Poet Sam Riviere on Plagiarism, Social Media, and Creative Narcissism


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Sam Riverthe first novel by, Dead souls, takes place in a hallucinating and alternative London. In this reality, MI5 has morphed into MI7, fingerprints are accepted as payment, and unexplained fleets of drones are flying over the Thames. Poets are rich too, if you can suspend your disbelief this far – thousands of people flock to the city’s south side to hear them perform, and poetry has become the country’s primary cultural currency. (In this country, the small tote bag of the publishing house is now more ubiquitous than the group’s t-shirt).

But there are problems with the sophisticated technology of this upside down world. Newly invented plagiarism software scours the work of poets, rating the originality of their writing with a cold percentage score. Those who fail are canceled and blacklisted by the industry, never to be heard again. In the novel, we hear the story of Solomon Wiese, a poet victim of this fate. We meet him at the bar of a Waterloo Travelodge, and listen to him breathlessly regal his rise and fall in front of the anonymous narrator. It’s a drunken, rampaging, hilarious, surreal tale that lasts nearly 300 pages without a paragraph, but thrills you nonetheless.

For Rivière, himself a respected poet with titles such as Kim Kardashian’s wedding and 81 Austerities, this is familiar territory. Although set in an alternate universe, the book takes a critical look at our present moment, with cutting social commentaries on class, privilege, creative narcissism, and political hypocrisy. A few days before the book’s release, we caught up with him to learn more about the issues that inspired him.

Dominique Sisley: How have you lived these last months?

Sam Riviere: I kind of killed the time, but I don’t really remember how. One way or another, the time has passed.

DS: Memory loss appears to be a common symptom of the pandemic.

SR: Yeah. Cognition is getting weird with all this technology. It’s very tempting to think of nothing, just follow your phone to where you need to go. And the pandemic just solidified that relationship with technology, didn’t it? I wasn’t on the phone all the time before, but I got more addicted because it seemed like a lifeline. I live alone so it was the only way to communicate with people for long enough. The pandemic was likely planned entirely by tech companies. [Laughs.]. All of this will be released in 100 years.

DS: YesYou are mainly known for your poetry. Has it always been your favorite form of writing?

SR: Actually, I didn’t really get into poetry until my twenties. I was quite interested, but like everyone else, I found it a little intimidating and off-putting. I think once I figured out that you didn’t have to figure it out, I relaxed a bit. I’ve always read a lot of fiction and started out wanting to write it, but poetry seemed easier and shorter to me. You can learn a lot about the areas in which you are good, the areas in which you need to control yourself, and the areas in which you can afford to be more expressive.

“People are tired of this version of events which leaves you no leeway to interpret or invent. You are just trapped by the reality of everything ”- Sam Riviere

DS: Dead souls reads like a stream of consciousness, delivered with barely a breath in an evening. How did you write it? How long did it take?

SR: It took a year to write. It was like digging a tunnel – I would go back there every day and hope it would lead somewhere. Before I started, I had a lot of little ideas that I had been collecting for years, and I had a pretty good idea of ​​what I thought it would be. Of course, it turned out a little different, but you adjust things as you go. In fact, I knew where it was going.

DS: Plagiarism is a central theme of the novel, and one that you have already visited in your work. I am interested in knowing why you are so drawn to this?

SR: In poetry, in particular, there is a feeling that when you write a poem, you are supposed to express your true self. I never really understood that. I don’t really understand when people say art is self-expression, because what is the ego? Is it the sum of your experiences, or your particular perspective on the world? I do not know. Your inner self seems to be precisely what you cannot communicate to someone. And I think, because the premiums are so high on “the authentic experience” of poetry, it puzzles me. We all learn the same words and we all learn the language. So why is taking someone else’s tongue so bad? It’s really tied to primitive capitalism; this idea that content belongs to people. But we claim the language all the time, that’s mainly what we do when we speak; we’re tinkering with various things we’ve heard and said before. This idea of ​​authenticity and originality in writing is that ghostly thing that doesn’t really exist. Writing is all about rearranging materials and shedding new light on something.

DS: It feels like the internet has ruined our collective cognition and it’s harder than ever to be original with ideas or opinions. I just feel like I’m speaking in tweets now, regurgitating the same views I’ve seen before.

SR: Yeah, or sometimes you hear someone on a bus and they’ll share their views on Brexit or Covid or whatever, and it’s going to be a conversation you’ve heard hundreds of times before. I think we’re in such a heavy saturation of content and information, and because it’s all there, we don’t really need to enjoy anything new because we have it at our fingertips. .

“There have been cancellations where it seemed very obvious that people just found them boring. It seems the left is good enough to disarm itself this way ”- Sam Riviere

DS: Have you given any thought to what that might do to the crop in the long run?

SR: Fatigue, maybe. I think we see it with conspiracy theories – like the popularity of the flat earth theory, which is the most insane conspiracy theory, but now has a lot of force. Because people are tired of this version of events which leaves you no leeway to interpret or invent. You are just trapped in the reality of everything. It makes you feel helpless, like a supplicant. So if you buy into these conspiracy theories, it makes the world more interesting, doesn’t it? You are again in a place of mystery. Maybe that’s part of what a novel does, it re-enchants the reality in which we find ourselves.

DS: In Dead souls, you’re talking about the invention of quantitative analysis and the comparative system, or “QACS system,” which detects plagiarism in the writer’s works and leads to industry cancellations. What do you think of these types of cancellations? What do they tell us about our current moment?

SR: There are AIs currently working on Shakespeare, trying to find parts of his plays written by different writers. It is this scientific and very cold way of seeing art that I am opposed to. I am also sensitive to people who have been arrested for plagiarism in the world of poetry over the past ten years. I am sympathetic to them, even if sometimes it was done in bad faith. But there are all kinds of other reasons why people are drawn to the public and ashamed of it. Sometimes it’s for a good reason, but sometimes it’s a little less clear. And once that machine is up and running, there’s nothing more you can do.

DS: Do you know of anyone who has been canceled this way?

SR: Not directly, but I know several people who were eliminated because they weren’t liked, and there appeared to be enough reason to get rid of them. I’m not talking about people like Harvey Weinstein or abusers, who should rightly be excluded. But there have been cancellations where it seemed very obvious that people just found them boring. It seems the left is pretty good at disarming itself in this way, as often these people – although they may be assholes – could otherwise be useful weapons in political conflicts. It comes from this obsession with integrity: If there’s a clue that someone doesn’t have complete integrity, they’re essentially able to shake it off.

DS: Is this an area you want to explore further? Are you working on anything else at the moment?

SR: I worked on poetry using AI which was kind of weird. I don’t know if I’m going to do anything with it, but it’s been quite interesting thinking about this idea of ​​what’s coming out – is it me or not? I’m giving control to something else, but nonetheless, it seems to express something. But what is it?

Dead souls, published by W&N, is available now.

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