Sam Riviere co-edits the anthology series Stop Sharpening Your Knives, and was a recipient of a 2009 Eric Gregory Award. His first poetry pamphlet was published by Faber in 2010 under the Faber New Poets scheme.
When did you start writing? Were you conscious of a point where you started writing poetry in particular?
I went to New Zealand then Australia for a couple of years in my teens/early twenties and spent a lot of time keeping a sort of journal/scrapbook thing that remorselessly documented my experiences. I'm not really sure why. When I stopped moving around so much over there I kept writing, but the it became...weirder, more speculative or something, and less about me. I went to art school when I came back to the UK and started writing and reading poems, mainly because of the people I met there. I think the brevity of the form appealed to me.
You're someone who has followed the academic line in terms of writing -- and engaging with writing -- right through to your PhD; what do you feel these experiences have given you in particular?
I find it quite difficult to imagine doing anything else. I tried for a while to follow other kinds of work, but I didn't really get along there. I think 'academia' might be misunderstood by some of people (perhaps wilfully), in a literature context it more or less means having the opportunity of doing what you want to do. I don't understand why you would want to turn it down. Obviously your work has to be justified, somehow put in context, but 'academia' isn't really going to force you to compromise your position. If anything it helps you create a position, which you may not have realised was something you didn't consciously have. But isn't that part of why you do it (write) anyway? Any arts institution should welcome challenges to the definition of what it does, and in practice you are dealing with individuals who are interested and involved in that whole process anyway. It has given me time I guess, and let me hope that doing stuff like this is worth it, viable even. Plus the option not to get to work a crappy job all week. (for now)
It's interesting you talk about 'academia' not forcing you to compromise your position, do you think that is becoming increasingly less likely with the current political climate?
I remember talking to Steven Fowler last year [http://www.maintenant.co.uk] about how it wasn't difficult to imagine a world where what a lot of people are currently doing wouldn't be possible... that world does seem to have at least partially materialised with the emergence of the details of the cuts etc. It's difficult for me to tell what is actually happening on the level of infrastructure or what have you, as the information and its variables seem almost infinitely open to interpretation. There's a sense that some of this is 'for show' I think, that it is not in reality a decisive move either way. I really don't know. It's clear that it will be harder to get funding for stuff, and there's a sort of defensive, severe mood in which it sounds churlish to complain about anything like that, when health services etc are being cut. But that sort of dismissal probably shouldn't be accepted. There's the argument too that periods like this are 'good' for art... but this also comes at it from a weird pov, saying that 'good art' can only come out of overtly oppressive/deprived situations, when surely the challenge is to respond to that, and maybe question how those relations/economic truths might be being disguised. Perhaps to be in a self-described period of 'austerity' means that the decision to make art, knowing that it is going to be financially non-viable, is a more overtly political one. Perhaps it's even easier to find the necessary friction any art needs to have with the situation of its production. That's kind of the subject of some of the more recent poems, the perverse notion that 'squeezing' the arts is in fact productive, as it will incite work that is more relevant or something. But in fact this atmosphere probably allows for more lazy categorisations of art, and gives an audience permission to view everything alongside that spectrum. It would seem like a good idea, wouldn't it, for a society to support art, which it depends on to some extent in order to market itself globally, and makes life bearable for its population. Those countries, especially in Scandinavia, that really support things in this way seem to generate work/viewpoints that are both more critical and sophisticated that what's generally represented here. It's about 5-10 years ahead. Art in any case is not about to deny its relation to capital, and in fact it seems it is by examining this relationship that much contemporary art finds its 'friction'. The fact that art can only exist to the extent it has capital behind it, shows the relationship between money and meaning is, well, more than a relationship. I think there's potential for gestures in that direction within the notoriously 'deprived' poetry market, and a sense of other solutions emerging, probably using the internet, where poetry production and consumption is thriving, incorporating other mediums into itself, embracing the arbitrariness of how we encounter text in this domain.
