Sutherland-Smith, James (Alfred)

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Nationality: British. Born: Aberdeen, Scotland, 17 June 1948. Education: Leeds University, 1968–71, B.A. in political studies 1971; Matlock College of Education, Derbyshire, 1973–74, Postgraduate Certificate in Education (English and History); University of East Anglia, 1988–89, M.A. in Teaching English as a Foreign Language. Family: Married Viera Schlosserova; one stepdaughter. Career: Articled clerk, WH Barnes (Accountants), London, 1972–73; teacher, Priory Road Middle School, Wimbledon, London, 1974–76, Jizan Secondary School, Saudi Arabia, 1976–77; language teacher, Inlingua, London, 1977–80, Azzawiya Oil Refinery, Libya, 1980–82, National Guard Training School, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 1982–86; head of language unit, Qatar Public Telecommunications, Doha, Qatar, 1986–88; lecturer, Safarik University, Presov, Slovakia, 1989–95. Since 1995 British Council English Language Advisor, East Slovakia. Awards: Gregory award, 1978; National Poetry Competition prizes, 1982, 1983, 1986, 1987, 1989; Cheltenham Festival Poetry Competition prizes, 1982, 1986, 1988; Cardiff International Poetry Competition prize, 1992; Stand Magazine Competition prize, 1996; Exeter International Poetry Competition prizes, 1996, 1997; Bridport Literary Festival Competition prizes, 1996,1998. Address: Lesnicka 18, Solivar, 080 05 Presov, Slovakia.



Four Poetry and Audience Poets, with others. Leeds, Poetryand Audience, 1971.

A Poetry Quintet. London, Gollancz, 1976.

A Singer from Sabiya. London, The Many Press, 1979.

Naming of the Arrow. London, Salamander Imprint, 1980.

The Country of Rumour. London, The Many Press, 1984.

At the Skin Resort. Todmorden, England, Arc Publications, 1999.

Recording: Iluzie, Modry Peter, 1991.


Translator, Not Waiting for Miracles. Levoca, Slovakia, Modry Peter, 1993.

Translator, with Martin Solotruk, Tightrope Walker: Selected Poems by Jan Ondrus. Bratislava, Slovakia, Studna, 1998.

Translator, Lojko, the Alarm Clock: Some Tales for Children by Vladimir Smihula. Presov, Slovakia, Privatpress, 1999.


James Sutherland-Smith comments:

My early poetry was written under the influence of Eliot and then Robert Graves. At Leeds University I was impressed by the work and presence of Geoffrey Hill, although I think I was more inclined to imitate the poems of Roy Fuller in New Poems and Derek Mahon in Crossing the Water. Later on I discovered the poems of Osip Mandelstam and the memoirs of his widow, Nadezhda Mandelstam.

My early poetry was concerned with making striking images and making each poem sound all of a piece. Through the Penguin Modern European Poets series I understood that a poem did not have to be representational of a feeling, opinion, or scene but became more alive as an exploration of language that gradually focused feeling or thought. This occasionally made my poems difficult for English readers. An example is the sequence "Naming of the Arrow," which was inspired by a hearing of the poet Nikita Stanescu's "Elegies" in London in 1972.

From 1980 I have lived almost all the time abroad, in the Middle East and in Slovakia. I have also traveled extensively. My profession is that of a language teacher, and this combined with the need to communicate in a simplified form has made my poetry plainer. The Middle East prompted poems that attempt to deal with a failure to become part of the culture while my work of the last six years deals with the experience of the collapse of communism and how it has changed not only eastern Europe but the sensibility of a Western liberal, too.

*  *  *

Ranging across international settings clarified by their titles—from "Wandsworth Bridge" to "Swimming in the Red Sea before a Sandstorm"—James Sutherland-Smith's early poems are nevertheless curiously indefinite about their various localities, grappling instead with internal circumstances of placement and poetic self-definition. "Fantasia: London and Ocean," from his first full-length collection, A Singer from Sabiya, expresses the desire of these poems to communicate by a series of movements more visceral than those of speech: "We should have dolphin radar / Not telephones." Struggling with and against artifice to become like "Dante's pebbles," whose "nature is not hidden / By the water's polish" ("A Gift of Stones, Light and Water"), the often awkwardly burdened language of these poems pits itself against the commonplaces of English as familiar tongue and seeks to "move as if from discourse / Grimy with abuse to clarity" ("The Café in the Desert").

