An Interview with David Spittle
followed by two of his poems
David Spittle is a poet, filmmaker and essayist, whose first full-length collection was published last year by Black Herald Press. His pamphlet B O X was published by HVTN Press in 2018, and his book of interviews, Light Glyphs, filmmakers on poetry and poets on film,was published this year by Broken Sleep. His first short film Light Noise, was funded and broadcast by the BBC and he has also written three operas. He holds a Literature PhD on the poetry of John Ashbery and Surrealism.
I first met David at a film related event at which he was reading, the launch of Steven J Fowler's I Stand Alone by the Devils, and other poems on films (Broken Sleep), back in summer 2019. I knew through our mutual publisher and through social media that his PhD was on Ashbery, which excited me greatly, being a fan, but I had no idea before then that he had gone to meet him in person. So when it came to review David's collection, All Particles and Waves for Tentacular magazine, I proposed that we do an interview about the experience and Ashbery's influence on his work as a companion piece. This interview was conducted early 2021 via email.
When was the first time you encountered the poetry of John Ashbery and what was about the work that connected and resonated with you?
I love this question…gives me a chance to return through my own indulgent and consecrated nostalgia to the first-time thrill. It was one of the last modules that I did on my BA – postwar American poetry…or Postmodern American poetry, I forget the title…but it involved heavy use of Paul Hoover’s Postmodern American Poetry Anthology. I remember discovering Charles Olson, Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan…a star-spangled sausage-fest, no less…it certainly lacked female voices…I remember finding Olson (appropriately, due to his height) a towering presence that, then, felt near-cryptic and intimidatingly authoritative, somebody I only really got into much later – when visiting my parents who were living in America at the time, I dragged us on a pilgrimage to Gloucestershire, armed with Melville & Maximus (a detail that I’m sure many would sigh at with disdain; Olson has that MAN ON THE FRONTIER DIGGING phallocentric energy that, whilst he and his poetry were so much more than that, it certainly makes him easy prey for certain kinds of criticism). I remember loving the Spicer poem, ‘Imaginary Elegies’, with lines like
The moon is meant for lovers. Lovers lose
Themselves in others. Do not see themselves
The poet builds a castle on the moon
Made of dead skin and glass. Here marvellous machines
And then, with Robert Duncan, I felt an immediate desire to follow his words into that Romantic/occult/gnostic/Blakean syntax-song of it all. He is one of those writers – and I think this often occurs (for me, at least) – that excite me far more in their possibility, a dreaming of their world-creation, than in the actuality of text. As a result, I think I prefer Duncan’s mad opus The H.D. Book, more than much of his poetry. But perhaps it is poetry. And then we got onto the first generation New York School (one of those predictably unhelpful groupings of poets) with Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery (the glaring omission of Barbara Guest, whose work is perhaps more fiercely experimental, mystic, and uncompromising was a ridiculous – but not uncommon – erasure). The first Ashbery poem I read was ‘The Skaters’.
Discovering that long poem gave me the rush of discovering new music at that age, the sense that: I HAD NO IDEA IT COULD BE LIKE THIS. Makes me think of when I first started listening to The Mars Volta, as a teenager deeply invested in goofy trainers, band T-shirts and Thrash Metal, it was a similar revelation. I had no previous experience of encountering any writing like this – and ‘experience’ is the operative word here…not a passive reading but an active and experiential tangling with meaning and attention. The first lines:These decibels
Are a kind of flagellation, an entity of sound
Into which being enters, and is apart.
I mean…how the hell could you not be blown away…the sound of language, a thrashing movement, for which ‘being’ is a mobility – inhabiting the movement whilst simultaneously appearing elsewhere…that which is said and the saying talking over one another until interpretation becomes this fluctuating metaphor for our own experiences in life. His poetry was not describing experiences it was the experience…and in that embodiment of what was simultaneously being referred to (the signpost and its landscape ) and enacted, it seemed that metaphor became a newly invigorated possibility…not of image, but of rhythms of understanding. The fact the poem is long…that you move in and out of comprehension, flashes of profundity that are usurped by a confused droning…like scraps of a song heard from a radio struggling with static…and to then question what rests in the static, what speaks between stations?
