Angry, in love, depressed, engaged, sorrowful, seduced and seducing, Keston Sutherland’s poems are impassioned letters from the precipice of militarised capitalist society. Leaping between poetic forms, mastering and then breaking conventions, his is one of the boldest voices in contemporary poetry. Honing his craft under the mentorship and friendship of poet J.H. Prynne at the University of Cambridge, Sutherland’s oeuvre is prodigious. A recently published collected works spans 1999–2015, during which time he also co-founded the Barque Press with fellow poet Andrea Brady. His poems weave connections between capital, consumption, secrecy, statecraft, sex and war in an avowedly Marxist project. Eroticism and intimacy are threaded through
each, rendered as both elemental to life and enmeshed in, and marked by, geopolitical formations. One of his most celebrated works, The Odes to TL61P (2013), is a roar from the void. Written largely as a prose poem, its sweeping scope variously zeroes in on police suppression of the Trafalgar Square protests, a Hotpoint washer-dryer (TL61P) and the genesis of his own sexuality, the latter of which is rendered with acerbic honesty.
Natasha Hoare: When did you start writing poetry, and was it an expression of love, as it is for many people?
Keston Sutherland: The answer depends on what counts as poetry. I first started inscribing words on pieces of paper and thinking that what I was doing could be writing poetry at around twelve or thirteen. It certainly had something to do with love because it was my way of materialising an infatuation with someone who lived in the same dreary cul-de-sac on the same estate that I grew up in. I used to stare at this person out of the window of my bedroom and dream that they were looking back at me too. Sometimes she would come over and, to my great anguish, she would stay in my sister’s bedroom overnight. I would lie awake in my bed desperately thinking how I could say everything to her. I would hide beneath the blanket scribbling on paper, plagiarising lyrics from love songs, which seemed to be the sort of thing that someone else would want to give to somebody else in a seduction ritual. I suppose poetry for me began with something like the instinct to claim possession of words that already felt powerful to me; in this case, the words of pop songs. By writing them out in my own hand, it felt as though I had magically turned them into my own language. Later on, I began to write poems in the proper sense – to feel property in expression actually originate – again because I felt very passionately about another person. So, for me poetry was always love poetry, right from the start. I can still remember now the rare and exquisite sensation of writing that very first poem, a sensation that in some obscure way felt physically transformative, a change in my sense of self-possession at a bodily level. I can remember thinking that my body somehow had been transformed by this experience of trying to summon within me the pressure adequate to express this intense desire. From the start, the act of writing was messily tangled up with desire and love and the erotic. I’ve spent much of the rest of my life trying to intellectually justify the persistence of the strength of that first feeling. I still now am trying to find intellectual means that seem half credible. All of my poems are love poems. That thought may be hard to justify, depending on the sensibility of their reader; but to me they’re all love poems. If they’re not love poems, I throw them away.
…All of my poems are love poems. That thought may be hard to justify, depending on the sensibility of their reader; but to me they’re all love poems. If they’re not love poems, I throw them away…
Natasha: And at what point did you feel like becoming a poet was a possible career?
Keston: It isn’t a career for me and I never thought of it in those terms. I’m not yet sure even that it is possible to become a poet. For me, it’s about the work: the work of writing poetry, the work of trying to find a way to live, to feel and to relate to others so that it’s possible to do it. I don’t ever feel a consistent and dependable confidence that I simply am now a poet and that I can therefore go on being one. The sensation and the meaning of that un-confidence changes all the time. When I’m deep in the work of writing a poem, I might feel for a moment as though this is my destiny announcing itself and that I now know that this is who I am, that this is what I mean. And then at other points, many more of them, I’ll feel very remote and adrift from being a poet and I’ll not have any idea how to deal with that distance, and I will feel lost. I feel like that a lot of the time; most of the time, in fact. Part of the work is to make that distance itself resound in poetry as pain.
Natasha: You’re avowedly communist. What is the role of poetry in social and political revolution?
