Said by the New Statesman to be ‘at the forefront of the experimental movement in contemporary British poetry’, Keston Sutherland’s poetic and critical work is a headrush. High on its own sensitivity, his writings explode the familiar modes of poetry, fusing the lyric tradition with the high-octane languages of protest, stock market exchange and information technology, with the individuated vocabularies of biochemistry, geology and neurology. A sardonic yet rhapsodic disdain for high-capitalist consumerism and yappy Fox News neo-conservatism has won him international acclaim, and has given rise to six collections of poetry, numerous essays on poetics, politics and philosophy, his critical journal Quid and the co-founding of ‘nonconformist poetry’ publisher Barque Press.
We met on a steely day in Sutherland’s hometown, Brighton, where he is Reader in English at the University of Sussex. What follows is an edited version of a spooling conversation, ranging from ‘Enron to Xbox’ and back again, occasioned by the upcoming publication of his newest collection The Odes to TL61P (Enitharmon Press, April 2013). A poetry of unworkable postures and melodic germination, made famous by his astonishingly energetic readings (now widely available on Youtube), Sutherland rose to international eminence with the publication of a special edition of the Chicago Review in 2007, positioning his work alongside that of Andrea Brady, Chris Goode, Simon Jarvis and Peter Manson, and forming a major reconsideration of the field of contemporary poetry in Britain today. Studying under Jeremy Prynne during his years at Cambridge, he is nevertheless resistant to the coterie demands of the ‘Cambridge School’, preferring instead to enter into critical dialogues with the visual arts, improvised music, and multilingual texts.
Typified by a rampant lyricism, the warped soundbites and shifting logics of his work nevertheless confront political and social events; his collection Stress Position enacts torture sequences observed in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, and the demented puppetry of Hot White Andy, hailed by John Wilkinson as ‘the most remarkable poem published in English this century’, rages against our attitudes to twenty-first century consumerism. His newest collection comments on all the ‘mucky adult clay’ that comprises our pressed political landscape and yet marks a distinct shift in tone and composition. Characterised by Sutherland as ‘a kind of album or masque of metrical variations, everything from strictly perfected tetrameters to the most psychotic arrhythmia’, The Odes to TL61P upends the conventions of prose poetry. At once a eulogy to a now departed object – TL61P is the code for a replacement part of a now defunct Hotpoint washer-dryer – it is also a deeply felt meditation on all that is inexplicable.
QThe White Review — The poet and critic John Wilkinson argues that a ‘lyric turn’ has taken place in experimental British poetry over the last decade, characterised by a ‘politically engaged writing of multiple ambiguity, corrosive agents and a horizon of indescribable plenitude with the felt necessity to light a path towards an identifiable and attainable political objective’. Would you agree? Is this ‘felt necessity’, however various the ‘political objectives’, the unifying pressure in contemporary British poetry?
AKeston Sutherland — It is difficult for me to guess at this moment where a common and spacious enough ground could be found for the poets that I know to stand together hand in hand and put their names to a collective document, such as some kind of manifesto. I think there is a stroppy and robust individualism of a fairly healthy kind among many British poets, which has caused a sometimes hypersensitive attitude of suspicion towards collective utterance and collective decision-taking. Many years ago I believed passionately that poets who hoped to have any political agency ought to get together and decide on principles and terms and aims. I sometimes still do. More practically, I wanted to create a culture of free exchange of works, and of interventions into public life, which would fashion an altogether different kind of political poetry.
One of the difficulties is that the more passionately poets think about social problems, and about capital and about government and about wars and about the politics of sexuality, the more they, the best of them at least, tend to drill down into profoundly idiosyncratic attitudes and positions. I say idiosyncratic rather than individualist. That’s been my experience. Part of the intrinsic pressure of being a poet is the flight from generality and into the aggressively and irreconcilably, absolutely singular. It’s very difficult to feel continually torn in two different directions, to feel that surge into the singular, which is a deeply private pressure that comes from childhood and from love and from sex and from any coagulation of other ends and places, and then on the other hand to want to work, to build, to assert a collective political project and political identity. I think that pressure, which can and perhaps ought to threaten to tear poets apart, must be lived and learned from, rather than simply denied in the name of an automatic and unanswerable collectivism.
