- Samuel Verdin
October OULIPO Workshop Materials
Can't make it to our monthly workshops? No worries, we'll publish the syllabus for them on our blog!
(Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle – Workshop for Potential Literature)
Founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais. Other important figures: Georges Perec, Marcel Bénabou, Italo Calvino, Michèle Audin, Frédéric Forte, Jacques Roubaud, Harry Matthews.
Note: Before OULIPO was formed, many of the techniques that it encompasses (or ones similar to them) were being used as far back as 3rd century China.
What is it?
Simply put, OULIPO is when literature meets mathematics and/or various rule-based constraints which are applied to the writing. Some examples…
Lipogram: Writing that excludes one or more letters. The previous sentence is a lipogram in B, F, J, K, Q, V, Y, and Z (it does not contain any of those letters).
Georges Perec – A Void (1969)
A lipogram in e:
Noon rings out. A wasp, making an ominous sound, a sound akin to a klaxon or a tocsin, flits about. Augustus, who has had a bad night, sits up blinking and purblind. Oh what was that word (is his thought) that ran through my brain all night, that idiotic word that, hard as I'd try to pun it down, was always just an inch or two out of my grasp - fowl or foul or Vow or Voyal? - a word which, by association, brought into play an incongruous mass and magma of nouns, idioms, slogans and sayings, a confusing, amorphous outpouring which I sought in vain to control or turn off but which wound around my mind a whirlwind of a cord, a whiplash of a cord, a cord that would split again and again, would knit again and again, of words without communication or any possibility of combination, words without pronunciation, signification or transcription but out of which, notwithstanding, was brought forth a flux, a continuous, compact and lucid flow: an intuition, a vacillating frisson of illumination as if caught in a flash of lightning or in a mist abruptly rising to unshroud an obvious sign - but a sign, alas, that would last an instant only to vanish for good.
Prisoner's constraint: A type of lipogram that omits letters with ascenders and descenders (b, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, p, q, t, and y).
Univocalism: Writing which just uses one vowel (and attendant vowel sounds) – Hamlet: Be? Never be? Perplexed quest: seek the secret!
Tautogram: A text whose words, or at least the principal ones, all begin with the same letter – Opera opens out of ovoid orifices.
Raymond Queneau – Exercises in Style (1947): A book in which the first chapter is retold in numerous different ways.
NOTATION. In the S bus, in the rush hour. A chap of about 26, felt hat with a cord instead of a ribbon, neck too long, as if someone’s been having a tug-of-war with it. People getting off. The chap in question gets annoyed with one of the men standing next to him. He accuses him of jostling him every time anyone goes past. A snivelling tone which is meant to be aggressive. When he sees a vacant seat he throws himself on to it.
Two hours later, I meet him in the Cour de Rome, in front of the gare Saint-Lazare. He’s with a friend who’s saying: “You ought to get an extra button put on your overcoat.” He shows him where (at the lapels) and why.
NEGATIVES. It was neither a boat, nor an aeroplane, but a terrestrial means of transport. It was neither the morning, nor the evening, but midday. It was neither a baby, nor an old man, but a young man. It was neither a ribbon, nor a string, but a plaited cord. It was neither a procession, nor a brawl, but a scuffle. It was neither a pleasant person, nor an evil person, but a bad-tempered person. It was neither a truth, nor a lie, but a pretext. It was neither a standing person, nor a recumbent person, but a would-be-seated person.
It was neither the day before, nor the day after, but the same day. It was neither the gare du Nord, nor the P.-L.-M. but the gare Saint-Lazare. It was neither a relation, nor a stranger, but a friend. It was neither an insult, nor ridicule, but sartorial advice.
N + 7 (S +7): Invented by Jean Lescure, this technique replaces each noun in a piece of writing, a poem, an article etc., with the 7th following in a dictionary – the smaller the dictionary the better.
For example, Hamlet: To be or not to be: that is the quibble.
Or the first line of Genesis: In the bend God created the hen and the education.
An N+7 version of Wordsworth’s The Daffodils – original: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45521/i-wandered-lonely-as-a-cloud
Using a dictionary or this N+ Generator (http://www.spoonbill.org/n+7/), take the first few sentences from a book close to you and apply N+7 to them. Write down what you have and share your results.
Lipogram. Talk about yourself or a defining moment in your life without using the letter “i” or any words that contain it.
Snowball poem based on the inventory of your current home. What is the “species” of your space?
Think about how we use punctuation to tell a story, what it does to our sentences and paragraphs. In what ways could we only use punctuation to tell a story?
We have all experienced the isolation brought upon our lives by the effects of COVID-19. Using only the experiences you had inside somewhere/thing (a hotel room, car, plane, kitchen, etc.) describe the last big journey or holiday you took away from home. To make this a little harder, try using words of only four letters or less in length.
Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual (Hatchette Livre, 1978)
Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature, edited by Warren F. Motte (Dalkey Archive Press, 1998 – originally published in 1986)
Oulipo Laboratory: Texts from the Bibliothèque Oulipienne (Atlas Press, 1995)
The Penguin Book of Oulipo, edited by Philip Terry (Penguin Classics, 2019)