Invisible Asheville

Invisible Asheville

Yesterday, my Oulipo class put together a condensed version of a project the Oulipo Compendium attributes to the group Invisible Seattle:

In 1983 the group [Invisible Seattle] accomplished the most ambitious of its public works, the provocation and compilation of The Novel of Seattle, by Seattle, a month-long project in which hard-hatted and overalled Invisible Seattle “literary workers” approached citizens saying, “Excuse me, we’re building a novel, may we borrow a few of  your words?” Some Oulipian and Oulipo-inspired techniques were used to generate the thousands of individual text contributions, and an algorithmic compilation structure was used to complete the first draft in a four-day public spectacle.” (Oulipo Compendium, p. 163)

I joined my five students in fanning outward from the Laurel Forum, each of us accosting ten or twelve folks who had the misfortune of being on campus, asking that they share a few words with us. Our “compilation structure” was a minimal one, owing to the short time we had to complete our composition. Namely, we just asked Mathematica to randomize the meaning-units fed us by our many anonymous interlocutors. The result is…interesting. I present “I am Nemo, and I touched the boat”:


I am Nemo, and I touched the boat. Helpful.

I saw an ant carrying an egg. Laughs. There might be some in July. What? Diction.

Time is what you make it; try not to waste it. The campus is beautiful. I think it’s a cool class.

Celtic. Are you looking for anything in particular?

We’re introducing our daughter to the school. It’s unseasonably warm today, I’m schvitzing! Underwater baskets don’t weave themselves. Awesome.

So, just random words? And they found a guy with a man-bun who helped them on their journey. You have to use space ships. It was a long and hard journey, but they made friends along the way.

Apprehension. I’m glad we picked UNC Asheville. Beautiful campus. Beer is good.

Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened. We’re learning, observing, having fun, loving nature, and enjoying life. I don’t have anything to say. Beautiful sky, peaceful green, synergy. The bull says ‘ahchooo’!

Me and my classmates are building a short story, can I borrow some of your words? Sweet peas look like green trees. Religion and democracy. Sticky. I don’t know if that makes a difference. I’ve got to get to the mailroom before it closes.

A small baby fish who suffered from short term memory loss. They lost their way and spent their whole life searching for their way home. This is awkward.

No. Jelly beans. We were talking about farmers markets and seasonal fruits, like peaches.

Abecedarian. I’ve noticed that everyone who is for abortion has already been born. I have a feeling you’re going to get this from everybody. The grass at my house is brown from lack of rain.

Apple pie, blue sky. Dependent only on a nucleotide. I think we’re just hungry right now. I wish I would have worn socks today. I have a conference call at one o’clock.


What is this for again? Paper towels. I don’t know. Pinball, ping pong, skateboards. Perambulator. Concerted reaction.

The pressure! What kind of words? I am so very tired today. Ask someone else. It’s hot out…that can’t be my sentence, can it?

I’m Dory. Bipartisanship. I’m trying to come up with something weird and crazy, but it’s not working because I’m on the spot. The electric chair was invented by a dentist. Stupendous.

Like what? Oh my god. Ergonomic. I really love how sunny it is today. Moist.

Kernel. Did they find their way home? Betwixt. Sure, mindful. Martian. It’s pretty hot, but it’s summer in North Carolina, so what do you expect? One should never tell on oneself.

Nocturnal. Na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na ….Batman! Ambidextrous.

HBO Go at work. Vernacular. I think that’s all I’ve got. The pressure!

Excitement. Sad. I’m not a student; I’m just an intern here. It’s starting to warm up outside. It’s getting humid. Dirty. Greasy, delicious. There is a hidden world right underneath us, right underneath our eyes.

I like the term ‘organic mechanic.’ And ‘slumber dungeon.’

Lozenge. Unspeakable. What is life? Why is this so stressful?

A ping pong ball: multifaceted, luminous. Here, you can stab this.

The purple elephant drinks coffee with Khrushchev, slowly. It’s ugly and sweaty and gross in Asheville today, but at least people are wearing deodorant for the most part.

I wish I was more creative.

The cafeteria is very large. I was born my father’s son, the day my mother died. Precocious. Mortifying.

I don’t have my wallet with me.



Note: I just joined Faculty Forward Network, an organization dedicated to working for equitable treatment of faculty in higher ed, especially the often-invisible ranks of contingent faculty. Stay tuned…



I’ve spent an hour on each of the last two Wednesday afternoons in conversation with several colleagues on Stanislas Dehaene’s Consciousness and the brain: Deciphering how the brain codes our thoughts. No stranger to Dehaene’s work (I’ve read The number sense several times and used it in more than one class), I’ve begun this book with alacrity and have not so far been disappointed. Neither am I disappointed with the quality of the discussions we’ve had on the book’s primary subjects, consciousness and, by way of comparison, the unconscious.

