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The Undergound Aboveground

By Nicolle Elizabeth

I am going to try to explain Oulipo. It is a thing which very seriously exists, and perhaps does not yet exist, because you he she they I have not yet exhausted all of its possibilities. If there is one thing I’ve learned this week it is that Oulipians are simultaneously the most serious and un-serious writers, with the best senses of humor, absurdity, and sense. Friday night, I was subjected to a life-altering experience. I saw five Oulipians read for the first time. I went because I had been told it was “up my alley” and then I realized, I have been playing Oulipian exercises all along, and maybe you have too, without realizing it. I would not be surprised if Oulipians can fly. They are the intellectual, mathematical, hysterical Shaolin Monks of poets, they take everything and nothing seriously at the same time, they find algorithms and play with words like tossing caution, fate and cognition to the wind, while entirely in control of every single letter.

The Oulipo was founded in 1960. Oulipo stands for “Ouvoir de literature potentielle,” meaning “Workshop of potential literature.” It’s a group of writers, mathematicians, (who may or may not be able to fly, conjectured by me), who attempt to write through very explicit and very non-explicit writing constraints. Most famously and easiest to explain is the “N plus 7” method, which is done via replacing every noun in a work with the noun seven entries after it in the dictionary. This is relative to which dictionary you’re using, of course. Oh this, this is nothing. Anne Garretta, one of the readers Friday night, one of the four female Oulipians, wrote a book in 1986 titled, “Sphinx” in which neither of the characters in the love story are gendered. The novel sort of also re-tells the legend of the Sphinx through close first and later, distant, third person, but of course, without gender. Or, if you want to translate the website, you will actually find it was in “first anybody and third nobody,” I will leave you to meditate on the progressiveness involved in having genderless characters in a literary landscape today, never mind in 1986, with writing constraints which invented undefined character points of view, from another plane of thought, Theory of Relativity, yet completely grounded, sane and in our own time continuum.

Then there was this guy: Jacques Roubaud. His picture on the Oulipo website has him sitting over a pile of different colored markers, which, after seeing him Friday night, I would not doubt he uses, while whistling, because he has an inkling about the universe the rest of us may not. He is a mathematician, poet, and one of the original founding members of the Oulipo and he started the reading (which was for most of the audience’s benefit politely done in English) with the sentence, “What the poem is saying, I have forgotten.” Later in the evening, after reading about the moon and orange juice, he would return to the podium to say, “I find it necessary from time to time to write logical poems,” while smiling -perhaps because they were all logical, or maybe just humming with an underlying tone one might feel from Gregorian chanting or a Tibetan prayer bowl. Maybe that’s me finding solace in their absurd logical madness, logically. “The point of tonight’s reading is to be tricked,” Roubaud said to the crowd before reading “X believes lightning is pink…but X believed lightning to be blue.”

One of my favorite moments of the evening was when Herve le Tellier looked up from his work and said, “Destine? I am having trouble with the translation of the word…” and then the audience said, “Destiny” together as a group. That was okay, I wrote it down, I would go so far as to say it was one of my favorite moments so far in my adult life.

Ian Monk is British, not French, but also in Oulipo. For the first half of the reading, he read from a large sheet of paper he held up to the audience. The words on the paper were formatted like two thin, tall columns. The poem was about 9/11 and after reading the first column, he proceeded to rip the page in two, crinkle one side and throw it over his shoulder. Later he would read the second half, repeat the crinkling and tossing, only after having read the sentence which included the words, ”...knew nothing but the danger, the dust, the damage, the debit.”

Marcel Benabou, author of many works including, “Why I Have Not Written Any Of My Books” and titled Definitively Provisional Secretary Of The Oulipo since 1970 read as if he were looking at a landscape painting. “You’ll have to imagine my eyes are going around the landscape,” and then he held the book up in front of his face, and turned it the length of the room while reading. This was not as interesting to me as the way he was using his hands, which was in my opinion, in the air, pointing to the math in the room, resting on key words. But then again, I may be entirely insane. “You must choose the river, or the bridge over the river,” Roubaud said.

I asked Anne Garretta after the reading what advice she could offer to a young writer aspiring to be in the Oulipo. She put her arm on my shoulder and answered, “You think of your work not as something within constraints, but as something you build. I am going outside for a smoke.” And black sunglasses, electricity floating, she vanished like an algorithm washed away with erasure. I am completely taken with the Oulipo and leave you with this quote from Ian Monk, “Even then, with a new kind of writing, I might have forged a new kind of hero.”

Published Apr 8, 2009   Copyright 2009 Nicolle Elizabeth

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