poetry collaborations & conversations




(EXC.) Courtney Bush & Jack Underwood

(EXC.) Bea Bacon & Blake Levario

(1) Sarah Brenner & Sophie Ewh

(1) Party Poem


LONG / Courtney Bush & Jack Underwood

LONG / Jennifer Nelson & Jon Woodward

LONG / Christine Marella & Ian Fishman



A collaborative poetry space
on the internet.

Nothing in the Knife Room is made alone.

Knife Room Poetry is best read on desktop.

©2024 Knife Room Poetry


Courtney Bush and Jack Underwood Love Alanis Morissette About As Much As The Average Person: A Convervation

Courtney Bush’s most recent publications are I Love Information, a 2022 National Poetry Series selection, and Thirteen Morisettes, a 2024 SPAMzine and Press pamphlet written with Jack Underwood. Jack Underwood is an award-winning poet and critic. He is the author of two collections of poetry and a book of nonfiction, as well as the pamphlet Thirteen Morisettes, written in collaboration with Courtney Bush.

Courtney and Jack corresponded over WhatsApp about their new pamphlet and their transatlantic collaboration. Courtney was in Brooklyn, NY and Jack was in Hasting, UK.

Courtney Bush: Hi Jack! I thought I’d try WhatsApp since Christine suggested a format where one might be less formal and self-conscious than e-mail, which is pretty funny since we’ve become pretty unselfconscious over email while writing our chapbook, Thirteen Morisettes, which maybe will be excerpted somewhere near this interview.

Courtney: The other day, while proofing, you said that of the thirteen “poem poems” in the book, as opposed to the epistles which are directly addressed to each other, you weren’t sure anymore which you had written and which I had written. I was shocked because I’d separately had the same experience that morning. I was happy to realize that didn’t matter to me at all. Part of that had to do with the form we were using, the morisette, which is all about mis-translating Alanis Morissette lyrics, so the source of the sounds belonged to neither of us, but I think there’s more to it than that. I suspect because I was being accountable to you, the poems felt less like discrete objects to work over or perfect and more like a relay. I was like, well I want Jack to love the poem and the poem is a way to pass the baton and make you write another one. So each is connected to the other by this activity we invented and signed up for.

Courtney: But then, reading and not knowing whose was whose, little glimmers would come to me where I’d see either you or me. There would be a word I would never use, or a kind of punctuation that I knew wasn’t something I’d do. Or I’d see a phrase I’d had particular trouble with and remember listening to the source song over and over and get the sense it was mine, but I loved not feeling sure.

Courtney: I had never collaborated on a poetry project before, and you actually invited me to join this project which was mostly your brainchild. Really you invented the morisette, and I liked it on Twitter and that’s how we “met.”

Courtney: Have you collaborated with poetry before? Why did you feel like inviting someone into this project when you were perfectly capable of writing morisettes all on your own?

Jack Underwood: Hi Courtney! It feels nice to be epistle-ing again on the eve of the book’s release (though it will be just gone noon EST). My thumbs are not screen-native as I grew up largely pre-phone so although WhatsApp is probably more chatty I am very clumsy here! Who knows what I might stumble out in these tiny words!

Jack: So yes, I absolutely love how little sense we have of whose morisette is whose! It is exactly for me as you describe… these little flashes of memory which indicate that line or image probably came from my brain, but otherwise I feel we were very intuitively lead by both the constraints of the form, of the songs, and also by our sense of each other as the initial intended reader… perhaps even the ONLY reader, seeing as when we started our collaboration I don’t think we ever really imagined it going anywhere beyond the remit of our own amusement. Which in a way answers your question about why collaborate… because although I am committed to the seriousness of play and self-amusement as a sacred creative wellspring, I doubt I would have made the time for this project without having both a reader (and Alanis fan) to send my morisettes to, and more importantly receive a response from, in kind. And we often left months between them, so suddenly, from another timezone, there would be this wild frivolous item in my inbox that wholly renewed my commitment because invariably it filled me with joy and made my day.

Jack: And I wonder about the voice we arrived at out of the form… which is I think, very similar. I am a total social mimick; all the time I find myself affecting an intonation or slight mannerism. I am pretty good at accents and impressions which is possibly symptomatic, and I am aware that I work quite hard to both accommodate but also perform. I wonder if you are like that? I have collaborated a little, but mainly with artists and composers or on things for a live setting. I have done a fair amount of “free” and intra-lingual translation before, but this project was remarkable because it was such a punt, on each other, as strangers, and on the weird undertaking itself. And I love that.

Jack: I wonder how sort of “seriously” you felt about it? And did you talk about it much to other people?

Courtney: I took it seriously insofar as I had decided from the beginning I would keep going until it ended, that I would be the last one standing, kind of. Because there’s nothing worse than a collaboration petering out, so I go into most collaborations with a warrior mentality, like I will fight to the death to complete this. If someone is going to quit, it won’t be me. It’s probably just an insane form of people pleasing. And I also took it seriously in that I never phoned it in. Actually, I take everything I do really seriously. I like to decontextualize that Rilke quote… “Everything is serious.” It’s part of a longer thing but I feel that way about living. I think it’s something like all serious things are difficult, and everything is serious.

