StAnza 2014: Q&As with Ross Sutherland and Sophia Walker

Feature by Bram E. Gieben | 07 Mar 2014
  • Ross Sutherland

As this year's StAnza Festival continues, we follow up our feature taking a look at this year's highlights with a series of exclusive Q&As with the performers, writers and organisers of Scotland's only international festival of poetry. We continue today, presenting our full interviews with Ross Sutherland and Sophia Walker.

Sutherland is one of the UK's most celebrated performance poets, author of three collections including the marvelous Things To Do Before You leave Town, and a founder member of Aisle 16, alongside Luke Wright. Sophia Walker, meanwhile, is a rising star in the performance poetry world, creator of last year's Fringe hit Around The World In Eight Mistakes, which she brings to StAnza today.


The Skinny: Tell us about the show you are presenting this year – is it all new material, a greatest hits, or a themed show?
Ross Sutherland: It’s going to be a bit of a pared-down thing. I’ve been using a lot of sound and visuals in my recent shows, but at StAnza it’s just going to be me and a mic. My last book, Emergency Window, came out in 2012, but I’ve only read from it once or twice. So this is a good chance to rectify that.

Have you read at StAnza before? What do you think the festival's importance is, in terms of its influence and significance on Scottish and UK poetry?
This is actually my first time! Although I’ve been booked for this appearance since summer of 2012. Everyone talks about StAnza as being the best poetry festival in the UK. I think it has that reputation because StAnza is more of a community affair: poets don’t just parachute in, do a reading, then immediately leave again. The writers hang around, go see stuff, enjoy the city.  

Any other artists / poets you hope to catch while you're up there?
Muldoon. I used to write for the Manchester Metro, and got to interview Paul Muldoon when he first took the poetry editor post at the New Yorker. Paul described his poetry as “a house party, where the host has escaped through the bathroom window.” That’s stayed with me ever since. Also I want to see Rachel McCrum, Jenny Lindsay, Michael Pedersen... all of whom I know from visits to Edinburgh. All excellent poets.

How do you think the difference between page and performance poetry is expressed, and how do you think StAnza has done this year and in the past, in terms of representing both?
At first glance, seems like a good mix! I think a lot the stuff I like occurs at the crossroads between page and stage, and I think StAnza is camped somewhere on that border.

And finally, any plans to visit us again for the Edinburgh festival? Tell us about your tour in July too!
July I’m doing a tour of Scotland: Aberdeen, Glasgow, Edinburgh, then up to the Shetlands and the Orkneys. The tour features Scots and non-Scots poets, writing in collaboration (they’re calling the tour 'Auld Enemies'). It’s been put together by the poet Steve Fowler, with work from nick-e melville, William Letford, Colin Herd, Ryan Van Winkle and me.

I should be starting work on the poems now, but I’m just procrastinating by making changes to the Braveheart wikipedia page. August I’ll be back for the Fringe, with my one-man show, Stand by for Tape Back-Up. It’s a show about a videotape that me and my granddad used to record out favourite TV shows on to. I show parts of the tape to the audience, while performing poems that synchronise, shot-for-shot with the footage. The inspiration came from the old stoner experiment of synchronising The Wizard of Oz with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.


The Skinny: Tell us about your show, which started on the Fringe, and is now coming to StAnza. 
Sophia Walker: Around the World in Eight Mistakes is a show about all the worst reasons you could possibly move country: illegal immigration, illegal emigration, just ridiculous amounts of deportation, moving for love, and accidentally moving to a war zone. It's also a show about modern history: I grew up behind the Berlin Wall, lived in America during the Bush years, spent some time in Vietnam, and worked in Uganda during the civil war.

The show is typically 48 minutes, but StAnza has only given me a 30 minute slot. It's an interesting challenge to have to cut the show down, particularly because it's actually an epic poem, which makes editing a lot more restricted (by metre and rhyme). I've loved the way audiences haven't been put off by that, and am in fact now billing it as new-form theatre rather than poetry, simply because it's an easier sell to bookers.

I kicked off the tour at the Roundhouse in London back in December and will finish up at Signature Theatre in Washington, DC in June, with several different countries in between. It's been interesting touring a show about cultural differences and modern history. I've had to tweak so much depending on what country I'm in. And I didn't realise how anti-American the show was till the first time I performed it there!

At StAnza, I'm looking forward to the challenge of only 30 minutes. I've done 30 minute versions at a few different schools thus far, but that editing process was more about making it age appropriate (the show does involve graphic descriptions of violence and some drug references). The challenge is keeping the show as close as possible to the original, but in much less time. So rather than axing entire sections, it's parsing the script. Which is terrifying because I've yet to do the show to a room full of people who really know their poetry! I'm really trying to improve the writing quality, and not make a fool of myself in front of so many in my field. StAnza's intimidating! I am hugely looking forward to performing alongside David Lee Morgan. We've been friends for years and I truly respect him. It's an honour to be booked with him, especially his five star show!

Where do you stand on the whole 'page versus stage' debate?
I think the difference between page and stage depends on the country you're in. With UK poetry, performance poetry has grown up out of, and alongside, page poetry. As a result, our performance poetry, until quite recently, has been a lot more technical, involving meter and near rhyme and internal rhyme, than the performance poetry scenes you'd find in America. As the scene grows bigger, and older, it is inevitably becoming a lot more common to hear the 'American voice' in UK performance poetry, but I think the differences between page and stage are growing, rather than having always been there.

I think those of us in performance sometimes feel like the underdog, and like we need to legitimise or justify how we write, but I think the fact that our scene has grown out of page poetry means we are much more technically proficient, and also more stylistically unique across the board, than some performance poets you hear in other countries. I think we've benefited. StAnza has always been brilliant about booking performance poets and involving all aspects and all traditions of poetry in their festival, which makes it such a draw.

StAnza recognises the growing popularity of performance poetry, and how effective a means it can be at bringing younger generations into the genre. They have a slam run by Rally & Broad, which is not only founded by the woman arguably responsible for Scotland's performance poetry scene, Jenny Lindsay, but is also the best spoken word night in Scotland. StAnza understands the need for page and performance poets to meet, mix, learn from each other, challenge each other. Poets need that, even though in my genre all performances are interactions, many aspects of poetry are still very solitary.

Ross Sutherland performs today at 1.00pm at The Byre Theatre, St. Andrews.

Sophia Walker and David Lee Morgan perform today at 3.30pm, The Byre Theatre, St. Andrews.

StAnza Festival runs from 5-9 March at various venues throughout St. Andrews. For a run-down of the events, workshops and performances at StAnza 2014, have a look at the full programme on the StAnza website. The Skinny has more exclusive interviews with poets and performers coming soon.