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Question your teaspoons: an interview with Oulipian Daniel Levin Becker

Daniel Levin Becker is the youngest member of the Oulipo, a writing group or secret society or “bunch of nerds” who employ constraints in the construction of elaborate—whether apparent or not—literary works. The Oulipo, an acronym for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, which translates into something like “Workshop for Potential Literature,” includes many eminent (and/or obscure) members among its ranks: Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec, Italo Calvino, Harry Mathews, and Anne Garréta, among others.

Many Subtle Channels (Harvard University Press, 2012) is Levin Becker’s history of the group and his role within it. It’s unique among its kind: an accessible, intelligent, and often funny examination of a phenomenon that has more often been treated academically. While there are other good works on the Oulipo in English, Many Subtle Channels offers the most human account of the benefits of potential literature. I find it hard to imagine a more ideal introduction to the group.

Stephen (SS) recently talked to Daniel about constraints, potential, and picketing zipper factory employees.

One of the more charming characteristics of Many Subtle Channels are the footnotes scattered throughout the text. You mentioned that your publisher… suggested… that you cut several. Are there any excised notes you particularly care to share with the world?

Ooh, what an offer. (I have a project in the queue—where it’s probably of more use to everyone than in any sort of incarnation—called “Index of murdered darlings,” consisting entirely of things I was compelled, by my editor or by better judgment, to excise from MSC.) I was actually trying the other day to find an early footnote about the supposed “pirate translations” of the essay in which Calvino breaks down the algorithm he used for If on a winter’s night a traveler, and could find no trace of it anywhere. Weird! Anyway, here are three:

42 That’s right: Perec was an anticipatory plagiarist of Salt-n-Pepa.

207 Flarf is also related, temperamentally if not officially, to Spoetry, the art of composing poetry based on input from spam email text. Although Flarf and noulipo dovetail thanks to their mutual interest in “conjunctive/accumulative” procedures, the former is decidedly more surrealist than oulipian or post-oulipian, insofar as it surrenders a great deal of the control to outside circumstances. Google is a good generative device, but one is not in control of the algorithms it uses, unless one is very, very high up on the totem pole at Google—and this eliminates from Flarfian experiment the essential possibility of opening the hood to mess with the engine.

218 Paris is, however, a French city, which means at least a few of the businesses on any commercial street are bound to have some kind of awful pun for a name, hearty wordplay being as natural to the French as casual racism—which doesn’t make Paris that much more oulipian but does make the Oulipo much more Parisian. (This is, for the record, Mathews’s answer whenever anyone asks him whether the Oulipo is inherently French: it’s inherently Parisian. He pronounces the word to rhyme with derision.)

Can you tell us a little bit about how the Oulipo is constituted? How does one become a member of the group? How does one avoid becoming a member (or being a member after one is inducted)? 

One becomes a member first by attending one of the Oulipo’s monthly meetings as a guest of honor and presenting whatever it is of one’s work that dovetails with oulipian interests, then by being unanimously elected by the group. One can avoid becoming a member very easily: by asking to be a member and thereby becoming permanently ineligible for membership. After one is inducted one cannot quit or be kicked out; the only official way to leave the group is to commit suicide for no purpose other than to leave the group, and to do so in the presence of a notary. A few people have distanced themselves from the group’s activities by just sort of ceasing to participate, but they’re still officially considered members, just inactive ones. This includes dead members. 

Throughout the book, you offer several ways the Oulipo has been defined. Is there a definition that’s more apt than others? Have you formulated your own response to the inevitable question of “So what is the Oulipo, exactly”?

I usually go with some variation of “a research group of writers and scientists whose collective subject of inquiry is the literary potential of mathematical structures.” Sometimes—okay, often—I replace “research group of writers and scientists” with “bunch of nerds.”

Based on descriptions of the methodologies of the group, one might assume that work produced by members of the Oulipo tends to be a little too high-flown or conceptual (and therefore to an American, too French). But I think you make it a point—whether to combat an assumption like the one I’ve just stated or not—of presenting the Oulipo as a very human, at times touchingly personal endeavor, especially in the case of someone like Georges Perec or the incredible Le Lionnais. Can you speak at all to how something like n+7 or a lipogram can come to reflect very human issues?

