I am now going to write about an interview with Keston Sutherland which appeared on the literateur site last year. I’m going to do this because he’s an important poet and critic and he says some things that I’d like to unpack and throw around.
Before I do this, I need to add that the people at literateur (I do hope that the name is playfully self-referential) have quoted me, in arduity mode, in their introduction at the top of the page. I didn’t notice this, it was pointed out to me by Keston Sutherland. The problem with writing things is that sometimes you’d quite like to change or delete what had been written with such sharp precision but a few months ago. Caroline Bergvall’s site is now sharing with the world my desire to be Steve van Zandt- for example. I’m reasonably happy with this particular quote although I’d have preferred the inclusion of the next sentence- “No-one can doubt either his commitment or skill and everyone should (must) read him.” as well. I then noticed that someone in the comment thread had taken issue with the assertion which the good people at literateur were then keen to distance themselves from. The temptation is, of course, to intervene, defend my position and to pour scorn on everyone else concerned but I won’t because anybody can click on the link, read the rest of the carefully crafted and elegant piece and come to their own conclusions.
The Keston Sutherland media management machine is more effective than that of any other ‘innovative’ poet but there are times when it comes unstuck. In this instance, someone should have thought for longer than three seconds about the photograph which does nothing for Sutherland and even less for the promotion of poetry. In fact I could go on for a very long time about how this kind of stupidity, together with garbled or badly recorded readings continue to undermine the product- and poetry is a product.
The other problem with this particular interview is one of tone, I have been critical of the current Jacket site for giving Bergvall a very free ride in a recent interview but this seems to be more of an issue here because of Sutherland’s talent and his quite central / pivotal position in the scheme of things and because he does set himself up for more than a degree of controversy.
The ‘feel’ of this conversation is a little too cosy for my taste and allows Sutherland to get away with a lot without being challenged.
I’m about to list some of the missed opportunities but I also need to acknowledge that Keston is amenable to challenge and has responded to most of mine at length and with good grace, even when he’s wrong.
Let’s start with the guff about language in the second paragraph-
But it is language which nonetheless is throughout always committed to mining the echoes and resources and repercussions of ordinary and everyday language.
The obvious response is ‘no, it isn’t’ combined with a carefully selected slew of foreign phrases that cannot be in anyway thought of as the echoes, resources and repercussions of ‘everyday’ language. We’d also like to know a bit more about what ‘repercussion’ might mean in this particular context. It might also have been useful to probe the apparent contradiction contained in the third paragraph of this answer.
Then there’s this-
So for me, right now, the most important political responsibility—and I positively identify it as a Mayakovskyan responsibility for the poet—in an event like that, is to walk around and to discover in the vernacular of protest and anger the means to produce a complex, perceptive account of underlying social contradiction that can on some level be intelligible to the people who were on that march and that will properly reflect back part of the experience of being there—that rather than any kind of de rigeur intensifying climax or amplified poetical outburst which screws up into a ball and perfects its energy at the peak of its intensities of violence.
There is an argument that goes that the invocation of Mayakovsky is not something that can pass by unremarked, most of us will want to know who Mayakovsky was and why Keston is using him in this context and why this identification is said to be ‘positive’. Not everybody reading this interview will have read Keston’s ‘This is not a metaphor’ and may therefore need to know what this kind of responsibility might be.
The nature and function of the truly political poem is also worth unpacking – I now have this image of the poet on the picket line, in the kettle accumulating the words, phrases and gestures of those around him so that these can then be sifted through and elements reformed as a poetic ‘reflection’ of the social reality of the kettling moment. I am trying reasonably hard but I can’t see how this gets us away from the cultural dilemma so accurately described by Bourdieu.
The last sentence in this paragraph is a bit of a mess because I’m not sure whether Sutherland is conceding some value to the vacuous posturing of the bourgeois poet – apart from the fact that it isn’t revolutionary and I’d also like to query the relationship as described by him between the bourgeoisie and the means of production.
I also fail to understand why this contrast needs to be made, Sutherland’s position remains that of the aspiring social realist and the distinction between this and other positions should be rather obvious by now.
I’d also need to query Sutherland’s apparently straightforward understanding of all things bourgeois because I’m of the view that, even from a social realist perspective, the changing face of the upper middle classes make things a little more complex and nuanced.
Much time is spent on the transition from verse to prose but I’d have like more on the transition from imperialism to sexuality and sexual identity. I remain of the view that the latest Odes represent a major challenge to the rest of us in all kinds of ways and I’d like to know a bit more about the motives for taking this quite courageous leap.
There is a debate to be had about just how overrated John Coltrane’s ‘late’ phase might be and whether the ‘Impressions’ album is the only one that makes any kind of musical sense but a conversation about poetry isn’t the place to have it- unless of course late Coltrane is felt to be an influence on the work in which case I’d need to know a lot more.
The refutation of elitism is the sort of thing that you would expect from a Marxian poet who has allied himself to all things Cambridge but it’s not a valid refutation, there needs to be some concession to the privilege bestowed by an Oxbridge education whilst at the same time defending the use of what many would consider to be elitist tropes and phrases. The ‘life’s incomprehensible’ quip is a lift from Geoffrey Hill and not worthy of either of them. I’d far rather stick with the ‘it is what it is (read the fucking words)’ honesty espoused by Pound and Philip Roth without the ‘Try death’ sneer which is simply offensive.
A finalish thought, just how compatible are the social realist and wrong poetry strategies? Or, is this another example of hedging the bet?
As ever with Sutherland, there are lots to think about and I am going to return to Mayakovsky and ‘This is not a metaphor’ and think about the difference between circulation and publication and whether we need to throw this into the web 3 mix…