Mike Corrao Interview
Mike Corrao doesn’t so much write books as he does gestate and hatch them. His work is singularly alive—the text has a will of its own. I like to imagine him pecking away on a Mugwump-shaped typewriter a la Cronenberg’s adaptation of Naked Lunch.
From the anatomical wordplay of Gut Text to the graphic fantasia of Smut-Maker, Corrao’s writing consistently pushes the boundaries of what “literature” is supposed to look like. His latest release, Rituals Performed in the Absence of Ganymede, is a mind bending trip into the unconscious. At times both nightmarish and absurd, the book is also artfully designed in a way that demands unique participation from the reader.
I corresponded with Mike in the closing months of 2020. We discussed his fascination with the corporeal, the conflation of subject/object, and evoking the muses amidst the incessant drone of technology. Read our conversation below and be sure to check out Mike’s earlier Ligeia contributions Surgical Text and Mesh-Gate.
Rituals Performed in the Absence of Ganymede is available from 11:11 Press here.
I’m curious about the project’s origins. When did you first conceptualize Ganymede, and under what conditions? Was there a particular first image or line or idea that germinated all the rest?
I’m not completely sure when it first came about. It was after I’d written Gut Text, which engages with four entities living within the book itself. I was very much drawn to this idea of the text as something organismal—something that can (or at least can attempt to) dynamically render in front of the user. To a certain extent I view this as a sequel to Gut Text, envisioning a fifth entity that is more complex and malicious than those in the first book. An organism that can directly speak to and manipulate the reader. I don’t really know where this desire spawned from. I think in part it comes from a desire to see new kinds of writing. I’m not particularly interested in traditional narrative, plot, characterization. I’d rather explore what the text is capable of beyond its historicized constraints. Part of this also materialized in a fascination with labor. Making the user perform work (whatever that means). I wanted to make something that has to be actively engaged with, not passively read.
Because of this, most of my work tends to originate from a wide net of images. At the beginning, I was reading Christopher Norris’ Hunchback 88, Joyelle McSweeney’s Necropastoral, and some of the CCRU’s work; engaging with art like Goya’s Witches Flight; listening to Earl Sweatshirt’s Some Rap Songs and Clipping’s The Deep; playing games like Caves of Qud and Hylics. I try to pull inspiration from a lot of different mediums.
Reading Ganymede, I often felt this sensation that the book had a will of its own, like I was handling an autonomous organism, as you mentioned. A few pages in, it immediately struck me as a sister to Gut Text, albeit more sinister than its older sibling. Your writing tends to fixate on the relationship between body and text—“This event hurts you. As if your biology had been sutured to the text.” Your depictions of flesh and bone being manipulated are terrifically vivid, oscillating between the clinical and surreal. There’s a tangible sense of physicality in reading your books. What draws you to exploring the corporeal? What makes a text come alive for you, whether your own work or someone else’s?
I view the corporeal as something uncomfortably familiar to us. Every bodily ailment and injury is something we can imagine manifesting in our own body. I think the horror or viscerality of the book comes from the way that, no matter how surreal, you can project these events occurring across your own anatomy. It gives the text power. The book knows that it can make you react / squirm / uncomfortable. It knows that it has influence over you. And I think that makes it feel more alive than any kindness would.
Your label of the autonomous organism is great. I think it very much hits what I’m getting at. The aliveness of a text in part comes from its ability to respond to you / interact with you. It’s difficult to make something narrative feel alive, because it has a set path. There’s the potential for a reader to predict upcoming events. But when the text is an entity the reader isn’t trying to figure out what will happen. They’re trying to read expressions and gestures. It’s more likened to analyzing someone’s posture than to recognizing tropes / trajectories.
I think that there’s a certain ludological element here as well. Drawing from the interactivity of video games. A large part of the process is trying to create a means for the user to interact with the text. At times, this happens in Ganymede with pages that require the reader to turn the book ninety degrees, or text in the gutter that tempts them to pull the book apart. In other projects I’ve tried including dice rolls and pages that asked to be cut or torn. I think rooting the book in our world does a lot in making it feel like a living thing.
The interactivity of the text makes Ganymede such a unique reading experience—having to physically alter the book’s position to read certain passages, moving your own body/head to follow snaking lines of text. I appreciate how you challenge readers to engage with text in often unexpected ways, making the reader “work” as you mentioned earlier. Reading tends to be so passive, but you find clever ways to make the process active. It’s like concrete poetry dialed up to the nth degree. I think a big part of it is that your books incorporate numerous graphic elements. Smut-Maker and Ganymede in particular mash text, image, color, tone to create these fabulous, phantasmagoric hybrids. How does your design work affect your creative writing, and vice versa?
