Frames of Mind
Rubbles (Talgarreg, Wales: Broken Sleep Books, 2022)
Light Glyphs: The Collected Interviews (Talgarreg, Wales: Broken Sleep Books, 2021)
Since 2018 and the publication of B O X, his first collection of poetry, David Spittle has steadily but surely built an output straddling poetry, film, and criticism. There has been another edition of poetry – All Particles and Waves (2020) – and an essay for the DVD release of Andrew Kötting’s The Whalebone Box (2019). Light Glyphs: The Collective Interviews and Rubbles consolidate this relatively early stage in Spittle’s career, for which ‘output’ feels warranted: rarely is it the case that such skill and invention across different but related platforms is demonstrated equally with no thinning of results.
For me, this is to do with Spittle’s status as a poet of small presses. Operating largely in defiance of market demands, small presses permit independence to develop ideas, voice, and practice. But Spittle has also done his homework, not least after completing a doctoral thesis at Newcastle University on John Ashbery and Surrealism. Influences hail from far and wide: there’s Ashbery, but also Guy Maddin, the largely London-based British Poetry Revival and American Language Poetry of the 1970s and 80s.
Innovation and socio-political commentary are the warp and weft of Spittle’s signature. Yet never does Spittle preach, and nor do frequent instances of lyric voice lapse into anecdotalism. If he demands much from the reader, he ensures he doesn’t alienate them. Quite the contrary: in a delicate balancing act, the gap between the ‘I’ of the poem and the ‘you’ beyond it narrows at the same time as critical distance is vitally maintained – ‘vitally’ because, in time-honoured tradition from the Revival, he calls upon readers to become active co-producers of his texts.
Across his three collections, Spittle pursues something far more ambitious than an album of one occasional piece after another, preferring a more symphonic tension between parts and whole. Economies of scale do indeed come to the fore in Rubbles, ‘rubble’ of course suggesting degeneration or deconstruction: ‘rubbles us’, as one poem puts it, as if discovering a new verb, and possibly one not unrelated to that very human act of being undone. This latter phrase from ‘the last rendition’, the closing poem, takes on board repeated phrasing from the beginning of the collection, where objects and events are construed as particulate matter:
when it was that any of what was could still be more than the evidence of its having been and is
this gravel? or is all of it glitter, gravel, grave, grave without order or fabled succession but the
condition of any moment
Rubbles is discretely contrapuntal, the components (rubbles) of a poem encountered elsewhere in alternative shapes, pulled by the gravity of new contexts. Nigh-on seventy pages divided by eight poems present a case of sounding differently while harking back – a kind of distorting echo chamber, as it were, although obviously beyond the current use of the term as a slur.
Almost resisting this echoic tendency is ‘the dated current’, far more self-contained than, perhaps even hermetically sealed-off from, the rest of the collection. Across its tightly compacted eleven pages, Spittle deliberately flaunts the two-line stanza form of much contemporary poetry, producing a kaleidoscope of improbable juxtapositions. The poem’s rhythmic and sonic properties propel the voice breathlessly on:
dropping dwayne names iphone the rock calamity
a one shot flat-white supremacy whacky inflatable
arm-flailing tube man slender man fireman sam
desperate dan lorazepam adventure time panels
latte London the white review the who are you
hi-vis hard-hat roonney mara food bank
The ‘current’ as unstoppable as the marks of history are varied, this pile-up of (predominantly) nouns forces the reader to revise not only their perspective on contemporary reality but their own delivery at every step of its craggy way. ‘We are now in a political landscape littered with what Alex Williams calls “ideological rubble”’, declares the late Mark Fisher in the poem’s epigraph, which clearly inspired the book’s title and its navigation of cultural phenomena.
Spittle’s acute intuition for measure is found as much in block paragraphs as it is in stanza forms. An apparent inability to stem informational fly-tipping approaches the level of jouissance: ‘no we don’t sell straws’, begins one prose-poem, ‘but we do sell the fact the we don’t sell straws as a way of sidestepping ethical commodities in favour of commodifying ethics.’ Rubbles can be refreshingly, if not fearlessly polemical, but this is never to the detriment of Spittle’s primary concern for how language knits together. Nowhere will you find staidly conventional meter. By turns supple and taut, the voice frequently displaces its own certainties, sometimes with touches of Dada:
rationing the rationing and these hands are red and these mountains elope and a toucan is many
and needs more substantial roles in contemporary culture but would then be caged and monetised
and made to paint its face.
In ‘schist’, doodling and graphics almost vandalise the text, as if to make the poem illegible. With barely discernible sentence or clause structure, the page awash with scattered typography and non-linguistic signs, the sequence invites us to look as well as read. Poem, in other words, as text and texture. Reading stumbles, forward momentum is interrupted. The reader is given time and space to question hierarchies of communication.
Spittle invokes genres and media as frequently as his voice shifts gear. A passage of ironic and sharply-observed on-screen chat in ‘sham scree of us’ could be torn from a lost film-script:
well, what you have done?
[X has temporarily left the chat]
XX left the question hovering as if smugly holding back the last piece in a puzzle that
would complete a detailed picture of exactly how X had been defeated.
