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 Joe McCARNEY talks to Sam RIVIERE about


Founded in 2015 by Sam Riviere, If a Leaf Falls Press publishes pamphlets with a focus on appropriative and conceptual poetics. ‘Season one’ of the micropress ran to 23 limited-edition pamphlets, featuring contributions from a decidedly international and diverse roster of writers, poets and artists including Emily Berry, Crispin Best, Audun Mortensen and Monica McClure. Last year, a number of the pamphlets were exhibited at the Poetry Library in London as part of an exhibition on Conceptualist Poetics. The second season of the press is now underway, and is due to feature pamphlets from Matthew Welton and Nadia de Vries.  

Sam has published two collections with Faber, 81 Austerities and Kim Kardashian’s Marriage, along with the pamphlets Standard Twin Fantasy (Eggbox) and, most recently, True Colours (After Hours Ltd). He is currently serving as poet-in-residence at Edinburgh University. Via email, we discussed the state of contemporary conceptualist poetics both in the UK and abroad, the idea of the pamphlet as a singular form for publishing experimental writing, and the potentially transformative effects of procedure and appropriation in poetry.

J.M. — From an editorial perspective, If a Leaf Falls Press seems quite ambivalent to any specific conceptual imperatives. The broad thematic focus on "appropriative and arbitrary writing processes" is wonderfully underdetermined, and has resulted in a really eclectic first season of pamphlets. I am interested in how you originally envisioned the press back in 2015; furthermore, whether you see the series as an engagement with, or a refusal of, certain tendencies within the broader resurgence of appropriative and “conceptualist” poetics?

from Amy Key’s History (If a Leaf Falls Press: Season One; 2015-2016)
S.R. I read that as “woefully undetermined” at first. I’d been thinking about starting some kind of poetry press for a while…at first I imagined a print-at-home PDF publisher. I just had the name of the press from that Lil Wayne song. When I started my residency at Edinburgh I discovered I had a discount at the University Printing Services and it moved quite quickly after that. I knew I wanted the press to deal with ‘found’ or ‘appropriated’ or ‘procedural’ work… so it’s definitely engaged with conceptual writing, a few of the key statements of which I still find basically convincing. I guess I’m not sure that I agree with the assertion often levelled against conceptual writing, that subjectivity has been evacuated from those texts. It’s more that sometimes the subjectivity made legible is that of boring egoism, possibly. I guess that it’s ‘post’-conceptual writing now—as in, the-crisis-of? There wasn’t even a Wikipedia page for conceptual writing for a while in 2015. So I’m somewhat interested in exploring or vindicating some of these processes and strategies.

The criteria are deliberately vague, but in the initial call for submissions I invited “unofficial translations, rewriting, plagiarisms, monographs, too-personal poetry, responses or revisions to existing works, annotations, drafts, listicles, inside jokes, fan fiction, anecdotes, statistics, anonymous or pseudonymous lyrics…,” later adding: “unfinished or abandoned work, work made at work, work (for money) that’s been turned into work (as poetry), work that, for whatever reason, is considered unsuitable for wider public availability, work that might not seem in context with the rest of a poet’s output, bad work, found work, forgotten work.”

I like the idea of redeeming a text composed for money by publishing it as a poetry collection. Some of the most interesting of the 28 or so publications to me so far are the ones that risk testing poetry’s transformative capabilities somehow. Considering those texts as poetry seemed to activate these extra dimensions in them. For example Amy Key’s History, which reproduces her Uber notifications over a year. I don’t want to direct anyone’s interpretation, but to me there are several ways one could proceed with reading a text like this. If there is something problematic in the presentation of this language, or in the artifice of inserting regular stanzaic form, there is also a strange integrity in lifting language straight from a source—from life. There’s less intention, which allows for a certain disinterestedness…a certain realism. I find the invitation of texts like these, which only becomes apparent in their appropriated form, to think about ideas around ownership, intentionality, communicative urgency,­ particularly of dematerialised modes of language, to be quite revealing—compelling, even.

Some of this for sure is intended as antagonism towards the main of UK poetry, where a kind of literary consistency is considered the hallmark of ‘quality’. One of the immediately surprising things was the willingness with which people sent me work that fell outside their ‘proper’ writing. There is a kind of authenticity fetish in the reception of poetry. The idea that a poet is someone with a message which the reader passively receives. (The phoniness of that contract was drawn attention to in a nice way by the plagiarism scandals a few years ago, which seemed to reveal that having the ability to recognise a ‘prizewinning poem’ is pretty much the same as writing one.) Anyway, I’m interested in disturbing this perception in a really minor way with the press’s output.

