Reading Keston Sutherland

[This is a section I wasn’t able to include in the lecture What is Literature?]

 

I would like to write a little bit about how we might have approached HOT WHITE ANDY, and how we might continue to approach it.

 

This, then, is not my brief Reader’s Guide to Keston Sutherland but my Rough Guide to (Kinds Of) Readings of Keston Sutherland.

 

[If you’ve read the other blog, you can skip these next four paragraphs.]

 

I’ll start by saying some dumb things, because dumb thing are always useful to get out of the way.

 

Sutherland’s poems are full of words I don’t understand unless I Google them (a dictionary, for many, wouldn’t be all that much use). Some of them are in foreign languages I don’t know; some are technical words, some abbreviations or acronyms; some are words that I understand separately but, when they are jammed together or piled up into multiple vehicle car-crashes, I don’t properly see how they work.

 

Almost no words, which I think is worth saying, are either entirely Sutherland’s invention or portmanteau words, coinages, neologisms. However strange or extreme his language may appear, on first viewing, it is more the given language of the world than it is a private or eccentric language. We may find HOT WHITE ANDY obscure, but it’s not Finnegans Wake.

 

I have probably missed out some category of words that the poem includes, perhaps entirely normal words used in a way that seems to drive them until their normal meaning can’t keep up – for example ‘hot’ and ‘white’ and ‘beige’. But I’d like to move on a little from that first impression of difficult, complex language. The language is difficult and complex whichever way you first approach it, but how you approach it makes for different difficulties and clashing complexities. It’d like to differentiate four different approaches you may have taken.

 

I am leaving out the possibility that you may have been present at a reading of HOT WHITE ANDY by Keston Sutherland, in between 2007 and today. If you were, why didn’t you tell me about it, and invite me along?

 

The physical encounter with the poem, in a room with the writer of the poem, you breathing the same air he has used to blow out some of the words – this may be a future possibility (tell me), but, for now, it’s not available to us.

 

I’ll call this Live Approach, Approach Zero.

 

Approach 1 is Video, YouTube or other, which is the fastest way of receiving a Keston Sutherland poem. (He reads aloud faster than you are likely to allow yourself to read with your eyes.) There’s no visual impact of black type on white page – no visual impact apart from the way his mouth and body move. You can’t see the words, check the spellings, double-take on unusual syntax. (Earlier, one of the things I left out was syntax: words in unorthodox orders or fragmented words.) But what you can do is hear a flow of language with the editorial guidance, not available on the page, of a tone of voice, a mode of address. When Sutherland puts his hands to his mouth, makes his voice nasal and barks ‘WANT HOT WHITE ANDY’ he seems to me to give a clear indication of a public utterance, like that of a street hawker for a street food vendor, or a sous chef shouting out an order in a bubbling restaurant kitchen. The nuances of this are lost by having it silent, on the page. (Upper case may hint at signage but is too ambiguous to enforce it; in emails and tweets it definitely is SHOUTED.) In many ways, viewing a Sutherland reading online is the easiest, most assisted way, of receiving his poems. A careful second and third viewing, with no reference to the printed page, will add greater insight as the repetitions and cross-correspondences start to become obvious.

 

This isn’t necessarily new, the encounter with a poet through a moving image of them. It’s possible many readers came across any particular poem of, say, Frank O’Hara or even W.B.Yeats via a film of them reading it aloud (or, more likely, via a record). But the likelihood of this being someone’s first contact with Keston Sutherland seems very high, given that views of HOT WHITE ANDY probably outnumber sales of the pamphlet by a high magnitude. Also, Sutherland’s reputation as a great reader is going to draw people to watch him before they invest in a book by him.

 

More interestingly, there are marks on the page that no-one could ever translate into the sounds Sutherland makes without hearing him read them aloud. I’m thinking of the dots before ‘kids’ and ‘face’ in lines five and six. This makes the page dependent upon the performance.

 

Approach 2. Let’s call this approach The Page. It would require a copy of The Chicago Review, issue 53:1 (New British Poetry) from 2007, or the pamphlet HOT WHITE ANDY published by Barque Press in 2011, or the Poems 1999-2015, published at the end of May 2015 by Enitharmon. Already things are becoming complicated. Because we have the The Page reading post- a Video viewing. Or we have The Page on its own, as the first encounter.

 

In the former case, we are helped by having heard and therefore being able to hear again certain lines (WANT HOT WHITE ANDY) with Sutherland’s own inflexion. There are instances where his placement of a pause clarifies that something is a caesura or that a line ending does involve a change in register or change of speaker.)

 

In the latter, we start reading without having Sutherland’s voice and body in our memory, and we are faced with a text that immediately puts itself before us as poetry, i.e., it doesn’t reach both sides of the page, or only does in certain sections. With others of Sutherland’s poems, for example The Odes to TL61P, this isn’t the case. The Odes look like prose with embedded poems, every few pages.

 

Let’s assume for The Page a reading without Google, without you being online for checking. You go through at a prosey-type pace, a page every couple of minutes. You check and cross-reference nothing. This is the most difficult kind of reading. You are a solo reader, unassisted by tech. You make of the words what you can. In this approach, you will be better prepared if you have already come to terms with, say, some J.H. Prynne or some John Wilkinson.

 

Approach 3. The Slow Reading or what you might call The Waste Land reading. This reading allows for use of reference to other poems by Sutherland, interviews with him, and also – most importantly – to search engines.

 

Here, you can, without difficulty, discover who ‘Andy Cheng’ is – a real-life model exists. he is not a friend or acquaintance of Keston Sutherland. He is someone we can know in an internet way.