I think it resonated so strongly with me for several reasons. I have always enjoyed being confused. I have never found confusion a sign of exclusion but rather a more relatable sensation to what day to day evades ‘conventional’ sense…the undulations that move me from feeling absorbed with contentment in some obscurity one moment and left inwardly wailing at the pointless mess of it all the next…being able to celebrate that which confounds feels like a good survival tactic. There was also the feeling, in being confused, of wanting to understand…and so, rather than feeling a quick hit of lyric immediacy (a recognizable emotion, relatable experience or explicit ‘message’), there was an unfolding potential for learning, for seeing anew…for more experientially immersing in the gut of the poem – working through its beguiling indigestion and, for fear of extending this gastric metaphor to its logical ends, I just think that I felt enchanted by its mystery…by something that seemed to change with each reading. Ever since I was a child, heaving large scientific textbooks from our weekly trip to the local library (the treat of a book of choice and then fish & chips from a regular fish&chips van…Gus’s Fish & Chips, I think it was called) I always gravitated to what was beyond my understanding. I also think I was often more moved by ideas, philosophical or scientific, than I was in feelings alone. What Ashbery initiated was the texture of ideas…a way to feel thinking.Sometimes it can feel like poets get far too obsessed with particular questions of self or personal experience, as though in possession of some mighty insight into humanity…but why should such insights be reserved to the received and perpetuated codes of explicit emotion or reliant on some fetishistic form of confessional authenticity? I often admire poets that don’t seek to obviously move you, as indirectly I find myself more moved by the feelings of enchantment, wonder and strangeness that come from expanding poetry into unresolved exploration rather than
message-driven enactments of ‘intimacy’ or ‘insight’. I also totally understand that such poems should and need to exist as well…but it just doesn’t excite me as much. This probably has to do with a lot of factors, ranging across all sorts of circumstantial and personal reasons: how I always wanted to be a scientist but never had the logical adherence to scientific methodologies to really make that possible; the connections between a certain kind of privilege and experimentation – there is, arguably, an entitlement in playing with the fragmentation of self when your ‘represented self’ has not been subject to oppression or marginalised exclusion; a deep love of animals…specifically insects…and daydreaming…that has meant I often feel myself drawn to what seems like the wondrously strange in the worlds we overlook, rather than scrutinising the more acutely personal or explicitly political worlds we inhabit in public discourse; a love of films that is tied closely to pursuing changes in consciousness that, because of having depression for the last 15 years, I’m not keen to look for in drugs; and a love of philosophy that takes seriously new ways of being and seeing. Ashbery has said, somewhere in an interview, that he preferred ambiguity to certainty as ambiguity suggests the possibility of resolution, whereas certainty can always be questioned. I like that.
How much of an influence has he been on your own writing since then and in what way?
Whilst writing the PhD, Ashbery was an inescapable and all-pervading influence. There are lots of poems in my first collection, All Particles and Waves, that seem to me like my attempt at entering into Ashbery’s tone…but that is a dangerous ol’ road. Firstly, if it’s imitation it will never be as exciting or as good as what you are imitating…coming off like a mildly obsessive karaoke session…and secondly, there was a slow realisation (on my part) that much of Ashbery’s surrealist avuncular wisdom felt quite far from my own more anxious mind, at that time. On this matter, Ashbery helpfully summarises an obvious, but often forgotten, reality of influence and the nature of feeling beholden to another poet’s brilliance…(again paraphrasing from an interview) what excites you about a poet you love is the individuality of their work, therefore the best tribute to that power is not to replicate it but to follow, as far as is possible, you own individual path. So yeh, at first I found myself quite entangled in bad cover versions of Ashbery poems…and I think it was a good experience to go through, throwing into relief when such gestures felt empty – and consequently helping me to find the areas and tonal variations that felt more innate to me.
Since finishing the PhD, in 2016, I haven’t properly read Ashbery at all. This is not out of any saturation, or change in opinion but that…after such a long period of immersion, I feel like there was lots of his work that I was still digesting. As though Ashberian currents were still wafting through me…and so to read him, while I feel like that (and not in the service of a critical study anymore) would be to reach a kind of saturation. I also find great comfort in the books being there, of it existing…and from that emanates a huge amount of inspiration that – for now – I don’t need to supplement with lots of reading. Sure, those sound like the words of an apologist for complacency…but really, I think, it’s got a lot to do with how precious the work is to me (and the memories of being so consumed by it) that prevent me from wanting to sour that by going back for the sake of it when it still feels so vaporously present. That said, I did at one point want to read Three Poems every year, as a kind of therapeutic exercise.
Your PhD was on John Ashbery and Surrealism. Ashbery's particular brand of surrealism isn't necessarily what people think of when they hear the term, and people still tend to associate surrealism with the the key figures and the work produced in the original movement. How does Ashbery's surrealism differ from that traditional produce, would you say, and in what way is it connected?
I don’t think Ashbery has a ‘brand’ of Surrealism…and I also think that, one of the off-putting things about the dogmatic locus of Parisian Surrealism was its insisting on a brand that fundamentally contradicted the spirit of a movement it was supposed to uphold. Surrealism is ‘elsewhere’ announced Breton…within a manifesto. There is a sort of necessary failure built into Surrealism from Breton’s jurisdiction that inhibits as it enables, the faulty motor at the centre of such ‘impossibility’. What attracted Georges Bataille to the tangential or resistant shadows of the movement…between Breton and Bataille (communicating vessels) was a cyclical conversation that helped Surrealism thrive, a complicated dynamic (that for better elaboration a bit of Blanchot is needed) that exists partly through its impossibility to exist. Nothing can be surrealist, as what is surrealist evades any stasis…and yet despite this, at one point, Breton was literally branding objects with a surrealist stamp! The whole thing is like a brilliant and burlesque parody of its own belief like a strange play that seems to exist on ironies that transcend conscious or unconscious, or questions of intent, and just become inescapably part of its own playful mutation.
