisible, the mundane, but also sometimes the insidious. Carmen Maria Machado dubbed herself a “form vampire,” a title which very much resonates with me. Once I have a form in mind, that’s where research comes in. If I want to write a user agreement for the universe and everything in it, then I need to research what one looks like, what language it uses and why.

Form acts as a catalyst for content, becoming an opportunity for the reader to access something from a third entryway, like a side door newly discovered beneath a wall of ivy. This is true not only for the reader in reading, but for the writer in writing. So, for me, evolution of form is pivotal for everything I write, whether it’s a villanelle, flash fiction, a sonnet crown, or a JavaScript command.

What do you think the future has in store for the hybrid form?

Brenda Hillman wrote, “The world quite literally suffers from a lack of imagination.” So, when I see so many literary journals trying to figure out this hybrid form, I can’t help but think this is the work of active and open imagination. But, in my experience so far, genre is still a gatekeeper, determining where your book lands on the store shelf. Maybe we need to keep adding room for more shelves? Or maybe we need to do away with the bookshelf altogether and start piling our books up on the floor to better support us? (Thanks to Amazon, this metaphor is a bit shot, but I think you get the idea.)

Regardless, I hope we continue to have a difficult time pinning the hybrid category down. My biggest worry is that it will go the route of the avant-garde, wherein a counter-movement took on all the racial white-washing of the institution it sought to counter in the first place. As hybridity and our consideration of it moves forward, then, I think we should be open to everything around us as a possibility for formal exploration. Both on the page and off. Why not deconstruct our well-known, our familiar, and our mundane in order to better know them? Or to come to know them anew? And again?

If we’re hesitant to do so, I think it’s because certainty is attractive, in theory. We want to just “know” a thing and catalogue it away as “understood.” We want a form’s content to reflect our expectations of that form, and when they don’t, we’re thwarted in a way that distresses, no matter how much it might ultimately save us from being limited in our scope of consideration—to open us to the possibilities of the world.

What role does technology play in your own life? What different ways do you use it?

I am indebted to our digitality. If not for my laptop, I would be unable to write in the endlessly recursive manner that I do. Without video chatting, I would have to go months and months without seeing the face of my mother or father. Bluetooth headphones and podcasts have made washing dishes less of a chore. Even the pizza I ordered for dinner tonight was paid for using digital platforms, allowing me to work towards my looming deadlines less distracted by hunger. And the entire collection that I’m finishing up now wouldn’t have been possible. (That’s 100% true.) Neither would this response to your questions.

So, I’m torn, because I love technology and the internet. They’ve made things undeniably easier for me, but these industries (like many others) are fraught with problems. For example, coltan, a mineral found primarily in the Dominican Republic of the Congo, is needed to create compact capacitors that make smart phones, and smaller computers possible. Our high demand for this mineral fuels horrific territory wars and there’s no known alternative for it yet. How do I reconcile an increasing dependence on technology and the internet with that?

That’s a sincere question.

How do you see technology dovetailing with creative thought processes and works?

Our human experience relies on its hunger to know, to make meaning, and technology has always been a part of that—both spiritually and scientifically. At one point, that technology was a telescope or a compass and now it looks more like a search bar on a web browser or a text message to a friend.

I think this means we can no longer afford to separate our digital experiences from our corporeal ones, because our lives no longer exist solely in a physical world. It’s much harder now to say “this is real and this is not.” And since language is how we understand the world around us, I think writing in any creative capacity should acknowledge these digital spaces as well.

To what extent do you think our generation is miscommunicating because of technology? (And on that same note, do you think it’s a generational issue?)

Honestly, we might be communicating better than ever. I’m thinking of how movements like Black Lives Matter gained steam because a collective, de-centralized community came together and gave shape to the movement with their words. While this movement has required physical bodies showing up to march and protest, a lot of it also took place online. The #MeToo movement is another great example; both gained steam, in part, because of effective communication.

But this is just one part of what language does. As Richard Hugo warns in “The Triggering Town,” “once language exists only to convey information, it is dying.” So, outside of these social movements that benefit in very real ways from these digital spaces, I think it’s also important to ask in what other ways does our growing reliance on digital communication affect us?

If the majority of us primarily use technology to email our boss that we’re running late, Hugo’s concern becomes all too real. Because even in a digital world striving for transparency and expedited communication, meaning is ultimately lost. (Anyone who’s made a PowerPoint knows that.) These two pressures work against each other in our lives. On one side, there’s what Lyn Hejinian calls “writing’s initial situation,” which “is often characterized and always complicated by opposing impulses in the writer and by a seeming dilemma that language creates and then cannot resolve.” On the other side is our technological pursuit, our insatiable hunger to “know” something for certain. We exist between these opposing forces, in the error of language and our lived reality—the glitch of experience.

And there’s always a generational divide where technology’s concerned. But the fact that technology often fails to communicate what we want it to isn’t a reflection of the impact of tech on language, but the opposite. I guess I’m trying to say that language will always save us and fail us, regardless of our age. The digital world is just another new and ever-evolving iteration of this struggle. And I think we need to get better at being okay in that space where we’re uncertain about something. Because no update Apple puts out can overcome this fundamental part of our existence. (Not yet at least.)

Your piece is written in multiple “technological” vignettes.  Can you talk a little about your decision of the order of the vignettes?  Were any of them standalone pieces?

It’s funny to hear them thought of as “vignettes” when I’ve just as easily seen them labeled “poems” or “nonsense.” Still, that’s the beauty of writing in a hybrid space—everything’s up for debate!

These pieces are part of a larger project I’ve just finished with the same title, Medium Warp. It’s a collection of poetry/hybrid works that borrow forms from various digital spaces, such as clickbait headlines, advanced search forms, cost-benefit analyses, and more. The pieces here were the earliest parts of this project, and the order has since changed dramatically. In the larger collection, the pieces have started to fall into four distinct categories that deal with the body, bodilessness, spirituality, and the ethical implications of technology.

I’d like to think each piece stands alone, I certainly write them with that intent, but they also activate something when they’re all together that isn’t there in isolation. There’s certainly pieces that I think of as “linked” and would be best read together, but that’s the quirk of the project itself—ultimately, I only have so much control.

Mike Oliphant received his MFA at Western Washington University, and is Consulting Editor of the Bellingham Review. A portion of his collection Medium Warp was the recipient of the 2018 Gas Station Prize. He was a 2017 Pushcart Nominee and his short fiction and poetry are either forthcoming or have appeared in Isthmus, Psaltery & Lyre, IDK Magazine, Shooter Literary Magazine, NANO Fiction, and elsewhere.