This Is Our Only World: A Report on the n/OULIPO Conference, Part 2
First: poet Stephanie Young, who was a participant in the n/OULIPO conference, and whose presentation with Juliana Spahr was one of the most talked-about events of the weekend, has posted an account on her blog The Well-Nourished Moon.
The Oulipo Compendium
available from Make Now Press
Saturday morning the conference resumed with a panel entitled “Words at Work and Words at Play.” The speakers were Bard professor and poet Caroline Bergvall, UCLA professor and poet Haryette Mullen, and Rob Wittig, poet and board member of the Electronic Literature Organization. The moderator was Mady Schutzman. Bergvall presented a fascinating essay on Georges Perec that drew on his “site” writings from Species of Spaces and L’infra-ordinaire. Bergvall suggested that in these works “word play” is jettisoned for “world play”. Perec's interest lies in how the time process of writing and durational performance create new senses of social order by tying writing to contingent social space and time. From Perec’s forward to Species of Spaces: “The subject of this book is not the void exactly, but rather what there is round about or inside it. To start with, then, there isn’t very much: nothingness, the impalpable, the virtually immaterial; extension, the external, what is external to us, what we move about in the midst of, our ambient milieu, the space around us.” In his site writings Perec subjected his writing to spatial conditions: he would write in a particular place for a particular amount of time. Bergvall contends that these sited writings increased his level of engagement by a radical disengagement; by describing a particular time (Thursday 27 February 1969 around 4pm on the Rue Vilin, for example) Perec always at the same time described the deeper social changes occurring in society. Says Bergvall: “Change is the main function of space, disappearance its motive”. These writing techniques go to the source of Perec’s theory of description: why write? When write? Bergvall’s essay played these “site writings” against Perec’s idea of the “infraordinary” (which I understand as the opposite of the “extraordinary” – “the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infraordinary, the background noise, the habitual”). Can you really capture what you see? This question unsettled Perec. Bergvall also suggested that Perec’s appropriation of Joe Brainard’s I Remember poem deepened the project by combining biographical time with collective time, where memories become shared impressions. Bergvall finally wanted to suggest a possible reading of Perec’s “infraordinary” with Marcel Duchamp’s “infrathin” (infrathin: the heat of a seat just vacated). Where does language go at this level of perception?
Haryette Mullen prefaced her remarks by warning that what she was about to relate would be anecdotal. She wondered about Oulipian themes in her own work (Sleeping With the Dictionary, Muse and Drudge, and S*Perm**K*T among others) and then realized the connection: her initials, H.M., are the same as the famous Oulipian Harry Mathews. Mullen had read Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch and Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler without exactly knowing anything about the Oulipo. She admitted to being more of a Yulipian (not sure about the spelling?) in the manner of jazz master Rahsaan Roland Kirk than an Oulipian. She discovered the literary group only later, and the fact that she uses Oulipian techniques in her own writing is proof that the Oulipo has far-reaching influence. For Mullen, poetry is the ultimate rule-governed writing. Following rules can make poetry more poetic and is proof of the durability of linguistic structures. She credits Oulipian techniques for demystifying poetic inspiration. Constraints and language games are the best ways she has found to get past writer’s block (the problem of the blank page). Textual transformation and language games are like a return to Lewis Carroll and the delight one finds in the clutches of the Jabberwock.
Rob Wittig began his talk by claiming Psychology as the master-discourse: one can understand American politics by asking the simple question, “What kind of dad do I want?” Oulipo engages in play, and play for Wittig is a state of mind. But what is the payoff for constraint? First, it is process-help for the miserable chore of writing. The well-known quote “writers think they hate writing but they only hate the first few minutes” rings true for Wittig, and using constraints can help a writer begin his or her arduous task (once again, the problem of the blank page). (An aside: Paul Fournel suggested that it is very easy to write during those first few minutes; simply write a sentence such as "After dinner I took a stroll through the beautiful city of New --", leave off in mid-sentence, go to sleep, wake up the next morning, and simply begin writing where you left off "--Orleans"). Second, it’s simply fun to be involved in a game. Third, the results of constrained writing often offer a sense of craft as proof of the ordeal of writing, the long pull from the red to the black, where rhymes are earned or suffered in the troubadour tradition. Wittig also spoke of constrained writing as palliative for emotional distress and a tool for the ordering of intentions. "The horror of having one’s mind in a mêlée." Oulipian constraint can be seen as the ultimate rebuke to Romanticism. Georges Perec once sat in a café and watched a romantic diner eat and write. Perec’s description of the diner: “a mouthful, a concept, a mouthful, a concept, a mouthful, a concept…” Wittig ended by placing the pranksters from the Church of the Sub Genius in the Oulipian tradition and mentioned a possible intervention into everyday life we all could make. Buy a parrot and teach it to say the following words: “I understand what I’m saying. I’m being held against my will. Help me.”
