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"Will Smith is like my spirit guide" Ross Sutherland new project

25/01/12 Live
by Nathan Jones

Ross Sutherland is regularly referred to as one of the most influential poets on the scene. From a 'stand-up' poetry background touring with Aisle 16, he has developed an ouvre which is unique in its blend of popular potential with experimental edge. Check his film Every Rendition on a Broken Machine developed in partnership with Penned in the Margins, for an example.

With his latest commission for Mercy, which he scratched at our own glitch show and at the BAC in 2011, he's working with well-known film loops to delve into his subconcious poetic, and bring the audience closer than ever to the writing process.  (Take a look at the trailerwhere he's asking YOU to suggest really really well known clips for him to use...)

I had a chat with him on the online...

NJ: You've been delivering new work as part of a Mercy programme for nearly ten years now. Congratulations! Over the last few years, you've looked to reposition yourself, or rather bring together an understanding of the disciplines you work with - from being a performing poet, perhaps theatre-maker, to really being an interdisciplinary artist. Do you think this is helping you explore a greater depth of concerns?

RS: Thanks Nathan! It's totally awesome that Mercy is 10.

We've worked on a lot of different projects together, and I agree the last few years have probably been the most varied. There's been a documentary about computer-generated poetry, an e-book of sonnets about Streetfighter 2, a social game played across Edinburgh, and also a comedy-club trapped inside a 5-minute timeloop. Not to mention Standby For Tape Backup, which we're working on here.

I can't say that I've been deliberately exploring certain concerns, but some themes keep circling. They're hard to talk about in the abstract without sounding like vague hollow gestures!

I guess a lot of my recent work has been audience-centred. Whether it's creating a unique experience for an individual audience member (like in Hinterland), or allowing an audience to deliberately subvert a performance to their own end (like in Comedian Dies In The Middle Of A Joke). I've been trying to let the audience into the writing process.

NJ: We've spoken quite a lot during the process for Stand by for Tape Backup, where you use a film loop as a starting point for a lyric, that there seems to be a tension in the composition process, between what I call 'organic', and you tend to describe along the lines of a 'mechanism', because of the constraints you're under, and the regulated 'tick' of the occurrence of images. Of course, there's a legacy here, from, for example the 'Oulipo' systems of constraints, but I'd also say there is a relation to surrealist automatic writing techniques. Where would you place this process?

RS: My intention is that the looped footage (in this case, the opening credits of The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air) becomes its own poetic form. The challenge is to write a text that responds to the footage, shot-by-shot, so when I read it live over the top, Will Smith looks like he's symbolically acting out everything I say.

This puts a lot of restrictions on the writing. It makes it impossible for me to anticipate the shape of a piece. You've just got to go on your nerve and hope it ends up somewhere good. Will Smith must lead the way! He's like my spirit guide.

As you might imagine, having to check back in with Will Smith every two seconds really slows down your productivity. On average, I managed to produce about 2 minutes a day. And I never knew which direction it was going to go next.

By imposing so many restrictions on my writing, I hoped I would l bypass the conscious mind and write from the subconscious instead. Then, when the audience heard the piece live, they would be nudged down a similar path of intuition. This is definitely the influence of the OULIPO on my work: an attempt to access the subconscious through excessive rules. I don't think I've really written as intuitively as this since I tried my hand at univocalisms (a poem that only uses one vowel) .

I went to see the OULIPO read some univocalisms in London a few years ago. What I loved about the performance was that the audience can imagine exactly what it was like to write the poem in the first place. You know that when the poet wrote down the first line, they had no idea where it was going to end; they're just trying to intuitively let the constraint lead the work. So, when we sit in a room and have the poem read back to us, we can play along with the poet, using our own sense of intuition. Reading the poem aloud becomes a simulation of the writing process, and I really like that. It's that feeling I want to recreate in Standby For Tape Backup. I want the audience to experience the process of writing, rather than be handed the finished product. (Maybe I want this because deep down, I think that writing poetry is more fun than reading it. )

NJ: It strikes me that Stand by for Tape Backup is rich in ideas, and actually enacts a process by which we translate our cultural experience into our own products. In this way, it is a subversive gesture - but before anything, it is an inherently generous work with consideration of the audience at its centre. How are you coming at this? Do you feel a tension between 'experimentation' and 'audience'?

RS: In the 16 years I've been working as a poet, I've been booked for soooo many inappropriate gigs. As a result, I've developed a bit of an obsession with audience expectation. Almost every performance comes with a different contract between performer and crowd, and part of the challenge is identifying what that contract is, and then trying to find a way to meet that contract as quickly as you can

So, I'd actually say that ‘experimentation' and ‘audience' are closely related interests in my work. Every audience is different, and will react differently to your writing. Tiny changes in your script can have huge impacts on the work. Different rooms can radically alter the rhythm and tone of your performance. The stage is where you go in order to experiment, it's just a question of finding the right stage.

Ps. don't ever agree to read poetry in a wrestling ring.

NJ: What's next with Stand by For Tape Backup?

Next outing is at the Cambridge Junction in May as part of the Sampled Festival. Before then, I'm looking for more well-known video footage to use in the show. As I say in the video, if anyone can think of a useful clip- send me a link, and I'll give it a whirl.