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.



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