Interview with Michael J. Maguire

Published here on the 9th of October 2014

ELR: Michael J. Maguire in 2008 you published your first works of electronic literature called «Promise» and «Bob Casio’s Dead Cameraman». When did you discover electronic literature and where did you find the inspiration to study it further?

Michael J. Maguire: I have always been interested in both technology and writing. I wasn’t aware of the term e-literature until 2005, the first actual author of E-lit I encountered was Talan Memmott through his Lexia to Perplexia; a work of original genius. Afterwards I simply wanted to know more. Thanks to Kate Pullinger, Chris Joseph (Babel), and Sue Tomas I was fortunate to become DMU classmates with Christine Wilks (CrissX), Alison Norrington, Chris Meade, Renee Turner, Katharine Norman, Joanna Howard, Mags Traynor, Jan Worth, Mary King, Kristy, Toni, and others involved with an M.A. in creative writing and New Media. All my fellow students were uniquely talented, successful creative writers and artists. Each was similarly intrigued and fascinated by possibilities of creating new writing in new forms using new technology. I had my own experimental web presence since 1996 (clevercelt) and had founded and run multimedia and computer game development companies in Ireland, thus I was aware of games, net art, userlists, etc, historically however I had to lead from the front, blind, without the kind of peer support and encouragement that my International DMU classmates generously gave to me. Those folks provided the most immediate inspiration. There were also some really great lectures and lecturers, Catlin Fisher, Rita Raley, Christy Dena, Andy Campbell, Alan Bigelow to name just a few, Alan became my dissertation mentor and friend. I thereafter discovered the ELO (Electronic Literature Organisation) and my whole creative universe changed colour depth. I was also running a company over those two years of my M.A. and through bringing one of my projects to Sagasnet workshops had worked with Lee Sheldon (whom I had previously exchanged with via Gamasutra ten years previously) Jorgen Wolfe, Frank Boyd and again some great fellow students/attendees, like Simon Staffan’s, Bart Verstock, Anders Wik and others. I had been to MIPTV, ECTS, Imagina, GDC, and lots of other television, computer games, and media, conferences. I had been making interactive and transmedia prototypes in 2005, while Henry Jenkins was writing convergence culture, the whole TV production values paradigm ensured that mainstream digital creativity was a multi-layered and very very expensive business and the promise of electronic literature for me was based in independence, freedom from gatekeepers, a digital democratisation of writing, an abyss of positive possibility. Both ‘Promise’ and ‘Bob’ were written/made as a direct result of participating in the M.A. course, while running the company led to another workload entirely. In hindsight I would have been better concentrating on either the course or the company. I shopped around a few universities here in Ireland but only UCD actually understood my PhD proposal.

ELR: In 2014 you have completed your PhD with the thesis called «Digging the digital Long Grass. Creative path finding in our era of electronic and digital literature». Tell us more about this ‘path’.

