Maintenant #13 – Sam Riviere
‘I get drunk and give myself a haircut’
an interview with Sam Riviere by SJ Fowler
Sam Riviere is a cause for optimism. English, a poet, regarded by the poetry mainstream and yet methodologically and textually unbound, he is an engaging and articulate force in what has become yet another reductive grouping of British ‘young / new’ poets. Winner of an Eric Gregory award, graduate of the Royal Holloway poetic practise MA course, co-founder of Stop/Sharpening/Your/Knives and selected for the Faber & Faber pamphlet scheme, he has been heralded for his colloquial, narrative poetic output. Behind the reception is an urbane, assured and intellectual poet and theorist, one who will no doubt resonate on the poetry scene for years to come. For 3:AM he speaks to SJ Fowler.
3:AM: Often your poems are in the first person tense which presents the appearance of a personal narrative, though they rarely appear confessional or self reflective in the most concrete sense. Do you deliberately use this as a device to create a context in which the reader has assumptions subverted or is it a naturalistic methodology?
Sam Riviere: It’s sort of both, I think. In the tradition of lyric poems there’s often an assumption, for better or worse, that the ‘I’ of the poem is contiguous with the name on the front of the book. Though it’s true a lot of poets use personas or invented speakers, this usually has to be made clear early-ish in the poem – and still, the poet is always ‘in’ the text of the poem whether this is admitted or not. So it seems to me that you can’t have it purely one way or the other. If an insistence on a naturalistic approach, – ‘I’ is unambiguously me, the poet – is problematic (as we know a poem is a construct, dependent on selection, omissions, exaggerations, etc), if there is anxiety about it (and I suppose how can there not be) then a reader is alert to this. One of the first contemporary poets I really got into is Hugo Williams, who’s at once very upfront and very playful about using himself as the protagonist of his poetry. He admits in the poems to making a lot of it up, leaving things out, but insists too on their basic adherence to reality. It’s a flirtation with the reader – you do believe in it, but you also sort of defer this belief. In a way it doesn’t matter, as the belief happens on a different level, with a voice, and the fiction is part of the bigger sense of reality.
On the other hand, it can be hard to take at face value a totally convincing fictional ‘voice’ or ‘character’ poem – at the same time we’re on the lookout for the emotional grain or whatever at the core of it, which must have been somehow transmuted from experience. So the assumption you set up is always being tested against another assumption – if I present it as real, you know that elements of it are fiction, and vice versa. This becomes important only when, as in Williams, these ideas about fiction and honesty, discretion, or whatever, are the subject of the poetry. I like it when Lacan says (something like) ‘reality has the structure of fiction’ – I like poems about life discovering itself among certain co-ordinates, details, decisions, that are familiar from fiction, from fantasy. So I think it’s important to try and deviate from, to destabilize these expectations in the poems. Quite often the subject of a poem might be the voice itself, its uncertainty, its need to convince itself, and I find it interesting to use existing, familiar styles of discourse to try and get at what a voice is doing, why it is speaking in that situation. I suppose the ‘I’ is sometimes obviously not me, and sometimes not so obviously.
3:AM: Your work often appears highly descriptive, it picks open acute details of the subject. When read this offers a very specific rhythm to the reader, traces remain from the reading of the poems, fugitive images are resonant and this changes upon continued readings. Again, is this a deliberate action?
SR: A sense of reality is what helps me engage with a poem, and you get this through description. To pin down the feel of a thing or place is not an easy task, and I guess if something is treated with this intensity it suggests there is an important reason for doing so. There’s the idea that an emotional state can be transcribed through external details. I think images can have agency in themselves, which comes through if they’re properly positioned and ordered in a poem, and the effect of this isn’t something you can really achieve in any other way that I know of. Writing is communication isn’t it, and I’ve always liked writing that is generous with detail, so that’s probably why I attempt it myself. Some of this is to do with finding the right mode of writing, which allows you to be expansive with description, when it is appropriate or necessary. There has to be a reason for drawing attention to a detail, even if the connection isn’t immediately apparent. Sometimes perhaps you are drawn to something and the writing is a way of discovering that connection.
3:AM: The construction of your work clearly careful but undoubtedly there is also a freedom of construction that is apparent, especially in the use of expression that is fundamental to your poetry. Do you allow words to set in your poems for the flow of the poem and rhythm of the entire work, or is each word scrutinised intensely?
SR: I like spontaneity but I like measured-ness, if I can call it that, as well. Sometimes I think it’s to do with tone, not wanting to be too high-minded and straight-faced, too sane, and equally not wanting to be facile or anecdotal or bland. So you try and be neither by having ingredients of both. A colloquial aside, a change in register, can deflate something that’s becoming too sentimental or self-important, and a lyrical detail can elevate something that’s starting to sound stale or familiar. If you’re using a certain way of speaking, these things suggest themselves through rhythm and just getting a feel for a voice. I guess I have an idea of the direction but not precisely where it’s going or how I’ll get there. But it’s all very subtle and hard to calibrate and easy to get wrong– sort of a process of judging the next step ahead of you by what’s come before; a bit like walking on a frozen pond, if it creaks you go the other way.
3:AM: Is your writing process writing? Do you work over many drafts or leave poems as they have been written?
SR: It really varies. Sometimes I redraft a lot, over months or longer, and you can draft something out of existence, or end up keeping just a fragment of the thing, which you use later in something different. Very occasionally a poem comes out and it’s quite close to fully formed– that’s not usually the case, but those are the extremes. I like the impulsiveness in the New York poets especially and at the moment I’d take something that feels alive and genuinely-felt over something that has been painstakingly crafted and sounds like it. I sometimes feel the poetry in the British mainstream tends towards minimalism, and there’s a strand of it that can’t really be taken much further. My first goes at poems were all very short, anxious bunches of lines, and I swung away from that at some point to something that felt looser and more natural to me.
