Language’s Concealed Architectures: a conversation with Michael Flatt and Derrick Mund
Michael Flatt and Derrick Mund are the authors of the forthcoming OS print:document, “Chlorosis.”
“So often our urgencies upend themselves into absurdities. Lyric turns to joke and then to pugnacious elegy. So in Flatt’s and Mund’s Chlorosis, a dying world becomes a dynamic collaboration. Given options that find us ‘imping toward stasis,’ this poetry reanimates and throws color and light on a dimming horizon. Can poetry save us? Maybe not. But perhaps what we need now is sustenance, not salvation. Both slapstick and delicate, Chlorosis sustains the witness necessary to this moment. Now, in this ‘fugitive dimension,’ we are borne on ‘an absent violence,’ ‘still and waking for that which we lack / from which to emerge.’” — Elizabeth Robinson
[Chlorosis, by Michael Flatt and Derrick Mund. Forthcoming from the Operating System. On Sale date 8/25; release 10/1. 104 pp.]
Welcome! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today. Can you each introduce yourself in the way that you would choose?
Hello, we’re derrick mund and Michael Flatt. Mike is a PhD candidate in the SUNY Buffalo Poetics Program, a book designer and Founder of Low Frequency Press. Derrick is an art events promoter and bartender. Both of us write poetry.
When did you decide you were a poet (and/or: do you feel comfortable calling yourself a poet, what other titles or affiliations do you prefer/feel are more accurate)? In what ways, forms, and materials does your creative process manifest itself?
It’s hard for us to sum up our interest in poetry with the word “poet.” That implies we’re most interested in getting our work published. We’re just as invested in designing books, publishing the work of others, teaching poetry to students, putting readings together, etc. Creating a space to engage with language as a means of interpreting and interacting with our surroundings and unhinged landscape. Being a poet for us is really just being a member of the community, engaging in as many ways as we usefully can.
What’s a “poet”, anyway?
Well, machines are writing a lot of poetry these days. Mike’s been pretty interested in Twitter bots for the last year or so. @tinyprotests is a good follow. As far as humans go, though, maybe a working definition of a poet would be one who tests the boundaries of what is possible with language, exposes its underlying ideologies, its concealed architectures, or places it in new and revealing medial contexts. But it’s really best to keep these definitions loose and permeable. Neither of us is keen on labels.
What is the role of the poet today / what do you see as your cultural and social role (in the poetry community and beyond)? What other work are you doing in the world and how does it interface with your creative practice at this time?
As a grad student, Mike is teaching, and learning every day how to be a better teacher and thinker. Designing syllabi, compiling reading lists, working fervently to keep up with the heavy reading load I give my students, and planning energetic, innovative lessons all help me be a better writer. As a book designer, Mike gets to see what does and doesn’t transfer from manuscript to printed text, and to think about the form of the book and about letterforms.
Derrick works at a music and burlesque venue. So he’s involved with a lot of different local artists outside of poetry as it’s conventionally defined, which is refreshing. This is where he’s found what he calls his “unidentified poets.” This is a fold he instinctively gets along with. Sometimes a fellow poet is just someone you hit a vibe with who has a craft. Unidentified poets need community as much as those of us who consider ourselves “poets” in the written word sense.
The poet’s role might be to help people tune into frequencies they’re missing. All good art functions this way, but poetry in particular helps people see the parts of the perceptible world that their minds are ignoring, without needing to first distract you with a story. Poetry provides what other art provides, but in a more concentrated form.
How did you meet and become collaborators? What made you want to work together? How did this project, in particular, emerge and come into being?
We met in grad school and have been sharing work with each other since. Initially we wanted to work together because we saw some interesting overlaps and useful differences in our writing style. Mike had started becoming very sentence-based in his poetry with something almost “anti-lyric” in style and Derrick was onto some really strange, interesting stuff with fragments and syntactic manipulations. But we were working with a similar tonal pallet, and we shared a similar sense of humor that, while making us chuckle, acknowledges and reaffirms the bleakness of our times, economically, socially, environmentally, etc. A lot of this was motivated by the incredible rate of gentrification in Denver around 2013. So-called “development” is responsible for so much suffering and destruction. We soon began circling the idea of writing about our relationship with the Earth itself as a broken, toxic thing.
In Chlorosis you have co-created a collection of untitled poems, engaging “with voices from the fields of ecopoetics and new materialism.” Is there a specific intention or goal you had for the work? Whose voices or work were you looking to as inspiration?
In the more essayistic passages of the text, we’re mining the work of Bruno Latour, Jane Bennett, Graham Harmon, and a lot of other stuff deriving from the “process-based” philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. The basic premise of these authors’ work is a more flattened ontology that de-centers the human from our understanding of reality, and brings into consideration the ways that the friction caused in the interactions between unacknowledged entities — microbeads, perfluorocarbons, etc. — is shaping experience as much as decisions humans make. We’re also trying to engage in a form of detournement on the level of the sentence, recognizing the reduction of culture to representation and responding with a mix of the abjectly absurd, the unrepresentable. At the same time, there’s a futility in trying to escape the spectacle; this is the nature of detournement. That may be where the bleakness of our imagery comes from.
