Poetry as Product: An Interview with Sam Riviere

by Sam Buchan-Watts

Sam Riviere’s first book of poetry, 81 Austerities, won the Felix Dennis Forward Prize for Best First Collection. A new pamphlet, Standard Twin Fantasy, appeared recently from Egg Box Publishing, as part of their f.u.n.e.x series. It comprises seven pairs of poems, some of which were commissioned by AnOther magazine in 2012 to 'introduce' a set of fashion stories. Praised by the Guardian for its 'caustic glamour' and 'stylised paranoia', the pamphlet no doubt picks up where 81 Austerities left off, with its frenetic distrust of connection in a digital age of consumer capitalism. We spoke about eclipsing sources, pamphlets, notions of 'properness', and the aura that poems retain after they're reproduced.

Could you begin by talking about the compositional process of these poems, as they were originally commissioned to accompany fashion photographs. I feel that their success is in simultaneously feeling like both ekphrastic works and completely separate mini fictions.

Some of the images I worked from were shot in a well-known 1930s modernist house in Hampstead, so I went there and found the places the models had stood or sat, which was a vaguely noir-ish, creepy, fictional-seeming experience. That sense of invitation and distance was similar to the sense I got looking at the pictures I think. The poems began as readings of the images, an attempt to map out their associations. Then they were worked on until they felt sufficiently opaque and removed from their context. Visiting the locations of the shoots after they’d happened, it was obvious that in a comparable way the images had been removed from their contexts, leaving no trace, because they were only fantasies or traces themselves.

The pamphlet designer, Eric Amling, is a poet too. Did you work together closely on the design? The jacket evokes a lot for me — blurred CCTV footage, a weird rushed mall-light, or faded banknotes seen out of the corner of one’s eye, but seen at a remove, as though through a screen.

I like your associations. I think of old VHS covers too, or what you’d see if you were to hold your face a few inches above a magazine for some reason. I‘m an admirer of Eric’s collage and design work, and of course his poems so when I started to think about publishing these I emailed him and he agreed our aesthetics would complement each other.

One of your poems says: ‘She is surrounded / by references that do not touch her. Like money.’ Susan Stewart wrote about how nonsensical money is; in fact in the 19th-century one meaning of ‘nonsense’ was ‘money’, and she says that ‘like language, money is a confidence game society plays with and against itself’. Your phrase earlier on, ‘total hotel logic’, suggests a similar abstract play with capital.

Money and poetry do seem connected in obvious and obscure ways. The way money is an entirely voided symbol, like a metaphor with no target or source or something. I don’t know. It’s weird to me that the logic of things like ‘quantitative easing’ or even ‘inflation’ are just accepted, that the relative value of currency can be so open about itself and still get away with it.

There’s the adage that there’s no money in poetry and vice versa: I feel like nothing happens when poetry and money encounter each other, but maybe in an interesting way, like there’s a potency in those transactions. Money is certainly present in the originating context of the poems, but how does that value translate in the poems? Could a kind of authentic opulence be detectable? Maybe it’s just that the abstraction that occurs in the presence of money makes us want to lineate its implied value somehow, and this alerts us to its proximity or governance, even in a market as redundant as poetry.

The poems seem imagistic and noir, so particularly filmic even without the video trailer. They put me in mind of Lynch and Chandler and Dracula (whom you cite) and are disquieting because they’re deadpan. You’re playing with the idea of voice a lot — at one point your speaker declares ‘I am / the long I of the narrator, and the lengthening shadow / of the unsatisfied audience member.’ Elsewhere you use the first person plural. In other poems there’s little sight of a subject. How do you decide on, but also reconcile with, these voices?

The schema of the male gaze is obviously evoked by the subject, to the point that these photographs seemed self-consciously invested in the male gaze as an idea. That whole economy is knowingly described in the images.

As in the poems, there’s no explicit observer present, but there’s always one implied — the images instruct us about the sort of watcher we should become.

So in the poems the voice moves from an external position, through voices that seem to be speaking from within the images, and back again. This might follow how the eye moves around the image and the ways that fashion photography at once attracts and excludes a viewer. There’s also a decorum to its seductions that needs to be observed for the enterprise to retain its serious allure, to not seem ridiculous. The work of actualising a fantasy is banal labour and this is what has to be disguised in the images. In some of the poems it’s like the images themselves are observers, and in a particular way that feels true to me.

You’ve experienced first-hand the full range of UK poetry publishing, from editing anthologies of young poets while still at art school, to a limited-time subscription-only online project, to a prize-winning collection which was published by Faber. Where do pamphlets with a small run fit into this? Other than becoming shit-hot collector’s items, what can the pamphlet-form do for us that other outlets can’t?

I’d probably relate this back to poetry as a product. It seems to me that when we buy a book of poems we are not purchasing the poems exactly, but rather access to the poems. Somehow, because their reproduction is such a non-matter and the work of a moment, the poems do actually continue to exist somewhere beyond their presences in books or on a screen, and so they do retain an aura.

Which is why ‘pricing a poem’ makes so little sense. Maybe a lot of publishing doesn’t seem to consider how it might provide a text with an aesthetically appropriate channel? Pamphlets seem like a good place for experimentation in this, and can involve distinctive presentation or ephemerality. If access to a poem is a commodity then controlling that should be something that interests poets, maybe.

The majority of your published work exists now in the form of a sequence or cycle. One thing which always interested me when you introduced the Austerities poems was how you spoke about them in opposition to the ‘proper’ poems you used to write . So the implication is that your work since has been improper, which I suppose is in line with ideas of the perverse that ‘Standard Twin Fantasy’ evokes. I’m wondering if there’s a link to be made between subversion and a sequence — or a sustained concept — which operates against the established, individual ‘proper’ poem?

I like this idea, but the poem sequence must be one of the most traditional forms in existence. I like the idea of poetry as a sort of self-subverting enterprise, an art of adjustments, and I think there are more opportunities for that over a longer series. I used to find it annoying when poets like Mandelstam repeated the same lines in different poems, but I feel now that it indicates an impossible poem beyond the versions, the aim beyond the attempts. The poems in Standard Twin Fantasy are all paired up, twinned with each other, and hopefully this draws attention to the way there isn’t a primary interpretation, an ‘original’ version, and the way that these ‘readings’ have eclipsed their sources. So I suppose this might both imply and deny the model of a definitive ‘poem object’.