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Christine Marella and Ian Fishman talk about receiving really good poetry advice, “The Cowboy”, and the friendship behind Knife Room Poetry

Christine Marella and Ian Fishman are the editors of Knife Room Poetry.

Christine and Ian corresponded on Whatsapp over the course of three weeks. Christine was mostly in New York City, often trying to get ahold of Ian, who was between New York and Northampton, Massachusetts. 

Christine Marella: I am exceptionally porous when I am writing, ie, whatever I’m reading has a huge influence on my work. As a writer, I’ve always thought of reading as collaborating. But I’ve been surprised some people don’t feel like that’s the case. Do you?

Christine: Actually I don’t like that

Christine: I want to talk about the cowboy poem

Christine: Let’s start over

Christine: I want to talk about “The Cowboy” by James Tate. And our conversation about it on the phone last year

Ian Fishman: Hi friend (:

Ian: I’m happy to talk about either of these things because they’re both things I like to think about

Ian: On the former, I also find myself to be a porous writer generally, and notice elements of what I read seeping into what I bring back to the page. I think that there’s something healthy about this, and possibly inevitable if you are a bookish writer (which if you write poems you probably are), unless you have an express motivation about the style/tone/form/concept of the poem(s) you are writing. I often think that many writerly folks needn’t have an express motivation about how their poems be and can let the sceneries of their lives and libraries impact the work that they end up making. I realize I’m starting to trail off now so I think it’s a good time for me to answer that indeed I do believe that being “porous” as you say with what you read inflecting how you’re writing is a sort of collaboration. Because an essence of someone else’s has come to support the work in front of you, in one way or another 

Ian: One simple example I can think of as an incredibly oblique form of collaboration is an epigraph. Another writer’s thoughts frames almost every literary book one might pick up, which is to give us an understanding that the book we’re reading was impacted greatly by some other mind or some other thoughts and words. Of course Keats isn’t in his dusty coffin thinking his works are in collaboration with whoever is stamping his verse onto frontispieces, but the writer who is using his verse most certainly is. It’s not easy to do this work from inside a vacuum

Ian: Sorry that took a long time to write and may be the most convoluted sequence of thoughts I’ve ever had

Ian: But yes let’s chat about Tate and his magnificent poem “The Cowboy”

Ian: I love that poem so much. It’s one of Tate’s finest. Hokey, silly, mundane, a little cheesy, agile, narratively superstructured, and most of all, incredibly moving. Something so human about a poem that’s about an extraterrestrial

Ian: Tell me what brought your mind to talking about this poems of Tate’s, or how you were brought to thinking of our long conversation about the inner workings of this poem some months ago?

Christine: I’m writing a lot these days and I find myself increasingly thinking no line or sentiment is fully my own. I’m the product of everything I’ve read, and am reading. But I’ll read lines from other people that feel wholly their own, which leads me to believe I could produce something new — though I always think I haven’t read enough to identify who the influences are for someone whose writing feels new to me

Christine: I’m not convinced that the point of writing is produce new thought. At least that’s actually never been the point for me. I find my students have been super preoccupied with being original, maybe I was too at some point. What I’m focused on now is writing things that I like, and writing what I’d like to read. I can read the same kind of poems — or stories — again and again if I like them 

Christine: The verdict is out for me on whether the “already have written” would feel like they’re part of a collaboration. But like you say about Keats, I probably agree

Christine: Well, I cried when I first heard the recording of Tate reading “The Cowboy.” I cried when I read it on the page. I cry whenever I read it. I think I almost cried when we were talking about it

Christine: For me that poem is less about his language and more about how cleanly he communicates his ideas to us. He speaks on the purely emotional plane, which plainer narratives achieve I think, more for me at least than poems that require a lot of my intellect to engage with

Christine: I think we had come out with our first season of Knife Room at that point, and had spent a lot of time on Zoom or on the phone talking about the website. But besides being partners in this project, I wanted to acknowledge that first we came together as friends who like to talk about poems!