It is also true that there is a great level of disagreement at the level of principle between poets. The American L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets decided, perhaps admirably, that they had enough of an interest in fashioning a manifesto, that they could explore their differences collectively, under a common title, in collectively-built venues, publications and environments. That hasn’t happened with the same public coherence in Britain. I am nonetheless very excited by John’s eloquent description; a discovery of new energies, and felt political objectives, felt political necessities, in British poetry of the moment. I especially like that he specifies that these pressures are ‘felt’, and not merely argued into, or imagined or speculated.
For me, the pressure which sustains poetry as a lyrical art, and which still compels me to write, is something very akin to what Marx described as the ‘absolutely imperative need for revolution’. For Marx, that was a specifically and exclusively proletarian experience. Perhaps that’s right, perhaps historically Marx was attempting then to define an experience and a physiology of need which only the proletariat can authentically express. It remains, nonetheless, the horizon of my poetry to attempt to express with the maximum conceivable and liveable pressure an absolutely imperative need for the comprehensive revolutionary transformation of human experience and relations.
QThe White Review — Did this ‘need’ give rise to Barque Press, the publishing house you run with fellow founder Andrea Brady?
AKeston Sutherland — No, not really. We started Barque Press because we were flirting with each other… We were both fledgling poets at the time, and part of the way we were growing into that was by hanging out late at night and reading our poems to each other. We thought it was probably quite unlikely that anyone else would want to publish us, so one day we decided to get a stapler and some photocopier paper and just do it ourselves. It was a very exciting moment in Cambridge, and I remember feeling intoxicated, surrounded by so many dizzyingly difficult and formidable poets. I wanted nothing more than to levitate into their ranks. I thought that by starting this, I was joining a culture of gift exchange, a culture of militant samizdat exclusion from the circuits of mainstream publication. And so we were. I wanted to publish as many other people’s work as I could, to extend these gifts as far and as wide as I could, to encourage young writers like myself to believe in the value of small editions and work that had no pre-existing audience or apparatus of promotion, books whose status as commodities was very marginal and tenuous. That was a culture of production with a very exciting and worthwhile politics, and I still believe in that.
However, I’ve increasingly grown to feel that, for my own work at least, I don’t want to inhabit only that one context of the circulation of gifts. There’s a passage in Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon where he says that the shipwreck of the June insurrection by the proletariat was a consequence of their attempt to revolutionise society behind society’s back. Now I don’t mean to propose a grandiose comparison, but it does strike me that a too inward-looking culture of poetry publication and circulation, sometimes without altogether reflecting on its own potential audiences and its relations to the world, can have the same slightly fantastical ambition to create a revolution in culture behind society’s back. Which it also hopes will be a revolution in politics behind society’s back.
The best poetry in the UK has for the last sixty years come out of that context, and continues to. But I’ve wanted for a while now to risk venturing out into a potentially uncomprehending or even hostile public space, quite without imperious or supercilious designs on anybody’s intelligence, without thinking that I am a standard bearer for more advanced tendencies, and to reach out to people who may have no sense of what to make of this work, and to learn from them myself.
Any serious socialist politics has to think in that way, and in that way has to be prepared to absorb, learn from and accommodate forms of presently ambivalent or difficult relations with other parts of culture and other parts of society. Depending on what the work of mine may be, I may decide to position it somewhere relatively obscure, and in that way to keep alive certain possibilities of gift exchange that matter to me. Or, as with The Odes to TL61P, I might decide to place it in the widest circulation that any work of mine may be able to achieve, to speak to people that I don’t know, to speak to strangers, without any preconceptions of what this may do to them.