Talk about the process of making this work, both independently and together. Did you have this intention or develop the idea for a while? What encouraged and/or confounded this (or a book, in general) coming together? What was unexpected or surprising, if anything, about the process? How did it change or evolve?
Our process would probably be familiar to many poets who decide to collaborate these days. We opened a shared Google doc and just starting pouring stuff into it. We both work from notebooks, and anything that was worth keeping went into the Google doc. We allowed each other to edit anything that went in. We allowed ourselves to corrupt each other’s poems. Usually we were trying to push it in the direction the other wanted it to go, but sometimes we wanted to throw a wrench in what the other was doing. Of course, we could always pull the wrench out, but it was a signal: “Hey, maybe don’t get so scholarly here,” or, “Let’s lighten things up a bit,” or, “I may have planted a narrative in the pages you added just to see if you can spot it.” A lot of it was very playful.
I love Christopher Nealon’s description of Chlorosis as “a moving experiment in the uses of the poetic ‘we’ in a time of crisis.” He goes on to say that as you “survey together a world in which there is no respite from the oncoming disaster, that ‘we’ becomes as tiny, nimble pivot for unexpected clarities and also for the testing out of tentative rhythms.”
How do you respond to this? What was your intention with the ‘we’? I find that the way pronouns and the addressed “you” and “your” in the work to be very rich with myriad readings — coming into a text with two authors, the reader can vacillate from a reading that might be the authors speaking to each other, vs. a unified voice addressing the reader or a public.
We appreciate the ambiguity of the pronouns. As you’re pointing out, the “we” can be read as the authors speaking together or separately from their respective relationships with a similarly ambiguous “you,” which could be a loved one — lover, family member, friend — the other author, or the Earth, or all at once. There are various speakers/characters negotiating a doomed landscape. As to Nealon’s “pivot,” collaboration is a way of finding clarity within an otherwise ambiguous and variant narrative. The “we” also functions as the character of the chorus. As for “no respite,” that was very much the feeling we were meditating on. Of course, there’s a lot less respite in 2018 than there was in 2013. We’ll be lucky if there isn’t a coast-to-coast forest fire in five years.
How did the collaboration process work in the coordination and production of a seamless text wherein there is no obvious distinction between each of your individual voices or production? Was that the intention from the beginning?
Once we decided to collaborate beyond just exchanging work it was the intention from the onset. Once most of the text was set in place we manicured sections to our own aesthetics. We each definitely have sections that are more ours, but even those have been edited pretty heavily by the other person.
It would be strange to us to have a collaborative text with different names on different poems. Does anyone do that? Maybe it would be pretty cool. But we wanted something where our words bled together until they were often unrecognizable to us, and that’s what we got.
To what extent were you working independently or together? How did you go about the editorial process in this case? Were the pieces developed collaboratively from individual texts that started in a different form? Would it be possible to see any part of the process through incremental edits in any way? It could be interesting for the audience to see how a page or pages evolved, how your voices combined, were parsed and edited to become what we see now.
Unfortunately, any record of what was what along the way was disposed of by the autosave feature on Google Docs. We mostly worked separately. Later, we got together to write for it once or twice when we were both still in Denver, and then once to give a draft of the manuscript a marathon edit.
What formal structures or other constrictive practices (if any) do you use in the creation of your work? Have certain teachers or instructive environments, or readings/writings of other creative people (poets or others) informed the way you work/write?
We mostly saw ourselves working on a spectrum between the fragment and the prose block. Some poems are lineated, others are not. In the composition phase, it was really whatever came out. But in the editing phase, we wanted there to be a tidal flow to the book’s form, oscillating along that spectrum.
Whose work or presence in the world is really influencing you or your work right now? Can you talk a little bit about why?
Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge has been on Mike’s mind a lot for the last few years. There’s a lot of her in Chlorosis, at least in what he contributed. She embraces abstraction in a way that many poets eschew, and yet you also get an extremely grounded and tactile sense of her phenomenological connection to her surroundings. Her work can put you in a bit of a trance. For Derrick, DJ Spooky’s Rhythm Science has been a strong influence. His approach to remix as a writing practice is central to the process we used for this project. Always Emily Dickinson. Her intense focus on the minutiae of language is a constant inspiration. The Heidelberg Project in Detroit amazing and constantly changing. Elisa Gabbert’s work is the cat’s pajamas. She has a sharp, insightful, and timeless wit.
The title, Chlorosis, comes from a leaf disease caused by lack of light, literally translated as “green sickness.” Does your process of naming (poems, sections, etc) influence you and/or color your work specifically? At what point of the process did you come to this title? What kept you away from creating distinctions, titles, or sections within the text?
Choosing that the title may shaped the content a bit. Or at least lent it focus. The poet Carrie Lorig once described titles as “tupperware,” and that may explain our lack of interest in them. Making a poem a neatly packaged thing, discrete from the work around it never interested us as much as making book-length projects that push the reader to interpret them as such. We almost never use titles if we can avoid it. These don’t need to be read as discrete poems. The effect of one hopefully bleeds into the next, creates some friction, some unforeseen hybrids.
