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.