Monday, October 31, 2005

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.
This Is Our Only World: A Report on the n/OULIPO Conference, Part 1

The Los Angeles Oulipo conference (or n/Oulipo or noulipo as others have it) is over. Its participants and audience must now get back to the book (or paper or writing or internet or nature as the case may be). I thought about using a constraint to compile these notes but it seemed both too obvious and too taxing. I have enough trouble updating “me old blog” as it is – I haven’t stretched enough to jump another hurdle. Maybe a few laps around the track will tip me into shape. I apologize in advance for any lacunae, inaccuracies, reductions or misinterpretations in what follows. I also apologize for the stilted prose. I’m working from notes, some of which seem incoherent now, and I’ve had very little sleep the past few days. Conversation went deep into the night. I’ve included very little of my own thoughts and reactions to the work presented. I hope instead to offer a summary of the event (though I suppose the title of this blog-entry and what I choose to note and ignore reveal my own interests and biases). When the yearbook is published next year you will be able to read some of the essays, poems, and prose that were presented at the conference. Last year’s edition (from the Séance conference) is freshly printed from Make Now Press and should soon be available here.

CalArts professor Matias Viegener opened the proceedings by invoking the infamous Ben Marcus essay on experimentalism and realism in September’s issue of Harper’s, “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen and Life as We Know It” (an excerpt of which can be found here). Viegener suggested that the essay is too defensive and does not go far enough in its interrogation of the conflict between experimentalism and realism. The essay’s primary fault is that it offers no real definition of the experimental. On the other hand, it does open a potential space for the discussion of the experimental inclination in writing. It was from this space that Viegener hoped the n/Oulipo conference would operate.

Paul Fournel, President of the Oulipo (or King of the Umpa Lumpas, as others had it) gave the next address, dedicated to recently departed Oulipian Jean Lescure. Fournel described how Raymond Queneau recruited him in the early 1960s “as a slave” for the newly formed group (but, he added, “everybody loves Raymond”) and that they created “a secret garden of research and friendship”. They were interested in the non-immanence of constraint and math & science as structural elements of textual production. Fournel carefully differentiated constraint from structure. Structure is focused on the text while constraint is focused on production (this distinction was brought up frequently during the conference). Constraints, he said, can be found in numerous “anticipatory plagiarists”. Constraints for the Oulipo have a pedagogical efficiency and can be exclusively related to the writer of the text and not just the text itself.

The first panel was entitled “Letters and Numbers” and included Brian Kim Stefans, Christine Wertheim, and moderator Douglas Kearney. Stefans asked: “What can the Oulipo do for new media?” To be honest, Stefans read so quickly that I didn’t manage to write much down or follow everything he said, but here’s what I have: words are traditionally privileged entities; but words are not just another element to be used like sound or color. Stefans is interested in digital works for which texts solve a problem. He suggests that the limitations of media art form a kind of constraint. As he read his essay he projected images from various works of media art on a screen behind him. Those interested should explore his fascinating website for links to some of these new media artworks (or his blog Free Space Comix). And be sure to check out his work as well (his book Fashionable Noise: On Digital Poetics goes into many of his ideas in-depth). Christine Wertheim, a member of the Institute for Figuring, presented an intriguing and complex essay that seemed to parody scientific inquiry by employing a pseudo-scientific theory she developed herself. Integral to her theory is the interactivity of the (textual?) body and the symbolic. For Wertheim, language is a visual phenomenon. Structures found in nature and mathematics can be applied to an analysis of language due to “knots” or “nots” in space-time. For Wertheim, the universe is “linguistico-conceptual”. To prove her theory she projected slides that combined mathematical equations with visual poetry. We all know that the substance of the universe is space-time, but for Wertheim the substance of the linguistic-universe is “time-space”. Through visual-poetic alchemy (“time-space” converted to “+/’me --> rhythm” and further series of playful metamorphoses of linguistic characters) Wertheim showed that language could be smelted into seven Aristotelian categories (I couldn’t catch all the categories because she changed the slide after only a few moments). This was proof that ideology, i.e. binary categories of conceptual thought, is embedded in language itself (and as students of Western Civilization we all know that binary opposition is one of the ideologies at the basis of human thought). Wertheim ended her talk by urging us to move beyond simple binary opposition.

