What we are up to

EVP conversations: Ross Sutherland interactivity

03/05/12 Live
by Nathan Jones

Two of our performers for EVP [tickets and info here] have very different attitudes towards - you! - the audience. Here Ross Sutherland reluctantly but eloquently responds to Steven Fowler's opening provocation

"Actually I think my attitude towards poetry criticism is similar to Steve's attitude towards audiences. My art is better if I don't engage with it."

Hopefully an interesting enquiry into the lines on which 'performance poetry' and poetry in performance are split.

ROSS: When I read Steven's comments, my instinct was to defend ‘interactivity'. But then I thought - well, it's a pretty wooly term, and probably covers a lot of guff that I don't like either. That's one of the main reasons I don't tend to join discussions on poetry. Things quickly get reduced to abstraction and then I forget what I'm meant to be arguing about. This is one of the main reasons I don't really engage with poetry criticism. At its best, poetry criticism is a form of poetry to be enjoyed in it's own right. At its worst, it just sounds like two people arguing over the colour of a car. It's red! It's orange! Well who cares. It's still a Seat Ibiza.

Actually I think my attitude towards poetry criticism is similar to Steve's attitude towards audiences. My art is better if I don't engage with it. As Steve says, "If I consider others thoughts, I will not wholly commit to the idea." For me, critical rhetoric gets between me and the audience. It makes me doubt what I'm doing. Frankly, if someone was curious about buying one of my books or coming to see me read live, I'd much rather they just went online, found one of my poems, and judged it themselves, rather than reading a critique by someone else. The critique might be beautifully written (better than the poetry it's reviewing) but it's still a secondary resource.

This brings me onto the one point I want to make: the Internet has allowed a generation of writers to engage directly with their audience. In a world of exponentially expanding content, writers are not just responsible for the creation of text, but for the endless reclassification / organising / filtering of it too. Some writers are even abandoning the former and concentrating simply on presentation (cf, Flarf, Goldsmith, et al). So I'd actually say the opposite to Steve, and suggest that interactivity, in terms of setting and providing a responsive framework for your writing is pretty understated in literature, considering how much it occurs.

Personally, I find this type of stuff interesting and that's why I try to bring it into the performance. So when Steve says "Really who cares what people think, the work is the work" I can't parse the sentence, because for me, the audience is part of the work.

I would like to separate the discussion of "what is audience engagement" from a discussion of "what is populist" because I don't think they're the same. In fact, I reckon the better you are at knowing your audience, the less you have to engage with the mainstream at all. I wonder if other poets agree.