The cross-pollination of media in everyday life finds some kind of corollary here in poetic forms addressing the where and the how of communication. Literature is news that stays news, Ezra Pound famously proclaimed over a century ago. Spittle seems to agree – or at the very least, thinks through the possible implications of that classic modernist statement for our own times. Attempting to wrestle us from the conundrums of reality, his adventures in language compellingly key us into their expressive allure.
If Rubbles is poetry that thinks, Light Glyphs: The Collected Interviews is critical thought with poetry’s creative faculties. ‘Rushes to frame: an introduction’, the book’s generous and captivating overture, is far from the leaden synopsis of a book’s contents usually fronting collections of critical work. It’s a kind of ‘experimental criticism’, in which the interviewer’s notes and unconnected thoughts are curated; short of integrating them into a conventional essay, the seams are left visible. As in the poetry, Spittle enjoys ranging himself across the page, including the kind of graphics and layout familiar from Rubbles.
Indeed, a spirit of open receptivity is implied by that indefinite article in the title: an introduction, Spittle ceding ground to his interviewees, displacing his authority while reliably steering them and us through some complex terrain. Each interview’s mini-preface offers critically astute background on Spittle’s subjects; leavened by passionate enthusiasm, we’re also able to grasp why he’s fielded them in the first place. Spittle understands poetics in the sense of making, then, hence his approach in the introduction is continually underscored by an open commitment to rethinking the poetry-film nexus time and again across the interviews.
There are nearly as many terms for describing this relationship as there are practitioners: intersection; dialogue; polarity; dialectic; merging; double lives. As such, Light Glyphs is an indispensable guide for understanding genre. If a genre has a natural condition, something which resolutely identifies it against another, it also has contexts, ones more dynamic and diverse than fixed and unyielding. Spittle’s interviewees attest to genre being formed in the crucible of individual artistic practice. For them, this means the experimental and avant-garde, although their divergences avoid the kind of critical consensus that would make the book repetitive.
Any exploration of the experimental and avant-garde will at some point mention Surrealism. This is especially the case with Spittle’s major influence, the late great American poet John Ashbery, who offers a solid connection between himself and those poets, including Joe Brainard and Frank O’Hara, who forged integral connections between poem, image-making, and film. A discrete queer canon, if you like, of art ignoring boundaries of all kinds, and one in which high-low distinctions setting popular culture against ‘art’ collapse. But what, Spittle asks, if Surrealism isn’t behind a film’s content but influences spectatorship? ‘Actually, the boundary between surrealist films and just any films is sort of undefinable. That’s what draws us to movies I guess’, Ashbery pithily concludes.
For So Mayer, the poetic is defined against the mainstream, and language begins in ethics and activism, or with what Joan Retallack calls ‘poethics’. Mayer’s undeniably extensive, but also intuitive, grasp of their field is a solid instance of radical critique. If the contemporary revival in Blake accounts for increased interaction between poetry and film, the latter is rooted in the communities that screen and produce it, attempting to eliminate the ‘who’s in, who’s out (not)’ politics that suffocate the entire spectrum of the industry, from aesthetic practice to methods of distribution. Unsurprisingly, neoliberalism casts a shadow across this interview and the book as a whole.
Situated within new media and artist’s film, Andrew Kötting’s work implicitly rejects capitalism’s strangulating influence on artistic production. The affinities it shares with the analogy of poetry and music by way of its approach to collaged sound makes poetry-film distinctions somewhat obsolete. Indeed, the cutting up and editing of sound, Kötting argues, is a kind of expanded cinema, something Spittle arguably responds to himself in Rubbles with a kind of ‘expanded poetics’, overlaying text with photographic images and free-hand line drawings.
In John Adams’ Intellectual Properties, Spittle notes, a deliberate lack of fit between the voiceover and on-screen text provokes psychological effects and also fears around plagiarism. Such working on and with an artwork’s base materials tempts comparisons with what poetry often does with its sources. Likewise, these practitioners don’t allow matters of purity and piety cloud perceptions of technique (it is filmic? prosodic?), or indeed limit the possibilities of making as such. Cutting and montage, once alien to poetic texts but now absorbed into them, ‘twist language into the cinematographic’; Spittle is referring here to Redell Olson’s ‘Corrupted by Showgirls’, which he suggests is influenced by Language Poetry from USA as much as the London Filmmakers’ Co-op. Similarly, Lisa Samuels declares of Tomorrowland, a poetry collection adapted into film, ‘I wanted a sound performance to exist as an embodied translation of the paper text’.
Aaron Kent expresses a compelling desire ‘to write poetry like that shot in Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003), where the guy walks across campus for like 3 minutes and nothing really happens. We just watch him walk. Like a field recording.’ All poetry aspires to the condition of film, as Walter Pater never said. Not so much ‘What is an image?’, then, but ‘How is an image?’, in other words, ‘What is the texture of its feeling?’ As with the speakers in his poems, Spittle’s rigorous questioning, attentive throughout to the vexatious border between genres and forms, holds out for the changing contours of such feeling.
Christopher Madden is the editor, with James Byrne, of The Robert Sheppard Companion (Shearsman). Most recently ‘Death Information’, an essay responding to Gillian Rose’s Love’s Work, was published by Pilot Press. He has written on Malcolm Lowry, Holocaust humour, Annie Proulx, and his reviews have appeared in The Wolf, 3:AM, Textual Practice, and Holocaust Studies: A Journal of Culture and History.
© 2019–23 The Lincoln Review