So, for Ashbery, although very much versed in French Surrealism…that kind of judgemental certitude (not only in what was Surreal, but in much of its exclusionary sexual politics) and the ironic conservatism that crept into much of the repetitive ‘automatic writing’ was never going to be ultimately satisfying. For those reasons, Surrealism was far more interesting in what fermented in its wake or sprouted at the sides. The perambulating oddity of Giorgio De Chirico’s prose in Hebdomeros, the reclusive poetry of Joseph Cornell’s objects, the films of Louis Feuillade and Georges Franju, the experience of watching extremely mannered British Ealing films while in Paris, and the whimsical banality that dreams so strangely in Jacques Rivette’s films…these were the more attractive debris in orbit of Surrealism that Ashbery was drawn to. Also, I think, for him Surrealism (or at least so I maintained in my thesis) was less about a school of thought or artistic movement than it was a condition of experience. When focusing with such intensity on how comprehension unravels and braids, in the attention to experience and in the experience of attention, waking life becomes dream-like. Consequently, in Ashbery’s poetry, the more faithful rendition of reality, and our interpretations of its possibility, is to be found in Surrealism. Our, so-called everyday life, if looked at closely, is just as delightfully confused and surprising as dream life.
Of course one of the main reasons we are having this conversation is because you got to meet John Ashbery in person and talk to him in relation to your PhD, a fact that myself, and many other fans of his, find beyond fascinating. How did your contact with him start? Was it difficult to set up? It must have been quite surreal, and overwhelming, to secure such a meet.
I first emailed Ashbery in 2013, I was given his email by another academic – Daniel Kane – who had written on Avant-Garde American cinema and poetry. This was around the same time I started correspondence with the director Guy Maddin. Both Ashbery and Maddin were incredibly kind via email, at the time I was researching the crossovers in their work (in aspects of Surrealism, collage and collaboration). When I got the first email from Ashbery it was quite jaw-dropping for me…it was like I’d stumbled into a forbidden zone....someone who existed for me in the discovery of ‘The Skaters’, the radiating power of the Carcanet collected poems, and the reason I had ended up in Newcastle on a PhD…also the mind behind which I’d galvanized my ambitions to keep writing poetry. He was always so kind and friendly. This email correspondence continued and then, in 2014, I got funding to do some research in his archives at Harvard. Again, Harvard…another jaw-droppingly bizarre situation for me. With the funding, and the fact my parents then lived over in Connecticut, I was able to stay a bit longer and visit him in New York.
Could you say a little about the trip itself? How long you went for, how much time you spent with him? He had two houses, didn't he? Where did you meet and stay during your trip?
Ah…twas the heady summer of 2014 (*theatrically turns a non-existent page*) – I was in the sweet spot of the PhD, discovering how much there was to keep discovering and pleasantly far from the precipice of finishing. That anticlimactic cliff-edge into the well-documented and less than ideal plummet into our current situation: a mad surplus of over qualified postgraduates and the impossibly competitive reality of a dearth in job prospects…leading to the improvised and underpaid freelance juggling that constitutes ‘getting by’…until you realise, or at least that seems to be where I’ve arrived at, that trying to get an academic job has become like masochistically crawling into heavily pressured cargo buried on a sinking ship – no one wants you there and, as time goes by, it seems more and more insane to scrabble into such a space. I jest…but only slightly. It was made very clear to me, from many lecturers, how broadly shit the current academic situation was but – rather than sinking in that mire or energetically doing all I could to play the (exhausting) game – I instead curled up in a cocoon of Ashbery and enjoyed this time of research to its fullest.
So, the trip: I got some funding for the flight over there and – hugely fortunate – my parents were at that time living in America and I could stay with them. I spent near to a week in a B&B just outside of Harvard, and the second week with my parents just outside of NY. Whilst researching in Harvard, I happened to be over there at the same time as the brilliant English poet, Oli Hazzard. We had lunch together for a few days and were able to swap Ashbery thoughts – Oli was also studying Ashbery and had met him a while back…they went on to correspond and actually share/exchange quite a bit of poetry. Oli recently published a phenomenal long poem with Spam Press, Progress: Real and Imagined, it can be read (I think) as – among many things – an indirect or anti-elegy for Ashbery. It’s a really beautiful and expansive piece of work that I very much recommend. Anyways, the first week was looking through correspondence and poetry drafts in the archive (which was such a magical and enthralling time) and then in the second week, I went to meet him in his NY flat. He did have two houses…one was this really cosy, beautifully Ashberian (in its eclectic spread of books, paintings, comics) flat and the other was the large Hudson house. There’s lots written online about these two spaces (I think there’s a whole issue of Rain Taxi given over to a discussion on it). I remember thinking it was a bit strange, regarding the Hudson House, as at the time it was all being filmed/digitally captured so that you could virtually ‘walk’ around the house online. I found elements of this museum-ifying of his very living presence quite hard to stomach. I understand that, in some respects, it was a celebratory act of legacy –for future researchers and poets, but it seemed intrusive and like some cynical act of premature ossification. I realise this perspective is also very informed by my coming to Ashbery in England, as opposed to as an American where – it seemed – his influence had long held sway amidst a certain type of MFA creative writing. He really was (and is) a huge presence for poetry…and sometimes, in the tunnelling of my own study, I think I’d forget that.
You lived in the States when you were a boy, right? I'm not sure exactly where, or how often you've returned, but am wondering if the trip was in any way significant to that? I'm interested in your relationship to the States generally.
