Q&A / Books: Sam Riviere

One of our favourite young poets hits the poetry publishing big time, as featured in the July issue of Dazed

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The Dazed Books Dept has had the rare and splendid pleasure of watching Sam Riviere emerge as one of the best young poets in the country. We first saw him read his work in the back room of a pub in south London, at a night put on by a poetry collective we love to go on about, the brilliant Clinic. Some months later we were thrilled to announce that Sam’s Faber New Poets pamphlet was one of the best of the bunch, and later, that his poetry blog was basically one of the greatest of all time. Now that blog has been immortalised in properly prestigious poetry-publishing print, as his 81 Austerities project hits the bookshops as a fully-fledged Faber & Faber collection. Sharing an imprint with total legends like Eliot, Larkin and Hughes is pretty big news, especially if you’re the first young and actually cool person to do so in absolutely ages. We caught up with Sam and talked it over...

Dazed Digital: So you did art and then ended up switching to poems: how’d that happen?
Sam Riviere: 
I’ve always been more interested in writing, but my degree involved both writing and visual art and some of the attitudes and intentions in contemporary art are attractive to me. There seems to be more acceptance of the idea that a new generation of artists will be hostile towards preceding ones, often the immediately preceding one. Until recently – with the abundance of unfiltered new writing on the internet – it’s been quite unusual to see similar sentiments in mainstream writing or the more visible types of poetry – there’s usually a sense that poets are extending what already exists, rather than antagonising it.

I started writing the Austerities pieces with the idea of somehow registering a sort of anti-tradition feeling in my own poems, initially by taking as subjects things that poetry normally suppresses in itself – the economic situation needed to produce poems, for example, or the stereotypical image of a poet

DD: Do you still do visual art?
Sam Riviere: 
I’ve worked with artists on collaborative stuff – music videos and sound-pieces – and I’m interested in doing that more. I made some ‘trailers’ when I published 81 Austerities on Tumblr, but if I have an idea that’s very visual I prefer probably to write it down rather than actually have to create it as a physical object or whatever.

DD: What is it that attracted you to writing poetry in the first place?
Sam Riviere: 
Brevity. I’m half-joking, I think. It’s appealing that you can get something close to the finished ‘product’ the same day you start working on it. It’s appealing that you can jump around when you read a book of poems rather then go from beginning to end. I usually start at the back, with the last poem. That you can read poems like this makes them more believable or something, rather than insisting on a linear narrative of recognisable-type events, which isn’t really how living feels most of the time. You jump all over the place, days repeat, you go in circles, your moods and feelings and your projections of the future are always adjusting, readjusting, rather than constantly progressing at a set pace. 

DD: How did the Austerities project come about?
Sam Riviere: 
I have a couple of ways of saying how the poems came about, but it’s far easier to construct – and believe – this sort of thing in retrospect. I’d been reading a few writers online who seemed to be attempting something different and bold and aggressively counter to an accepted notion of quality in literature – people like Audun Mortensen, Sam Pink and Megan Boyle. I started writing the Austerities pieces with the idea of somehow registering a sort of anti-tradition feeling in my own poems, initially by taking as subjects things that poetry normally suppresses in itself – the economic situation needed to produce poems, for example, or the stereotypical image of a poet. Many of the poems refuse or comically exaggerate various other attributes or assumptions around poetry. The idea that poets are ‘deep’, maybe. The casual objectifying techniques that are still the basis of many love poems. The disingenuous reluctance of most poets to think about their work in a commercial sense when ‘noncommerciality’ is perhaps a poet’s strongest selling point. And so on.

Of poets writing now, I’m excited by people like Chelsey Minnis, Ben Lerner and Jon Leon. Very self aware, funny but really dark, kind of furious and somehow heartbreaking types of poems

DD: So did you ever aspire to write ‘commercially viable’ poems?
Sam Riviere: 
I started by thinking I would probably not do anything except maybe show them to friends, and that permitted some kind of bravado or directness that I normally might not be very comfortable with. The whole austerity angle came in at some point and seemed to unify the individual pieces into a single project – the poems were all produced under ‘austere’ restrictions of subject matter and technique. As I was blogging I slowly discovered a bunch of other poets doing diverse and interesting things with poetry on the internet, which encouraged me to enlarge the project as I went.

DD: How do you feel about the poems’ transition from blog to proper Faber book? Because the blog’s been taken down because of the book, eh? And the blog was kinda cool...
Sam Riviere: Encountering them in a book rather than onscreen does alter the pieces somehow. I made some small changes because of that, but in a strange way the poems’ obvious preoccupation with screen life makes their being in a book seem kind of appropriate – it gives them a good distance from their area of production. The transition to a published book also appeared to validate or prove something about the project’s self-contradicting psychological mechanism – that modes of art which define themselves as being outside of a tradition or structure will often be quickly incorporated into that structure, via the voracity of capitalism. I’ll probably maintain the blog as a way of responding to any responses the book receives because I enjoy creating feedback loops that lead to further texts. 

DD: Are you optimistic about the role of poetry these days?
Sam Riviere: 
At this moment, poetry does seem to be more visible outside of its own world, and maybe able to connect more directly than for a while. If so, this is because of the internet; for the first time in ages, the development of language is happening in written language instead of orally. A poem is ideally suited for circulation online, and there are writers doing really innovative things within that environment, making poems using images, found text, sound, video. Where you are on the planet is also much less of an issue than it’s ever been. 

DD: How do you feel about the live performance of poetry?
Sam Riviere: 
Poetry readings can be amazing and they can be very fucking dull. Sometimes they are so dull that you leave. But you meet other poets, which is the readings’ real purpose. Events like Clinic are doing Skype readings, which is pretty exciting. The other night I watched a poet reading from a coffee shop on a sunny day in Massachusetts from a dark gallery in Peckham at 10pm. You could see cars going past behind her, people coming in and out of shot. Another guy read and his mouth was out of sync with his words, the sound cut in and out, but it was cool – it dramatised the difficulty of communication. Overall though, the best readings are when there is a variety of writers and they read for a short amount of time.

DD: Who are the living poets you most admire these days? Are there any whose careers you’d particularly like to emulate?
Sam Riviere: 
It might be a bad plan to emulate the ‘careers’of most poets. There’s a higher level of suicide and depression among poets than practitioners any other art form, I read somewhere. Of poets writing now, I’m excited by people like Chelsey Minnis, Ben Lerner and Jon Leon. Very self aware, funny but really dark, kind of furious and somehow heartbreaking types of poems. They’re all American and very different from each other. Over here there’s some really good work emerging: Emily Berry, Oli Hazzard, Jack Underwood. Some more established UK names might be Matthew Welton, Kate Kilalea, Luke Kennard. They’re all fantastic.

Photos by Pedro Koechlin

This interview featured in the September issue of Dazed & Confused

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