If a Leaf Falls Press: Sam Riviere on appropriation and micropublishing in the poetry sector

On the 13th of October, Sam Riviere, former Poet-in-Residence at the University of Edinburgh, presented his work as the editor of If a Leaf Falls Press, a micropublishing house working with found and appropriated materials. Fittingly, the name If a Leaf Falls is itself an appropriation of a Lil Wayne lyric (the full lyric, from 2011’s “The Motto,” reads “And if a leaf fall, put some weed on that bitch”) which has come into modern Twitter parlance as a way of referring to something insignificant that is blown out of proportion. With the addition of “Press,” Riviere hopes also to evoke images of pressing a leaf, thereby preserving something that would have otherwise been fleeting.

As a micropublisher, Riviere publishes runs of only 18-42 copies per publication. The chapbooks themselves are uniform in their appearance (portable, minimalist, printed with black ink on cream paper) and all comment, in their own ways, on the intersection of lyrical form and popular culture. To use Riviere’s phrasing, he hopes to use the appropriation of online material as a means of dealing with the “abundance of information” available to us at any given time. Riviere makes all the material decisions for his chapbooks (choosing the paper, ink, size, etc.), but outsources their printing, in contrast to some other micropublishers.

Riviere began his talk with an overview of publishing history in the United Kingdom, specifically using the history as a way of critiquing the economic structures that have (de)legitimized certain authors and forms rather than others. According to Riviere, books have been historically the domain of a privileged minority, what he calls a “coterie of readers.” Especially within the poetry sphere, there is a precedent of suppression (for example, the so-called Poetry Wars of the 1970s) and gate-keeping on the part of publishers. As a result, there tends to be a certain homogenization of the poetry that is published, as literature evolves in tandem with what is commercially viable (according to the publishing houses), rather than as a creative reaction to the cultural moment.

With the dawn of the Internet age, this model of top-down publishing is undermined by the ability of authors to publish freely (in all senses of the word) online. Furthermore, it acts as a gathering space where writers from disparate geographical areas can come together in the pursuit of a common interest or style. Especially for traditionally marginalized groups, such as members of ethnic minorities, women, economically disadvantaged writers, or LGBTQ+ folx, the democratization of publishing ushered in by the Internet provides a means of bypassing the traditionally white, patriarchal, profit-motivated publishing houses.

As Riviere himself points out, however, this is not always the case. As online publishing moves away from the free-for-all (again, in all senses of the phrase) of the early Internet (think of the utopian dreams of the dot com bubble) and towards a conglomerate of powerful social media corporations, publishing using Twitter or Facebook can become almost like an ad for the medium, rather than a piece put forward in a neutral space.

If a Leaf Falls Press, then, becomes the physical embodiment of the Internet utopia. By relocating “internet speech” (informal, ephemeral, and “dematerialized”) onto a formalized physical artefact, Riviere invites his readers to explore the tension between the expansive amount of information and text on the Internet and their containment when taken offline and localized into a chapbook. By reappropriating text and bringing it into an unexpected format, Riviere draws attention to the way in which materiality produces meaning. To use his example, the phrase “I love you” takes on different connotations and produces different reactions on the part of a reader when written in a text message versus when written in graffiti on a wall.

Riviere’s dismissal of orality and oral forms of literature surprised me. Especially as someone interested in the interplay of form and meaning, I thought he would have been more intrigued by the ways in which the dynamics of word, speech, and audience give rise to a transitory geography that challenges traditional ideas about what a “text” means. He mentioned that he enjoys that there is no context given with his chapbooks. A reader picks one up and must determine the meaning as it relates to them. Of a chapbook filled with texts from an author’s Uber drivers, he said that one reader read it as being romantic, as though the drivers were knights come to rescue her.

This sense of creation of meaning applies perhaps even more to oral forms of literature, as each performance is a unique event, creating, in a way, a unique text in conversation with the audience, even if the words themselves are the exact same. To use a Derridean biological metaphor, it is the question of the matrix as creative space both within and without the text. By creating these “blank slate” texts (that is, taken from their context, physically contained in a uniform way, and without explanation of their origin), Riviere creates the same kind of fertile creative matrix as does an oral performer, containing the infinite potential for meaning.

Especially within the context of ‘disrupting publishing,’ we can compare this potential to that of a canonical text, a critical edition, or even a text that still exists in its original locus. By removing both the editorial definition of meaning (for example, the foreword or critical introduction) and the definition of meaning inherent in a work’s location (for example, as a text message or a post on a specific website), Riviere creates the potential for truly democratized and subversive readings. In this shifting textual space, I glimpse a publishing model for our postmodern world.

Report by Hannah Swan, MSc student in Book History and Material Culture, University of Edinburgh.

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