Reviews Performance Published 27 February 2012

81 Austerities

Toynbee Studios ⋄ 23rd February 2012

Poetry in the digital age.

Carmel Doohan

Poetry is often seen as an art form set apart, protected from the cruder world of advertising and self promotion. Publishing on his Austerities blog, incorporating his stats into his stanzas and posting his re-tweets as poetry, Sam Riviere is trying to find a way of being authentic about this inauthenticity.

At Toynbee Studios, he recites a poem that reads like a shipping forecast of literary criticism. Comprised of a tutor’s one line comment on each poem – good, okay, we’ve heard this idea before, nice rhythm – it reveals the work lurking behind the myth of inspiration. Poetry is shown as calculated word-smithery; like everything else, poems are made to create a certain response.

81 Austerities refers to the eighty-one poems Riviere posted daily on his blog, poems looking at the politics and aesthetics of selection and communication. In keeping his work short and digestible for the screen, he applies notions of austerity directly to language. Throughout his work and its presentation, there is a theoretically rigorous play between form, method, content and delivery. He insists that the confessional nature of poetry, perhaps like social media itself, comes not from the content but from the very act of noticing, recording and sharing. It is a confessional form irrespective of content; what you see and don’t see, what you see as important enough to comment on is inherently revealing. Echoing the information overload of the web, decisions about what to cut and which words will achieve which effect are often discussed as a stream of consciousness within the poems. Yet these notions of value and visibility are not only revealing, they are political – and by disclosing his methodology, Riviere alerts us to the absence of any similar level of transparency within policy making.

Despite the political engagement, his subjects are deeply personal: microscopic, observational and neurotic. We have his musings on pornography- all day I have been watching women/ crush ripe tomatoes on their cleavage; past girlfriends – we will appear at the wedding/ of people we don’t care about/ our faces radiant from fucking; and funding opportunities – in three years I have been awarded/ £48,000 by various funding bodies. As he samples, borrows and nods to the world that his poetry inhabits, new references take the place of familiar allusions to myth and the classics. Self referential and knowing, these poems operate in a niche, building a new language of exclusion; forget your knowledge of the Greeks, if you haven’t been watching the right crap TV or surfing the right pornography you’re not going to get this.

Joined by Steve Fowler from 3am magazine (slogan: whatever it is, we’re against it), they speak about the necessity for friction. Now on a funded PhD at UEA, Riviere can no longer see himself as a struggling poet, writing against the odds. He speaks of the paralysis this has caused and how the daily blogging of poems about this very problem was how the project began. He used this contradiction and the backlash of guilt caused by his collusion with the establishment, to generate more writing. All is sucked back in, re-described and re-incorporated. Like the internet or capitalism itself, everything becomes grist for the mill of his poetry.

Very aware of his cult appeal, he has created video adverts for himself on You Tube, asking what is satire worth now if it can also function as a successful marketing tool? The more derisive his poems are about publishing, the media or poetry itself, the more successful they seem to be. His poems about poems appear in papers, ‘gated off’ in their boxes, the newspaper and the poem both equally uncomfortable by the coupling.

Rainer Maria Rilke wrote that “doubt can become a good quality if you train it. It must become knowing, it must become criticism… attentive and persistent…it will become one of your best workers.” and Riviere’s piercing and fierce desire for honesty is like a re-working of this idea for the internet age; in searching out the contradictions and deceptions of his medium, form and feelings his poems attempt to distill the noise and clamor of social media into something more reflective. Each line is interrogated by the next until there is a moment of something like peace. In a testament to his talent for rhythm and structure, each poem feels resolved, even when its subject is the impossibility of resolution. After showing us the lies held in sentiment, how it can convince us and how it can trick us, he then returns to his starkly observed specifics, tearing each thought into beautiful html shreds.

Carmel Doohan

Carmel is an arts journalist and writer who lives in Hackney, London.

81 Austerities Show Info

Produced by Penned in the Margins

Written by Sam Riviere

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