Friday, March 26, 2010

Martin Rock & Phillip Ischy

Martin Rock is Editor in Chief of Washington Square Review and co-curator of Cornelia St. Graduate Poetry reading series in Manhattan. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Diagram, Tuesday; an Art Project, Mississippi Review Online, NANOFiction, No, Dear, and others. He translates poetry from the Japanese and is the St. Mary's Master Fellow in New York University's MFA program. Contact him at

Phillip is a graduate of the creative writing program at Florida State class of '05. His chapbook collaboration with Martin Rock, Fish, You Bird from Pilot Books is due to be released this spring. Publications include Washington Square Review ( Spring / Fall '09 ), Gulf Coast Review ( Fall '07 ), & guest co-editor with David Chester of Mississippi Review online ( Fall '04 ). He currently lives in Bryan, Texas where he is a cook, concert promoter, & musical instrument salesman.

from Fish, You Bird

Wind holds up his hands:
in his palms, albatrosses
like small pocketknives.

Flight is a winged tree ( feathers
its leaves ) bending in the wind.

* * *

To be born again;
blind, without these hellish limbs
(folding, unfolding).

Flying too close to the sun--
a school of Spanish Mackerel.

* * *

All fish are derived
from Icarus, that swallow
who swam in the sea.

It is commanded: swallow
the bird, you fish; fish, you bird.

* * *

Matters of the flesh:
your dusty hand reaching through
poems, touching birds.

Right Here, two Japanese girls
crying. Smoothing Death's feathers.

from the chapbook Fish, You Bird, forthcoming from Pilot Books

Collection of more recent tanka from the series

Hear me woman: I'm
just a man waist deep in your
turbulent waters.

I threw all my coins into
your well. You had wished for change.

I wished then for Death;
to be born again a fish
in her dark waters.

Last night I was a man. Now
I am nothing but a man.

I am a vessel
taking part of her away.
Such is memory.

I am now a fisherman.
I cast my lines into her.

Blood also travels
in vessels. Corpuscles are
typecast, know their lines.

When she opens herself up,
schools of tiny fish spill out.

Pelican-mouthed, I
drink her in. Fish live in me
again. Now, I am full.

If my sinking boat contains
no sharks, should I not fear them?

No boats are sinking
in this ocean made of sharks.
The island bodies

pass through each other like ships;
insatiable lovers.

I never kissed her.
I yawned into her mouth. I
shared my exhaustion.

My roots are the tiniest
feet. They have nowhere to go.

There is more of us
recently. Why not focus
on the leaping frogs?

Basho found enlightenment
in a splash, not the mirror.

Fushimi will break
his promise tomorrow, but
tonight he is ours.

The Emperor stands naked--
his clothes a pond rippling.

Tonight the long hours
pile on top of each other
like dead trees. We climb.

Inside the bark our lungs fill--
The emperor, too, is ash.

How did your collaboration begin?

MR: I was on the phone with Phil, and actually I remember exactly where I was in this park outside of Tokorozawa I used to stop at on my way home from work. I'd go there to watch the ducks and the old men who fed them, and to read until I lost the light. Phil was still recovering from being attacked, and he'd been having a bit of trouble writing. I was reading a lot from the Japanese canon: Basho, Issa, Buson, and Ryokan, and I had just come across the traditional "renga" form of linked verse. I remember reading that Basho and his disciples used to write these chains of poems, that he'd write the beginning, set it on a leaf and send it downriver where the next person picked it up and continued. I can honestly still see the trees I was standing between and the late afternoon light on the lake the day Phil and I decided to start this project. It's really the only thing that hasn't changed about my life in the last 5 or 6 years.

PI: I was still recovering from my head trauma. On February 13, 2005, I got assaulted with a hammer while I was working at a video store & spent the next few months recovering & trying to get my chops back. When Martin pitched the renga to me, it seemed like a great idea. Shorter poems would enable me to write without exhausting my still healing brain, & it would give me a way to have a creative conversation with one of my best friends & favorite poets. I had always written shorter poems for the most part, so the transition was pretty easy.

What were the rules or parameters for the collaboration?

MR: We haven't adhered strictly to the traditional renga form (mostly because there are too many rules to keep track of) but we did determine early on some parameters, and we haven't broken any of them. We decided to stick to a strict 5-7-5, 7-7 syllable count, and this has definitely forced us to consider each word; its sounds, implications, and of course one of the most important elements of the liked verse is that the poems are related, but that each one consistently introduces a new element to the poem. Basho called it "atarashimi" or newness, and I hope we've captured a bit of that in the series. I feel that fragmentation, which has become a pervasive element in contemporary American poetry,has been around for centuries in linked Japanese verse.

PI: When I told Martin that I was definitely on board with this, he said "Okay then, you start it". It caught me off guard a bit since I hadn't worked with the form much, but also I was starting something that was greater than anything I had written before. Quite a lot to put on one's shoulders, but a worthy goal nonetheless.

How did you collaboratively edit?

MR: I think that for the most part the editing was done before we sent the poems to each other. Sometimes there would be a couple months between the receiving of a poem and the sending of the response. Part of that was just life getting in the way, but the whole time there was this tanka rolling about in the back of our minds. At least, I feel that this has been the case for me, and I know the level of consideration Phil gives to each of his poems. These poems are so short that one of the greatest gifts of this process has been carrying around a poem in my mind, and watching a response take shape before I put it down. Otherwise, we've given each other comments on revising a poem here and there, but for the most part the editing process has not been collaborative.