For example: the matter of “consciousness expansion” came up today as several of the learning circle’s participants related their own experiences of forming new associations among various complex concepts (race, religion, national origin), and one of my colleagues opined that education derives its force from its ability to expand consciousness by exposing students to new ideas. This brought to mind an interview I once conducted (for a class project) with the professor of ancient literature who taught me this subject as a first-semester college student nearly twenty-three years ago.

Near the end of our time together, the aptly-named Prof. Tripp told me aphoristically, “the most important outcome of college is going to college in the first place: it’s the experience of having gone to college that matters most, not what you learn there.”

Having now slogged through several more years of higher ed as a student and nearly two decades more as a teacher, I have to say that I agree: while developing useful skills and getting a grip on fundamental concepts of a particular knowledge domain are helpful, there’s much more to be gained, ultimately, from living and learning with others for four years, from exposing oneself to new ideas, from learning that no matter how much you know you’ll never know it all.

This isn’t to say that college is the only path to enlightenment. Far from it: nearly any activity you undertake during that period of peak neuroplasticity that lasts into your twenties will do, so long as it offers exposure to new things, new thoughts, new people…the more different from what’s come before, the better.


Existential jigsaw jumbling (and more R1W2)

Existential jigsaw jumbling (and more R1W2)

Today’s exercises in Oulipo involved perverbs (“A stitch in time saves the cat” and “Curiosity killed nine” and so forth), homoconsonance (“Able was I ere I saw Elba” becoming “Blow serious; we lube!” and so forth), and some not-so-serious perversion of jigsaw puzzles. As Georges Perec points out in his Preamble to Life A User’s Manual (p. xvi),

In most cases – and in particular in all cardboard jigsaws – the puzzles are machine-made, and the lines of cutting are entirely arbitrary: a blanking die, set up once and for all, cuts the sheets of cardboard along identical lines every time.

The result is that many, if not all, inexpensive jigsaw puzzles made by the same manufacturer, may bear dramatically different images but indeed have the same underlying patterns of pieces. This opens them open to a ludic exercise in the manner of Oulipo: once you’ve solved a set of cheap jigsaw puzzles and verified that they are indeed cut with the same die, you can go about exchanging their pieces willy-nilly, making nightmarish scenes out of the individual images.

My students delighted in this charge, creating a horrific midway ride by splicing the disembodied heads of a set of nesting Ukrainian dolls into the sky surrounding a Ferris wheel and granting to one of a pair of kittens a crown of colored pencil points and to the other a warped mirror image, that of a same-colored rabbit, as though the young cat were looking, as Narcissus, into the shallows of a limpid pool. Meanwhile, a hot air balloon came apart at its edge, every other piece exchanged with the corresponding piece from the Ferris wheel scene.

This exercise, and the next several chapters of Perec I’d had the students read for today, led to some fantastic conversations on meaning and meaninglessness, futility, entropy, chaos, and the Repugnant Conclusion. How more or less meaningless and arbitrary is (Perec’s protagonist) Bartlebooth’s lifelong enterprise, to wit, painting watercolor seascapes at 500 of the world’s ports, turning the seascapes into jigsaw puzzles, solving these, eradicating all trace of the puzzles’ cuts, and subsequently washing them of their painted scenes to leave only a spotless sheet of paper, than most of what we do every day? One student went so far as to bring up Camus’ Sisyphus and the sweet exit of suicide.

“What point is there to life?” someone asked.

“Happiness,” another of the students offered. “We can make one another happy.”

And what does this take, making one another happy? And what obligation do we have to make one another happy? And how privileged are we that we got to discuss these matters while sitting in a lovely wood-paneled room with original art, idly sipping tea and playing with jigsaw puzzles? How privileged was Perec that he was freed by his fame and talent to write his wonderful book?

Tomorrow promises to give us further opportunities for conversations along similar lines.

Oh, so the students asked that I make public the remaining stories resulting from our Read Two, Write Two activity this past Monday. Below are the three stories I did not include in my last post, each chock-full of intentional obfuscation and derailment, each as reliant on cliché dialogue and deus ex machina. Enjoy! (Note: each author’s contribution has been colored in the same tones as I used in the last post.)