British Oulipian Ian Monk gave the next address on “what the Oulipo is not”. According to Monk, the Oulipo is not dead, but it might smell funny. The Oulipo does not seek to suggest what one must do; it seeks to say what one can do (if one wants to do it). If you write a novel without using Oulipian constraints, the Oulipo will not say, “yes, this is all nice and good, but you’ve used all the letters in the alphabet here.” The Oulipo ultimately seeks to solve the problem of the blank page. Monk prefers to use the terms “structure, form and technique” rather than “constraint.” By using techniques, you will get something other than a blank page – that something might be crap, but it’s something. And ultimately it is up to the writer whether he or she wants to use techniques or not. On the question of the translation of Oulipian texts, Monk says that it is essential that the translator retain the formal technique in the translation. An audience member asked Monk to describe an Oulipian meeting. Monk said, first, that each meeting must have at least one new creation or text. Secondly, there must be a “rumination” (an idea for a new creation). Next, usually during supper, the Oulipians engage in “erudition” (that is, they present to each other various interesting texts and works that they have discovered –other novels or poems that may use Oulipian techniques). Finally they all pay up for dinner, usually $10. As Monk explains it, some Oulipians have a great deal of money, some less, so they all try to pitch in the same modest amount. Monk ended with some threatening advice: if you ask to be a member of the Oulipo, you will not be a member of the Oulipo.

The next panel, “The Contents of Constraint,” consisted of Paul Fournel (again), Oulipo-esque novelist and poet Doug Nufer (who has a great day time job – he runs a wine shop in Seattle) and Vanessa Place, who has a new novel out called Dies: A Sentence (the entire 117 page novel is a single sentence). Place presented an allusive essay I would much rather have read, its density defeating my patience. My one note from her talk: the question of form is exhausted. Fournel limited his remarks to the topic of constraint, which “forces language to speak that which it does not want to speak.” Sometimes constraint is totally obvious (e.g. Perec’s La Disparition, a novel composed without the letter e). When constraint is not obvious, the constraint is usually more complicated. Concerning the politics of revelation: if the constraint can be re-used by others, the Oulipo recommends that it should be revealed. But under what conditions would one not wish to reveal a constraint (“Mathew’s algorithm,” for instance, is an unknown constraint Harry Mathews used to compose Cigarettes)? First, there may be commercial reasons. Often readers may be turned off if they are told a book has been written using constraints. Second, there may be a personal, secret reason (the case of Harry Mathews – he simply didn’t want to tell anybody). Third, by not revealing the constraint a writer can focus the attention of critics on another aspect of the work, such as plot or character. A French critic once reviewed Perec’s La Disparition without noticing there was no letter e. Italo Calvino was afraid to reveal his constraint for If on a winter’s night a traveler… because he worried it might scare readers away. But revealing, said Fournel, can be another way of hiding. Surrealist automatic writing often reveals constraints that do not look like the freedom it purports to access. Doug Nufer then addressed the old saw of "form & content". In commercial fiction, he noted, form and content is not an issue. Imagine how much more interesting Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter or Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News would have been if they had been written in the forms their titles reference. Ultimately, commercial fiction is defined by arbitrariness and is ruled by a dictatorship of taste. Purveyors of the conceit of “taste” often fail to recognize parody. Witness the genius of National Lampoon’s 1964 High School Yearbook. For Nufer, form is content. Constraint creates content and content creates restraint. Nufer then related an anecdote that illuminated the question of the revelation of constraint. Nufer was employed teaching literature to prison inmates. As part of the program the prisoners read his book Never Again (a 200 page novel in which no word is repeated).* The prisoners very earnestly and respectfully told Nufer that they did not like his book. But when the prisoners were informed of the formal constraint they became very interested and insisted on reading the book again.

The evening readings: Janet Sarbanes read from a novel about the president’s daughter; Bernadette Mayer read some hilarious n+7 poems (the source texts of which seemed to be sexual instruction manuals); Vanessa Place read from her novel Dies: A Sentence; Christine Wertheim read some visual poetry (which, she explained, was meant to be looked at and not necessarily read); Doug Nufer read some Oulipian-inspired work and sang a tin pan alley song (I believe it was a poem sung backwards); Rob Wittig read some Google poems; Tan Lin read from an unpublished novel (for a more detailed account of Tan’s reading check out Stan Apps at Refried Oracle Phone); and Rodrigo Toscano (along with Christian Bök, Stephanie Young and Brian Kim Stefans, all of whom I was happy to finally meet) read from a play (I didn’t catch the title) which was definitely the highlight of the night.

Okay, I’ve gone on long enough, and probably longer than I ever have before. If you attended the conference and wish to add anything or correct my mistakes or clarify any misunderstandings, please comment. And check back soon for Part 2.