I did indeed, but only for two years when growing up (between the age of 6 and 8) – so am not sure it really counts. It had a formative effect but I sometimes think maybe I hype it up a bit, y’kno, for texture and intrigue. I went to a very stereotypical American school – yellow school bus, long corridors of lockers, saluting the flag each day with the ‘pledge of allegiance’ (something I, even at that age, found disturbing)…and it was more on my return to England, where I went to a tiny village school, that I’d noticed its influence. Suddenly I realised, and I know it sounds stereotypical, but I realised how much I’d cultivated a louder persona…more outwardly confident and brashly convinced of the rites of ‘cool’ and popularity. I very soon realised that this had happened, which was a weird think to digest at around 8,9,10. I think it partly came from there being a much more prominent sense of KIDS as an American phenomenon in TV…a diet of Nickelodeon with its constant barrage of pummelling colours, always reinforcing the mantra of KIDS being some kind of exceptional state – entitled to being fairly fucking annoying. That reduces it massively…and a lot of that I loved…the cartoons, so many great and ridiculous cartoons that are now enshrined in lame retroactive memes of 90s culture…Hey Arnold, Rocko’s Morden Life, Doug, Aaah!Real Monsters, I absolutely devoured them. I remember coming home to England and watching Blue Peter with friends thinking…the hell is this dull shit!? There was some highs and lows in that kind of commercial shovelling of kids culture…that, on returning to England, left me questioning how much I’d embraced it all.
Perhaps the most positive experience though, of having those two years, was the enormous sense of space and elemental grandeur that was just everywhere…huge lakes (with snapping turtles) that would freeze over for skating and forests in which you could stumble across all sorts of snakes…as a young boy with a hopelessly dweebish love for wildlife it was amazing. Again, on getting older I realised the irony (maybe not the right word, tragicomic resonance…?) that we lived in Connecticut, having lived in Hampshire it was – I guess – like moving from one white middle class bubble to another. We did travel a lot while we there though…I got to see Arizona, Utah and Nevada…as well as Florida and some travelling around the New England area, with trips into New York. From 2013 to around 2015, my parents were living out there again – which was when I returned
In terms of any ‘relationship’ with America…it’s of course conversant with those memories and I feel I did get an insight, however brief, into a certain part of American culture. I think that, on studying Ashbery, I really got back into a widening exploration of the flotsam of that life. At the time, due to my reading patterns, it seemed I found myself with more in common with a lot American poets of my age. Not that I was in contact with them…although I briefly met Adam Fitzgerald, Tim Donnely and Simone Kearney while in NY…all because of Ashbery’s amazing sociability: he picked up a phone, while I was in his flat and simply said – you have to meet these guys, and put me on the phone to Adam. I was very enamoured with all things American poetry (mainly from the 50s onwards) at the time - from Black Mountain to Language Poetry…I loved most of it. A ridiculously vapid summation…but it was a bit later on the PhD that I then discovered the parallel British traditions of experimentation. At that point I was just pissed off that so many English counterparts had been seemingly swept under the carpet…either because they didn’t have access to the same historical megaphones as American poetry, or because the English education system has been so reliably awful at acknowledging some of its very best poets. The same goes for bigger presses in England.
What were your first impressions of his house and of him on arrival? Who greeted you at the door? Was it quite a nerve-racking experience?
On the day itself I felt oddly calm. The day before I was head-down in an uncomfortable buffet of all kinds of anxiety. I remember walking through Time Square on the day before I was meeting Ashbery, being approached by some guy dressed as Spiderman. He was unbearably upbeat and looking for some kind of beaming affirmation that yes, he was dressed as Spiderman. I remember pushing past him feeling so anxious, downbeat and bleakly resentful that this is what people are expected to smile at or celebrate. I think it’s fair to say, I was not particularly fun to be around. Then, weirdly, on the day itself I felt oddly serene…a weird relief maybe, that I no longer had to worry about it, but that the day was here. I really had such a beautiful day, it will always stay with me…and for that reason, I think I am quite defensive of talking about it too much – for fear of shrinking those memories. But, at the risk of a bit of memory betrayal – I’ll give a short overview. In the morning I ate at a diner, just down the street – about 5 minutes or so away. I ordered a Steak and Mozzarella sandwich (a damn near celestial slab of grease) with a landslide of ‘fries’…and infinitely re-fillable coffee. That, really was more than enough to make the day. But, following that, I had a bit more time to kill and found an old video shop nearby. It was a thing of beauty…racks and racks of DVDs and VHS, and even a languorous inhouse cat, who would pick its nonchalant way through aisles of films. I remember looking at everything from the gorgeously trashy (Lust in the Dust, Tromeo & Juliet) to Bergman, Jacques Tati, Béla Tar…and, appropriately, several Guy Maddin titles. If I had been feeling more nervous, I’d probably have set up camp there indefinitely, befriending the cat, denying the existence of Ashbery and my PhD, and choosing to live among the films forever more. Anyway, as it was, I felt close to a functioning being…and so continued on my way to meet John Ashbery.
