‘81 Austerities’ is a collection of poems by Sam Riviere published electronically in installments from 12th May 2011. The poems are organized into 9 titled parts, each containing 9 poems. The brief is to publish a passive/aggressive response to the ‘austerity measures’ implemented by the Coalition government in the UK in the wake of the 2007 financial crisis. The collection aims to apply such ‘cuts’ to poetry itself, experiencing this deprivation primarily on the levels of sentiment, structure, and subject matter. The collection is presented according to 8 selected themes, which are distributed evenly over 9 sections: 1) poetry about poems/the poet/ the poetry 'world' 2) pornography; spam appropriations/being an AV girl 3) death; the deaths of some famous people 4) the modern; particularly the connectivity between poetry and advertising 5) longing; wanting specific people/things 6) Dramatis Personae; wanting to be, or being somebody else 7) encounters 8) names.
Here the poet discusses his this collection; its form & content:

'Austerity' was named the word of the year by Merriam-Webster in 2010. The word originally describes, "dryness, harshness, sourness, tartness, bitterness", & especially "making the tongue dry". The present use is figurative: "stern, severe, very simple". This idea of harshness & 'dryness on the tongue' seemed like a good indicator for the tone of a 'response' in poetry to an 'age of austerity'.

Leonard Cohen has a quote ("deprivation is the mother of poetry") that I basically decided to take literally. I thought maybe the aggression expressed towards the arts via funding cuts etc might be a good provocation towards writing & general activity… it might make it more urgent or necessary or something.

Then there's an ambiguity about furthering my own practice as a fully-funded PGR student using developments that have been harmful to many as a subject, as a 'bitter fruit'. I have found this mostly conducive. It's something the poems talk about directly, playing out arguments that say periods of austerity are in some way 'healthy' for art, that it's easier to find friction, that it's here art becomes more potent/politicised. Of course this may be true to some extent, but it's not really the reason for cutting funding for poetry courses for example. It wasn't done to improve the standard or relevance of poetry. The poems inhabit and abandon these positions in a fairly compulsive or hyperactive way.

It seems like there is something contradictory going on in much of the public discourse surrounding these issues that the work can feed off. The poems are ambivalent about the conditions that made them possible. They feel compromised & at the same time refuse to feel compromised. To be written they have to at least appear irreverent/ungrateful towards the (temporary) condition of privilege they emerged from. They do their best not to deserve it.

A few times people have said to me stuff like, ''I don’t really read poetry, but I quite like these''. Probably that’s because there isn’t much 'poetry' in the poems, not much in the way of well-made metaphors & images, or whatever…To me this is an identification with the austerity measures, a pre-emptive application of the 'cuts' to the poems themselves, by reducing them, doing harm to form. … sort of "don't support poetry, fine, maybe this is the sort of poetry we deserve (or that's appropriate).'' I guess this is supposed to appeal to people who find that logic ridiculous.

These self-imposed limitations make the poems seem a little monk-like to me. They appreciate their hardship, they like it actually, because paradoxically it increases their 'value' and popularity: they couldn’t exist without it & the broader context of austerity. They are in the weird position of owing their existence to an undesirable economic context; they are aware of this, & 'grateful' for the climate of austerity.

The impact of the cuts has meant that art which is overtly critical seems less of a cheesy idea than in the early 2000s for example. The project's inherent hostility towards commercialised art has ironically made it more commercially viable.

By following the capitalist logic of production/marketing, on one hand the poems seek to expose/critique it as an inadequate model for making poems; on the other hand any success they have is by virtue of this process, which they so obviously enjoy. There's uncertainty about how much the framing of the poems is simply an excuse for this sort of contrariness. I'm excited & nervous about my complicity in all this.

The absence of a rich flow of capital sometimes makes the poetry 'world' appear above these concerns. It has a kind of distaste for that stuff, though it obviously has a market & trends like anything else. The main difference is that it does seem reliant on outside support. While this is liberating for poets, in that a publisher's first concern isn't *always* about sales, choosing online publication maybe draws attention to the models of distributing poetry, & acknowledges the possibility of unsaid criteria in publishing/funding channels that are just as dubious as the demands of other markets.

Maybe we will come to see poems more explicitly as products, or as promises for a transaction of some kind that happens as you read them, which is how they often seem… so maybe more like advertisements, like pure hype.

Sam Riviere, ©


Riviere has previously published through Ambit/ Clinic/ Faber/ Magma/ Stop Sharpening Your Knives.