What does this text represent as indicative of your method/creative practice? your history? your mission/intentions/hopes/plans?
What does, or might, this book do (as much as what it says or contains)?
We hope the book helps people find some kinship in the feeling that the world may not want us as we are, and maybe help people realize our current strategies for enacting ecopolitical change are failing, and that we need to get more creative. Trying to alter our consumer-waste patterns is fine, but it will never be enough, and it doesn’t excuse us from the work of trying to effect change on the macro level.
What would be the best possible outcome for this book? What might it do in the world, and how will its presence as an object facilitate your creative role in your community and beyond? What are your hopes for this book, and for your practice?
It will probably be useful as a source of light and heat one day. Until then, aside from perhaps acting as a small ecological intervention, we think it can function as a teaching tool for those who would like to work collaboratively, and as a method to teach remix poetry/collage language to anyone looking into the subject.
Do you plan to continue working together? What is next for each of you?
DMF: We would definitely write another book together. Maybe in a decade or so, if the atmosphere still supports human life. Mike’s wrapping up the PhD program this year, so what comes next is anybody’s bet. Maybe a book about the death of shopping malls? Derrick’s working on a poetic play involving Cthulu, and other creation myths. Also promoting artists, writers, musicians, performers and events.
Let’s talk a little bit about the role of poetics and creative community in social activism, in particular in what I call “Civil Rights 2.0,” which has remained immediately present all around us. I’d be curious to hear some thoughts on the challenges we face in speaking and publishing across lines of race, age, privilege, dis/ability, class, social/cultural background, and sexuality within the community, vs. the dangers of remaining and producing in isolated “silos.”
Derrick has done a lot to give a diverse range of voices a platform through his work with the Leon Reading Series in Denver, and his work with SpringGun. Mike did the same in his time at Counterpath, and does similar work Low Frequency. Of course, this often feels difficult, especially with respect to class and socio-cultural background. We have to contend with the fact that exposure poetry is a privileged phenomenon. It’s too easy to say we can only take the poetry community as it is. Mike wrote a proposal this year for a New York State Public Humanities Fellowship that would create a series of workshops geared towards workers, kids from underserved communities, inmates, and immigrant groups to teach them to start their own low- and no-cost press. There are organizations in many communities that provide creative writing workshops to these groups, and that’s incredible, important work that could be amplified by giving the most avid learners in those groups access to the tools used to publish the poetry of their peers as PDFs and print-on-demand books, all at very little cost. It would be very powerful to pair the ethos of the mimeo movement in the 70s — where people were stealing time and resources at work to make poetry journals on the office Xerox machine — with an awareness of the need to provide a platform for marginalized voices.
But at a minimum, we can help each other survive whatever’s coming through creative work, any form of making, and supporting the creative work of others in as many ways as possible. Host readings. Buy art if and when you can. Go to shows. Write reviews. Publish what you can. Be active. Stay engaged. These things are important. There is no clear line between art and politics. This is how we see and hear each other, and it’s something we can all do better, in new ways that create more compelling interventions. That’s always the goal.
Michael Flatt is a PhD candidate in the Poetics Program at SUNY Buffalo. He was named by J. Michael Martinez to the Poetry Society of America’s 2013 list of New American Poets for his book, ‘Absent Receiver’ (SpringGun Press), and he is the founder of Low Frequency Press.
derrick mund lives, writes and tends bar in Denver, CO. He received his MFA from the University of Colorado in Boulder, and runs Leon Presents: A Reading Series. His work can be found at Greying Ghost, Vinyl, Real Poetik, and elsewhere.
Artist Suchitra Mattai is a multi-disciplinary artist who lives and works in Denver, Colorado. Suchitra was born in Guyana, South America, but has also lived in Halifax and Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Philadelphia, New York City, Minneapolis, and Udaipur, India. These diverse natural and cultural environments have greatly influenced her work and research. While her practice includes a wide range of materials and ideas, her primary interests include 1) the complex relationship between the natural and artificial worlds and 2) the questioning of historical and authoritative narratives, especially those surrounding colonialism. Through painting, fiber, drawing, collage, installation, video, and sculpture, she weaves narratives of “the other,” invoking fractured landscapes and reclaiming cultural artifacts (often colonial and domestic in nature).
Suchitra received an MFA in Painting and Drawing and an MA in South Asian art, both from the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. She has exhibited her work in Philadelphia, New York City, Washington, DC, Minneapolis, Denver, Austin, Berlin, London, and Wales and her work has appeared in various publications such as The Daily Serving (Mailee Hung), New American Paintings, and will be in a forthcoming book, “A Collection of Contemporary Women’s Voices on Guyana,” (Grace Anezia Ali, Brill Press). Her next projects include collaborations with the Denver Art Museum/SkyHouse, the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, and a travelling exhibition with the Museum of the Americas, Washington, DC. She recently completed a residency at RedLine Contemporary Art Center, Denver, and is represented by K Contemporary Gallery Denver, and GrayDuck Gallery, Austin.