I remember (this is just going to turn into that Joe Brainard poem) taking the elevator up to his floor and becoming aware that my heart was beating faster but still, on reflection, feeling as though I’d miraculously avoided the expected tsunami of anxiety. On arriving on the right floor, the carpets and wallpaper seemed older than the lobby’s gleam…a more worn and lived-in feel. As I bumbled out and looked around I heard “David…?”. I turned around to see somebody who was definitely not Ashbery standing on the threshold of an open door. And then I realised, it was David Kermani, Ashbery’s partner – ushering me in. Once in the apartment, I was doing my best to maintain polite introductions whilst hoovering up the details…trying to take it all in whilst remaining, hopefully, like a reassuringly sane example of human-about-to-meet-other-human. I imagine I failed. Anyway, David seemed really kind and inquisitive – asking me about Newcastle, my research, my own poetry…we chatted for about 15 minutes. I looked around the room –
Porcelain plates pinned to the wall lining a mirror, books and magazines and envelopes piled on most available surfaces; paintings on bookshelves (a Trevor Winkfield) and above the sofa (a Jane Freilicher). On a coffee table beside the sofa and chairs, a mass of poetry books: Geoffrey G.O’Brien, Philip Lamantia, Ian Pindar…loads I can’t remember, and hadn’t heard of…David Kermani went on to mention that John spent more time with ‘dissertation students’ than any mainstream journalistic company. It was around that point that Ashbery arrived, he appeared in a doorway onto to where we sat, pushing a heavy blue wheeled Zimmer frame. After heavily sighing a bit at the effort, he began apologising for being late, going on to elaborate that he’d been deciding on whether or not to shave…resolving not to shave, so as to save further time. I made an underwhelming joke about my own lack of shaving, and then David left us to chat alone.
Before we got into all the wonderful chatting, I had given John
a gift…an admittedly odd gift (not a psycho-fan-here’s-a-matchbox-of-my-hair
kind of odd) it was mug that had an image from the lesser known 1929 surrealist
film, La Perle (written by the poet,
Georges Hugnet and directed by Henri d’Ursel). I had read it was favourite of
his, or at least he’d enjoyed a screening of it somewhere sometime…and I
discovered the BFI did a mug with an image of it, so decided that would work as
a gift and double up as an ice-breaker. Happy days. It’s a brilliant film –
seek it out.We ended up chatting for hours, it was utterly amazing. Sitting next to him felt both incomprehensibly unreal and totally fine, natural even.
We chatted about his top ten favourite films, but I think only got a few in before digressing…talked about his collaborations , and friendship with Guy Maddin(their joint exhibition of collages was just coming up at the Tibor De Nagy)…we talked about collages, and I not so subtly showed him some of my own collages, there was a conversation about 300 Things A Bright Boy Can Do, the book he collaged in ‘The Skaters’….and which you can now find a pdf of online…talked about his time in Paris, working on a magazine with Sonia Orwell (a gloriously gossipy tangent about how she snubbed him later in his time in Paris, when she was talking to Bataille’s wife)…I remember him mentioning that most poetry in the TLS was boring (I enjoyed that), we talked about his time with Lee Harwood…and a bit later he called Adam Fitzgerald on the phone to introduce me. This spontaneous social connecting struck me as a wonderful manifestation of that sense I’d always got on reading about aspects of the NY scene…of connecting poets. Just recently I watched a terrific Jonas Mekas film (Lost,Lost,Lost) in which there is some brief but really moving footage from a poetry reading – when Frank O’Hara and Airi Baraka are hanging out together, and they both just look so effortlessly urbane and happy…it’s lovely footage. We touched on a few specific poems and books but the conversation was mainly freewheeling, and quite often around film. I then predictably conceded to the temptation to get him to sign a few books (read: a sizeable stack), which he did whilst also generously hunting around for books I might not have.
What were the main areas of his poetry and surrealism that you discussed with him? The line from your thesis abstract that I found particularly interesting was: "Through its phenomenological attention, Ashbery’s poetry configures the everyday experience of his reality in a way that responds to, and invites, a surrealist perspective." Was much or any of the conversation based around this?
We really didn’t talk to deeply about his poetry or Surrealism, this was partially a conscious decision on my part…I didn’t want to sacrifice my chance to be with, hang out, and enjoy the company of an artists I respected so deeply - to the extracting process of an interview. In many ways, it would have been brighter, in terms of possible publication etc, to have asked for an interview…but even after considering this, I really just wanted to have some time getting to know him conversationally. I felt that the opportunity to do that – talking with Ashbery – went far beyond the academic or publishing opportunity, enabling a more social and warm interaction that meant a huge amount to me. As lame as it might sound, being with him and having a laugh, listening to his mischievous anecdotes and rambling in and out of film and poetry… was so much more significant that trying to ‘turn it into something’. Consequently, that kind of poetic analysis was not going on so much. And perhaps that’s something I should emphasise, he was so fun to be around…a really brilliant humour and almost conspiratorial kind of storytelling…I loved it.
