81 Reasons to Read


Any young poet who manages to publish a book in the current market has a reason to celebrate. Sam Riviere’s 81 Austerities, published in 2012, is a particularly inspiring debut. Winner of the 2012 Forward Prize for best first collection, the poems, originally posted on the internet, are a meditation on existence in the modern world, defined by boredom, love, and technology. Critics have been fascinated by Riviere’s use of social networking as a “backdrop to all personal relations.” Despite its modern appeal, Riviere’s work is formed with an elegance that makes 81 Austerities a hilarious and entrancing read.

The U.K. poet wrote the poems when he was 29, while finishing his PhD in poetry at the University of East Anglia. Now 31, he currently lives with his wife in Northern Ireland, where he speaks to SOMA about humor, visual art, and having fun…

I see you studied visual art at the Norwich School of Art and Design before you went on to study poetry. How do you think that background has been to your artistic benefit? I didn’t get very far doing visual art. I did it for two years. My course incorporated both and by the final year I just did writing. I think what I took from it mainly was the people I knew doing fine art had a much more irreverent and chaotic and disrespectful and probably modern attitude to their practice. It seemed almost expected that young artists would have hostility to the art that came before them, that almost their goal would be to disrespect it and attack it and overturn it. Whereas in poetry it seemed to me that you were adding to a tradition and you were quite reverent to that tradition…I’m being simplistic because there always have been those elements within poetry, but it’s more that I discovered it, it was a discovery for me.

What do you think about poetry’s relationship with visual art? Poetry is image-based as well, often. I used to think of images as things that had to be specifically connected, if an image was going to work, it had to be logical…that the metaphor had to be supported in numerous ways. However, in visual art they have a much more chaotic relationship to the image. It took me a while to realize this but your mind does not actually work in that neat way. It often puts things together in a really confusing way that you don’t really understand the association of. I began to enjoy using images in a way that wasn’t very, you know, well-honed. It was more unquestioning, maybe, just to trust the associations between things rather than make them make sense for your reader.

How did you feel about the poems in 81 Austerities when you were writing them, before you knew they would become a success? I can remember writing them. I kind of wrote them almost as a joke, to begin with. I remember I read them to my brother and a friend, the first 20 or something. And they thought they were really funny. And I thought, ‘these seem to be going well’. But I think part of the reason they are the way they are was because I never really thought about publishing them. I wouldn’t have been comfortable imagining the poems in the book being read, being published. I would’ve changed them; I would have made them way different.

So you posted your poems on the Internet, they picked up a cult following, and Faber & Faber contacted you? Yeah, that seems like an overstatement in some ways. I started a Tumblr and started posting them there. Some people I knew read them, they said they liked them. A guy, a nice guy (Daniel Barrow), did a short thing in the New Statesman about them, and that helped. But I already had a pamphlet with Faber out already, which meant they had first rights to publishing. I sent them two manuscripts, one which was much more traditional. I was surprised when they were interested in these poems. I mean, I was surprised they wanted either of them.

Do you believe a ‘standard poet’ or a ‘typically poetic person’ exists? Or do you think that stereotype is wrong? I think a lot of the fun I had writing the poems of the book was to try and undermine that idea, the idea that the poet is someone who is above ordinary concerns, or isn’t someone who is just living a completely mundane normal life that isn’t heightened and inspired and these sorts of things. I think it (poetry) encourages a certain type of foregrounding of the ego in order to think what you’re doing is interesting enough that other people want to know about it. So part of the thing I liked doing in the book was to sort of make fun of that idea, to point out that I was doing it,
to a certain extent.

I wanted to ask next how humor is a part of your poetic register. Are you funny in real life? With writing you can never tell if you’re being funny or not, I think. Sometimes people find things funny I’ve done unintentionally. I’m not always sure why some things are funny. Sometimes I think I’ve done something that is funny, but then in a review or something, someone will say how bleak they thought it was…the humor in the book I guess could be read as bleakness, maybe. Setting something up that should be profound but then isn’t, kind of banal. The crushing refusal of meaningfulness—I’ve always liked that. I find that funny. But you can’t tell if everyone does.

Oh, and about real life, I don’t know, I don’t think I can answer that question. (Laughs.) People find me funny, I guess. I have moments. I can be very unfunny as well.

Who do you look up to? Poet George Szirtes. He’s provided a sort of amazing example of how you can live as a writer, and he’s so generous with his time and energy.

What do you like to do for fun? This sounds sorta weird, but I do like doing nothing. I like having time to do nothing. Of course I like seeing friends, drinking, hanging out with my wife (poet Sophie Collins), seeing my family and all those things. If anything’s changed, I used to listen to music a lot, really a lot. But I almost never listen to music at home anymore. I like going to see music.  But I like silence.


It sounds so awful, so defeated. I like quietness. So boring. I find noise annoying; I used to find it interesting.

Silence is great. Yeah, it’s nice—it’s golden.

Text by Vanessa Saunders
Photography by Olivia Beasley