The second panel of the day “Science & Chance: Aleatorics vs. Automization” included poet Bernadette Mayer, Matias Viegener, and Oulipian Ian Monk. Maggie Nelson moderated. My Mayer notes are fragmented – she has a compelling personality that makes you want to just sit and listen to her talk and laugh – so I will try to make some sort of sense. Mayer shares with the Oulipo an obsession with language and hilarity. She asks: does Chance need to be exonerated? One thing she likes to do is write poems using the first and last sentences of trashy novels (she read about a dozen of these and they were uproarious). Mayer said: “If Chance were sitting at a table I would have dinner with it. Perhaps it would order a good wine. I can’t tell.” She mentioned her story “Story” as a possible Oulipian-esque text (a description of the story from The Bernadette Mayer Reader says: “'Story' is a novella-length work in which stories interweave in a diamond-shaped structure so that at its center fourteen stories are going on simultaneously. Each section is given a title that is a form of storytelling”). Mayer said she never has anything to say in the ordinary literary sense so she uses “time” as a theme or constraint in much of her work.
Matias Viegener again began his talk by invoking the Ben Marcus vs. Jonathan Franzen essay in the September issue of Harper’s. For the most part, said Viegener, Marcus resists reducing the argument to experimentalists vs. realists. However, Marcus lacks a clear definition of the “experimental”. If narrative realism, to quote Carla Harryman, is an “addiction to transparency”, what pray tell is the experimental? The experimental is usually not used in the strict historical sense by current writers . Unlike “postmodernism” or “deconstruction” says Viegener, the term “experimental” is never used to sell things. (I take a bit of an issue with this – concept cars are usually called “experimental” and are used by auto design firms to sell ideas; novels too are sometimes marketed as “experimental”). The historical avant-garde is usually linked to manifestoes, which are programmatic rather than experimental. And the most successful literary experiments are often very simple (e.g. Joe Brainard’s I Remember; but there was some mumbling by the audience that I Remember isn't exactly experimental). Viegener then outlined the scientific history of “experimentalism” from Aristotle through Francis Bacon and the Enlightenment to the present (I will not go into detail here; I am too ignorant of scientific history and would tremble with inaccuracies). The Oulipo, after taking note of the early and mid-20th century avant-gardes, chose instead to disavow “literary experiment” for “literary potential.” Then Viegener suggested 2 literary models for “experimental potential”: the first was a psychologist I had never heard of (Menan or Mynan or Meinan? If anybody knows for sure, please comment or let me know otherwise).* The second was Gilles Deleuze who “makes it possible to talk about the new without blushing, and generally rejects genre and avant-gardes.” If narrative realism is reactive (and that’s a big if), literary experiment is active. Some other notes from his talk: constraint cannot be rigid; it must creak (this is in reference to the clinamen, a deviation from the strict consequences of the constraint, according to the Oulipo Compendium – for instance, the one place in a "novel without adjectives" where an adjective is used). Finally, Viegener suggested that to describe experimental writing as marginal or difficult diminishes the work’s power and its potential pleasure for readers. From the audience, Vanessa Place pointed out that narrative realism is often subject to experimentalism itself; Zola wrote The Experimental Novel, where experimental = experience. Michael Silverblatt, also in the audience, prefaced his remarks by warning that what he was about to suggest was unfashionable and sentimental. Isn’t the reason we’re all here, asked Silverblatt, isn’t the reason we’re all still interested in the Oulipo explicitly due to the fact that the group included three geniuses (Perec, Calvino, and Cortázar – the last of whom was actually not in the Oulipo but was a member of the College of ‘Pataphysics) and produced three masterpieces of 20th century literature (Life: A Users Manual, If on a winter’s night a traveler, and Hopscotch). Needless to say the appeal to masterworks did not go over well (in private conversation several writers told me that there are ways to measure a work’s success without resorting to the “masterwork” tag), except with the Oulipians, who insisted: “There will be more! There will be more!”
Funny, I’m writing this in Microsoft Word and it wants to auto-correct “clinamen” as “Klansmen”.
Part 3, which I hope will be the final installment, will cover the final 2 panels from the conference, including the electric panel on “politics and constraint.”
*UPDATE: Matias Viegener writes to say that, besides Gilles Deleuze, the other literary model for "experimental potential" is Alexius Meinong, an Austrian philosopher, phenomenologist and experimental psychologist.