alchemy

Our constraints open new possibilities

Column by Andrea W. Doray
Posted 5/6/20

Are you familiar with Oulipo? I wasn’t, until I joined an online Oulipo poetry class. Oulipo, in French, (pronounced oo-LEE-poe) stands for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, which roughly …

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alchemy

Our constraints open new possibilities

Posted

Are you familiar with Oulipo? I wasn’t, until I joined an online Oulipo poetry class. Oulipo, in French, (pronounced oo-LEE-poe) stands for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, which roughly translates into workshop of potential literature.

Founded in 1960 by French mathematician Francois de Lionnais and writer Raymond Queneau, Oulipo investigates the possibilities of verse written under a system of structural constraints. Think using only one vowel throughout an entire poem, one that might start like: “We see here, be there / where we feel well.” Okay, no prize winner, but you get the idea.

Or perhaps you revise a poem you’ve already written, starting with the last line first and moving through to the first line … you would be surprised – I was – by what happens. Or you could revise (or write) a poem by putting all the lines in alphabetical order.

This month, I am completing my book-length poetry manuscript for final draft reading. Some of the foundational poems are more than 40 years old, and some others are newly minted last month. After the first critique in January, I identified places where I needed new, or seriously revised, material. So I decided to go Oulipo, to apply the movement’s mathematical procedures, constraints, to my writing.

So far, these attempts have opened that potential, opened up the possibilities. Additionally, when I do lift my head from my manuscript, I realize that, in fact, we are actually living in a world of constraints … constraints that open new possibilities, new potential.

I’ve written in this space about videoconferencing for work, and Zooming or Facetiming with sorely missed friends and loved ones. Outside, neighbors are meeting neighbors – or renewing acquaintances – with driveway happy hours, lawn chairs suitably distanced. Yard work has become welcome relief, housecleaning a family pastime.

Out my office window – I am lucky enough to work remotely – I watch moms and dads and kids, together … in the middle of the day. Someone is chipping golf balls, and there’s a household playing rollerblade hockey on the basketball court. Couples stroll by; skateboards, scooters, and bicycles abound.

And dogs. I am the only person in my neighborhood, in all the neighborhoods in all the world, that does not have a dog. At least one dog. I’m almost ashamed to show up for social-but-distant happy hour without a little black plastic bag or two.

Without our current constraints, I wonder whether so many of us would stop our days and gather to swap stay-at-home and safer-at-home stories. I wonder if our neighborhood would be so peaceful at night. I wonder if family game night would give way to the endless obligations of lessons and athletics and bowling leagues.

These obligations – which are our choices, really – will be there for us again, although what they’ll actually look like then is anyone’s guess.

But, again, I wonder … can current constraints open up the potential for more of this together time? Would stay-at-home become wanna-be-at-home? Will we still gather on Fridays for driveway happy hour?

For myself, I wonder if the Oulipo constraints will open up the potential for my manuscript … and I wonder if there’s time opening up for raising a puppy or adopting a rescue.

Oh, the possibilities!

Andrea Doray is a writer who especially likes the Oulipo constraint that requires each successive line to contradict the one before it. Want to try? Contact Andrea at a.doray@andreadoray.com.

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