Sutherland-Smith's early poems search for clarity in the contradictory plenitude of ascetic abandon or search for an erotic and tactile mobility beyond the stasis of words. The results are not always clear. The horses in "Mist and Horses outside Sittingbourne," for instance, are "united / When their colour is compromised / Between light and dark in monotones / Arcane as waxy phosphorus / Sealed away in an airtight jar," and in "Bear," from Naming of the Arrow, the animal is "muzzled by largactil" (a proprietary name for chlorpromazine, a tranquilizer used in the treatment of certain mental disorders as well as for the control of vomiting). Nor are the results always erotic, as the stilted lines of "The Maiden in the Wood" bear witness to ("dancing / In the wood's taut unaltered radiance") or as the tedious recourse to figures of engorged nipples in "A Sensuous Language" testifies. Nevertheless, the struggle for a more sparse precision produces in the early poems some distinctively phrased observations, as in "Late Autumn," for instance, when "forests have shed / Their intimate vocabulary" and become "a slaughtered army or a species / Shot for its fur, strung on a wire," and force is revealed as "no more than a breeze turning / The weathervane or hands touching." By carefully considering, say, the mineral life of chalk—"the calcium slush / Of skeletons hardened and raised / Still dead" ("Chalkland")—or in attempting to articulate how "saying more means less and less" in "Brush and Ink: Some Japanese Pictures," the more successful of these poems begin to validate the ambition that motivates them and so prepare for the more precise definition of later works.

With the 1984 appearance of The Country of Rumour, Suther-land-Smith's poems are more comfortable in their observance of life—mostly Middle Eastern desert life—and more confident in their articulation. Often simpler in execution, more immediate in presentation, and less obscure in diction—even at times homely—these poems allow geographical surrounds to complement their intelligibility, rooting themselves more securely in the exotic environment of their production. The first poem, "Exile," begins, "Here there is no hardship except the worst / Which is the absence of your voice," and it ends, "Outside / The mimosa declines into blossom. / Orioles mourn in the olive groves." In the poem "In the Harbour at Leptis Magna," "An octopus unfolds like a dishcloth / Then mottles to the colour of the sand / And seagrass it undulates upon." Looking with "clear childish eyes" and coming to resemble "a kind of Zeppelin with flippers," the octopus seems to the speaker "more bird than Minerva's chipped emblem" that presides "dumb as a dead language" over the "buried two-thirds / Of this Roman monument to force." The speaker is "not detained" from entering the water, though "an Arab followed to make sure / I left with nothing which was not mine." Though still perhaps unnecessarily dense in their layers of allusion and still suffering from moments of obtuseness, these poems no longer struggle as awkwardly with their formal containers, and the collection culminates with a charmingly uncluttered series of "Sonnets from Zawai," most notable of which is the opening trilogy devoted to cooking chickens.

Later poems, which add to Middle Eastern materials a concern with affairs in eastern Europe, especially Slovakia (from whose language Sutherland-Smith has published English translations), are even more firmly rooted in observations of a foreignness. These poems appear to have lost much of the linguistic desperation attending some of their earlier counterparts, and many have matured into a grace comfortable enough to accommodate the political and social changes taking place around them or, perhaps more impressively, to accommodate cultural rhythms that persist through change. They turn to consideration of subjects like anti-Semitism, in "A New Age," or, as in "After Partition," describe listening to a radio from which "a foxtrot / Slithers out from the Thirties, a time before / Innocence became not just impossible / But absurd." From "A Snail in Istanbul" or "A Violin Playing in Cairo" to "An Execution in Riyadh" or "Wild Plums in Slovakia," the later poems open themselves to a continuance and change from which they educe a more locally intimate sense of joy and suffering. Increasingly concerned with the weight and passage of history bearing down alongside everyday occurrence, a number of these poems appear to have absorbed through local circumstance something akin to W.H. Auden's later appreciation of our complex occupancy in time, as in "Replacing Russian":

Where I ply my trade, one hundred miles west
Of what was said to be an evil empire,
A man hefts on to his shoulder a length
Of two-by-four and strolls off, his fly undone.

—Brain Macaskill

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Sutherland-Smith, James (Alfred)

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