Which writers do you see as an influence?
Isn't everything you read/encounter an influence? I mean you just react in different ways. I'd have answered this more directly a couple of years ago. There are obviously poets who were really important to me when I started writing poems. I basically stole their machines, the mechanisms of their poems, their bicycles, and put my own stuff on them. I still love these guys, Hugo Williams, Michael Hofmann, especially. Then the NY school was a big deal too, discovering that being spontaneous, trusting your associations, declaring certain things or feelings outright, was in some ways more interesting (not to mention fun) than continuing the sort of discreet post-Movement thing that still more or less predominates here. I remember Tim Cockburn and me writing these shapeless extravagant poems full of exclamation marks and calling it Dolce Stil Novo. I'd say I'm more concerned now with being influenced against styles, to try and find some kind of no-style. A lot of poems you see seem to be going round on other people's bicycles. People whose bicycles you recognise. Once you spot the bicycle, you're less bothered about who's riding it... I mean some of these bikes are pretty old. Which is fine. But it would be sweet to see a new bicycle sometimes.
When you say 'no-style' do you mean something that actively resists 'style'? It seems that you work still seems guided by a degree of aesthetic restriction, rather than, say, a wilful excess of language or content.
People always say that content (should) determines style, but a lot of content seems more or less arbitrary or interchangeable, once we can point to the poem's model. In a way, it becomes about choices to do with content, how discreet you are about what you mean or feel. This process of selection from easily available materials is something I'm quite interested in. Some blogs etc demonstrate really that this approach (of making choices about inclusion and aggregation) rather than being dilution of a genuinely 'creative' work, actually reveal what is really going on. Accepting that basic sense of incompletion feels honest to me. To try and accept it when writing a poem means that style becomes an inevitable result of composition rather than something deliberate.
At the moment your showcasing a couple of new poems at readings that you say are part of an 'austerity' series, I wonder if you could expand a bit on the thought process surrounding them?
Yep. I started a series or project late last year called 'Austerities' or '81 Austerities'. I had been reading a lot of poetry online that seemed to be doing something new, pretty detached from the tradition I'm most familiar with. Flat, sometimes overtly 'personal', often completely devoid of metaphor. I started to think about how personal experience could *be* a metaphor, which is something everyone is instinctively aware of probably, and I suppose why 'confessional' stuff works if it does. Some of this work seemed to have more in common with conceptual art than the avant garde in poetry ...Kind of sly, contrary, but never simply sarcastic or smart, or even ironic, though arguably it creates/permits the possibility of that reading. More a suspended ambivalence about everything, which seemed to tie in to other things I had been thinking about to do with personal experience generally and responding to/being implicated in broader situations. That hesitation could be the only appropriate reaction, and could be somehow potent as well. I thought I could see a way to use what I like about 'straight' British poetry (which is often overtly/implicitly autobiographical), in a far more open field that would constantly undermine all those 'normal' assumptions you make when reading 1st person poems. Anyway I wrote the first 20 or so mainly amusing myself, thinking that would be it, but the difference in my attitude or intention made all sorts of things possible I wouldn't have attempted usually. For some reason it helped having them all in one document, feeling I could take or leave them as I liked, or have two or three goes at an idea one after the other. I guess the assumption at the outset was to write from a basically counter-'poetic' standpoint, about things you don't write poems about -- arts funding, poetry, private jokes, porno, the pure anecdote. But the whole 'austerity measures' correlation crept in quite quickly, giving it something maybe more genuine to orientate itself around, and that's how I've been prefacing the poems at readings - 'the cuts' applied to actual poems on the level of subject matter/sentiment. It’s a passive/aggressive kind of logic, but maybe a valid response. Exactly what the response might be isn’t really straightforward and is constantly deferred or contradicted via the other stories/characters in the poems. I had a list of themes, a working order -- I like the idea of writing by numbers, like a production line, and for this methodology to permeate on every level of the poems, too -- so the line breaks are arbitrary to the extent they simply