Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Counting Ways of Change

A talk given as part of "The Experimental Form and Issues of Accessibility" panel at the 2005 AWP conference held in Vancouver, B.C.

I’d like to briefly trace through the history of a project that I developed and show you how it began as a series of experiments that transformed over the course of a couple of years and through several disciplines. The initial project was a short book entitled Loop d’Oulipo, which was meant to be both an homage and a parody of the work by the Oulipo, a French literary group begun in 1960 by writer Raymond Queneau and mathematical historian François Le Lionnais. The Oulipo, which stands for Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle, or Workshop for Potential Literature, is comprised of writers, mathematicians and scientists, and includes among its members Harry Matthews, Italo Calvino, Georges Perec. The primary occupation of the Oulipo, besides meeting to eat elaborate dinners and drink appallingly expensive vintage French wine, was to devise mathematical manipulations that could be used to generate literature. In many ways these Oulipan forms are similar to the forms of a sonnet or villanelle, in which the rules of writing are arithmetic and objective, and the motivations behind the form are really pretty arbitrary. The sonnet’s fourteen lines of iambic pentameter riming in three quatrains and couplet don’t seem to carry any apparent intellectual or emotional meaning, at least that we in the twenty-first century know of. Many of the Oulipan formal ideas appear in anglophone experimental writing, especially among the Language poets. Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, which she wrote in her 37th year and which is comprised of 37 sections of 37 sentences, uses an Oulipan-like numeric tactic as part of her approach to her story. By using an approach to writing that is both mathematical and non-traditional, these poets hope to rid themselves of some of the political meaning that is built into narrative and traditional forms. Among other things.

In Loop d’Oulipo I use one of the more famous Oulipan forms—that of N+7, in which, taking a dictionary and a found text, you replace each noun in the text with the noun that is seven nouns below the original’s listing in the dictionary. Choosing well-known texts creates a comic resonance in the reader’s memory. And so we have:

Let me not to the marsh of true minefields
Admit impetigo. Lubber is not Lubber
Which alters when it altimeter finds,


When in the chrysanthemum of wasted tin can
I see dessicants of the fairest wilderness

Part of the point of Oulipan forms is that as nonsensical as they are, they still sound like they make sense. They make use of the human mind’s need to organize information into meaning. Something to bear in mind when approaching experimental writing.

The second set of experiments in Loop d’Oulipo is based on the work of Lewis Carroll, who is recognized by the Oulipans as a member of their group even though he has been dead for a century before their formation. Carroll, a mathematician and logician as well as a writer, wrote a number of logic puzzles for his readers, some presented as stories, others as series of whimsical sentences that had answers, that could be “solved.” For the prose pieces in the Loop d’Oulipo I took logic puzzles from puzzle magazines that I found in the news racks at my local Safeway. These logic puzzles are the kind you may remember from the SAT or GRE. A short paragraph presents a story with a number of givens, such After the big snowstorm, all the families of Burrow street found their cars blocked in their garages. While they were waiting for the snowplow they decided to get together for a potluck. The Green children, who aren’t three in number, but who live next to the White family, brought baked beans. The four Brown children, who live across the street from the Black family. Etc. The challenge I set myself in my stories was to write logical information into a story in as seamless a way as possible, so that the reader didn’t realize they were reading a story that was actually a puzzle. The other challenge I set myself was to focus the story on some peevish part of human personalities, because the people in logic puzzles are always good natured and admirable. One of the rewritten stories is about envy, another about lust, and the third about a kind of lapse in compassion.

Along with these two Oulipan exercises, I devised a text-generating “machine” of my own, based on a set of puzzles that I had given my partner for a New Year’s gift. I’d like to look at this experiment more closely. Out of Sight! Mind-bending Visual Puzzles by Cliff Pickover is a calendar with a puzzle for each month. The puzzles are either mazes or arithmetic mandalas, which require you to find the correct set of numbers that add up to a specific number, say 200. Over the face of three of these puzzles I ran found scientific text so that each number or space in the puzzle was associated with a textual fragment of two or three words. One of the texts was the 1873 translation of The Atmosphere by Camille Flammarion. When you solve the puzzle you garner a set of textual fragments that you can then rearrange into a poem to suit your taste or sense of meaning. I found the poems generated often quite beautiful, though mysterious. Here is one of the shorter poems:

The sky. Now

To fall

Not long after I put together Loop d’Oulipo, composer Peter Josheff asked me to write a libretto for a twenty-minute piece for female spoken voice, soprano, and baritone. Over the past ten years Peter and I have collaborated on a number of voical and instrumental piece, both improvisational and composed. I was a little perplexed about what kind of text to use for that unusual mix of voices, until I was talking one afternoon with the soprano, Eliza O’Malley. She mentioned that her grandmother had died recently, and that she had been reading her diaries. She went on to say that her grandmother never put anything personal or private in her diaries; they were all very matter of fact: I got up to feed the animals. I had lunch with Tom. Etc. We agreed that it was very odd that anyone writing a diary would be that emotionally restrained, but this became the idea, the plot, of sorts, behind Diary, the chamber oratorio that we produced in 2000. In the piece the female spoken voice takes on the voice of the diary: recording the everyday events in the passage of one day in a flat almost expressionless monologue. It’s hot again this morning. I ate lunch early. In emotional counterpoint to the spoken voice, the soprano and baritone enact the untold emotional events of the day, and it was in these lyrics sung by the soprano and baritone that I used the text generated by my poem-generating puzzles. We performed Diary at the Berkeley Art Center 2002 and at the American Composers Salon in San Francisco in 2003. Last year the small San Francisco opera company Fresh Voices performed Diary as a staged opera. The director and choreographer added another dimension to the piece by adding a female dancer. The choreographer saw the three women in the piece—the speaker, the soprano, and the dancer—as versions of the same woman at different points in her life, all interacting in a single moment of time as if time had looped back on itself twice.

What remains most engaging to me about this project is not only how this piece developed from a series of humorous experiments but how, as it moved from poem to lyric to opera, that it gained layers of interpretation that affected its accessibility: not only were the words heard by various audiences but they were reinterpreted by various performers. Music itself, which holds a kind of abstraction within it that we take for granted as accessible, is finally much less accessible in the ways that we expect language to be. Language placed within the context of music then takes on a different, more easily negotiable, accessibility. To demonstrate that I would like to play for you the soprano’s aria from Diary.

The puzzle-generated text for this is one of the simpler ones, consisting of six words in three phrases:

The clear wing
Bright yellow

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