Thanks so much for bringing up a part of my thesis, that’s really kind. Yeh...I think something that became more and more apparent to me as I studied Ashbery was how much it was allowing me to re-experience my own forms of experience and articulation. In that sense, and by extension, the poetry became a way to re-‘configure’ what constitutes that experience…and so, phenomenologically, an experience of experience – which, through Ashbery and my study –
became an experience entwined with Surrealism. Ashbery’s poetry renewed my understanding of what Surrealism was, and could be, through an emphasis on the found object, dreaming, contradiction, interruption and play. Whether it is through acts of collecting, engaging with meaning in and as language, passages of memory, the sensation of dreaming or the intimation of child-like perspective, Surrealism is fundamentally active as condition of experience. Reading his poetry becomes this reflexive analogy for being-in-the-world: ‘The being of our sentences, in the climate that fostered them’ (‘Soonest Mended’, Double Dream of Spring). Any being that is, is to be ‘shaped in the new merging’ (Three Poems) as a chiasmic exchange of conscious and unconscious, absent and present, internal and external, only ever composed in a motion of contingency. The next step is to then realise the binaries of those equations are themselves shifting and contingent formulations…so that any definition or meaning is suspended between further suspensions, doors that open onto more doors.
Another thing I wanted to ask you was about this idea of each of Ashbery's poems being an "ars poetica [of their] own condition."(Shattuck, New York Review of Books). How much would you agree with this and how much does this theory feature in your research, if at all?
I think this is the case for many, if not all, of Ashbery’s poems – if one accepts that the poem and poetry (in its making and making of meaning) is a shifting metaphor that circles (and enacts) the experience of being and perceiving more widely. Therefore, the “ars poetica” and its reflexive nature is not confined to the examination of poetry as an art form, but as a space in language to be simultaneously part of, and observe, the movements of meaning. It is a kind of chiasmic interplay whereby, moving through each poem the reader is both in and of language, just as, in slipping metaphor, we become in and of the world. This is where connections arise between Ashbery’s poetry and Phenomenology – I was particularly drawn to parallels between Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Three Poems. I'm skipping over all this in a very superficial fashion…it’s been about five years since I finished the PhD…so I’m not in that same astutely focused place with it all. But an interest in phenomenology has carried on being a really important part of how I think about poetry and also – more and more – how I approach film.
Whether filtered in relation to Surrealism, Taoism, or an obsession with Memory (which dreams in film and which, after my Grandfather lived with Alzheimer’s up to his death – and my own experiences with memory-loss through depression and medication…and of course is rife with seductive hauntings in Maddin’s work…and recently, I’ve been trying to get my head around Bergson’s Matter and Memory), I feel a need to keep re-imagining and re-experiencing whatever passes for, and as, the movement of experience. And this was all stirred – in me – through reading Ashbery. Two large factors in this capacity in his work are: firstly, the enviable ability to both be and describe at the same time – poems that enact their content, flipping between a commentary of their happening and the happening itself – a rhythm; and secondly, the understanding that any being experienced is contingent on its search to be, being in an always-becoming, only in the movement of looking for its existence will it exist. Like a more existential and embodied development of ‘process as content’, Ashbery makes his poems active: they are always coming into being through the passage of reading. This is why his poems are so hard to quote from, or at least, quoting from them does an injustice to the poetics at work…which is all about the contingent and the contiguous; when taken out of that flow, though beautiful as so many of his lines are, they lose the unique mobility and revelation of their meanings.
How responsive was Ashbery to your questions? How long were you with him? Is there anything else you could say about what he was like?
My questions, as they appear in the Light Glyphs interview (forthcoming with Broken Sleep), came from a combination of actually giving him a list of questions and then tangents or details that came through email correspondence. It’s not a long interview, and there are certainly many more questions and conversations I would have loved to have had – but I was also very aware that he had much more important things to be doing (i.e. POETRY) and I would have hated to have felt responsible for detracting for that much more vital energy. It was incredibly kind of him, especially at such an age and point in his writing-life, to have given me as much time as he did. I also think it’s worth noting that, not unlike David Lynch, Ashbery always had an amazing ability to answer questions affectionately, and without condescension, but while also remaining effortlessly evasive. I think this is such an important skill for an artist…not to be drawn into explanation, not to provide readings of the work but to leave the work receptive to constant re-readings. The hyper-saturation of information and promotion that characterises the presence of art on social media will often completely destroy this power…I guess it’s a romantic yearning for the ol’ ‘aura’ of Walter Benjamin. I’m just always so impressed by artists of any kind who are making genuinely mysterious and enthralling work, and who then have the self-control to not intrude upon that work. I’m not sure I have that self-control, but it’s something I always try to remind myself about!
In terms of how long I was with him – I think I mentioned this elsewhere, and it seems perhaps a little ridiculous to obsess on those details given I was not a close friend and so many poets and artists were consistently part of his life or closer. One of his closest correspondents in English poetry was Mark Ford, whose letters/emails with Ashbery must constitute an entire archive! I just feel intensely fortunate to have been able to spend an afternoon with a poet who really changed my life (in and outside of any writing).