I was recently re-reading an article you wrote where, after watching a reading by the poet Audun Mortensen, you have this realisation in which "the integrity of the 'I' in poetry became corrupted, as if by a virus". In relation to this, I think the deployment of procedural and appropriative tactics can serve to illustrate that all language is in some way 'contaminated'; that all strategies within poetry are historically contingent and arbitrary devices, not guarantors of the 'authenticity' of the poet's 'voice'. I also think these kind of tactics aren't new - they have been central to the "other tradition" in US poetics throughout the latter part of the 20th Century (along with ideas from Russian Formalist poetics, which emerged decades prior to even this). What seems to be demonstrably new to 21st Century conceptual writing is the absolute primacy of the concept and the concomitant demotion of textual content to the status of 'junk' language. I think that reader-passivity you talked about within UK 'mainstream verse culture' could be equally applicable to some conceptual texts, where comprehension of the concept takes overwhelming priority over actual textual engagement—I am perhaps suspicious of the notion of a ‘thinkership’ replacing a readership, as has been suggested by certain conceptual poets in the US. Instead, the programmatic statements that accompany the poetry do the main work here, in an almost didactic sense.

The publications of If A Leaf Falls Press however, whilst coming from a conceptual/appropriative tradition, exist as sovereign texts in their own right. By denying the reader the conditions which produced the text—by withholding the conceptual workings that underpin it—the press pushes against the above. Perhaps you could talk about this editorial decision? 
The statements of conceptual writing sometimes appear more interesting than its ‘actual’ literature. To produce some of those texts at all—to invent them even, as ideas—seems somehow superfluous. Or you may as well just ‘say’ the process—it’s at that point where just noting the possibility might be preferable to actually doing it. There are artists I can think of who work with text, whose entire practice seems to consist of these sorts of somewhat literal ideas that people must have had before but that none of them considered worth carrying out. They’re just ‘poo thoughts,’ really.

Not providing clues to the method or source of the pamphlets seems to have the effect of freeing them of needing to be read too much within a conceptual framework. They cease to be ‘merely the idea’ in an embodied form. They don’t insist too much. It can relax the formality of procedural work, widen the interpretative field, and gesture towards writing exceeding the form, however much a specific concept underpins the project. In some cases, the sources or method can be inferred, in others it is less clear what’s going on. I like the way they feel unmoored, sort of approachable as objects. There’s a thought, probably a fantasy, I had recently about appropriated poetry, as a sort of ‘classless avant-garde.’ Classless in both senses maybe. I don’t know… could appropriative writing emerge as a kind of folk art in some contexts? Google poetry/flarf/spam poetry, or work in similar form, has occurred people all over the world in the course of using the internet, many of them entirely unaware of the US poetry world’s particular anxieties. Linh Dinh pointed out something similar to me last year—Vietnamese internet poetry has been around since the 90s… what could this have to do with these particular Western usages and their meanings in territorial poetry disputes? It might still be about the imperialism of technology, its infrastructure. But maybe loosening the hold of a particular discourse over these methods is a good thing, thinking about the range of objectives that appropriation of language might have.