Keston: Lots of people I know would insist that there can be no really substantial role. This is where I become a totally unashamed but gladly embarrassed speculative thinker. Part of what I understand as the responsibility to poetic thought, and the work of being a poet, is to repulse impossibility as far as possible. I mean not to accept any form of proscription, not to accede to any form of conceptual or imaginative settlement whose tendency is to belittle the art, to trivialise the work of doing it, or to foreclose on the possibilities and potentials of expression. I mean that formally and also socially in terms of what the effectual resonance of the poem might be over time. In this sense, I’m virtually evangelical in my love for poetry, insofar as it wouldn’t count for me as any kind of proof of the inefficacy of poetry, even if it could be shown that poetry had never yet had any effect. Poetry for me is always about pushing at the most extreme possible limits of what can be done with language, with thought, with feeling, with love, with expression, and how all of that might yet be communicated. A thought by the American poet Muriel Rukeyser has stuck with me. She says that the use of truth is its communication. That sounds like a simple formula, but it resounds pretty wildly in my head. The idea that what you do when you discover something that’s true in language is to activate the potential to communicate it, literally in such a way that communities are created by the shared force of the transmission, seems to me a really powerful thought. We need to try to make communities of people who can realise their potentials to love and listen to each other, people capable of responding to each other and really showing up, really being present for and with each other. Poetry can help that to happen. Its power is not simply that groups can be formed through sharing it; what matters finally is the truth that is found in order to be shared. Not many forms of truth originate in the necessity of their communication in this socially radical sense. To give the reverse end of the telescope its due, I don’t think that poetry is immediately going to cause everybody to spring up out of their shuttered worlds and construct barricades and understand suddenly and as if by divine intuition, how to destroy capital, but still I don’t think that poetry should give up trying to do that either. Another thought that has stuck with me is by Georges Sorel, from his early Marxist and syndicalist phase. Sorel wrote that ‘socialists must be convinced that the work to which they are devoting themselves is a serious, formidable and sublime work.’ Instinctively, before I ever asked myself the question what poetry is for, I always felt just like this. Poetry is serious, formidable and sublime work.
Natasha: How does prose enter into your work?
Keston: I conceived of The Odes to TL61P as odes in prose. This was a dilemma intrinsic in their formal design. The ode has typically and conventionally been reckoned a very lofty and impressive lyrical performance in verse. For thousands of years it has mostly been a form of poem which is supposed to be an exhibition or showcase for certain kinds of virtuosic uses of technique. To flatten out that edifice of virtuosity and to confine it and crush it into these perfected left and right margins, almost like language being dumped out into a trash compactor, was essential to the design of those texts, so that the strophic irregularity and freedom of versification and metrical thinking that had always existed in poetic odes would, in those poems, instead be kind of crushed flat into the space of prose. But there’s something else that should then be made possible, hopefully, once the two identities of verse thinking and prose thinking got mangled up and compressed together. I started to think about how there could be metrical prose, or what kinds of versification and music might be possible only or peculiarly in prose. Of course, lots of people have thought about that before. But I started to elaborate to myself all kinds of theoretical propositions about what it might mean for me to be trapped in and blocked into prose. I pursued that thought about metrical prose into the book Whither Russia, where it became a much more mournful, passionate and emotional kind of writing. Whereas in The Odes it’s more satirical.
Natasha: You are a scholar of Samuel Beckett, and we’ve just discussed the ode as an ancient form; does the mantle of poetic history weigh heavily? How do you mitigate that?
Keston: It doesn’t weigh heavily on me at all. What weighs heavily on me is capitalism. Wage labour weighs heavily on me, and living in a world full of gross inequality, violence, poverty and politics. Poetic tradition is something I embrace with gratitude and with love. This is one of the things I find off-putting about some parts of the art world. It sometimes seems as though a cultural logic, more or less unexamined, is allowed to operate, whereby certain things seem to be proscribed because a consensus emerges that these things have been ‘done already’ and therefore can’t be done anymore; whatever could be put at stake subjectively in them has already been pre-evacuated. I don’t understand how so many artists seem ready to go along with that so compliantly. My problem with this is that it harmonises frictionlessly with the logic of capital itself. It sounds to me like a classic kind of managerial catch-up strategy, where managers are telling workers that they need to keep up to date with the latest forms of innovative productivity; to increase productivity, we must keep our work practices up to date, make sure there’s no backsliding. Ultimately what looks like a cultural imperative boils down to the extraction of relative surplus value. That form of logic and that form of rhetoric is consistently used by capitalists in order to screw more surplus value out of workers, to destroy union solidarity, etc. There’s a very powerful moment in an essay by Leon Trotsky where he is disputing the vision of literature proclaimed by the Russian futurists and by Mayakovsky, and their complete rejection of Tolstoy and Pushkin. Trotsky says: I am a Marxist, and being a Marxist doesn’t mean destroying the things of value from history and destroying tradition, but trying to give what is valuable in history and tradition for the first time to people who have never had any of it. That seems much more powerful to me. I want my poetry to be of value to people who don’t care about poetry. I feel passionately anti-nihilistic in this sense. I want poetry to keep alive everything that still can be made to live, everything from the history of poetry going right the way back. Incidentally, it isn’t just the history of poetry that I want to embrace like that, but the history of music, painting, philosophy – anything where any form of possible relation or life can be found, or where some intensity remains undisclosed or can be refashioned. Being against capital means being for life, and that means not only the single life any of us has now, but the lives already given in work. Most of the poetry that I read is older poetry; I find most contemporary poetry uninteresting or insipid. I’m continually, with each new poem that I write, deliberately and consciously trying to build relationships with older artists. This is a conscious method for me. Every book that I’ve made has tried to fashion a dialogue with a specific artist or group of artists. With The Odes to TL61P, I was in dialogue with Beethoven and with Mahler among many others. I mean in formal dialogue: I was trying to think how the forms they created could actually be lived, could become forms of individual and social life. In the last book, I was particularly in dialogue with Schubert and his use of sonata form. I try to conceive, by thinking through their forms, how it might be possible to live differently. Living differently now is not just about an immanent critique of contemporary reality, or only thinking about future possible forms of existence, but is just as much about trying to keep alive and to recover everything that might yet be of value in the history of expression. Because for me, first of all, that is the history of other people’s labour. From a Marxist point of view, I can’t treat history as a back catalogue of dead commodities that are now simply on the shelf. For me, those works are lives, the labour and passion of thousands of people who gave everything they could in order to give to the world the greatest gift they could make.