3:AM: You have clearly achieved a significant measure of success within the poetry community, the process of expedience in this regard interests me. I’m interested too in your opinion of the process of magazine and competition submissions, awards. Is there deficencies in the way poetry is brought to the fore, or do you think there are ample opportunities for young poets to have their work recognised if it is of quality?
SR: No-one writes poems for the financial rewards or social status or teenage adoration (unless it’s a very moderate sort!), so I guess it’s an exception among other art forms in that sense. Also if you write poems you’re immune to an extent from certain pressures that a filmmaker or conceptual artist at a similar stage might encounter– and you only need a pen or a word processor to get on with it. But of course that doesn’t mean there aren’t other, equally dubious, criteria in poetry used to assess what’s happening and who deserves what. There are trends and imbalances as there are in the worlds around any art form, and some of what happens is up to those who are already well-known as authorities and practitioners. So there’s that. But it’s also a good deal smaller than other communities that spring up around art forms (I’m desperately avoiding the words ‘creative’ and ‘industry’), and it’s not hard to go to a poetry reading and meet a poet you admire there. Like any other artistic pursuit it’s kind of up to you to put yourself out there somehow, in magazines, readings, online or whatever. That is if you want to. It’s unlikely to come to you, simply because there isn’t any motivation for someone to hunt out a twenty-something poet living in a medium sized English city, no matter how staggering your talent is. I have been lucky in that I had encouragement from a couple of established poets fairly early on, and although I am not very adept at mingling at readings and those sort of events, I know a couple of people who are, so I can just stand next them and say something witty or insightful in the unlikely event it occurs to me.
3:AM: What effect did your studies at Royal Holloway have on your work, both critically, how it was able to be disseminated, and contextually, how you went about writing?
SR: I found that the MA accelerated my work rate, and I went through a couple of phases in six months that might have happened over about four times that amount of time. It shakes you up, I guess, and you’re in a room with other people taking it seriously, so in a way it gives you permission to be more focused on what you want to do. You also get a sense of where you might fit in (or not) among other writers, and that helps you decide what you should be doing, what sort of thing you might be better at. As far as my practice of writing goes, I was more or less up and running by then. It did get me to question an approach that I was perhaps becoming too comfortable with though.
3:AM: The Eric Gregory award was clearly a highlight, as it would be for any young British poet, how did the process come about? Has it noticeably effected your reputation?
SR: Well I got asked to do a few more readings, and you’re aware that people are more aware of you. It certainly helps, and things come from it that wouldn’t probably come your way otherwise.
3:AM: Could you give me a history of your involvement with Stop / Sharpening / Your / Knives?
SR: I set up Stop/Sharpening/Your/Knives with Jack Underwood in 2005, while we were both at what was then called the Norwich School of Art and Design. We were originally going to do a one-off pamphlet for those of us writing poetry for the final work of our degrees (in Cultural Studies), but about a year later I met Nathan Hamilton (of Eggbox publishing) who helped us get some Arts Council money and we decided to do another one. It sort of slowly gathered pace and we’re working on the 4th anthology now, so its turned into an almost-annual publication. Most of the contributors are previously unpublished, and we conceived of it as a platform for writers and illustrators before they have a book, or another podium or mark of success like that. It’s a print-only publication on quite a limited run. The idea is to catch people around their point of emergence, an impression of what’s happening at that time.
3:AM: The Faber pamphlet scheme has been both praised and criticised in notable measure. Regardless it is clearly an extremely buoyant step for your work, how did the selection of your participation in the scheme come to pass?
SR: The process was quite lengthy, but basically I was nominated for it by one of the scouts selected by Faber, and I then submitted a manuscript of poems which went to a panel of judges.
3:AM: At time it appears that when pushing a poet without a grand track record of publication, prizes or extraordinary biographical notes, publishers or organisations will use youth a selling point for poets, almost a form of currency to show how the poet is evolving or to show what they have achieved at such an age or other. Do you think this is inevitable, positive or negative? Do you think it is true at all, that youth is a cache of some kind?
SR: Of course, young is more exciting, sexier, newer, fresher and better than old! It’s the same with everything isn’t it. What the kids are doing is invariably more seductive, for all of those reasons. However I’m 28: I am not ‘young’ in any other context. The bodies that exist to invoke and channel funding around poetry are partly to blame for the embarrassing way this marketing side of things is sometimes handled, with the aim of ‘invigorating’ the poetry ‘scene’. These initiatives quite often have the reverse effect, and can make the poetry world look a bit desperate. I think the audience is there. It always will be, if poetry does what it does. Also a lot of these promotions exist purely to keep the funding flowing, and that side of it does get pretty weird, where there are these organisations which endlessly secure and allocate funding, so as to perpetuate themselves. But at the same time it’s not hard to imagine a world without any of this support for art, and in such a world what I’m doing wouldn’t be possible. People also like the idea that there’s something new happening, a movement or what have you, and so yes it might be inevitable that younger poets feature more in these sort of enterprises and articles. And there does appear to be a kind of upsurge currently in poets around my age. There’s not yet much sense of separation from the generation who now constitute the establishment, but I think there are signs of this happening. The climate now is different, more active, from where I’m sitting, compared to even three or four years ago. It’s good to be able to say that many of the poets I am really excited about were born a few years before of after me.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
SJ Fowler is a postgraduate student of philosophy at the University of London and a poet. He is also an employee of the British Museum. In addition to interviewing leading European poets, he is curating the forthcoming Maintenant reading series.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, May 9th, 2010.