Christine: I think our conversation about Tate constituted like 90 minutes of my day that afternoon

Ian: I think you’re so right that reading is a form of active collaboration for a writer, in most senses. And your illustrations of the concerns of young writers (often originality in a general sense) — I can attest to have noticing that also, particularly for young writers with drive. I think when I was in high school and in college I was so taken with so many books of poems, but I also related to them differently than I do now. I think my worries had to do with not wanting to be clearly in the vein of one writer or another, or that if a writer was doing something, whatever that was would be reason enough for me to do something different, or think I had to do something differently

Ian: It took a lot of reading and in a sense a journey towards uncovering the poems that made me want to write like them. It’s maybe a similar notion to reading a poem, loving it so much you then think — “wish I’d written that”. Of course I think that is a feeling that’s relatively universal, and would wager it’s a reason a lot of people come to the page to write themselves. The same goes for songwriters, and I’d think for all types of artists. Keith Richards wanted to be Gram Parsons. This happens all the time. I think there’s a process of becoming comfortable with your writing having a resemblance of others’, and I think about it now with a certain sense of pride. I want the writers I love and the poems I love to sing through the poems I can try to write, as a way of keeping a tradition, or even just a tip of the hat of a kind. I'm so happy certain poems have come into my life that I want my poems, in a way, to sport them. As if to say, this is a part of what has helped me here

Ian: Poetry is in so many ways about moments, and there are so many moments in Tate’s later body, maybe because of its narrativity, which lends itself to spontaneity/surprise by hiding these elements in a consistent, comfortable, long-lined form. We had just seen a presentation of Tate’s newly published collection of essential poems, and somebody read “The Cowboy”. It’s Jim’s (Tate) tearjerker really, it seemed like everyone felt that poem where it matters

Ian: And this was during a time, yes, when we were beginning to put Knife Room together and we were talking on the phone pretty regularly about poems, and it was one of the things we talked about most when we were becoming friends (and still is I’d say!)

Ian: Something funny, my recollection of our conversation that day was that we were talking about the poem, then reading it slowly and making notes of his tactics, his sceneries and observations, his depictions of small town life, the whole hubbub about the town liar, and his willingness to roll with really anything. So I remember talking about his tendency towards subversion of expectations, and then getting to the conclusion of the poem, getting KOed emotionally, and the tactics fall away, whatever Jim had written to get us to that moment, that all goes away, and I think life can be that way too. A sort of radical acceptance of the present (of reality) and an eschewing of the semantics of trajectory. An appreciation for the present, and for the company of the present, that arrives with that ending floors me every time I read it

Ian: I'm going to go back now and read that poem, but I’m reminded of a conversation we had about Ashbery’s later poems, and a fondness we both shared for the loosening that occurred in his poetry books at the end of the 90s. We talked about his facility for surprise, but we talked about a latent warmth that abounds his later poems. A cartoonish, silly warmth

Ian: More on this soon, I have to eat lunch, then back to Tate and Ashbery — and I’ll ask you some questions

Ian: Here’s a question I’ve got, and an idea to throw outwards to see if it sticks — which is that I think these conversations weve been having for months (in person, on the phone, texting, etc) are themselves collaborations of poetic thought, and I leave these conversations each time thinking somewhat differently about poetry and its possibilities — do you think that these conversations have had any collaborative inspirations for you, even when you’re going back to write a poem on your own?

Christine: Inspiration must be a form of collaboration. It’s a spark lit in one person as a result of something another person has done. I guess I’m starting to get loose with my definitions. But I like arguments about what is a collaboration and what is not. I like to argue both sides

Christine: I love what you say about your loves singing through your poems. That’s so great. I love that you say it’s about tradition, because it is. Everything we write is pointing at someone, I think. Someone before us, or contemporaneous to us. With influences I wonder if it’s possible to point into the future

Christine: Anyway, in my memory, at that event we’re both referencing, Matt (Rohrer) was holding a speaker playing Jim reading “The Cowboy.” I can hear his voice in my mind still, because I felt he kind of read it badly. There were a few places he tripped over his words or skipped things. I could be wrong and someone else could have read it, since memories are wild and untrustworthy things

Christine: I remember the conversation about Ashbery because I had said I love “later Ashbery” when in our milieu there had been some push back against it. I was saying that really, who cares. Ashbery for me is a poet I’ve only been able to understand because I’ve read some other poets who have been translators of Ashbery, to me. I’m hesitant to even mention who I’m talking about because the kind of “translation” I mention might be an emotional translation, and so wouldn’t make sense to anybody else…

Christine: We’re talking about 10 different things! How I wish I didn’t open with two questions. Okay — to answer you, yes. Conversations about poetry, specifically the ones we have, always have a collaborative effect for me. Because they revive me from whatever dead place I was likely existing in and they make me want to write!