Natasha: That’s a beautiful answer. In The Odes, male sexuality, especially the male erection, is an expression of the libidinal flow of capital and power. Is that a valid reading?
Keston: The first thing I have to say is I don’t feel any ownership over readings of my poems. If that’s what it seems like to you, then maybe that’s right. But certainly, I’ve been interested in the connections and the deep commonalities, interferences and entanglements between sexuality, power, money, capital, productivity and imperialism. To rewind for a moment, when I published a poem called Hot White Andy in 2007, it was published with a picture of an enormous skyscraper, which was unmistakably, crudely phallic.
At readings, I would give an introduction to the poem in which I would say that it was about Western fears of the penetration of Chinese capital through subterranean secrecy jurisdictions and forms of hostile takeover into Western market economies. And I would present this picture of a skyscraper in China as an icon of the very thing that Westerners were paranoid about: the rise of Chinese power. Ever since, I’ve been thinking about the connections between sexuality and power and capitalism. How could anyone not?
Natasha: How did this play out in The Odes?
Keston: In The Odes, this was much more complicated. I tried to do something that was very risky, and I really don’t know whether I succeeded in doing it, but I tried to describe in explicit and perfectly legible language all of my sexual experiences as a child, and in some cases to put into words, for the very first time, memories of events which felt to me as though they had somehow been obscurely fundamental in forming my sexual personality. When I say, ‘in words for the first time’, I mean I had never even told anyone or said out loud to myself that these things had happened; their very first appearance outside of my head would be in these poems. This was very difficult, because it meant finding words that not only had to be the first words I had ever found to describe these events, but would also be right away the last words that I would ever have for them, in the sense that they would then be permanently and indelibly inscribed, eventually as a published work. It really felt a dangerously invasive and indelible overwriting of memories which, up to that moment of writing, had been totally inchoate and unformed. I killed part of myself by writing those poems. They are in effect an act of part-suicide: an eradication of everything that had been preserved out of the reach of language.
…Isn’t sexuality in fact on some level constructed out of memories of being silenced?
I was interested in this for a number of reasons. One was that I was interested in the genesis of secrecy as a psychic phenomenon and a painful experience. I asked myself the question, when was it in my life that it first occurred to me that I might know something that I must not tell others? That very moment is narrated in The Odes. It was after a sexual experience with another child. I was told by the other person never to say anything about it. I was so young that no one had ever said that to me before; and so here was this very extraordinary speech act that confronted me, this demand that I never relate, that I never say, that I never speak. I can remember reeling away from that encounter with that person thinking, ‘What just happened?’ I thought this must’ve been somehow fundamentally formative for my sexuality.
And doesn’t this happen to everybody? Isn’t sexuality in fact on some level constructed out of memories of being silenced? Is sexuality a pedagogy of the un-disclose-able? And this pedagogy of the un-disclose-able, this teaching oneself what mustn’t be said, what mustn’t be named, what mustn’t be put into words, seemed to me deeply tangled up with the origins of collective expression too – that if poetic expression is the disclosing, the opening up, the finding new language for the inexpressible, then somehow, at least in my experience, it also is rooted in this same spot: at the origin of the un-disclose-able, the origin of that which mustn’t and cannot be said.
The book then chases an arc up from that first moment at which the possibility of secrecy is first announced in consciousness, right up through to the cultural histories of secrecy and the function in advanced capitalist economies of so-called secrecy jurisdictions.
