Emergency Window, By Ross Sutherland - Features - Books - The Independent

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Emergency Window, By Ross Sutherland

Oh my, what big conceits you have

Performance poetry doesn't always enjoy a good reputation, but the UK has a scene of genuinely exhilarating young writers who can stand and deliver. Ross Sutherland is a leading light, his work bounding across poetry, comedy and the theatre. But does it translate to the page?

He is clearly driven by an interest in form, and plays with page conventions in Emergency Window as much as he does with stage conventions in his shows. That said, some poems are essentially extended jokes. "Liverish Red-Blooded Riffraff Hoo-ha" retells the story of Little Red Riding Hood using an Oulipo constrained writing technique, replacing a word with the one 23 after it in the dictionary. When performed, the building anticipation makes it very funny, with cute coincidences leading to lines such as "Oh, Great Britain, what horribly big MPs you have!" Written down, it's a little laboured.

Emergency Window is very Generation Y. This is a poet who, on almost every page, engages with modern technology – which has seen its own explosion of new forms. A sonnet series inspired by Street Fighter II, complete with SNES instruction manual footnotes, is comically nerdy yet compelling. "Poem Looked Up on Google Streetview" rewrites itself, the words crossed out like the programme's shifting images, the technology an effective metaphorical way into the lonely anonymity of both city living and the internet age.

Least effective is a series called "The National Language". Sutherland fed eight poems by writers including Plath, Milton and Yeats through a computer language translator 100 times, editing them into new works. It reads like a stoned English student's procrastination project, and without the originals reprinted alongside, any resonance or sense of transformation is muted.

Elsewhere are lucid observations, smart conceits and insight into the contemporary world as a fragmented, self-constructed thing. "You Made Something of Yourself" uses Lego bricks as an extended metaphor for a banker with "acumen for what-clicks-to-what"; "Staples" and "The Prison Librarian" explore the limits of poetry's truthfulness. "The Path Made Straight", on not getting a brace, is self-contained and satisfying, celebrating the "crooked, perfect record" of a British smile – and a crooked, slightly knowing, smile is what much of Emergency Window prompts.

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