QThe White Review — In spite of the provisional and shifting nature of your work, you do also reference real political and social events – I’m thinking of your collection Stress Position which enacts torture sequences observed in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, or your poem ‘10/11/10’ (sitting within the body of The Odes) on the student protests at Millbank. All of your mucky adult clay’ is rammed into that poem…
AKeston Sutherland — Yes, ha, the ‘mucky adult clay’, which you are pressed into, or so the poem tells you in a hectoring tone which I hope people may find ungratefully grating. ‘Clay’ is interesting as the substance used to describe the very origins of humanity, that man was formed from the clay in which God moulded him, so that we were all made out of this originally pliable substance. Clay has always been a substance of the origin, best mashed up into an allotrope of dust, the substance of extinction; this poem derails and perverts that myth of substance. Here it’s adulthood, rather than the origin, which is the clay; childhood is not clay in this poem, childhood is curiously something much harder and more fixed and definite, at points at least, than adulthood ever is.
There is also a pun here, ‘pressed into a mucky adult clay’: the clay is adulterated. Marx was very interested, in Das Kapital, in the chapter on the working day, in the adulteration of substances, particularly of bread. In other words, the ruination of what ought to be useful substances by their infection or through the intrusion of alien substances, such as dust, grit, dirt. News of adulteration provokes in the bourgeois consumer a sudden frenzy of interest in the social history of production. Now that my meat has shit in it, I suddenly want to know who made it and how. Adulteration in that way provides a momentary and spectacular pretext for subduing commodity fetishism. The ‘mucky adult clay’ is a substance which ought by adulthood, if it really is the mythical origin of our originally malleable selfhood, to have set, to have taken shape, ought even to have been shaped into a useful vessel of some kind, something which can contain life. Instead it remains, in this poem, permanently mucky and maybe even gets progressively muckier: you become a more pliable, shifty, indefinite substance. A sloppier identity. ‘Mucky’, too, is a word that parents use to chastise their children, who are snapped at for being ‘mucky’.
QThe White Review — Is this a literature more polemical than poetic?
AKeston Sutherland — To some extent it is polemical. One of the liberties which I’ve consciously decided to take in this work has been to speak very directly about current events, about living individuals – both celebrities, figures in public life, and figures from my own life, my own history – and often, again consciously and with a kind of painful consciousness that I was doing something contrary to my own writerly instincts, I have often adopted an idiom which is violently and programmatically explicit. In that sense yes, it feels to me often polemical but, in what I hope is a richly complicated sense, as an ironical and sometimes obviously factitious style of polemic, which rests in turn on an intimate investigation of the meaning of, and possibilities for, making things explicit, for becoming explicit. That is pushed much further in this book than in any of my previous works. The explicitation in The Odes is ramped up to almost deranged extremes, pushed right up against the inexplicable and into the infinitesimals of hurtful recollection and unmoderatable desire. It was perhaps the nearest thing to a principle of composition for me, as I was working, that I would try – as transgressively and confrontationally as I possibly could – to produce new powers of explicitation and of the explicit in this work. To own up to, to stare at, and to confront facts, possibilities, sensations, pleasures, disappointments in my life, and to do that as squarely and with as little real prevarication as I was capable of reducing myself to. That sometimes becomes polemical, or assumes a polemical surface aspect.
QThe White Review — You are often taken to task for the difficult nature of your verse. The suggestion is that, due to its difficulty, it can only ever be for certain communities, or certain readerships; a coterie language or a closed realm of reference. How do you overcome that risk?
AKeston Sutherland — First of all I would try to understand and acknowledge the objection, in whatever form the individual reader may wish to make it. I don’t feel instinctively or irremediably sceptical about the resistances to my work or to this culture of poetry.
