7th Jun 2018
I write poetry books (/other books), and publish chapbooks/pamphlets ‘typically of procedural or appropriated writing’ by other people via a small publishing project, If A Leaf Falls Press. I am somewhat interested in the formal properties of the book – almost like a poetic form, and the transformative effects it can have on content. I’ve been learning bookbinding. The coffee is nice, thanks :)
I was tricked into writing poetry, in 2002. I was 21.
I’ve made or commissioned trailers for most of my books since the first full-length, 81 Austerities. Invoking the commercial sphere in this way is something I picked up from the art world probably, though this kind of usage has become quite automatic and maybe unreflective in that context. As if promotion is simply appropriate. That is not the appeal of the form for me, which is to more do with the suppressed symmetrical qualities of poetry and advertising (brevity, image, etc.) But mainly it seemed funny to create advertisements for a poetry book. Vulgar, almost. The value of poetry is traditionally not measured from an economic standpoint, and there’s a deep aversion to this possibility in the poetry sector (I’ve written about this at length elsewhere*). At first making the trailers validated something, which is that poetry of course still trades in forms of capital, and with a market logic, although it works hard to obfuscate this. The trailers are composed of indirect visual references from the poems, and the majority of the content is found.
*Unlike: Forms of Refusal in Poetry on the Internet (2011, Pool Journal)
The title Safe Mode refers to the ‘miniature or parallel’ operating system a computer boots into when it has a serious problem, and most functions are disabled. I found this appealing at some point as an analogy for a novel: as a sort of miniaturised, simplified, symbolised version of life. A crisis is implied, which remains ambiguous – Safe Mode ‘runs’ in order to determine the cause. In this sense it’s the reader’s problem! ‘Safe Mode’ could also be an allusion to the genre of fiction more generally – as it’s ‘not real’, there’s a concept of safety underwriting it, as a mode of expression. This is a legal matter – you know, like the disclaimers you get at the front of some novels: ‘any resemblance to actual persons living or dead…’? I’m interested in what fiction as a category does to writing that identifies itself as such. I could have published the book as a poetry collection, for instance. An idea I like at the moment is of fiction as an aggressive form, basically emerging out of capitalism, which re-territorializes earlier modes of writing that have been emptied out or killed off – folk traditions, epic poetry, tall tales, mythologies – using them as part of a cultural colonizing project, where everything is ‘locked down’. The legal status of fiction makes it clear it’s connected to systems of governance and law. Somehow, earlier societies didn’t need this category to understand different sorts of rhetoric and narrative. Safe Mode uses a lot of content found online, and the open-ended status of these kinds of texts is curious I think. Product reviews that could easily be faked, automated tarot readings, regional guides synthesized from multiple sources. I suspect that the mode in which we encounter a text to an extent determines our reception of it.
E.g. the importance of something as ‘real’ or ‘fictional’ only finds its full meaning in a legal context, when deception is a factor. (Sidepoint but many of the first novels were presented, misleadingly, as journalism, which is also the stylistic root of modern fiction – the ‘objective’ angle). And yet we read alongside this binary almost all the time (‘any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead...’), without thinking about the enormous logistical labour of forcing text to cohere with ‘reality’, or vice versa (a.k.a. the law). Or, inversely, to not cohere with it at all (the claim of fiction is explicitly that it does not represent reality). It’s such a weird fully artificial division that’s culturally completely naturalised at this point. It seems to me that this deprives language of possible meanings that aren’t covered by those two domains (like the meaning of a rumour, or a dream – it not being ‘real’ needn’t subtract any authority from it). So the novel relocates some of this kind of content to an aesthetic field, alongside more traditionally produced ‘personal’ writing. I wanted to think about the limits of an authorial voice, like to what extent a stylistic coherence is projected onto a text, and if there’s another aspect to the abundant material we read every day, apart from its value as information. As well as ‘neutralising’ content in terms of its direct application, fiction can maybe ‘unlock’ other levels of meaning. Really fiction is just a sub-genre of poetry anyway, imo, and I’d like to see poetry claim back some of this ground for its more shadowy kingdoms. But I suspect to disturb distinctions like this you have to make use of them, which is a good enough reason for deciding to call Safe Mode a novel.
I write it down.
The new is usually the return of the old. Now it’s refreshing. I like the formality and emotional ‘coolness’ of Roman poetry, and in a way it seems more modern than E.g. English Romantic poetry. Or how the traditions of the aphorism or epigram may seem to have something in common with types of internet discourse. At the same time the new tonalities of language use are emerging for the first time from text, not speech, and I like poetry that occupies ‘popular language’. I think the contemporary is always the target of any writing – how does it look in this light, ‘now’ (with all its projected futures hanging off it)? ‘Now’ is only where history happens, and so aesthetic values are a matter of delay and relativism. The words ‘your session has expired’ have a particular meaning, at the same time the sentence could also have meanings that exist prior to, or after that meaning. Obscurity has a part to play as well, as a way of not turning all the cards over yet. If a Leaf Falls is a zen cliché and a lyric by Lil Wayne. The TV show ‘The Young Pope’ seemed to be about this to an extent. I found the young pope’s insistence on formality very striking… moving, in a way. His tone seemed to be both classical and aggressively contemporary. But as John Ashbery (almost) said, you have to be modern – if you can handle it.
I’ve described the origins and aims of If a Leaf Falls Press a couple of times in the past couple of years. If you’re interested, see: http://samriviere.com/index.php?/together/if-a-leaf-falls-press/ - especially the interviews at Hotel (2017) and Entropy (2018).
Part of the appeal of some books is to do with not being able to have a sense of the ‘total meaning’ of the book, in that it accrues over time (reading and not reading). Sometimes it feels peculiarly close and other times almost opaque, and the book ceases to communicate, which is when I feel will read it again. This is an arbitrary list, inevitably, but all these books have a particular presence for me and I consult them if I want to ‘get in touch’ with it.
Diary by Witold Gombrowicz, trans Lillian Vallee
Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag
Poemland by Chelsey Minnis
After Dinner Declarations by Nicanor Parra, trans David Oliphant
Actual Air by David Berman
Thou by Aisha Sasha John
The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon
Fine, fine, fine, fine, fine by Diane Williams
I Once Met by Kent Johnson
Approximately Nowhere by Michael Hofmann
I have both feelings all the time, often simultaneously, about a lot of stuff. Online they often seem like the same feeling.
I don’t think so, no. Start a large publishing house maybe.
Sam Riviere is a poet and publisher based in Edinburgh, this is his website: http://samriviere.com/