Faber Poets at Dulwich Books:
Christopher Reid and Sam Riviere
Tuesday 23rd October, 7.30 pm
If a little bookshop in West Dulwich is not much associated in your mind with exciting literary events, it should be. Dulwich Books won London’s Independent Bookshop of the Year thanks in part to the many literary events they host, and last night was of particular interest for literateurs: a reading by two Faber poets to a full house.
The evening began with the relatively new voice of Sam Riviere, a graduate of the Faber New Poets series. He has been active in the poetry world since 2005; apart from co-editing the anthology Stop/Sharpening/Your/Knives, his poems have been published in numerous places from The Guardian and The Spectator to 3:am and Poetry Review. In 2009, he was awarded the Eric Gregory Prize and since then his career has gone from strength to strength. This year, his debut collection proper, 81 Austerities, gathered a great deal of critical acclaim, winning the Forward Prize for best debut. It is from this collection that Sam started his reading, after telling us of its rather unusual beginnings: a blog project that began as a series of poems in response to the cuts in the arts sector. However that soon started to meander in different directions, including a meditation on how ‘there is no purer form of advertising/ than writing a poem’, a response to his brother pointing out that poetry and advertising share a tendency to two traits: brevity and imagery.
It is unsuprising then that the images in his poetry are often bleak, sometimes even straying towards the dystopian: in one poem there is an ‘amoebic sprite’ that ‘was starting to develop some character’, an observation, which appears to be greeted with weary indifference. In another, he warns us, ‘by all means make an intrigue of your partner/ but remember the bedroom is a gallery/ and you should draft an exit’, while a more recent poem coins the wryly humorous phrase: ‘rooms that are the provinces of ruined jokes’.
Riviere appears to have a fondness for thematic oddity and poetic restrictions. One poem consists entirely of five word lines including the brilliant ‘I live what you approximate’, while another series of poems were comissioned, bizarrely, to accompany fashion shoots for AnOther Magazine. It is rather to both Riviere’s and the magazine’s credit that one of the poems published barely conceals its cynicism of the world that its words accompany: ‘In this moment she is less like a product more like a sale.’ It continues, ‘She is surrounded by references that do not touch her. Like money. She is about to smile or something.’
Christopher Reid, the veteran poet whose reading comprised the second half of the evening, commented on Sam’s work that it has ‘the noise of our time in it somehow’, and apologised for ‘sounding antique’ in comparison. However such self-deprecation is less than necessary: despite having published a Selected Poems last year, he has emphatically refused to rest on his laurels and is still very much a current poet. While Reid tends to be associated with “mainstream” poetry (whatever that means) due to his past editorship at Faber, his association with the ‘Martian’ school of poetry and his winning of various awards, a quick glance would reveal to anyone that such lazy poetic taxonomy does not do justice to the bewildering variety of his oeuvre . In his Selected, short Larkinesque poems sit alongside sprawling oddities and, towards the beginning, there is work from that strange collection, Katerina Brac, which playfully pretends to the status of translations.
His latest collection, Nonsense is, as the title suggests, more along the oddity line. He first reads a few short poems including ‘Dr Demon’, the amusingly bitter and tongue-in-cheek riposte to a bad review, and ‘A Bit of a Tune’, a poem which, with its ridiculously insistent and obtrusive rhymes (‘festoon’, ‘boon’, ‘aloooooooon…’), should not work and yet somehow does, triumphantly. He closes with an extract from a long narrative poem that follows the adventures of the fictional Professor A.J.Wintherthorn and his journey to visit a conference on ‘Nonsense and the Pursuit of Futility as strategies of Modernist, Postmodernist and Postpostmodernist Literature and Art.’ The satire of academic ‘nonsense’ in the poem is subtle enough to be hilariously – almost uncomfortably – close to reality. Its subtlety also means that Winterthorn is more than mere caricature; he is a human being through whom Reid explores concepts of isolation, memory, confusion and grief .
Dulwich Books hosted an enjoyable evening that showcased two very different new collections: this great contrast between the two poets was refreshing and left me wishing for more such deliberate variety in poetry readings.
Photographs by Giles Stogdon. Giles is a producer/administrator with a film and theatre company called The Project. He recorded the poetry reading for the sound installation project Variable 4.