There once was a wizard who lived in a castle. One day he decided to venture out on a quest. But a quest of what sort? He began to travel across the lands, seeking legends of treasure. As told in old folklore, Black Beard’s booty was stowed in the chain of islands off the coast of North Carolina. The trip was overbearing beyond measure, but he now approached the mouth of the mysterious cave. What lay within, no one could tell for the darkness. He fashioned a torch from a scrap of cloth and the broken bone of a gazelle’s left leg. Wielding this crudely created light, he began to walk into the cave that waited just beside him. His shadow was tall, stretched out and dancing in the light of the torch. The knife was presented to the keeper. The bloodletting ceremony was about to begin. Everyone circled around the subject and began to chant a mantra. “Wait!” a voice from behind exclaimed. He turned around to see who was calling him, and was amazed. It was Bel, his long-lost loved whom he had thought died in a fire. “Oh hey, how’s it going?” He spoke neutrally, yet optimistically. “What have you been up to since we last saw each other?” he asked. “Not much,” she replied, waving her hand dismissively, as though batting away a fly. “Reiko and I just got back from Havana,” she continued, “where he’d been working as a jazz trumpeter for the last five years.” Memories of cigars and sensuous music floated in her head, only to be batted away. She was on a mission. She raced through the grocery store. She grabbed the milk from the shelf and sprinted. She ran and ran until she could see her destination over the horizon. Suddenly the wizard awoke in his tower to find this all to have been a dream.

A young woman waltzed through a meadow. She looked down at her feet. There she saw a giant toad with a purple hat. “I have come here to grant you one wish and nothing more!” it said. “That wish shall be your heart’s deepest desire,” it said. “But do you even know what that is?” it said. “I’m not so sure, but best not to bother it,” he replied. His mind swirled with a surprising amount of organization much like catharsis. He had never had such heavy mental demands placed upon him, but he knew he had to act quickly. Were he to hesitate in his calculations, all of Tokyo would soon be in ashes. He took a deep breath as he double-checked the solution. Choosing to trust himself, he reached forward and pressed the button. Things started to melt down. The alien overlords glanced at each other nervously, struggling against their restraints. They all teleported to the White House front lawn. Once they arrived, the President stepped outside to greet them. But before the President could speak, he was abducted by ninjas. The Secretary of Defense issues a public statement: “The President has been kidnapped by ninjas.” Alas, they are far too sneaky and swift in their footwork. “How will we stop these ninjas?” a distraught bystander yelled from the crowd. “Quickly,” ordered Bruce, “into the river! They can’t follow us there…they’re terrified of water!” Little did they know that water only made them more powerful. So they sat, feeling relaxed for the first time in a long time, and completely unaware that the monsters approached for a final attack. The monsters tiptoed up to the base and reached out…and turned out the lights.

I hate my alarm clock. Why did this happen today? Of all the days it could have happened, this was the worst. The staging and makeup were all wrong and no one had an inkling of what would occur. Suddenly a man jumped down from the rafters above. Everyone gasped in amazement. Their awe was written on their faces. But they would soon learn that what they felt now was only a shadow of what they would soon feel. He was turning very soon. If she had any chance to flee, she had to set herself free and plunge the pliers into his face. She raised the tool high, opening its mouth wide. “Die!” she screamed, diving at him with all the force she could muster. He fell to the ground, motionless. She had won, the alarm clock had been vanquished. She would be late no more. No more would she frantically down coffee and do her daily sacrifices in a rush before class. As soon as that was done, she went to class. Moments before walking through the door, she realized she forgot her pencil. This was a grave mistake, for that pencil was the only tool that could stop the dark lord from awakening. She to recover that pencil, or the world would be doomed. Chris K. dropped it over his head during the constraint. It was clear he was to blame. Insofar as one could even be blamed, that is. This sort of thing could only be blamed on the gods, if such gods existed. Another mutant anthropomorphized alarm clock tried to sneak up behind her. She punched it in its face and laughed, “not today.”


Read one, write two, 2016 edition

Read one, write two, 2016 edition

Oulipo is underway!

I’ve ended up with five students in this summer’s class. I was hoping for a few more than this, but it ran well with four students in Summer 2014, so I suppose we’ll manage.

We got going today with a rousing round of Read one, write two, penning prose instead of poetry. The folks in this year’s class gave me permission to share their work; I’ve color-coded the contribution of each author  below, consistently across the stories included. As a reminder: each person begins by writing two sentences, folding the paper over so that only the second is visible before passing it to the next person, who writes two sentences of their own by way of elaboration or addendum, before folding the paper again and once more passing it on, and so forth. We went through 13 iterations on each story, resulting in six 26-line stories, in which violence (a constant of the human condition, it would seem) played a major role, as did sudden narrative shifts (some of intentional design, no doubt) and random interspecies transformations.