*CORRECTIONS: Doug Nufer sends word that the book he had the prisoners read was not Never Again, but Negativeland (where each sentence has a negative construction). Also, and I can't believe I didn't recognize this, the song Nufer sang was "Star Dust" with the lyrics rearranged by spoonerism and inversion.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Hey, coincidentally Pamela Lu just posted on Chinatown too. It's true there's some wonderful galleries in Chinatown: China Art Objects, Black Dragon Society, Kordansky Gallery, Peres Projects, 4-F, Acuna-Hansen, Daniel Hug, The Happy Lion, Mary Goldman and a new one that doesn't seem to have a website yet, Bowie Van Halen (good luck finding it on Google with a name like that).

The end of October: my favorite time of year. Mischief making, arriving rains, and (in Los Angeles at least) a new season of literary readings. Sunday night the bacchanal began with a reading by Jen Hofer at Betalevel in Chinatown. The reading (and extensive Q&A) is part of a great new radio show hosted by Mathew Timmons and Stephanie Rioux called LA-Lit which aims to interview poets and writers (both livers and visitors) in the Los Angeles area. The reading and interview with Jen will be archived online at and at Previous interviews with Stan Apps, Ara Shirinyan, Julien Poirier, and Doug Kearney are already archived and ready to be listened to. And tomorrow night, Mary Caponegro will be reading at the Mountain Bar (also in Chinatown) and then Friday and Saturday, of course, the n/oulipo conference begins at the Redcat theater, also just a few blocks from Chinatown. I love Chinatown. Okay, I’m off to carve some pumpkins now.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Since I'm musing on music: I really don't understand the current mania for Sara Evans among certain poets and music critics. I tried out a few songs; the vocals are cloying, the production overslick, the melodies unsurprising. I'm not against packaging per se, many bands or singers do well by presenting a calculated image to the public; I just don't see anything that differentiates her from other successful country music stars like Faith Hill or Shania Twain. Can a fan fill me in?
Let's try this again: the new Deerhoof album is really swell, brimful of noise and pleasant pop.
I generally dislike when music critics describe a band by using other bands as shorthand. It tells you exactly nothing about the band at hand. Good thing I'm not a music critic.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Blissing out to the new Deerhoof album, The Runners Four. The 60s-psych sound is heightened here, and the recording is much more raw (no overdubs, no samples) than in the past; more acoustic instruments, more pop (still enough noise). It seems like each member of the band contributed and sang their own songs on this record too -- their styles of songwriting differ enough that it comes across like an updated White Album. Or a long lost Zombies record re-recorded by the sons & daughters of van Vliet and, oh I dunno, the Boredoms? The Slits?

Saturday, October 08, 2005

If you are in Los Angeles on October 28-29, and if you're interested, be sure to check out the 2nd annual CalArts experimental writing conference to be held at the Redcat theater. This year's focus is on the Oulipo and several oulipians will be in attendance.

Noulipo: Experimental Writing Conference

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Well this is the most insightful review I've read of A History of Violence so far.
The immediate problem of being a blog-addict -- that is, reading blogs consistantly and making the odd comment here and there across the internet -- is that you run the risk of neglecting your own blog. If you keep up with other people's posts you may feel as if you're staying current. In reality your blog is slowly being forgotten.


Did you know that our solar system's tenth planet has been named Xena? And that its moon is Gabrielle? Is this what happens when pop culture replaces Western culture in the popular imagination? How many people really know or care about the trials and tribulations of Ulysses or Madea, as opposed to, say, the latest mystery Locke, Jack, and Freckles conjured up last week on Lost? Will future constellations be called Cosby or Fonzarelli? Is that the monster that lies beyond the depths of Hades and its ruler Pluto? Xena: Warrior Princess?


Saw Cronenberg's new film, A History of Violence. Very subtle for this director, but he still managed to make the audience uncomfortable (yes, I have a magic ability to guage audience reaction; actually I just listen closely to their comments walking out of the theater). Annoyed that someone would bring a group of five kids aged about 2-10 to the late show on a Friday night; a movie with pretty explicit sex and violence to boot, including a wonderful cunnulingus scene. I won't say much about the plot other than that the title is a red herring. It's not the violence but the sex you should pay attention to.


At the film mentioned above, screened in Pasadena, caught the trailer for Ang Lee's new gay cowboy movie with Jake Gyllenhaal-Heath Ledger getting it on, Brokeback Mountain. The audience did not respond kindly: uncomfortable laughter, cat-calls. Someone yelled out: "Hell no! Hell no!" Did I fall asleep and wake up in a red-state?


New at the top of my "must-be-restored-and-released-on-dvd" films: Jacques Rivette's Celine & Julie Go Boating. Tedious at times, but then again, the next morning...