Christine: Maybe I’m being facetious. I’m usually not existing in a dead place. What about you? I definitely consider what you might think about a draft when I’ve written it, we’ve talked enough that I know what you might say — I now have an Ian on my shoulder. The imaginary version of your commentary collaborates with me sometimes! ‎

Ian: I’m super interested in how you’re saying reading certain things can translate in a sense, or make sense of, other things you’re reading or have read before. I have to concur with you, certainly, I think there are certain poetries that have unlocked specific writers — without certain Russian Conceptualist writers, I wouldn’t have the same understanding of Flarf. I think we’re still talking about traditions, techniques that carry over from certain styles to others, and the small linkages we can make as readers between discrete things

Ian: I am also fascinated by what you say about having enough conversations with someone about writing poetry that you almost have a distillation of them and of their perspectives lodged in your brain. Like little angels (or devils) that you keep with you

Ian: I love the idea about that being a collaborative force, the perspectives and impressions your friends leave with you

Ian: I also feel like there’s a bit of editorial flare and preference that you have left with me, and that many folks have left with me, if we’ve had in-depth conversations about how poems get made. I think my superego tends to intrude into some of my personal editorial practices that you have helped me to push against. I’ve sent you poems before that are too far gone with how edited they’ve become and you’ve texted me back like “WTF”!!

Ian: I want to know what you think about revising as an act of collaboration with yourself as much as it is a collaboration with a potential editor?

Ian: Maybe this is a question too of how your individual editorial practice develops, and how much others influence it, whether in a hand-on (active) or hands off? (passive or paradoxical)

Ian: Not paradoxical ** para-social

Christine: I’ve gone back and forth on how to answer your question for a few hours. I don’t know — I wouldn’t say revision has ever felt like an act of collaboration with myself, though I can see it being framed that way

Christine: Revising though does feel kind of collaborative with a knowledge that is somehow higher or better than the knowledge I personally possess — not in a spiritual way necessarily. It feels as though I’m trying to access a kind of skill and/or wisdom that’s not (yet) mine?

Christine: If anything I learn to make edits para-socially, for sure. I see certain maneuvers others have made and I might apply the same philosophy to one of my poems, for example

Christine: And yes I get really passionate when imparting editorial comments on other people’s poems…. I can’t help it. This is probably more so with friends though

Christine: Do you think revision is collaborative? With self? Also when did you start writing collaborative poetry? I think of you as someone who developed an interest in collaboration far before I did

Ian: Hi hi, sorry friend for getting back to you in such a tardy way. the weekend flattened me

Christine: That is okay!

Ian: Okay so re: collaborating with the self / whether revision is a form of collaboration with the self; I believe or at least I think I believe that. Speaking for myself when I’m approaching editing I think of what’s there as pieces of a machine that past/former Ian left for me. Even if the poem looks “together” it’s a machine I have to put back together again, however I think that’s best. Sometimes cosmetically and sometimes substantially, but it’s always about taking the ruins of my former self’s thoughts and feelings and patterning them in a way I could maybe make someone feel something

Ian: In a sense I’d argue that revision is a form of translation of our former selves, a peering back in a way towards the thought process that brought you to sketch out the blueprints in the first place

Ian: I think that’s the idea I’m seeking out — the revision is the architectural approach to the schematic of the draft. The actuation of a blueprint

Ian: I feel the same way regarding the practice of parasocial influence in the poems. I remember a while ago reading some Ted Greenwald and enjoying how he’d enjamb contractions after the apostrophe — (can / ‘t) for example. You glean things from the poems that make you wish you’d written them

Ian: Do you ever find some of the tactics you pick up from wherever to be contradictory or just non-analogous with others? If we’re working with two parts Ashbery, one part Plath, what would you think?