In terms of what he was like, again, I’m not well placed to give any meaningful overview here. Spending the years with his work on the PhD and reading through much of his correspondence in the Houghton Library archives, and then having that brief window into a more conversational, in person, reality…I’d say I took away a few significantly lasting impressions. Firstly, how fun he was to be around – a very mischievous and conspiratorial sense of humour that was irresistible and, on reading a lot of his correspondence, imbued so much of his life with humour. It was the sense of always being open to a playful perspective; this is what allowed any interaction with Surrealism he had to totally bypass any pompous solemnity or self-serious drama that often infects the ‘surrealist’. Secondly, the genial and genuine social impulse in his character. I know Ashbery went through intense periods of shyness, insecurity and anxiety but I felt, in his presence, the warmth of wanting to bring poets together, to connect people. That this should just be an affable reality of making art seemed so natural from the way he immediately phoned up Adam (Fitzgerald), while I was with him, in order to introduce us. It had no sense of networking but instead a really lovely spirit of…why wouldn’t you? Poets can be lonely and embittered bastards…and so anyone who is able to be a poet and nurture / prioritise the friendly introduction of like-minded people, seems to me to have reached a very healthy position.
What did you gain from the experience and take away from it? What's stayed with you the most and was there anything totally unexpected that came out of it? Did you have any contact with him after?
The main thing I took away from all of this was a huge gratitude that I could be there and talk with an artist, not as an academic gathering research, but as a reader and – as he kindly made me feel –
as a friend. In terms of the interview, that all came together retroactively and, to be honest, was in no way comprehensively representative of what Ashbery has said on film (as he has done in many places) or could say on film and poetry. For which, really, I’m glad…nothing more needed to be said and I was really scared of taking up valuable poetry time.
I was always conscious of not wanting to really ask for too much and – in a similar way that I prioritised the Ashbery cocoon on my PhD and not the more transferrable careerist choices – on meeting him, I was far more focused on the experience than what I might be able to take away from it. What would be the most unexpected aspects? Not sure, maybe that it happened. Maybe that, I had the youthful audacity to give him a small home-made and stapled print-out of some of my collages and poetry…which, being the utter gent that he was, he asked me to sign! That cracks me up, what an incredibly caring and lovely gesture to extend to a young poet…one who has just ambushed you with questionably naive and sub-standard collage cut-outs! That was so lovely. He also said some things about some strands of British poetry which really cracked me up. I think the kindness of the whole meeting was something that I want to hold on to, to maintain – as he did –
a supportive and deeply interested engagement with new work and new friends.
And finally, if you had to pick a favourite John Ashbery poem and a favourite collection, what would it be and why?
Well, as many people have said, the work amorphously overruns the separation of each collection…becoming its own gently coalescing cloud of poetry and poetics. But, that said, I have a few answers to this I guess. I love Rivers and Mountains (1966) because it contains ‘The Skaters’ and, one of my all-time favourites, ‘The Ecclesiast’, which contains this overwhelmingly beautiful part:
There was no life you could live out to its end
And no attitude which, in the end, would save you
The monkish and the frivolous alike were to be trapped in
death’s capacious claw
But listen while I tell you about the wallpaper –
There was a key to everything in that oak forest
But a sad one. Ever since childhood there
Has been this special meaning to everything.
You smile at your friend’s joke, but only later, through tears.
I mean…it just makes me want to cry and to sit, to sit and cry, and let it wash over me. And then, my other three choices would be Three Poems (1972), Flow Chart (1991) and Your Name Here (2000). Three Poems because I really believe it is one of the most gentle, wise and strangely healing forms of poetry that I’ve ever encountered. Flow Chart because of its ragged and garrulous expanse, because of its insane ambition and silly majesty, because – ultimately – I feel it becomes a kind of foliage that grows over and exposes types of memory-loss. An amnesia jungle as unruly biography where any insight and stability is immediately consumed by more of its luscious and sprawling vines…as omnivorous and bewildering as it is joyful and frightening. And then, Your Name Here, because it has one of my favourite poems that feel part of Ashbery’s later stage of writing – ‘Rain in the Soup’ – a poem that is heart-breaking, but with a smile: ‘Unicyclists are out in force,/ leading to the Next Interesting thing / that’s sure to be gone by the time you and I get there.’ A melancholy that feels intensely aware of age and time, but equally able to perform as part of the sad bemusement of it all: ‘I can stand to stand here, standing it, that's all. / Good day Mrs Smith. Your daughter is as cute as anything.’
Vik Shirley's chapbook, Corpses, (Sublunary Editions) was published in 2020. Her collection,The Continued Closure of the Blue Door, (HVTN Press) and photo-poetry book, Disrupted Blue and other poems on Polaroid (Hesterglock Press), will be published early 2021. She is currently studying for a PhD in Dark Humour and the Surreal at the University of Birmingham. Follow her @VikShirley
Watch David's short film, Light Noise, on iPlayer: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p07v2zny
His other films can be viewed on Vimeo.
LINKS TO BOOKS
Pre-order Vik Shirley's collection: The Continued Closure of the Blue Door here:
Order her chapbook Corpses here: https://sublunaryeditions.com/books/corpses
Two poems by David Spittle
Of floating away
Parachutes, my love, could carry us higher Barbara Guest
now is holding me
i am always tired
i don’t have any
as they warn
“we could float away together”
it’s how sleepless circles lift
around each other
caught up in following
to a stranger ocean
again & again
not a choice but
that brings the body back
inside its limits, singing cold
shock & only feeling
through skin a thrill of sky in sea
only feeling –
– & where
do we land?
do we ache to land, for stability?
or do we feel we ought to ache
ought to understand?