organise the lines visually rather than for rhythm/sense. Often they work against that in fact, at its 'expense'. After a while it became about celebrating the surface of poems, depriving them of depth, or to point out that illusion -- explicitly denying there's anything else, and kind of proving that ‘reduction’ by having the surfaces resist and ride against each other. You are always being invited/commanded to pull in other texts through reference or allusion to lay a poem on anyway, so why not be upfront or even aggressive about that, so a reader's aware of having to do it. I didn't write about 15% of the material that makes up the series, but all choosing to do that did was make me appreciate the extent to which I didn't really write any of it, but organised it. I kind of want to see the poems as advertisements for a product that will never really come into being. I guess this might be a perverse sort of identification with the culture that poetry is traditionally pitted against, maybe drawing attention to/criticising those modes of communication while simultaneously enjoying using them, quite a lot. Hence making the video trailers and so on. In some way the fact a poem exists at all is proof that it is 'autobiographical' on an absolute level. Like when Linh Dinh says 'how can a poem / Not be confessional, similar to Bruce Lee // In a house of mirrors?' It seemed important to take that risk seriously, despite the playfulness, to make every statement totally earnest as well. I suppose the effect should at least be faintly discomfiting. The series appears in nine instalments of nine poems here from May: http://austerities.tumblr.com/
A number of poems ('Poems', 'Observation of a Neanderthal Colony', 'Myself Included') in your Faber pamphlet seem explicitly engaged with ideas of the recording or capturing a moment, do you see parallels with your own writing? And if yes, then do you see your work as autobiography?
The pieces you pick out (esp. 'Myself Included') are probably the most obvious precursors for what I'm attempting now, in that they are quite self-aware about documenting experience, and anxious about the always relative success/failure of trying to do that. Also they're about spotting moments in life that have a familiarity about them from fiction, that declare themselves 'ripe' for a poem. And then of course simultaneously bringing in doubts about whether it ever happened like that, if there's any value in such a feeling anyway, or if it indicates a stagnant type of perception, an experiential backwater. And if there's anything else one can do other than admit an awareness of fictional/narrative models results in a kind of 'impoverishment', or sensation of life being vaguely unoriginal, or if those limits can be appropriated and widened/altered perceptibly. I think it's normal now to be interested in the fallibility of memory and how certain things are emphasised to give the illusion of coherence. For anyone who has been to art school/studied language anyway. I guess language is probably the act of doing this. There doesn't seem to be a way around that, so why not be an agent of the construction, its author, much in the way a company actively constructs an identity/brand. I feel that there's a risk there. Maybe I would want to move away from limiting that material to what is ostensibly part of an individual experience, to something more plural and inclusive, using whatever writing and images I am drawn to, that might be seen, like personal experience, as simply the closest material to hand. When I was growing up my Dad worked as a photographer, and he had a darkroom in a lean-to on the side of the house. I was pretty fascinated by that space, its dim red bulb, the enlarger which would lay out black and white images below it, the primordial smell of chemicals, the prints slopping around in trays. It seemed kind of like the backstage of everyday reality, where the whole thing was manufactured.
This bit interests me “I think it's normal now to be interested in the fallibility of memory and how certain things are emphasised to give the illusion of coherence. ” - I think people tend to be a lot more comfortable with this as a concept in contemporary culture. That plurality of meaning seems to exist in a much more immediate sense through things like the internet, and the sheer diversity of how our information comes to us now. It strikes me that some of what you are expressing within 'austerities' is about disrupting traditional modes of rigid and definitive interpretation with regards to the poem. Do you think that's the case?
In terms of the writing process and re-drafting, do you find yourself using a certain formula or does it vary?
I really try not to think about it. I sometimes write it out in one go, sometimes from notes, but I guess it would have been gestating for a while in either case. Then I leave it for a bit and look at it again, and change it however much I feel it needs/I want it to change. They may sometimes take a while to happen, but adjustments are normally made.