QThe White Review — The most virulent of which were probably brought to bear against the work of Jeremy Prynne…
AKeston Sutherland — Yes, and there probably always will be attacks like that against Prynne. Prynne’s work, which I love enormously and have learned from immeasurably, may never emerge suddenly into a clarity of full disclosure, like broadest magical daylight, and assume its place on the curriculum of canonical texts, laid open for everyone to enjoy absolutely equally and on equal terms. Of course, that’s just as true of Shakespeare as it is of Prynne, it’s just as true of what might seem apparently to be the simplest type of poem such as William Blake’s poetry, Frank O’Hara’s poetry, poems which any reader might instantly, even if only at the level of sensation, at first sight be excited or moved by.
These poems, under the pressure of a long-lasting and thorough engagement, when they are really lived with, begin to metamorphose, they shift, they metastasise, they become different objects. I think that’s just as true for poetry which is explicitly simple and congenial in its use of language, as it is for poetry that is truculent and obfuscatory with its use of language. The psychological, psychosexual, social and political dynamics and the mechanisms at play in reactions to difficulty are interesting to me. Lots of things in my life I find very difficult; many of them other people may not find difficult. Difficulty for me extends across a great variety of experiences and modes of existing in the world and means of responding to things.
What I would say about my newer work, and also about some of my older poems, is that they are perhaps not so difficult to understand – if what we mean by that is the basic construal of their grammar, the ability to summarise some of their propositions, the ability to follow discursive constructions and lines of argument – as they are difficult to accept. For me, the difficulty of acceptance is much more radical, in this work at least. How do we accept that we will all die under a system of vampiric ruthless exploitation? What does it mean to live with that?
When I say that it’s difficult to accept, I don’t mean that I’m trying to find the terms on which I could accept it. I mean that at a fundamental level, getting up in the morning, going on living, paying taxes and working in the world, being a wage labourer, requires – at least in outward behaviour and practice – expressions of acceptance, which can be formidably difficult to live with. I’m trying in my poetry to investigate the profoundest difficulties of acceptance that I can find.
Now, it may be that some readers would disagree with me, would claim that whether it’s acceptable or not, it’s still very difficult to understand – and I can understand why someone might say that. It could be that they expect a poem to deliver certain sorts of satisfaction or gratification, and they will think that my poetry is too demented and too heterogeneous and too crazy, really, to deliver what they expect from a poem. It might be that the quantity of material packed into the poem is so gigantic that they feel overloaded, or disoriented by it, perhaps even dizzy. Or it might be that it’s so consistently hyperallusive, and seems to make reference to so many contexts, names, other authorships, that they nervously imagine that without the knowledge of all of these various connections, they are not the intended or proper readers of these poems. As if there was such a thing!
I’ve been conscious of all of those potential discomforts or dissatisfactions that readers might experience, but I’ve nonetheless worked on The Odes long enough, and I hope generously and carefully enough, that I’ve tried to write something which will make all of those forms of discomfort and difficulty productive for people. So I’ve not tried to reassure readers in advance, but I have tried honestly to extend the possibility of a new relation of comprehension between individuals. This might require some work, might require some daring, might require a trying longevity of relation.
QThe White Review — We’ve been speaking about lyric and polemic in your writing, and the necessary fudging of the two. Would you say that it is possible to be both a poet and a political being? Or are they two distinct personhoods?
AKeston Sutherland — I think politics has a number of distinct identities or meanings. There are a number of overlapping but not perfectly co-extensive fields of operation that we would call ‘political’. In one sense politics is nothing more than what professional politicians do. If we define politics narrowly like that, we get an emphatic account of the value of the social, that what really matters is social relations – what really matters is us, who are not politicians, and how in spite of and at war with politics, we can rebuild and redesign our own ways of relating to each other, against those formal institutions. In that sense I would say that I am a political being only because of a deeply resented conscription into a field of activity which fundamentally ought not to require political institutions of the present order. That is not to discount being a political being, but to painfully accept it. But it is also to assert its provisionality.