Christine: Like the way that Plath and Ashbery are at odds with each other, sure. I don’t see contradictory influences as being contradictory in my mind though… they just work to ignite different parts of my brain I think

Christine: OR, maybe I’m not aware I do things that work against each other. Not in the moment at least. I would never be thinking in 2 parts Ashbery and 1 part Plath though, not consciously. I would probably be in one mode at one time, undoing things of the other, then vice versa (this is obviously strictly an example)

Christine: Mostly I feel like I ruin things with revision. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a super successful revision of a piece I wrote more than 3 months prior to when I am “revising” it

Christine: I find that the wisdom of the moment is usually what’s best. And if it’s not, maybe just write something new. I have a huge graveyard

Christine: And maybe if I did revise something old I basically just turned it into something completely new?

Christine: I’m curious though — turning the discussion in a different direction — what “really good poetry advice” you’ve been given that actually gets implemented in your work/ practice, like all the time? ‎

Ian: Hi hi!

Ian: I’m on the train to Massachusetts

Ian: I’m pondering over your questions and I will answer them today

Christine: Ian!!!

Ian: Hi I’m sorry!!

Ian: I’m going to get to these in just a few moments, I’m in the valley today

Ian: Wanna hang next week?

Ian: Some good poetry advice I’ve got that’s stuck with me forever… it’s something I was told in college and had to do with brevity, and considering the ending of a poem. In essence, what I’m saying is: always keep an eye on how to exit a poem, from the beginning. A conclusion that I’ve come to with this is to never write more than the poem can hold, and this tends to lead me towards poems of a greater concision, or at least (hopefully) poems mindful of how to end themselves (sounds dark), or mindful of the eventuality of their endings

Ian: I don’t necessarily think revision is always a synonymous agent with transformation, in terms of poems. You know, I would argue that one form of revision looks something like sitting with a poem for a while (days/weeks/months/years/decades/half centuries) and not changing it much, or maybe not changing it at all

Ian: Maybe there can be a kind of revision which is a way of looking differently at the poem from the perspective of having created it, and of taking a new vantage at it, whether or not there is much change

Ian: I like what you say about utilizing different tactics of different poets as essentially counter-actions against one another. I’m wondering if that’s ever something you’re consciously thinking of when you’re writing or if it’s more unconscious. I don’t think it’s something I consciously do when I’m at my desk or laptop, it can just happen sometimes

Ian: Sorry for being awol this weekend — New England and distractable 

Ian: But I’m on my way back to New York now so I’ll be more on my phone

Christine: Ah, I may know who gave you that advice… a very wise man. I agree — once I heard that, my poems got better. But it’s strange because I’m working on a long poem right now and I have no idea how I will exit— the long poem is like a different art form altogether in some ways, I find

Christine: As for revision, I like the idea that one of the valid changes to make is a change in your perception as a writer, though for students this sounds like a convenient excuse not to do one’s revision assignments…

Christine: Differing revision tactics happen unconsciously. I try to be more unconscious than conscious with poetry, actually. There’s so much you can do consciously, but none of the things I’ve done consciously are ever as “good” as what comes from the unconscious. I do think the unconscious is trained, in poetry-land, though conscious efforts in formal learning. I don’t know if anyone will follow what I just said! But I think any poet knows what I’m talking about

Christine: What’s the best poetry advice I’ve received? I think I’ve received so much it’s hard to recount

Christine: But I often think about not crowding the line with too many “stars—“ ie: not diminishing the shine of the best words by including unnecessarily shiny words on the same line. I wonder if you know who said this to me… because he may have offered similar advice to you

Christine: And yes— I am seeing you on Saturday for a mutual friend’s birthday! I wonder if we’ll keep these details of our personal lives in here, or scrub them out. I’m looking forward to the party, it will be mostly poets in New York — all the best, lovely people. Maybe we can convince them to make a collaborative party poem, and we can put it up for this season  


Christine Marella is the founding editor of Knife Room Poetry. Her recent work appears in American Chordata, SAND Journal, Dialogist, and Volume Poetry. She lives in New York City.

Ian Fishman is the deputy editor of Knife Room Poetry. He was a Goldwater Fellow at NYU. He is an editor for Copenhagen and his chapbook is I Wish I Had A Car To Name (les pétroglyphes, 2022).

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