PI: It's sort of an ongoing process too. Every now & then, we'll see something in our older poems & point it out, but it's minor stuff for the most part, too many or too little syllables, little things like that. When I write mine, I usually do it late at night, then go to sleep & look at it with fresh eyes in the morning. If it meets or surpasses my expectations, I send it to Martin.

What did you learn from your fellow collaborator?

MR: I don't know how I can even answer this. Phil was in my first poetry class with Ginny Grimsley, and then also with David Kirby, both of whom were phenomenal teachers and mentors. I've been learning from Phil's poems since I discovered that not all poetry had to rhyme. He's one of the most naturally gifted poets I know.

PI: Actually, I wasn't in your class with Ginny. I met you & Traci in Kirby's workshop at FSU. Martin's work has always challenged me, which is why we became such good friends & started this renga. He has never been afraid to write what he wants. I've always wanted to write like him, to have the ideas that come into fruition on his pages. I constantly learn more about how I want to write by reading his work & working with him.

What did you learn about yourself as a poet?

MR: You're really not pulling any punches here Traci. Is the next question going to be a biopsy?

I guess the most important thing has been the recognition of how lucky I am to have good friends like Phil to work with. I've learned that I will continue to write on my own, even living away from a community of poets, without contact to those I love, to those whose words I love. But man am I grateful to have a friend willing to work on an extended project like this with me. I've also learned a bit through the process of working on this book with Pilot. At one point Betsy said, "I can tell one of you guys really likes to be clever." Where it works, the cleverness is all Phil. Where it doesn't, its probably me. I'm trying to be less clever, but I'm still convinced that the pun is one of the highest forms of humor.

PI: I think the next question is rhetorical.

I've always been a fan of word economy, which is part of the reason I'm not really a fiction person. Not sure if it's ADD or what. But if a picture is worth a thousand words, why not paint a picture with fewer? Our work is constantly evolving, & we can see it in the full series. Moods change, ideas move past one another like slow trains. Every tanka I receive excites me to no end. Martin is my brother. When words came together to form a sentence, we were born.

Did the collaboration affect your own work?

MR: I guess the snarky answer is that everything I have done in the past 5 years has affected my work. I feel that this project has been so integrated into my life that there is no way to separate the two. I can go back and read these poems and know exactly the state of my mind when each one was written, and in that way this project has become a kind of diary of emotional and existential states of consciousness, as they relate to Phil and his world and to me and my world. In a lot of ways this was my only tie to America for a while. That being said, some of the ideas that Phil and I have discussed about the possible uses for poetry throughout the process; where poetry is capable of taking us, and in what ways poetry can serve as affirmation, or even as an agent for metamorphosis... these things have I hope come through in my own poems as well as in this project. I also write more about birds now, and fish.

PI: I know, it's odd. I can go back & read some of mine & remember when a woman had broken my heart, when there were deaths & births. In some sense, maybe this was a way for us to document our lives, our equivalent of a blog, except for a while it was just us reading it. It's hard to get out of the tanka mode sometimes. I've been writing short poems for so long, & I love it. But lately I've been trying to push myself to write poems that I had avoided before, poems longer than a page, narratives. The problem is that I only know how to get to the point. I keep waiting for the last 31 syllables where the volta turns the poem on its side to reveal deeper meaning. Ever since the head trauma, I've been a bit disjointed, but I've made it work to my advantage. Tanka has been great for that. But I'm my harshest critic, a perfectionist to the nth degree. Maybe one of these days I'll learn to relax & let the poem write itself.

Did anything happen in the collaborative process that surprised you?

PI: I found it interesting that we would touch on certain subjects & came back to them. Themes of love & loss, birth & death, fire & water, birds & fish, all reappear in the manuscript. I don't know about Martin, but I always strived to one-up him. I'd write my best, & I'd get one back that was even better. Aside from the surprise of receiving a new poem, perhaps the only thing that really surprised me was the notice from Pilot. Martin sent in the manuscript, & I had pretty much forgotten about it until the morning he called to give me the news. We won the contest to kick off their new series, "Meddlin' Kids".

MR: Yeah, definitely one of the big surprises was that our manuscript was chosen by Betsy out of the pile. Thank you again Bets.

I was also surprised at the extent to which the world of poems and the physical world can interact. One poem in particular
really made me consider the power of poetry. I was at school, checking my e-mail at the principal's computer and opened up Phil's tanka, which contained the phrase "Dead Bird" capitalized like that. Immediately after I finished reading it, two Japanese schoolchildren walked up to the desk holding a dead parakeet in their hands, crying. It must be true what they say about poetry and sorcery being linked. Occasionally, to say the least, life and art mimic each other.

How do you feel about the finished product?

MR: What finished product? We're going to be writing this thing til the end of the world.

I feel really positive about the book we've got coming out with Pilot. Betsy and Meghan have been incredible throughout the whole process, and every book of theirs I've seen has been breathtaking. What they brought to the table throughout has been invaluable, from choosing groups of poems to their incredible tastes to their dedication to bookmaking as an artform. I can't express how grateful I am to them for inviting us to be a part of the Pilot family.

Maybe someday the complete renga will exist between two covers as well.

PI: Working with Pilot has been great. They are very gracious & intelligent artisans & I can't wait to have a copy in my hands signed by Martin Rock. As for the renga, I think we'll keep writing this until we write a poem that can't be topped. Then we'll write that poem & keep going. We've talked about stopping at 100, but what would we do with ourselves after that?


  1. awesome stuff guys. and dibs on a signed copy as well.

  2. Amazing project. Beautiful poems. Grand interview. I'm inspired by this - and can't wait to get the book!