Michael J. Maguire: Yes I was conferred with a PhD from UCD’s School of English Drama and Film. I began writing in earnest back in the eighties, won some local awards in my late teens and early twenties, the Irish national TV station picked up one of my scripts for production, I got invited to the BBC, had a number of opportunities as writer in residence, all of which saw me as young writer being supervised in one manner or another by various fairly conservative layers of administration or management. I found that I spent more time explaining what it was I wanted permission to do rather than just getting on with it and doing it. Thus after a few frustrating years working in various places (I also had a young family at that point) I decided to set up on my own. I formed a travelling theatre and multimedia company, got commissions for corporate bespoke entertainments and eventually went off touring with a one man multimedia version of Hamlet about an actor who writes his own version of Hamlet called “Ham Let Loose”. As Scott Rettberg pointed out to me recently that early conceptual recursivity was to manifest several times within my work across the years. It was another waypoint on that path you ask about, my early steps were into theatre and comedy, sidetracked into C64 game coding while studying electronics, back to writing and making through film, staging, sound and commissioned commercial multimedia pieces, which eventually lead through a formal campus based Technology Enterprise Program to my founding Ireland’s first officially licensed SONY Playstation developer. I wrote and designed the games for my company but I was back in the middle of collaborative working practises, lots of explaining and agreeing, with my fellow directors, employees, funders, agencies, development partners, etc. I had conducted and written up a feasibility study for a government agency and found myself as a part-time evangelist (& sometimes apologist) for computer and console gaming in Ireland. I was conducting and writing up commercial research also. Although feeling a poet at heart I still got sucked into the whole commercial machine and was invited onto various national committees for different initiatives, communities, etc. When my company ran out of money, despite having a solid offer of a publishing deal with UbiSoft I had to go and work for Microsoft, managing Xbox and PC Games, to just hang onto my home. I ran large projects for MS but still found opportunities while there to creatively engage, making various digital artefacts but I soon felt I was becoming that very layer I had for so long sought to escape. Back in the black after four years I left to join a small digital media cluster into which I recruited the companies and participants but again that larger conservative controlling administrative layer soon began marshalling and distorting the shared visions of those whom I had recruited. I eventually learned that my own creative path was becoming an essentially lone furrow that demands regular disengagement from hulking conservative structures, i.e. if it’s going to actually lead to any form of genuine personal fulfilment or my discovering something new or novel. The path referred to in pathfinding is my own personal journey through experimental writing practises using elements from my experiential understanding of play and screen writing, poetry, design thinking, game design, film making, storytelling, innovation management and lots of other personal adventures in creativity and technology. The actual PhD had three major elements, a central creative work, a standard academic thesis that contextualised it within a border academic framework and a creative and critical commentary that explored the theories and processes involved. The central creative work can be found at: I am considering offering the more academic elements of the thesis in book form. I just haven’t decided on a publishing route yet.

ELR: In the title of your thesis you use both definitions ‘electronic literature’ and ‘digital literature’. What do you think about the terminology used for literary genres and, in a broader point of view, where do you see the borders between literacy and video games or between poetry and automatic word generating software? Is it a literature genre at all?

Michael J. Maguire: Robert Simanowski in his book Digital Art and Meaning (2011) gives perhaps the most rational explanation for privileging one’ literature’ term over the other in that context. I often use such terms interchangeably because my personal history with computers and technology began in the analogue era and I am not currently hooked up to a label matching machine, formally connected to any kind of intellectual or academic parser and thus I have unfettered freedom to release myself from any creative restriction that might result from such firm borders or boundaries. The majority of my life I’ve lived beside a border, a political and ideological border, the day to day physical practicalities of life along that border aren’t actually abstracted by its virtual presence, and it is usually when it is already crossed before anyone actually begins to think about it. Borders and rules have lots in common and both are necessary as relational devices. Of course you can’t mention poetry in Ireland without being cognisant of Seamus Heaney, who sadly passed away while I was writing up. In ‘Digitalvitalism’ both electronic (analogue) and digital devices are used / referred to, so I included both terms. Genres and categories are useful at certain latter points in the creative process but can be mere abstractions at others, I’d tend to agree with David Weinberger’s position. Any question related to games, ultimately leads back to ideas of play and play as action, play as imagination or as real world contemporary cultural cash cow activity. All artists are concerned in one way or another with form and I’m particularly fascinated by the proliferation of potential technologically enabled forms. Such forms, experimental or otherwise, extend the purview of the individual artist or writer and I feel we need to play with those to discover what we might be able to do with them. We need to stumble over them, tinker, break them, experiment with them, take them apart and reassemble them reconfigured. While a man with a hammer might see everything as a nail, as a writer, digital artist, creative technologist or post internet poet, whatever label gets applied, rule gets muted or border drawn, I am attracted to deeper and in essence older, more primitive creative urges, such urges in their simplest and most enjoyable form can be found in play. The challenge for me is to authentically transcribe such primitives into modern technological contexts. The magic circle so beloved of so many contemporary critical theorists was in fact a sacred circle, a spiritual otherworld, a mythical space. How technology can navigate that nonmaterial aspect of space, play, fun, how it can be reconciled within that space without corruption should receive more attention. And I’m not referring to the simple concept of world building. Institutions, corporations, bastions of capitalist ideology cannot perform that task, in most instances they are incapable of accommodating it even as a rational desire, let alone find any method or mode for expressing its seeming irrationality. Genuine difficulty appears to arise, in terms of such oversimplifications when we add the word digital to such traditional concepts like poetry, aesthetics, creativity, play, yet such compound phrases just seem to get bandied about with all the nonchalant jouissance of a toothless bigot at a confectioners wedding, unsavoury elements of the public discourse still go unchallenged, swept away in a visual sea of icons, images and opinions, these distortions are again muddied and confusing, and the necessary intellectual vigour required to contextualise them in the current register is, for the most part, inadequate. In my own view what is required is an extension beyond, that solely intellectual rigor, the rational intellect. For me some works of digital literature, digital poetry, hold that promise, David Jhave Jonston, Jason Nelson, Jim Andrews, John Cayley, all chip at that amoebic intellectual edifice in some not necessarily strategic but obviously effective and affective human way.