Thank you! Originally design had been a very minor element of my work. In my first book, Man, Oh Man the design was largely traditional barring occasional blocks of repeated text. It was with Gut Text that I started to play around a lot more with design. It felt like a logical step forward. Not only experimenting with the content of the text but its appearance as well. With the last few projects, I’ve been primarily working on them in InDesign. I’ve found that it’s a lot more natural for me to work on the design as I’m writing the book. Sometimes structuring a page before I fill it with text, other times writing out the page, and seeing what kind of appearance the content should take on. I feel like this back and forth better integrates the two elements. Neither consistently takes precedent over the other. At the same time, it allows a comfortable amount of spontaneity. The text’s interactive moments can occur naturally as I’m working.
With the last four or so projects that I’ve put together, I’ve found myself trying to finalize page dimensions before starting the project. With Ganymede, I knew I wanted the book to be smaller (4.25 x 7). It feels like most design-oriented work that I see is always in these large 6 x 9 or 8 x 11 or 9 x 9 sizes. Which I understand. You want to show off the work. But there’s something really fascinating to me about presenting this in a small volume. I feel like it makes the exterior seem more unassuming. It pulls your guard down. You don’t really expect what’s going to come. And ultimately I think this adds to that sense of the text as an autonomous organism. That from the outset, before you’ve even opened the book, it’s trying to manipulate and deceive you.
Writing and design feel inseparable to me. They’re both essential to assembling the text. It feels incomplete to focus on one without the other.
Ganymede feels very much rooted in the occult. Writing as ritual, poetry as incantation. But there’s also a technological aspect to the book—“A series of cybernetic limbs are attached to your increasingly shitty body.” Parts of the book are like an ancient rite, while others veer into the realm of science fiction. This juxtaposition creates such a fascinating texture. The narrative becomes unstuck in time and space. Do you view technology as a kind of “magic” that bends and enhances our reality? Or has the omnipresent glow of a blue screen become more like a curse corrupting our humanity? For instance, I keep staring into my phone and thinking, “voidmachine,” ha!
I view both the occult and the technological as these unknowable constructs. Both are expanding and changing, often when we are not looking. They are something that we can try to communicate with, to harness, to familiarize ourselves with. But they are always largely out-of-view. Too complex or esoteric for us to fully grasp the logic of. They operate under the whims of a random nothingness. Or maybe a set of ever-obscuring algorithms. Troubleshooting sound settings and scrying with a divination board both make me feel like I’m at the mercy of something beyond the veil.
In the context of Ganymede, these are both chaotic constructs, with their own agendas and functionalities. They can prolong whatever vessel the reader is using at the moment, but they could turn it to mush as well. Finicky methods to fix a finicky machine.
Another “chaotic construct” I noticed throughout Ganymede is the tension between subject and object. The two become indistinguishable. The subject’s existence hinges on a collection of objects, while the objects are themselves defined by the subject. The demarcations collapse even further as the voice of the text is conflated with the reader—“The subject (you and I both) watches as the scum rises to the top.” I find this exploration of subject/object to be extremely relevant in a materialistic society such as ours. Americans tend to commodify their very existence. Status determined by a collection of shiny toys. Ganymede exposes how tenuous identity has become—“Without objects, the subject is rendered a pile of mush, powerfless and fragile.”
When broken down, the object remains an object. It may change in what object it is, but its classification remains. But when the subject is broken down, they are no longer a subject. They metamorphosize into the former. This gives the text power two-fold. First, to show that you are no better than objects. You are merely objects congregated together, and second, that they can become part of you. Another object to the collection. In the conflation of text and reader, the reader is forced to recognize how fragile their identity is. And how dependent they are on the objects that they think themselves above.
Thinking back to the last question, this goes hand-in-hand with appearances of the technological. Does mutating or replacing objects in the subject’s collection change what they are? Does the addition of cybernetic limbs make your body less human? And is it okay to be less human? I think that the self is something we are comforted by. It is the identifiable “I” and so once this thing starts changing, we become unsettled and anxious. In Ganymede, the materialism of this practice takes an almost primitive approach, with the subject attempting to embolden their position by adding more and more objects to their person, becoming a larger collection, and in turn, more powerful / secure / stable. But eventually, this amassed weight gives way and the subject is forced to recognize how tenuous their status really is.
Ganymede embodies this meshing of subject/object. He’s Godlike in that his power seems limitless, but perhaps more so because of his absence. Ganymede reminds me of an anarchic Godot—omnipresent but invisible, an unknowable paradox. He permeates the text without showing face. His name is often blacked out and yet there’s no escaping him. When you read this book, Ganymede possesses you, consumes you. Was it challenging to write a character like this? Did Ganymede surprise you as his shape developed?
I don’t necessarily feel like I made Ganymede. Or at least at the start I hadn’t done it intentionally. He spawned as this spectral entity looming just outside of view. Kind of developing independently of the rest of the text (although deeply tied to it). The challenge came in pinpointing his relationship to the reader and the text itself. Once his intentions and desires became more clear, I wanted to try and replicate for the reader the way that he had surfaced for me, adding these redacted appearances of his name. Showing that even if he wasn’t always watching, he could be. And even if he wasn’t always present, he could appear at any moment. I view him almost as an esoteric deity, acting on whims we cannot fully recognize. At the same time, I wanted it to feel like he had some kind of intimate connection to the reader. He’s this strange third party in the dynamic between text and reader. He doesn’t exactly fit in all that cleanly. I was surprised to see him appear at all.