Technology has raised concerns about the integrity and authorial fixity of language by itself—it sort of makes them explicit in a way that’s new for many people, even though these ideas have a history in linguistics and avant-garde poetics, etc. This is also about alienation, obviously—being detached from labour and production to the extent that we are detaching from language. When you send an email you can observe, almost feel, your language deserting you. Or ‘you’ becoming part of this totalising archivable structure. I think this is sensed more than it’s understood.
What does mark out a lot of conceptual and appropriative work since the emergence of the internet is the tactics of information management within a context of complete saturation, the conceptual mastery over the 'junk' - ie: having an absolute superabundance of information equates to having no information, like Borges’ Library. The prioritisation of the concept is used to work through these conditions, but, as Matvei Yankelevich has argued, the textual content itself becomes effectively “dematerialised”. This particular mode of conceptualism therefore becomes more about the circulation and production of discourse as information, rather than the “word” as material signifier; i.e. we can all talk about Goldsmith’s Day, but no-one actually need read it. Converse to this logic, the press seems focussed this idea of the ephemeral or elusive product; aesthetically minimalist, extremely limited-run and - importantly - exclusively physical, pamphlets. However, the press is marketed and distributed entirely through online channels, with Vimeo trailers and Twitter as the primary vehicles for promotion. I was wondering about this inherent tension here; I am interested in why this is not an e-publication - what of the material form of the pamphlet appeals to you - and how this informs the broader ambitions of the press.
Some of it is chance, which is kind of also exemplified by the name. That’s the starting point, ‘if a leaf falls’—like, ‘I don’t give a shit.’ Its most frequent use on twitter is as a mishearing of the philosophy-lite thought experiment—‘if a tree falls in the forest…’, or a witticism to do with overreaction—‘I feel so bad today I lose it if a leaf falls’. Some zen stuff. I like that it emphasises unimportance, coincidence, the short-term—brevity, along with a kind of hysterical urge to preserve it. ‘Press’ has that further meaning… to press a leaf. So it seems appropriate that the methods of production are largely accidental. Accepting the contingency of the project has led to my thinking through reasons for doing things in certain ways rather than others, which has maybe ended up being the point.

I’m quite interested in the book or pamphlet as kind of embodied form—like a poetic form. So the physical presentation of the text also describes its limit, exercises some formal constraint or pressure or whatever on the content. It’s like a device… maybe this is enhanced by the scarcity of the editions? Their presence in the world feels kind of tenuous, as if they’re sort of ‘between objects’—PDF files, commodities, zines. I feel as if the editions all having different runs, which was an instinctive decision, also gestures towards the press having a potential formal capacity as well. In a lot of ways it’s still online publishing – payment, promotion, printing, submissions, are all done via the internet. But like you say, sometimes a problem with digital production is the overabundance of choice, finding a sense of formal limit – you can make a text a million pages long if you like (publishers like Troll Thread are doing stuff like this). You could make a PDF with a page area is size of a country. Someone could literally make the Library of Babel: From this angle, selecting the extreme restrictions of a physical pamphlet is clearly a formal decision of some kind… I think there are reasons for making the reading experience take place outside the sort of ‘interior’ of life online.

Also, a pamphlet is definitely a poetry ‘area.’ I remember Christopher Whitfield asking me something a few years ago at a reading at Goldsmiths, I wasn’t able to give a decent response and I kept coming back to it… The question was about placing poetry in a commercial environment, I think—how that affects things. If someone publishes their lyric poem on social media, is it enriching the reader with literary content that remains uninflected (uncontaminated?) by its channel, which we can say enforces a particularly truncated mode of reception? Or, is it innovative use of the network—i.e. is it basically advertising for it? Or, is it more that it advertises the audience’s sensibilities, via them performing their approval, i.e. is it a way of labelling the product (as that’s what our attention is online)? Or is it somehow all of these? It’s not clear where the ‘real value’ of a text lies in these environments. People can instagram my poems or whatever, I obviously welcome it. But it’s interesting to watch certain styles of poetry being commercially steered, or steered by a network—this can happen at the level of production—strains of tumblr poetry crafted to get thousands of notes, or a style of performance poetry which emerged from protest movements being painlessly accommodated in a bank advert.

The tonality of that mode is what makes it available for use in marketing—the deployment is so smooth because that’s where it was already heading. It’s a soft target, but the logic holds elsewhere as well—it’s funny that there can be so little distinction between a commercial and a poetic ‘objective.’

So… the press is almost acting out the converse—exploring what happens if you displace commercial language into a ‘poetic context’. I’m interested in the properties of that zone, that ‘area’. Is poetry ‘as a category’ enough to redeem Uber?

Makes me think of this Joe Wenderoth poem:

    Sometimes there’s no coffee in the coffee. I plow through
    it and it is definitely a coffee area, but there’s no coffee in it.
    I always think there’ll be a little at the bottom of the cup,
    but there never is. If it’s missing at all, it’s all missing. The
    fact is, coffee isn’t just a substance—it’s an event, and its
    manifestation depends on countless subtle conditions, most
    of which are not speakable.

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Partner to a press called Tenement, Hotel is a publications series for new approaches to fiction, non fiction & poetry & features work from established & emerging talent. Hotel provides the space for experimental reflection on literature’s status as art & cultural mediator. 

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