Secrecy jurisdictions, you may know, are a form of complex offshore tax haven in which the majority of the world’s wealth is now hidden. The implications of that for any potential revolutionary politics are enormous. If we still fantasise that we might be able to do what the Bolsheviks did and to seize control through violent revolution on the street, seizing the wealth and assets and institutions of the state and directing the power of all of those institutions and that wealth and those assets through revolutionary organisation, then it’s a real shock to recognise that virtually all of the national assets and wealth of a country are in places where they could never be captured and held. It seemed to me that something very serious and toxic had happened in terms of the mechanisms for the mobility and circulation of value in late capital. Of course, this problem has existed for over a hundred years, but it’s become a particularly acute problem now. Particularly in the case of Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union when Putin and his KGB cronies stole all the national wealth and hid all of it in secrecy jurisdictions across the world.
…There are some sexual fantasies in particular, which I detail, including one that I can remember some people objecting to after a public reading, where I describe a fantasy of fucking myself…
Where adult sexuality fits into that is very complicated, and in my book I was thinking about male sexuality, or sexuality that at some point becomes male, in particular. I wanted to explore as ruthlessly and piercingly as I could the truth about male sexuality as I have lived it. That did mean at certain points in the book writing things that I was conscious might seem offensively, thoughtlessly, aggressively heterosexual at some points, or might be problematically phallocentric and masculine, overtly. I embraced that risk deliberately and thought of it in the same spirit in which I was uncovering my childhood; I had to uncover the truth about my formation right up through adolescence. I wanted to just be absolutely unsparing. There are some sexual fantasies in particular which I detail, including one that I can remember some people objecting to after a public reading, where I describe a fantasy of fucking myself. This fantasy that I had as fourteen- or fifteen-year-old comically epitomises a certain stage of sexual narcissism that I, at least, went through, where I thought it would be really wonderful if I could be duplicated so that I could instantly and instinctively do to myself everything that I knew I wanted to doing to myself. It was a fantasy of absolute disinhibition and perfect mutual sensitivity fleshed out in the ridiculous form of a narcissistic fantasy about fucking myself. When I actually wrote it, it turned out that the sex in that fantasy was sadistic. Now I look back on that, it of course seems grotesque, but at the same time comically instructive about a certain kind of narcissism which proliferates in our culture. So yes, the book is intended to be completely unsparing in how it lays bare not just current sexual desires but the whole history of fantasy in my own life.
…So yes, the book is intended to be completely unsparing in how it lays bare not just current sexual desires but the whole history of fantasy in my own life.
Natasha: The spectre of Iraq haunts many of your poems. What impact did those mass-disseminated images and consciousness have on eroticism and sensuality, given that you parallel the two within the poems?
Keston: It’s a very difficult and good question. I need to go back just for a second, before I answer this, to Trotsky again. Trotsky is not just incidentally in The Odes. He was a figure who was of enormous importance to me as a young poet when I was in my early twenties. I became, for a period, deeply smitten with him, his writing, and what he achieved in this world with the power of his conception and the brilliance of his analysis. I think that for a period, how I thought about the possibility of intimacy, about sex, about desire, about relationships, was in some way inseparably mixed up with how I was thinking about the Russian Revolution. That sounds like a very odd thing but it was really true to me somehow. I felt as though what the Russian revolution represented to me was the single most breathtaking example of a collectively heroic effort to achieve a never-before-experienced form of public intimacy. There’s a brilliant account of it by the American journalist John Reed in his book Ten Days That Shook the World. This book really affected me when I read it. He describes people on the street speaking to each other in new ways, ways in which they had never spoken before, never heard each other speak before, because suddenly the sheer intensity of everybody’s intimacy with everybody else was just overwhelming collectively. I was so deeply moved and stirred by that, it became to me a kind of example for how I thought sexual intimacy might be able to work too. I didn’t draw that connection consciously, but now I look back on it, I see that the two things were confused in my mind. I felt as though my intimate relationships with other individuals needed to be as full of world-shaking historical potential, life-altering intimacy and heroic overthrow of oppression and convention as the Russian Revolution was. Of course, that sounds hopelessly hyperbolic and pompous, but I really did expect and want to try to make everything possible in intimate relationships.
…That’s part of the specific sadistic pleasure of pornography because it takes you back to a very archaic infantile state of psychosexual formation: bliss through emptying others.
Natasha: It’s a hard thing for your interpersonal life to live up to. How did the invasion of Iraq impact?