The broad-strokes answer is that a constraint chosen and applied for a thoughtful reason will leave a human stamp on the resulting text. The obvious example is Perec’s La Disparition, which evolves from a parlor-game (let’s see how long we can go without using the letter E) into a tale about loss in which he works out, to an extent, the death of both of his parents in World War II. In that case, whether or not it was a conscious marriage of constraint and baggage from the outset, writing under formally ridiculous conditions allowed Perec to express his feelings more purely (so the story goes) than he would have been able to otherwise. 

It’s a little harder to say how something more procedural like N+7 can be personal, but in this case I’d say the human stamp has less to do with the text produced than with the relationship of the author (or operator) to the rules themselves. (As Harry Mathews points out in response to my claim that “nothing accidental ever happens on the way from one noun to the seventh after it in a dictionary,” there is in fact some room for accident, such as deciding whether to include or exclude hyphenated words and compounds.) Probably the most personal thing to do with a procedural form like this is to introduce another constraint—go for the eighth next noun, use a dictionary of nautical terminology, etc.—for a good and resonant reason. 

You make a pretty sustained case as to why the Oulipo, a relatively obscure French literary collective, has relevance to more than a coterie of like-minded readers and artists. Can you briefly sum up why that is and what the group offers to readers who may not be interested in the formulation of constraints per se?

It’s not mine to make, but I buy pretty wholeheartedly into the argument that creativity thrives on rules and constraints, and that there are rules and constraints in virtually everything we do—so there’s potential for organized play, i.e. games, all around us. For me the games usually have to do with language, and are usually pretty momentary—but what’s cool about this line of thinking is that (a) it can be anything with rules and (b) it doesn’t have to be momentary, that you could use those rules to build something much bigger if you were so inclined. Consider La Disparition again.

Irredeemably nerdy example of how this plays out: I passed someone on the street the other day wearing a muscle T-shirt that said “FUCK SLEEVES” and immediately (well, after thinking “that is awesome”) thought of the band Fuck Buttons. And I got a few moments of joy from the contrast of those two structurally identical but culturally different phrases: why is it that on a T-shirt “fuck” reads as a verb and in a band name it seems like a functional attribute (i.e., “just press the fuck button”)? What if you switched those roles and made “fuck buttons” a chant among rioting zipper industry workers, and “fuck sleeves” a really crude name for fishnet stockings? You could go pretty far with that little game (although I think it’s probably pretty obvious why I let it remain momentary in this case). That’s the “potential” part. 

Anyway, I think the idea of potential is mostly just that structures are there for you to play with in whatever way makes you happy and creatively productive. It’s not just about creativity, though, for me and for most of the people in the book: to some degree we like games because there are rules and we’re not faced with the complete uncertainty of the real entropic world, and by the same token there’s something existentially reassuring about the idea that there are solutions to be found, the way there are solutions to math problems, even (or maybe especially) if you’re only solving problems you set for yourself. 

I promise this is all explained more eloquently in the book. 

What’s your favorite book by a member of the Oulipo?

In an effort to be unpredictable, I’m going to say Calvino’s t-zero. It’s not actually very oulipian, just nerdy and brilliant. Ask me tomorrow, of course, and I’ll probably have a different answer.

Do you have any ideas about what’s next for the group?

Only that, in light of our recent election of a cartoonist, Etienne Lécroart, I think the Oulipo will start to collaborate more closely with some of the like-minded but different-disciplined workshops in its midst (such as the OuBaPo, of which Etienne is a flagship member), and that the divisions will start to break down more and more between literature in the books-and-poems sense and literature in other, newer, less venerated forms.

* * *

For a list of Daniel’s favorite works by members of the Oulipo, read his interview at Full Stop.

His translation of Georges Perec’s dream journal will be published next year by Melville House as La Boutique Obscure.

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    I recently talked to DLB about constraints, potential, and picketing zipper factory employees. Read the interview at...
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