The sun beat down on the wanderers. The younger one looked to the sky, silently praying for rain. Dust swirled in the once fruitful plant beds, creating a sort of sick beauty. He sighed, the was still blue; no rain was coming. No sign of the rain gods. No sign that heads would roll and blood would spill. But even without a sign, everyone began to fight one another. It was pure chaos and someone needed to get everything under control. But nobody could stop what had begun. A pained child, watching, cried out to the heavens for mercy. It was not his war, but excuses were not an option now. He was a soldier, not a boy. Yet a soldier in what army? Though all of the other male ants were drones, answering only to their queen, he had chosen to join in with the females of his race, foraging the jungles at night, savaging all that lay before them. The other males did not dare to laugh; no, they quivered in fear. For females are truly the more powerful creatures. Life-giving and life-taking. Ready to strike (in the most feminine way) at any time. She lunged forward at her target, killing it in one strike. She stood, proud and victorious, over her opponent. But her victory felt strangely hollow. Did any of this really matter to her in the long run? It was a rough breakup, but she was stronger on the other side. The next thing to do was to drown her mind with music. Stella cranked the volume, and Beethoven’s Ode to Joy poured forth like the waters of a mighty river. “All is cleansed,” she screamed, “all is cleansed!”

The landscape was illuminated by the sun with unmatched beauty. The animals of the forest littered the pastures and rivers, all searching for something. Their craving was a mad one, a thirst that could not be quenched. The greatest among them, a proud stag with an imposing rack of downy antlers, stood at the water’s edge. The hunter raised his gun, pointing it at his prey. The beast turned suddenly, looking him straight in the eye and forcing him to wonder: could he take the shot? He lined up his BB gun from the bathroom window. The beastly squirrel scampered happily, not knowing what was to come. While scampering about, the healthy squirrel ran into a tree and was knocked unconscious. Eventually, he was awoken by a figure standing over him. He exclaimed “Who are you!? What are you doing here!?” “I came here to show you who you really are,” the figure responded. But I cannot stay here. I only confide in her. She acts never as judge, only as redeemer. For her succor, her godly assistance, offered in generous doses in reply to my nightly entreaties, had sustained me through many sorrows. She would be able to get me through this. And so I prayed to her. I prayed that the gooey blisters of lava wouldn’t return. I prayed that the beasts would fear no more. But they were still afraid. Who could do such an evil thing? Only the dark lord himself. “If only I had the pencil of light,” muttered the hero. But not everything appeared to be so lost. It’s what on the inside that counts, my mama always said.

It was a foggy day in the village of Innsmouth, as the local fishpeople went about their business. The Marsh Refinery was pumping noxious gases into the mist, but the locals didn’t notice or care. In an effort to prove the existence of this injustice, a small group of townspeople convened. A few of the members took out a boat and lit the nearby lake ablaze. The flames bit into the night-time sky. The brightness rivaled that of the moon, now nearly full and hanging over the edge of the lake. Such light nearly blinded anyone who stared into it for too long. Its beauty was pure, for light is the purest of all things. It crackled through, showing the contents of the shadows. The shadows winced as they were exposed. “Why have you exposed us?” they shrieked. They then rushed forward, looking as though they were going to attack. “We don’t take kindly to your kind ’round here,” one of them shouted. But just when all looked darkest, the hero realized how to save himself. Blueberries: the antioxidants were vital. The forces of evil and villainy were at a stand-still amidst the hero’s new power. He had only just discovered his ability to transform into any shape he chose, but his control was growing better by the moment. In an instant, he turned himself into a giant slug. His arms disappeared and hit body melted into a puddle of slug-shaped goo. “At least slugs don’t have to take finals,” he whispered. He intrepidly picked up one of the slugs and tasted it. It turns out that slug meat is surprisingly tasty. The group of who-knows-how-many continued to eat slug meat until it was gone. “Now what?” they all asked. “Now nothing,” Dr. Pelagius said. “Now we have won.”

Inspired by this in-class exercise, Candace and the kids joined me in a one-round version just before bedtime a half-hour ago. Here’s what we came up with, slightly amended for ease of reading, authorship of each following passage indicated in brackets:

[9yo] A bird flies into a volcano. The volcano’s name is Bob. [me] Bob was a very sad volcano. But one day he made friends with a dragon who lived at his top. [6yo] The dragon was nice. The person loved the dragon. [Candace] This person especially loved to ride on the dragon’s back, clutching his crest as the wind rushed over their skin, curling up between the folded scales beside the dragon-breathed campfire. But they loved best the look on their father’s face the first day they brought the dragon home.

Tomorrow, before we play with the homo* complex (homoconsonantism, homosyntaxism, homovocalism, etc.), we’ll talk a little bit about how the choices we made dictated the downstream flow of each piece of prose: though Oulipian writing can be crazy and convoluted, it’s anything but random.