Keston: In 2001, the moment the towers in New York were destroyed, I was very clear that preparations were being made for the invasion of Iraq. already active in the campaign against the sanctions in Iraq, and I was paying very close attention to what was happening in that region of the world. I was deeply sickened to the pit of my being by the fraudulent seizure of power in America by George W. Bush, and, for a while, our struggle was all around trying to resist the first Bush presidency, to proclaim its illegitimacy. Andrea Brady and I published an anthology of poems against Bush’s election called 100 Days. There’s a very powerful and beautiful poem by the American poet Juliana Spahr called This Connection of Everyone with Lungs, which recounts in detail the build-up to the invasion of Iraq. I teach this poem to my students who are too young to remember this period, and they sometimes don’t really understand where I think the force of this poem is, because the poem is very flat in its delivery, just counting down the days and the news stories. But to me it’s absolutely heart-breaking when I read this poem by Juliana because it throws me straight back into that time where you could just feel the inevitability of this catastrophic event closing in. Anyhow, the war in Iraq was to me profoundly traumatic. And it happened to coincide with a period when I was severely depressed and barely hanging onto life. Ever since then, everything that I have written has been about the war in Iraq. Every single poem has referenced it, more or less openly or explicitly. Hot White Andy was about that war, Neocosis was, Stress Position is a long poem all about torture in Iraq and the historic parallels between Iraq and the Vietnam War, the similar forms of lying that went on in order to justify both. In Odes to TL61P, this same history of secrecy surfaces again. There is text in the book from the files that Wikileaks released about the war crimes that had been committed by the American military in Iraq. The sheer, unbearable, hateful intensity of seeing those pictures from Abu Ghraib was at the very limit of what I felt I could bear. Those pictures with Lynndie England and the naked prisoners in Abu Ghraib were of course also explicitly pornographic. I’ve been reading psychoanalytic literature about pornography recently, and one interesting article makes the point that pornography is essentially about the desubjectification – not only the objectification – of women and of human beings. The desubjectification: these individuals are fantastically hollowed out, annihilated and denied the possibility of really existing as human beings. This does not mean merely that they are objectified in the sense that you might look at a person that you find attractive and then turn them into an object of desire, but that the person is actively and sadistically dehumanised or emptied out of any possible subjectivity, and that this very emptying-out and the automatic-seeming activity of the vessel that is left over are precisely what is intoxicating for desire. That’s part of the specific sadistic pleasure of pornography because it takes you back to a very archaic infantile state of psychosexual formation: bliss through emptying others. Looking at those pictures of Iraq, the sadism of those pictures is beyond intoxicating and beyond explicit. It was absolutely unbearable to look at them. For me, that was deeply affecting to me as a poet. Deeply influential on everything that I have written. So it’s partly about a relationship with pornography that is virtually inescapable in culture in general. But specifically, specifically those pictures from Iraq.
Natasha: I feel like you have an investment in language as being a way to approach reality or truth. Would you agree with that?
Keston: I think I’m going to need to tip-toe around that question a bit. So truth is obviously a very difficult concept. There are many different possible kinds of truth, I think. It may also be possible that there is eventually one kind of truth; and I may think that I need to be persuaded of the existence of that possibility again and again, and that’s what writing a poem might be, finally. Every poem that I write has to somehow try to find its own way to convince itself that truth might be able to be produced. Convincing may mean just forcing into acceptance. So each poem has something like its own potential relationship with truth. Some of my poems feel to me as though they get closer to being true than others. And some poems are largely not true, in one way or another, and I think not being true is also important.
There are moments in the poems where they are demonstrating a certain dislocation from truth, or trying to make clear and to specify how truth is off limits, or unlocatable somehow. And then suddenly there might be a moment that feels as though it is how truth can appear. There’s a moment in my poem Stress Position which describes a very painful drama in which someone who is addressed as you, in the second person, is told that they are at a wedding, and obscurely, they find themselves kneeling on the floor, surrounded by a circle of apparently impassive and benign people, and they are strangling to death a woman who is lying between their knees. This woman looks up, unconcerned, into the face of the person who is doing the strangling, and then the poem says ‘truth is starting now.’ In that poem, it felt to me – and this poem was explicitly about Iraq – as though truth was a very dangerous potential. If I was going to say what I truly felt and thought it was going to cost me and hurt me. It might end up being a painful thing for other people too. I have no particular wish to hurt anybody, but it felt to me when writing that poem as though truth was something that I could only hope to try to approach, to get close to, and maybe at points suddenly to grab hold of, at the specific cost of some hitherto unfelt or unimaginable pain.
Every poem I’ve written has thought and worked to try to conceive a possible intimacy with truth, and finally, I suppose, to be true overall. There’s a kind of triplication there of a distance from possible truth, but which in that poem feels like the disastrous angularity of truth itself.