“I am interested in hybridity and form,” says Michael Stewart, an inventive young writer of prose poems and flash fiction for both print and electronic formats.
“What happens when we take the form of a dictionary and use it for other, hopefully nefarious, purposes? How can an essay be a waltz? How can we rethink the movement of one sentence to the next? If I write an essay in a series of sonnets, what changes? When is a poem not a poem? How much can we take away until it’s prose? And in reverse, what can we add to or remove from a paragraph to make it a poem?” asks Stewart, who will be teaching Brown’s very first digital nonfiction course this fall.
An active and prolific writer, Stewart has been published in important literary journals like Denver Quarterly, Elimae, American Letters & Commentary, and Conjunctions. He has been anthologized in Thirty Under Thirty and Best of the Web and has a piece forthcoming in Tell: An Anthology of Expository Writing.
His most recent work, The Hieroglyphics, a novel(la) (Mud Luscious Press, 2011), is based on Horapollo’s fifth-century interpretation of 70 Egyptian hieroglyphics. Inspired by Horapollo’s “surprising, daring sentences,” Stewart blends the language of the original text with that of the Old Testament and his own words to create a cycle of prose poems that together form an evocative origin narrative.
“It’s an experiment more than a novel. I had a lot of fun with it,” says Stewart, who says publisher J.A. Taylor initially contacted him to ask, “Do you have anything that is unpublishable?”
Another unconventional work, forthcoming from the same press and already available digitally, is Answers, in which Stewart responds to random, user-submitted questions with “unhelpful but poetic answers” like these:
Q: Is it more costly to ship a fancy ergonomic chair or sell it used and buy a new one in California?
A: “I was chased by a Minotaur through the twists of the Madrid metro. ... And I remember when I stumbled and he steadied me by the arm. We looked at each other, studied the strange resemblance, I could have used a comfortable chair then.”
Stewart’s electronic story Obituary disassembles turn-of-the-century New England newspaper obituaries of people named Leonard and stitches the parts together into new combinations that are occasionally mundane and often delightful.
A series of entries on imaginary magicians and tricks you can do at home (but shouldn’t) comprise a chapbook entitled Brief Encyclopedia of Modern Magic (The Cupboard, 2009). His work Sebastian (Hello Martha Press, 2010) is a hand set and bound limited edition artist’s book that he described as “an illustrated children’s book for adults.”
Stewart’s digital nonfiction class will explore writing in a number of popular digital platforms, such as WordPress, Twitter, and Google Maps. “We’ll look at how these environments enrich as well as challenge our traditional narrative strategies,” says Stewart. “How do you write a narrative if you don’t know what order it’s going to be read in? Digital language — the 140-character tweet, the hashtag, texting abbreviations like lol — is a language we are trying to ignore, but it’s a very varied, interesting, textured language,” he says.
A 2007 graduate of Brown’s M.F.A. Program in Literary Arts, Stewart has been promoted to full-time lecturer in the English department’s Nonfiction Writing Program, where he has been teaching the academic essay and creative nonfiction as a part-time visiting lecturer since 2008. He has also taught writing at URI and Providence College.
“We are very excited to have Michael leading the Nonfiction Writing Program into the digital age, both in pedagogy and modes of narrative,” says Elizabeth Taylor, co-director of the program. “A popular and versatile instructor, Michael teaches writing with passion and precision.”
Stewart won simultaneous grants in poetry and fiction from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts (RISCA) in 2009 and a micro award in 2010. He received Brown’s Weston Award for best literary work two years running while earning his M.F.A.
Born and bred in Texas, Stewart began writing poetry in middle school. At the University of Texas–San Antonio, he initially planned to be a science major until he took a poetry class with Wendy Barker, who inspired him to write while encouraging him to “take physics for fun, to explore, to dabble in everything. This approach worked for me,” he says.
He continues to be a flaneur, seeking inspiration through “happenstance,” wandering the nonliterary aisles of bookstores and libraries or following up on random bits of information that pique his interest. “I rarely do research with a specific goal in mind. I jump around, get on tangents,” he says. “I studied moths for several years and wrote a lot of poetry about them.”
Influenced by postmodern theory, Stewart likens his literary technique to “collage. I’m like Frankenstein, taking disparate pieces and sewing them together, or parroting a language of authority and braiding it with poetry. I’m interested in forgery, but not so much in being undetectable. I want to expose the stitching.”