All in Particular Waves
We are together at last, though far apart John Ashbery
he would say things, he was given to saying things and things were,
in his presence, said – not always, but primarily, by him.
it was insistent and desperate and lonely and restlessly discontent
with what could be said about what, he said, should be said –
he said, “it is getting harder to be human”, this was said. it was said as if
nothing else could be said, as if it were self-evident or
in fact, a saying – which is not to say it was a fact but that it resounded
with a conviction and currency that had no need for facts but was
irreversibly that which had to be said, and so he said it.
“it’s getting harder to be human but what is or could ever be human
in any shape of certainty is here only as a spinning top
that draws its yarn from movement and” he said, “for good reason.”
he would never say what the reason was but maintained, reasonably,
that it existed. he was not reasonable, not generally reasonable
and he said things, so many things, that would, over time, attest to this
failing of reason but that also, conversely
began in its own way to suggest an indirect, obscured reason
working somehow and somewhere to underpin his ‘unreasoning’.
he said as much himself in quieter moments, that he was always
unerringly reasonable in his refusal of reason and that although
‘ours was not to reason why’ he still had his reasons, and they would
one by one: braid, kneel, and burn into
the erasure of their initial reasoning, giving space
for further reasons to be entertained, turned from, and then undone.
this, he said, was how it seemed, to him at least, and how it seemed was
as good, he said, as how it was, as such things were only ever reached
through seeming. “i’m tired,” he said, “tired with trying to be ok
with this, and, as i walk across the bridge, the crowds are so –
present in the body of their own lives, their moving
passed to be somewhere and talking about something that, unquestionably,
must be talked about, out of functional contentment and not
some abstracted necessity but in truth, maybe –
that contentment is the necessity, and so they have it;
they have it in their not thinking or needing to think about it
and they cross the bridge and they take pictures and they carry on.”
he paused, “i know that’s not true and no one
is really like that and that all of that is only symptomatic
of how i feel i am crossing the bridge and that, enclosed or isolated, i
cannot really understand them, not like that, moving through
a crowd –
you can’t go on like this.”
this was said out loud, by him, to no one.
that is, he said this to himself and then, taking responsibility, repeated
“i can’t go on like this. this distracting back and forth… if only
in or as a reversal of rhetoric, it does little to change anything
whilst talking always, reverently, of change – like that; more
a flurry of after-dinner mints than radical change, more knowing nod
than knowing. you want to believe, i do, that all slides into one
and that from… as an example, from a tweezered grain
the whole as fragment, is, as what it is not and cannot help but be
and where you might collect the impression
of a chipped tooth, something that catches, no longer yours
but of you and now, annoyingly, snagged in a raft of bread
embedded in another fragment that celebrates its loaf as chip
of tooth speaks to teeth and chatters back through other mouths
and you, you are carried again, carried away, just as i am with saying you –
but please, no second-person swerve: just actually say things, say with things
from a place and time unafraid to say its name, even if to do so
would be a lie, it would still aspire – through risk – to a kind of eye contact.
so just tell me, let me tell you, what i am thinking about, about everything.
i am part of this and am, as you thought i said, ‘given to saying things.’
i apologise on arrival, deprecate on departure and regret on reflection.
i rely too heavily on alliteration throughout. i have never felt
comfortable in this way of gathering, or wearing my gathering
as though it were a fabric of always just me, here: waving,
drowning, catching bees with friends or burning forests, playing
from time to time and of and in and you and i know how it is –
it’s teeth lined up along the surface, it’s the heads of people you
have only seen once and that i had once been and so arranged therein
but now we’re closer, thankfully, and my head is
wherever any of this might be going,
between looking forward and back, and looking at
the reading through of it, hoping so madly
beyond talk of it to scrape out from us a particle, not to laugh
and not to say or be said but to sit, dimensions held, a weight
that can before us lead, fluent in itself-without-self, to pray
out from drag of language, ribs pried back
and without legibility, it, no longer any it but now
what can and does sign away, again, the waves that interrupt
and build the bridge as interruption and now, now, he said,
i might cross…that we could discover and in crossing
out from dressing into lonely skin of mind and making ‘human’
bearable as it disappears, greeting ourselves – the ever and thing
in the awareness of everything, all around, as it might be
travelling still in grain fraction of tooth or hands held, slipping –
just tell me, let me tell you, what i am thinking about, about everything
he cannot say, the crowds that part and merge articulate the bridge, all
i am failing to get to, or at, but might be part of, filling up
the space between us with distance, talking
and thinking too much in terms of being as thought and only
in thought being, that is, talking over, how in all the moving we might join
in celebration to find an ever bridge in thing and from every thing
another bridge, a somehow to better understand this noise, as if
nothing could be said and that it would be best for us, now,
to accept that: how all unrooted volumes, all grounding avatars of sky,
how living among them can really feel; each body as again
each body, listening to how it wakes.
Interview © Copyright David Spittle and Vik Shirley, 2021
Poetry © Copyright David Spittle, 2021