Courtney: Yes, and the voice that we achieved. I was talking to Jamie (Fitzpatrick) about the collaboration recently. She read it to write a blurb, and coined the gorgeous phrase “At once winsome and Lynchian.” She knows my writing better than anyone and we were talking about how, especially in the letters, there’s a push and pull between our sensibilities. I think your letters are more whimsical, fantastical really. Things that couldn’t happen happen in them. Alanis appears in more magical ways. She seems able to perform magic herself. I found I could only write about her appearing in these more concrete ways. Things that really happened. I heard someone talk about her on the radio, I heard her sing in a casino, a baseball player I love chose her song to walk out to. But I think we create an overall voice between the letters that’s almost like a respectful bridging between our different kinds of apparitions. My sort of apparition acknowledges your sort of apparition, but we don’t ever completely go over to the others’ side.

Courtney: I was also overjoyed every time I got a new morisette or a new letter. I immediately dropped what I was doing to re-engage with it, because it was more fun than my “serious” poems.

Courtney: Are you a huge Alanis Morissette fan? I have to confess, and I’ll do it for the first time here, I wouldn’t say I have a stronger affinity for Alanis than the average person. I love her, obviously, but so does everyone (I thought) but I was really drawn to the arbitrariness and unnecessary-ness of the project, and that her last name sounds so much like a poetic form. Sonnet, sestina, villanelle, morisette. Do you feel betrayed?

Courtney: WhatsApp may be so fast and flowy that I’ll end up asking you more questions than you can answer, because now I’m wondering about how you see the relationship between poems and songs. We made these poems out of songs, and I know now you’re writing so many of these song poems. “Song of Diet Coke,” etc. then there’s all the song in “Solo for Mascha Voice.” Why songs, Jack? Tell us.

Jack: I also noticed the push and pull between my inclination towards the surreal and your inclination towards a kind of psychologically astute and visionary realism in the epistles. I kind of worried about it at the time. But I reconciled myself to the notion that there was a narrative in play. There were these two people, who had somehow come to be writing to one another about their quite unique experiences of having visions of Alanis Morissette. Did they meet on a quora or 4chan message board or via a Facebook fan page or something? I have never written as myself in poems I don’t think. I like a wedge, either a musical surface or a surreal intervention. Whereas I feel like you really truly write towards yourself, like rummaging into the turbulent mystery of being a self, which I admire so much.

Jack: Or it’s more I don’t believe in a finished self, only the one always “becoming” as they say. So playfulness or the surreal is an honest and real account of the mind in play. Idk.

Jack: Haha I am NOT a huge fan of Alanis Morissette either!

Jack: I grew up with her as a presence. I particularly understood how powerfully she seemed to embody something important for girls I grew up around. Her earnest and intense feelings. I think her expression of those was quite radical. I felt that girls at school would sort of play Alanis Morissette AT the boys. She was DEPLOYED and spoke of an altogether more sophisticated angst and passion that we would be right to read as a threat because it told us we were idiots in feeling, and had no language, no texts of our own through which to triangulate the feelings we did have. I was drawn to that because I desperately wanted texts to express my feelings through, and was only like 13? And “Ironic” and “One Hand in My Pocket” were rightly SMASHES.

Jack: I think my later respect and genuine like of Alanis came from listening to “Thank U” over and over. I remember I had forgotten that song, and was searching Spotify for “Thank U, Next” or whatever it is called by Ariana Grande which I love and then I was like “I’m feeling full of feelings why not give that earnest Alanis a bash” and it was great. The drums especially sounded huge on that walk home. And not knowing the words I started messing around with them in my head and that’s when I came up with the idea of “The Anchor You” and put it on Twitter and only one person really engaged and it was Courtney Bush whose book I owned and loved because she told “everyone to buy it” on Twitter and I stumbled across the Tweet one day and was “Ok I will” because I love to do that!

Jack: Can we edit this later? I am rambling!

Courtney: I feel that. Alanis is so powerful. And owned the articulation of a kind of feeling. I gasped recently when I realized in “You Oughtta Know” that she says “and the joke that you made in the bed, that was me.”

Courtney: I like what you said about the surreal and the imagination and wanting a wedge between you and the poem. I am jealous in a way because writing “fiction” has always disturbed me, though I love reading it. Making something up? All the films I’ve made with my collaborators are basically dramatized recreations of things that really happened. But I write things that aren’t true in my poems, or not true to me. I’ll ascribe other people’s biographical details to the “I” in my poem. That “I” isn’t really me either. I don’t know why it scares me to make something up out of thin air. Or in what way that is a lie, too, because I’ll say in a poem “I was the dad who can sing,” but somehow that feels true to me. It doesn’t feel made up. It’s like an elemental thing one can be.

Courtney: I’m rambling too, but that may be part of the virtue and the peril of WhatsApp.

