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…


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