 

If T.S. Eliot had included an equivalently distant-from-the-poet person in The Waste Land, it would most likely have taken years for the reference to be explicable. In fact, Eliot doesn’t refer to real but distant individuals in this way. His named folk are either classical allusions, like Tiresias, or literary allusions, or are invented – although possible models have been discovered.

 

The Slow Reading of HOT WHITE ANDY is also, technologically, a fast reading. It’s also confusing. In trying to find out what the italicized shortform pw meant, I soon came across a list of forty possible meanings, on acronymfinder.com, some of which are: password, public works, post-menopausal women, Price Waterhouse, protest warrior, professional writing and psycho ward.

 

This is funny but it also, I think, brings out an important characteristic of Sutherland’s language. It was said of Harold Pinter that, when he arrived at a party, the guests suddenly became aware that they were talking in a Pinteresque way.

 

Similarly, once HOT WHITE ANDY or sections of it, start going out through your search engine, it starts to seem as if the whole internet is merely an expanded and even more excessive version of the poem. With HOT WHITE ANDY having arrived in my head, I’ve noticed that the party of my email inbox included such Sutherlandish language as Viagra spam. Returning from a Slow Reading excursion in search of referent from Sutherland’s poetry, you see how good an ear he has for now. (Although Hot White Andy was originally published in 2007, and written in that year and 2006.)

 

Certainly, we are already following false trails, internetwise. If we Google ‘Andy Cheng’, ‘Lavrov’ or ‘The Stock Wizard’, we are likely to end up on very different pages to those of almost a decade ago. ‘Andy Cheng’, ‘Lavrov’ and ‘The Stock Wizard’ have all continued to be active in the interim, and webpages referencing them have been taken down, updated or redesigned. We have also had a global recession in which many Stock Wizards have had to lie low or retrain as psychotherapists or Primary School Math teachers or physiotherapists.

 

One thing of which trying to annotate Hot White Andy makes me aware is the inadequacy of hypertext. To link from ‘Lavrov’ to a single Wikipedia page giving the biography of Sergei Lavrov is oversimplifying, misleading, wrong. There’s no certainty Sergei Lavrov is the Lavrov to whom that proper name in the poem refers. There’s a little more certainty with ‘Andy Cheng’ and even more with ‘The Stock Wizard’ – but a single link to The Stock Wizard’s twitter feed is insufficient. What is needed are multiple outgoing links and also some kind of intelligent synthesis of them. What is needed is an ongoing, historically informed reading.

 

This brings me to Approach 4. Which I’ll call Multiple-Browser Window Reading, incorporating reference to YouTube viewing and all the other forms of viewing. I came to this approach a few years ago, when thinking about James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. It is a notoriously difficult book, the endpoint – some say – of High Modernism. But I had an important, belated, revelation.

 

At university, I’d made it a matter of pride to try reading Finnegans Wake solo – without reference to anything but the words on the page. I didn’t get very far. Years later, I realised that it wasn’t a defeat to be assisted in reading such a book. It is a book about people who are crowds. The central figure is Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, or HCE, sometimes referred to as Here Comes Everybody. What I realised was that, for such a crowded book, the best way to read it was as part of a crowd. In fact, the book insists upon de-isolating, de-heroicizing, de-individualizing the reader. It makes a cohesive society necessary for its ongoing interpretation.

 

And so, I found, the only way to read Finnegans Wake was to look at secondary literature, books about the book, the first of which was published whilst FW was still incomplete and only know as Work In Progress.

 

Alongside this, I joined an email-based FW reading group who were proceeding through the book one page per week. This meant that, for any particular word, I had input from speakers of many different languages, experts in a myriad of fields.

 

HOT WHITE ANDY, I think, would also benefit from a pluralized or communal or multimodal readership. You’re not going to understand it all all by yourself.

 

This hive-mind-reading will be an accelerated version of the scholarly reading of The Waste Land, over almost one hundred years now since it was published. I am sure Sutherland would be pleased by the idea of a drawing together of collectives, to read his work. (Something similar is happening at Birkbeck with the Infinite Jest reading group.)

 

Insisting on an isolated, Romantic reading of Hot White Andy will – in the end – make a right reading, or better to say an appropriate reading of it, impossible.

 

What any reading needs also to incorporate is the idea that, for many lines or collections of lines, referents may be informative but are only a beginning. It’s not a clue-hunt. Sutherland’s poetry often veers towards inarticulacy, particularly at those moments where it seems future love is being declared or post-broken-love is being regretted. The language of lovers is that of stumblebums, often culminating in the name ‘Stan’.

 

Last night I

of your very hand and

real I have put my fingers

on you and your fa

ce if you were

here.

 

This could be dialogue from a David Mamet play – although he’s not usually so tenderly vulnerable. Such speech, and it reads to me as notated or perhaps remembered speech, has no time for rewriting. If it wants to go back, it hesitates, restates, stumbles, and all these returns, hesitations, restatements, unconcluded words remain on the page, in the transcription. In written language, a second, third or fifteenth go through can still appear uppermost, covering over all flubbed versions in a non-palimpsest. What we get in conventional poet is the last, best thought and utterance of the poet.

 

In HOT WHITE ANDY, the speaking subject exists in lots of different kinds of time. Sometimes he can only blurt, at others he has hours in which to refine, condense, reorganize and delete. It doesn’t matter that the supposedly blurted, inarticulacy-mimicking passages may have taken just to formulate as the apparently time-leisured ones.

 

What Sutherland presents is a speaker who relationship to time is inconsistent. As a dramatic monologue, sometimes his speaker is with us, and a second for him passes as a second for us, at others he fits ten seconds or ten weeks into every second of ours. (No wonder, at junctures, he comes across as a bit intense.)

 

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