Jack: I think there’s the fiction on the level of line and fiction on the level of scenario or idea. Like in your “Rilke Voice” sequence there are so many smaller moments of metaphorical logic or symbolic connection where you are forced to compute the sentence differently. I suppose I believe that poetry comes not from language but from the quality of the idea that language leads us to. And that can happen with very direct logical or narrative language showing us a poetic connection or leading us to a place of poetic realisation, or it can be a sentence or scrap of language which forces us to harry associations into the gaps in order to get something true to happen, and that latter for me is what I mean by “song”. I am interested in ceding control to that strange intuitive disturbance of surface line by line and within the line at the moment rather than experiments in thought. These are old ideas, very old! But they are newer to my own understanding. I think your new collection has a fabulous amount of both the assembling of poetic scenario and realisation AND these little swishes of strangeness on the level of line. I think we have that across our book too actually!

Courtney: That’s an interesting way to get away from thought, especially if that’s where poetry stubbornly takes you, by going into song. I remember a playwright (a genius, a legend) Mac Wellman pointing out once that songs allow for this loosening of logic, they allow for more madness. The structure of the music provides so much order so that you can sing these lyrics that make no sense, things that if you spoke them would cause people to think you were having a bout of madness.

Courtney: I am interested in what you say: I suppose I believe that poetry comes not from language but from the quality of the idea that language leads us to. I feel nearly the opposite, and I love that. I think poetry comes from the language. I think of language as this incredible force. I think crazy things about language and have a near religious regard for it. I think it’s smarter and funnier than we who use it, but that the sort of tragedy is that we are the ones who use it and activate it. It reminds me sometimes of Rilke’s angels in the Duino Elegies, that they’re so powerful that if you got too close to them your own heart would beat you to death. But then it comes out that the angels would be astonished by a pencil, peeling an apple, something common. It’s like language is the angel that could beat the shit out of us if we ever contacted it directly, but it can’t do what we can which is … say things. It can’t say itself.

Courtney: How’s THAT for rambling.

Jack: Haha no I love it

Jack: I think of language as an extension of the very stupid and limited human machinery of perception and being, which is beautiful and profound because of those same limits. I think that’s what you mean about the Angels. We are so highly limited in our faculties of perception and apprehension and then language is this other clumsy layer of metaphorical sound shaping born out of our desperation to connect. I sometimes ask my classes where language started… because it is a question that compels me. And I always get back to the example of a dinosaur calling out, in distress to no one, in a tar pit. It means to mean by the sounds it makes, and that surely must be language. And aren’t we just still doing that? I think the song part of poems break us out of the habits of deference to a system which is fundamentally reductive. Like a cookie cutter plus context.

Courtney: That’s wild!! Omg I love this. I don’t think language comes from us! I think it’s this mystical structure that we clumsily attempt to learn. I always liked the Wittgenstein thing about how you don’t learn a language, you learn how to use it. Like it’s a set of tools and probably there are endless things that it can do but we won’t be able to figure it out. I should say I love my misunderstanding of the Wittgenstein thing.

Courtney: I love sentences. I just love every sentence and wish I was a sentence instead of a person. When I was a kid they were like “a sentence is a complete thought.” And it’s like waittttt.. no it’s not. It’s a sentence, it’s its own thing.

Courtney: I just think it knows way more than we do. I think we have limits, language doesn’t.

Jack: Well I guess I believe that too in the sense that language certainly predates human beings.

Courtney: You know the whole romanticized language is a failure thing? I feel like well no, language isn’t a failure… maybe you are a failure, but don’t blame it on language.

Jack: Our moaning dinosaur meaning to mean is proof of that!

Jack: Well I think language is a failure at “being reality”

Jack: But not at being its own thing as you say

Courtney: Sure but why would one expect language to be reality? Is that really a failure? It’s like my cat failed to be a dog.

Jack: I think the failure idea is to do with Korzybski, the word is not the thing.

Courtney: But I get it. I’m just weirdly obsessed with  language not being a failure of any sort haha

Jack: I think we had to get through that little structuralist turn

Jack: So that we can treat language as something separate from ourselves and not coming from within us

Jack: The “transcendental signifier” etc. Courtney we just Morisetted postmodernism

Jack: I love the idea of you shouting at Ferdinand Saussure, “Maybe you are the failure here Ferdinand”

Courtney: I love saying that. I think it’s true.

Jack: “Come on language, let’s get out of this dump.”

Jack: Maybe that’s what all poets are saying actually.

Courtney Bush is a poet and filmmaker from Mississippi, living and working in New York. She is the author of Every Book Is About The Same Thing (Newest York Arts Press, 2022), I Love Information (Milkweed Editions, 2023), and the chapbooks Isn’t This Nice? (blush lit, 2019) and Thirteen Morisettes (SPAMzine and Press, 2024) in collaboration with Jack Underwood.

Jack Underwood is a poet, writer and critic. He is author of Happiness (Faber, 2015) Solo for Mascha Voice (Test Centre, 2018) and A Year in the New Life (Faber, 2021). His debut work of non-fiction, NOT EVEN THIS, was published by Corsair in 2021. He has collaborated widely with composers and artists, and his work has been published internationally and in translation. He is co-presenter and curator of the Faber Poetry Podcast and is a senior lecturer in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths College.

Home         Next︎