At its core, writing is a kind of alchemy. I’ve heard many writers describe a similar phenomenon (and occasionally experience it myself). Given the right conditions, the text is channeled rather than deliberately constructed, a kind of literary divination—“The text forms. First from nothing. From stray atoms rearranged.” Ganymede strikes me as a meditation on the creative process itself. Assemblage of the text can be done in a trance but can also be purposefully disassembled and rearranged. The language and imagery reflect this, evoking both organic and artificial elements. As a writer, how do you strike a balance between the unconscious spark of creation and the self-awareness of craft and revision?
I’m really drawn to the image of evoking the muses. This idea that something else flows through you. Because I draw from so many disparate sources while working, my role often feels more curatorial. The content is predominantly born from that unconscious spark, but where it goes / how it looks / its relation to the other passages, are by my hand. Although even this can have some unintentional results. Often I don’t really have an endgame in mind while writing. I let the work form naturally and with little restraint. I find that I’m really deeply affected by sound. I listen to a lot of avant jazz, noise music, and rap while working. I like working in this not really distracted, but kind of manic or hysteric state. Working in tandem with the over-stimulation. It’s easier to work towards something dense and chaotic when everything around you is embodying those characteristics. The revision process on the other hand tends to be pretty calm haha. I’ll play YouTube videos in the background or listen to something smoother like Drexciya or Caretaker or Monster Rally. I tend to revise as I write, so a lot of the work done during the actual revision process tends to be design oriented. Either fixing layouts or adding them in. But often I find at the end of putting a book together, that I don’t really feel like it’s my book at all. I feel more like a participant than the actual author. Going back and reading stuff like Smut-Maker or Ganymede feels like reading something incredibly familiar, but not something that’s exclusively mine.
I was reading your essay on John Trefry’s Massive over at the Action Books blog the other day. I admire how you consistently bring a formal inventiveness to your critical work, something I wish more writers did. Literary criticism doesn’t need to be bloated and academic, but it often ends up that way. Your book reviews, on the other hand, exist at this wonderful intersection of creative writing and critical analysis. How did you come to writing criticism? What’s your approach when writing about other writers?
Writing about John’s book has been a lot of fun. The process approaches something similar to that organismal quality I’m fascinated with. Since Massive is a work-in-progress, I’ve been able to watch it grow / mutate / rearrange itself as I write about it. I was immediately excited when John approached me about it. And moreso, because he’s actually the one that got me interested in critical writing. I remember a few years ago he tweeted something like, “If you don’t view your reviews as your art then you’re writing them wrong” and that’s really stuck with me. The day after I saw that, I reached out to him to request a review copy of M Kitchell’s In The Desert of Mute Squares. And since then I’ve been trying to keep up a healthy pace reviewing contemporary titles. Predominantly unconventional small press titles.
I think there’s this default sense that critical work has to be this very formalized and rigid thing—it has to be written “like a book review.” But in truth it can be as obtuse and free-flowing as any fiction or poetry. I try to find a place between ekphrasis and analysis. My goal is to engage with the work and to look at what it does interesting. I’m not necessarily concerned with if it was good or bad. I don’t think there’s much value in that. Especially in this small press space where everyone’s—for the most part—just trying to put out work that they’re passionate about. A little while back, Johannes Göransson referred to one of my essays as a topographical reading and I really like this. This survey of the landscape / documenting of encounters. I think that’s always what I’m reaching towards: an encounter with the text.
What’s next for Mike Corrao? Any upcoming projects you’d like to tease?
There’s always something in the works. I have a play forthcoming from Plays Inverse, Andromedusa, which explores some of the more bodily aspects of my work. It follows the amalgamated bodies of Andromeda and Medusa as they grow into a new celestial body. After that, I have something a bit more medieval and cyborgean coming in 2022… although that one might be a bit too far out to start talking about yet.
I’ve also started collecting my critical writing into a shared word document, so something may come of that soon as well. Stay tuned.
Mike Corrao is the author of three novels, MAN, OH MAN (Orson’s Publishing); GUT TEXT (11:11 Press) and RITUALS PERFORMED IN THE ABSENCE OF GANYMEDE (11:11 Press); one book of poetry, TWO NOVELS (Orson’s Publishing); two plays, SMUT-MAKER (Inside the Castle) and ANDROMEDUSA (Forthcoming - Plays Inverse); and three chapbooks, AVIAN FUNERAL MARCH (Self-Fuck); MATERIAL CATALOGUE (Alienist) and SPELUNKER (Schism - Neuronics). Along with earning multiple Best of the Net nominations, Mike’s work has been featured in publications such as 3:AM, Collagist, Always Crashing, and Denver Quarterly. His work often explores the haptic, architectural, and organismal qualities of the text-object. He lives in Minneapolis.
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