We’ll own it — we are obsessed with the Kardashians. The family has built a media empire and shows no signs of slowing down, so our fascination with the Kardashian crew can continue indefinitely (we’ve even figured out our Kardashian zodiac match). Honestly, who isn’t obsessed with this glamorous selfie-taking, contour-baking, app-creating bunch?
Apparently, even academically trained poets aren’t immune to the mysterious pull of the Kardashian family. Back in 2015, English poet Sam Riviere published a collection of 72 poems inspired by the 72-day marriage between Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries. Kim Kardashian’s Marriage ($14) was recently published stateside, and we took the opportunity to chat with Riviere about his process for writing these poems, Kardashian’s role as a feminist icon, and the interplay of pop culture and lasting literature.
Brit + Co: Okay, we have to ask the obvious question first: Why did you write this book of poetry inspired by Kim Kardashian’s marriage to Kris Humphries?
Sam Riviere: The book is not “about” the marriage in the traditional sense — it’s a collection of poems that are composites of internet searches carried out according to an algorithm, using 18 keywords. The poems were constructed using only the text that resulted from the searches. There was an epiphanic moment, though — the idea of attaching this title to the collection, which was actually the last thing I did. A search of the number “72” (the number of poems in the collection) returned the number of days of Kim Kardashian’s marriage to Kris Humphries as the top result, so that became the title of the book. Kim Kardashian’s Marriage made sense of the poems in a way that felt pretty irresistible at the time. As the method hopefully makes clear, they are concerned with the borders between public and private expression. Kim’s expertise is in the way she controls that threshold, transgresses it, reinforces it, and distorts it.
As it’s made entirely of text found online, the book is a kind of surveillance of a particular moment, and perhaps this seems more relevant than ever in light of the current news stories about how social media platforms have been collecting and selling the language of their users — the value and application of the masses of linguistic data we produce every day is not something we can always anticipate, evidently. It’s funny to me that poetry could be one of those applications.
B+C: Did you approach writing this poetry collection with sincere curiosity, or were you trying to make a statement about the media attention?
SR: Sincere curiosity sounds like an accurate description — I was interested in the expressiveness of poems when it’s no longer possible to say who (or what) “wrote” the language that makes them up, or why. Wordsworth spoke about poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of emotion recollected in tranquillity” and in a sense, this is no different — “emotion harvested in tranquillity,” maybe! Some of the poems seem to have a peculiarly strong or individual affective resonance even though there is no single subjectivity behind them.
I was also curious about what would remain of the author or poet — my “sensibility” if you like — when none of the language in the compositions originated from me. It appears that there is a consistent authorial presence or style when reading the book, I think. To what extent is this readerly projection though? Or does it indicate that all language use — and so our identities and personalities — are built from an analogous collaging process?
B+C: You don’t really mention Kim and Kris by name in the poems. Why is that? Are they meant to also stand alone, outside of the collection’s title?
SR: Yes, they only appear in the title. The marriage, or perhaps Kim herself, is like the vacated space at the middle of the book, which the poems are organized around. Similar to the courtly love poetry of the Middle Ages, where the love object, the woman to whom the poems are addressed, is always silent. Although she is put on a pedestal and worshipped, in a way she is a completely passive, powerless figure. Or, conversely, a female monarch who is praised by her courtiers and ministers, but rarely speaks herself — again, a void around which language is generated. In contemporary media, is a celebrity like KK allowed to speak, really, or does she not need to? Does she somehow “speak” through images? There is an interesting, contradictory power dynamic at work in these representations which the poems seem to consider.
B+C: What do you think Kim’s success says about Western culture today?
SR: Kim Kardashian is a person who is famous for controlling her own image — in a way, that is all she does — and in a culture where female representations have been exclusively controlled by men for millennia, the radical potential of this shouldn’t be underestimated. I think it’s reductive to argue that these representations are frivolous, or that they reinforce gender expectations in a simplistic way. There is an indication here that technology can make possible of new modes of identity, including femininity, which are constructed out of historical forms, but not restricted by traditional, patriarchal power dynamics — images which operate for the benefit of people in command of them rather than as a means of control.
B+C: What do you hope readers will learn or think about after reading this collection of poems?
SR: I really have no idea of the lasting value or meaning of the book. That is its risk, I suppose. The poems are at least an attempt to document a sense of a contemporary moment, which has always already passed by the time it is represented, or even thought about. In a sense, Kim Kardashian in 2011 is ancient history. But poetry perhaps too often makes wagers about posterity, which is completely unpredictable anyway. Then again, more people follow Kim Kardashian on Instagram than lived under Caesar Augustus. Discarding the future as the destination of a poem’s meaning means it becomes important to speak about the present.
B+C: Who is your favorite Kardashian?
SR: Epistemologically speaking, Kim is the only Kardashian.
Feeling inspired? Tweet us a Kardashian-inspired haiku @BritandCo!
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(Photo via Alice Lee, featured photo via Charley Gallay/Getty)