ELR: While it is obvious you have a lot of respect for many established e-lit authors I’ve read other interviews and pieces where you appear less than serious about your own work, you often come across as almost nonchalant or even comedic. You very deliberately play with language and ideas, is that somehow also part of your own particular creative strategy?

Michael J. Maguire: I had the absolute privilege of this year being involved with live performances of Huckleberry Finnegan’s Wake (HFW), with Talan Memmot, Eric Snodgrass and Sonny Rae Tempest in both Sweden and at E-poetry London (2013). As a work HFW is a highly intelligent algorithmically driven linguistic gymnastic with a rich vibrant visual tapestry of fluid and flowing ideas – yet it is ultimately human centric. Exchanges, pace, movement, counterpoints constantly challenge the concept of a (duel) journey through literature, using fixed screens and remote cameras, it was a wonderful challenging experience at both human and cultural levels. While superficially it might appear for the viewer as a kinda top heavy hybrid with a sole technological focus, the actual layering upon layering of meaning does its sources and participants tremendous justice, and most importantly for me, it was a whole lot of fun doing the rehearsals and getting to know Talan, Eric and Sonny. If either Joyce or Twain were alive today they’d want two tickets to HFW. As a writer or creative, in whatever media or formats, you have that dichotomy of the private productive self and a constructed public personae. One that must seriously discuss, explain, or even sometimes justify, creative work. I have met many wonderful people who confuse seriousness with solemnity – despite the obvious necessity for humour in many aspects of our lives. I come from a nation that is fascinated by humour and language, by literature, identity, insight and (humorous) insult, which we Irish call ‘slagging’. From Swift to Wilde, Joyce to Yeats, Shaw to Beckett and beyond, there is a heritage and tradition of self-effacing humour as mechanism to filter the world. You mentioned the word strategy, if I have any personal strategy, it is centred on productivity and fulfilment, and a wish to retain my own personal sense of humour, even as part of that public personae, I’m not at all sure what kind of plans would allow that to happen.

ELR: What plans do you have for the future?

Michael J. Maguire: In the short term, I have a number of writing projects I’d like to complete. A partial return to the commercial sphere has also been muted. In the last number of years I have enjoyed going back to formal teaching and lecturing so there may also be further options there. I will still continue to write for various websites and communities, conduct occasional workshops and talks but try to stay centred on making work. The Irish Electronic Literature Community needs more attention than it’s received in recent years and I want to find a way of addressing that. There is a whole series of challenges I’d like to engage with, however from my own personal experience ‘plans’ may not necessarily be the best way to attempt that. I’m pretty comfortable with ambiguity and at a point in my career where contented daily living and regular creativity are as important as accumulating ‘stuff’. As the saying goes; you own stuff and then stuff owns you. I suppose my long term plans are to own as little stuff as I can.