Marx often distinguished between politics and socialism, stating that socialism starts where politics ends. In another, broader sense, politics might extend to just about anything we do, think or feel. I feel that when I’m writing poetry my mind, my senses, and my body are all in unpredictable ways politically active. At times this is perfectly explicit in my poems, as in the section of ‘Ode 5’ subtitled ‘10/11/10’, about the student protests in London. That is absolutely direct political poetry. What is crucial to me is that it is direct, that it is completely undisguised, that it is aggressively emphatic, and that is a socialist and realist art which attempts to describe the real detail of social relations and to find the intrinsic forms of contradiction which structure social relations, one of the fundamental forms of which is the permanent and ongoing contradiction under capital between the means of production and the relations of production. My poetry is always in some sense about precisely that: what is the material that we work or live with, what are the techniques for building and living with it, and, on the other hand, what are our relations between each other and what are the conscious and unconscious forms of mastery, of control, of manipulation, of affection, of togetherness and care which comprise the extent of our lives together – you might say a dialectic between technique and life. So I feel all the time, when I’m writing, thoroughly and consciously engaged with questions that at least have a political dimension and which extend to everything from ‘Enron to Xbox’. Or further. The orgasm to Michael Gove.
At the same time, it is crucial to my conception of the present limits of poetic eloquence that there really is a significant material difference between writing poetry and being a politically effective agent in the world whose activity directly and unarguably transforms social relations, particularly if we mean transformation by collective or institutional means. Poetry with a restricted and small circulation whose specific temporality of self-disclosure can be very extended, and which might not make sense for a few decades to come, can hardly seem like the most effective form of direct political intervention. That for me is a problem, but it is also a fact that can be endlessly explored and reflected on from an infinite variety of angles. I try to do that with The Odes, to explore the limits not only of agency but of inertia and of impotence. The danger is that reflection on impotence can easily degenerate into mannerism; but that risk too is socially meaningful and ought to be reflected on and tested.
It remains, nonetheless, a fundamental ambition of mine that my poetry will exercise some influence of a political character over living individuals, now, in this world, and that it will contribute meaningfully to creating, sustaining and enriching a vibrant communist public culture, in which it is a loyal and constant ambition to break down the forms of social paralysis and injustice, as well as of self-interested mastery and of exploitation, which under capital adulterate all of our relations with each other, even the most intimate. I want to turn those relations inside out and aggressively, beautifully, passionately and frantically find the most copious account I can make of how we can live together in a more profoundly generous way.
QThe White Review — One critic noted that you represent ‘what the future of British verse should look like’. What do you think the future of British verse could look like?
AKeston Sutherland — I deeply hope that I don’t know. I want it to be inconceivably astonishing to me. I want to encounter it as the most threatening and primitive freshness, I want to be so comprehensively confused by it that it takes me forever to learn to live with it and to reconcile the world that I already know with whatever this poetry is and does… I suppose, to be honest, that is my ambition as a writer for the future of my own poetry. I hope that the future of verse in this country, and everywhere, will be a future of more and more resolute, more passionately principled and more ardently dedicated confrontations with the injustices and machinery of capital, and that its interrogation of the structures of capital in living experience will be conducted more and more thoroughly, vibrantly and vitally. But I suspect that what will continue to happen, for a long time at least, is that lots of anxious and conservatively rather than radically narcissistic poets will go on writing verse which, with more or less justification, is meant to encapsulate and preserve in the aspic of sentimental memory and sensation the trivia of working-week-life and their surface profundities, poems that may only distantly touch upon the complexity of social relations, and then with a defensive, pretty archness. Or the audience will go on uncritically accepting that poetry is and ought to be in this way a modest and circumscribed art and, in its end, a comfortingly politically inert and ineffective one, from which the best we can hope for is lukewarm consolation.
I hope not. I hope not. I hope that, in Britain and everywhere else, amongst people who care about poetry, we might be persuaded, sooner or later, that there is no part, or detail, or potential of experience which cannot be radically addressed and transformed through the sheer delirious and euphoric momentum of powerfully expressive verse. I hope that might eventually become a collective ambition for readers and poets alike: to radically reconceive and feel again human relations in honour of and in the brilliant light of the power of poetry. The fundamental transformation of human life, that’s what I hope for.