Algebra and flame

The French writer Raymond Queneau, a founding member of the “Oulipo” literary salon, explored 99 variations of an apparently insignificant experience on a city bus in his 1947 book, Exercises in Style.

A tall man wearing a hat boards a bus. A dispute ensues about a seat. This event is observed by the passenger/narrator who, at the end of the story, encounters the man again, seeing him discuss the buttons on his jacket (and the need for a new one) with a friend. To tell this story, Queneau uses such conceits as “Notation” (a present-tense report in unadorned language); “Philosophic” (verbose, broad statements that neglect all factual detail); and the more esoteric “Permutations by groups of 9, 10, 11 and 12” (the narrative rendered through mathematical constraints).

You can do something like Queneau’s Exercises at the 2010 Conference on Constrained Poetry on Saturday, Nov. 20 — you can even ride the No. 2 bus to get there.

UNCA Associate Professor of Math Patrick Bahls, who co-organized the conference with Literature Professor Richard Chess, discussed the event with Xpress. “A couple of years ago I was working on developing some new poetic constraints (very mathematical ones), and while reviewing some notes, I noticed that Oulipo was founded in November of 1960,” he said. “Knowing that the 50th anniversary … would arrive [in 2010], I decided to put together a celebration.”

The event promises more than commemoration, offering one day of workshops, readings and discussions around the variability of expression — and also the limitation of expression, specifically, how an experience, such as a bus ride (or lunch, or a haircut), can be rendered through formal restriction.

Marshall/ New York-based poet Lee Ann Brown explained, “It can be easier to write about difficult things if a form ‘forces’ you to go further — the difference with Oulipo is that you don’t compose within a form, you use it to ‘operate’ on a preexisting text — yours or someone else’s.”

Brown’s lecture, "Toward a Regional Oulipo," literally brings Oulipo home.

“Oulipo is an acronym for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, usually translated as the ‘Workshop of Potential Literature.’ I will emphasize the alternative translation, ‘Sewing Circle of Potential Literature,’ in that the French word Ouvroir [can mean] a collective of women who get together to talk and sew, [like] a French kind of ‘Stitch-N-Bitch,’ with a piece of literature [produced] rather than a coverlet.”

Brown will apply this idea of poetry as communal craft to life in the Old North State. “The [sewing circle] metaphor seems to reverberate more with some of the cultural forms found around North Carolina,” she said. “I will suggest some ways to forge new literary forms out of forms that proliferate here, such as quilts, roadmaps and geodesic domes.”

Brown will also open the conference with a presentation, which, she said, will be a “poetry reading with added explanation; a sort of lecture-demo that aims to serve as a primer for some of their formative ideas to set the free play of language in motion.” Attend this talk for an engaging introduction to Oulipo. “I will perform my own work and explain … Oulipian formulas and approaches,” Brown told Xpress. “I will also include examples from Oulipo members such as Harry Mathews, Raymond Queneau, George Perec and Jaques Roubaud, as well as examples from contemporary American poets such Harryette Mullen and Bernadette Mayer.

Bahls discussed what attendees can expect from another lecture, “Poetry in Service of Mathematics,” conducted by Western Carolina University Math professor Sloan Despeaux. “[Despeaux’s address] will deal more with what one might call ‘poetical mathematics.’ Sloan is a math historian; she hopes to say a bit about the ways in which verse and other genres of creative writing have been used throughout the ages to communicate mathematical ideas.”

Chess, who also heads the Center for Jewish Studies at UNCA, will discuss the numerology of language through religion (specifically Kabbalah, the mystical branch of Judaism) in his session, “Gematria, Notarikon and Tseruf: Kabbalistic Permutations, Combinations and Other Methods of Creation and Re-creation.”

“Kabbalists are keenly interested in language, doing all kinds of crazy permutations and calculations based on the numerical values of various words, to reveal new meanings suggested by the Torah and to help them get closer to god,” Chess told Xpress.

“I'm going to introduce these Kabbalistic techniques briefly, then give participants in my workshop a chance to use some of these techniques.”

Other presenters at the conference include poet Kristin Prevallet and UNCA Professors Curt Cloninger and Merritt Moseley.

Brown insisted that the conference will be less iambic pentameter-meets-multiplication table, and more of a fun exploration of language.

Expect “to try new things that might help get past any math and/or poetry anxieties you may have stored up by two days of collective word play,” she said.

— Jaye Bartell can be reached at

who: 2010 Conference on Constrained Poetry
what: “A one-day event to show case the beauty and complexity of constrained and experimental poetry.”
where: UNCA (Various classrooms and lecture halls)
when: Opening presentation/reception (Humanities Lecture Hall): Friday, Nov. 19 (7 p.m.). Conference: Saturday, Nov. 20 (9 a.m. – 4:45 p.m.)


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