Lawrence makes a useful couple of points in respect of the
Independent obit, which I append in its entirety for those unable to
access it (and for those who will spot some of its inaccuracies and
more lurid teasing). The article was accompanied by a mugshot
captioned 'Sumner: zany presence'. This is an unfortunate
sub-editorial gloss as Lawrence makes clear. The piece also tends to
foreground the 'Waves . . .' book, an outstanding piece of work
though it is, and Lawrence's urging to read him more widely than that
is worth underlining. Read the range and take in his editorial input
for Riding The Meridian and Masthead and Performing Arts Journal to
gain some small measure of the energies and interests and commitments
that have been lost.
"Though the breakers are large and powerful far out, well before they
reach the beach they are ripples over the water and sometimes unbreak
becoming dark lines on the shimmering surface."
Alaric Sumner's quiet, meditative work 'Waves on Porthmeor Beach' was
a diary interspersing prose and poetry. A collaboration with Sandra
Blow, whose drawings were integral to the text, Waves won the Renato
Giorgi Poetry Award in 1998.
Porthmeor Beach faces the Atlantic at St Ives in Cornwall. This
location was cathartic for Sumner after personal difficulties caused
a long artistic invisibility. He became Writer in Residence (1995-96)
at Tate St Ives; and died at St Ives, suddenly, after a short,
undiagnosed illness, 11 days after his 48th birthday.
'Waves on Porthmeor Beach' (1995) and 'Voices (for 9)', performed at
the Royal Court Theatre, London, in 1994 gained immediate attention.
Thereafter Sumner's range as crossart collaborator and poet-performer
increased and his reputation soared.
Performance Writing students at Dartington College of Arts, where he
has taught since 1996, appreciated his zany, manic presence. He would
wheel Sellotaped books in a tartan shopping trolley to lessons,
designer vest exposing his nipples, badge announcing "I'm Gay Too".
He possessed a darting humour (an infectious giggle) and meticulous,
if absent-minded memory. Childlike and delicate, he had suffered
loneliness, rejection and aggression.
His parents met at the Government Codes and Ciphers School at
Bletchley Park. During the Second World War they decoded messages
from the Japanese navy. Then they settled in South Africa, where his
father was Classics lecturer at Rhodes University. Alaric was born
there; then his parents separated. His mother Rosemary, took Alaric
to England. She taught at A.S. Neil's progressive school Summerhill.
He became a "cottage kid", joining older children for lessons. He
either participated or lay down in his pram to sleep. He developed a
close and receptive relationship with his mother. She set him
exercises sampling texts: one motif of his later intertextual
He studied at East 15 Acting School, in London. To accept roles
arbitrarily didn't interest him, so he wrote play he could direct and
perform in. Bob Cobbing's workshops at the Poetry Society facilitated
a blossoming for experimental performance. He printed 'Excavations
and Imstanit Mash' (1976) at its print shop and published Henri
Chopin, alongside Paul Buck and Dom Sylvester Houedard, at "words
Sumner counselled at Gay Switchboard. He embraced Glam and
cross-dressing. After a volatile relationship his health broke down
and for 14 years he worked as a typesetter. He saw linotype replaced
by electronic page make-up and understood both mediums. He took an MA
in Theatre Studies at Leeds University and wrote 'Waves on Porthmeor
In 1995 "words worth" published Carlyle Reedy's 'Obituaries and
Celebrations'. Reedy too had abandoned performance work in the 1980s.
When Sumner restarted, he referred to her work and developed some of
her procedures. Sumner was a compelling and confrontational
performer, in works that were visceral and eloquent. He was integral
to recent experimental performance and the upsurge of public interest
in it. His time had come.
Michael Finnissy composed music for 'Conversation in Colour', a
theatre piece, in 1996. In 1998 Sumner collaborated on 'The
Unspeakable Rooms' with Rory McDermott. This travelled to American
festivals. In 1999 'Nekyia', a collaboration with Joe Hyde, for
speaker, singer and video, toured to Rotterdam, Oslo, Montreal and
At Dartington Sumner flourished, specialising in live writing
treatment and collaborative methodology. his approach to individual
students seemed holistic. "You didn't expect it to be easy did you?"
his catchphrase. Now his green Apollo bicycle stays chained to a
railing at work. The walls of a classroom are covered with messages
from student and writers. John Cayley asked;
'Who should I remember him to if not himself? . . .Since now all I
can make of him is what I remember or what you tell me, rather than
what I would never have been able to know of him and al he made or
may have made.' [Nicholas Johnson]