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Posts tagged Oulipo

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.”

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