Ross Sutherland on Science Fiction, Brasseye and the London riots

Blog / Tom Chivers

Nick Murray talks to acclaimed poet and performer Ross Sutherland about his latest collection Emergency Window, and finds out why writing poetry can be like smashing through a maze of mirrors.

Nick Murray of Annexe Magazine interviews Ross Sutherland about his new collection Emergency Window.

Diving straight in. What is Emergency Window all about? Where did it start?

I think the point it started was about a year ago, at the Edinburgh Festival, I was sitting with a bunch of people who were all watching the riots on the news, watching their homes on TV. Staring into a strangely mediated funhouse mirror between the London they knew and the London they were suddenly seeing on the news. I tried to write something about that, but found myself utterly failing. Any comments I made felt completely facile. Really none of my business. My inability to talk about the situation was a problem I wanted to address.

Though, you do have a poem in the collection called ‘The Rioters’ Prayer’…

That came later. ‘The Rioters’ Prayer’ was the poem I was essentially leading up to in an attempt to talk about it. I had to go away and immerse myself in new styles of writing to come back and write that. I got really into the Flarf movement and that whole faction of poets who take existing texts and sculpt them into something new. That poem is created in a similar way. It’s cut together from researching things on Twitter and news websites documenting the riots.

The epigraph to the poem has two quotes from Twitter. Are they real?

Absolutely real! The second one is from the Mail Online.

‘There were also reports that youths had stormed McDonald’s and had started frying their own burgers.’

Now you understand why Chris Morris has said he couldn’t make Brasseye again. We’re living it.

Right there in those news quotes is a feedback loop of misinformation rippling out of control. That kind of thing fascinates me and that’s how the poem is cut together.  It’s one of the more experimental pieces in the book.

In many ways the whole book has been created in the same way that I write a poem. I start somewhere and don’t always know what the end will be. By pushing forward with my writing, I hope to end somewhere I didn’t anticipate.

That unanticipated ending is reflected in this book too. The poems towards the end seem to be really led by process. How did the evolution towards that different style emerge?

The first half of the book has more traditionally shaped poems. Even if they draw heavily on unexpected subject matter, they are handled in a relatively conventional way.

Then near the end comes this strange Through the Looking Glass-style section. The poems themselves start to come apart under the strain of the themes. That’s when it becomes all about the technique. The technique begins to affect the subject matter on a fundamental level.

It’s certainly not what I set out to do but… do you remember the end of Enter the Dragon when Bruce Lee is in the maze of mirrors and he realises that the only way to get out is to smash the mirrors…

To punch through himself…

Basically the end of the book is me punching through myself!

There is a very clear and concise group of concerns in Emergency Window, which you proceed to blow wide open. How would you describe the themes of the book and how did you gather them into such a well-crafted unit?

Mediation is a big theme. Mediation through facsimiles and representations. Violence is another big theme. Sometimes that’s mediated violence and sometimes violence towards mediation.  Those two seem to go hand in hand throughout the book.

I think that the continuity of the book’s themes is due to the fact that the book came together in quite a short period of time. There is some merit to the ‘publish and be damned’ approach of getting things out there. By capturing a particular period of time, the book becomes a much truer reflection of who you are at that time. Plus I think there is something quite human about having those misfired ideas remain intact.

Your imagery has quite a technological leaning. At times it even feels like cyberpunk. Was this intentional and specific to the collection?

It’s down to a fundamental part of what I read as a kid and what I read now. My dad is a huge Philip K. Dick fan, so I grew up in a house full of science fiction. That was what I read growing up. Philip K. Dick, Zelazny, Vonnegut, William Gibson. Even when I first got into poetry, reading John Cooper Clarke, I read his poetry on the page as cyberpunk. It has that same kind of angular language to it.

An easy criticism of using technological language in literature is that it will age really fast. So if you reference this particular thing in a poem, in a couple of years time it will feel horrifically outdated. That’s true, but I don’t think ephemerality is something to shy away from. If you write with one eye on posterity, that leads to its own set of problems. In fact, if you’re talking about something very current, the context might be lost but something powerful remains.

The title Emergency Window serves as a powerful symbol throughout the book. How did it come about?

The title actually came first. Even as far back as writing the sequence Twelve Nudes, one of the possible titles I gave to that sequence was Emergency Window. My editor Tom Chivers said it was a good title, but to hold onto it for my second collection as it summed up broader themes than just the sequence.

What does it mean to you?

It comes back to the idea of screens. The more that we talk about screens and engage with them, the more compromised those screens becomes. It’s the idea of picking apart the screens.

But of course the emergency window is also the one you smash to get out. Which is interesting, as my first collection, Things to Do Before You Leave Town, was all about escape, emergency exits, leaving places too soon. That was my life at the time.

So there’s a clear step from one to the other they are both about escaping, but the first is about a geographical kind of escape, and the second is about escaping into different mediums.

Can you describe the process behind assembling the poems into a collection?

Tom and I went back and forth a lot with this collection. A lot of trial and error, experimentation. At one point we separated it into four little mini-books just to see the book as a series of chapters. It’s interesting how important that part plays in the ‘book’ feeling.

Over the last year, you have worked on theatre productions, lectures, documentaries. All kinds of things alongside the printed work. How has your work across artforms and media informed the collection?

Working on performances has made me more interested in the science of interpretation. You get to be playful in a live context, which is a lot harder to gauge on the page when the writer is not bodily present.

I’m not sure how that translates into my writing for page, but increasingly I like to show the workings of my poems. I like the idea of not boiling down a poem to the point where a reader can’t tell how it was constructed, but instead leaving the scaffolding on. I think it’s part of the same process of letting the reader imagine what it was like to write the poem. Writing poetry is often more fun than reading it, so by putting the reader in the boots of the writer I hope that makes reading the collection a lot more enjoyable.

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Emergency Window is published by Penned in the Margins, priced £8.99. Order online.

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