Friday, May 30, 2008

The Noulipian Analects

In their recent anthology, The Noulipian Analects, Christine Wertheim and Matias Viegner offer a diverse selection of critical and creative work reflecting the influence of Oulipo poetics on writers outside of France. Although I originally became interested in reading the book because it included poetry by writers like Christian Bok, Tan Lin, and Bernadette Meyer, I found the criticism just as compelling as Bok’s “nihilistic witticisms” and “flirts with philistinism.” Often exploring the role of gender in shaping the Oulipo canon, the essays in this anthology suggest new possibilities for diversifying and democratizing the constraint-based writing available to readers, an approach that proves thought-provoking throughout.

The essays in The Noulipian Analects that explore possible explanations for the dearth of women involved in Oulipo writing are particularly impressive. By looking at both the writings that are published and the dynamic maintained in classroom settings, works by Julianna Spahr, Stephanie Young, and the editors themselves prove provocative in their discussions of the ways constraint-based writing is frequently presented by male writers. An essay entitled “‘& and’ and ‘foulipo’” by Spahr and Young is a good example this trend. They write, for example:

We did feel this wok that uses constaint was ielevant, not to men no to women. We did not want to dismiss it. When we liked this wok by men we saw the eteat into constaint as an attempt by men to avoid pepetuating bourgeois piviledge, to make fun of the omantic nacississtic tadition, of all that tadition of fomalism. But at othe moments wi ween’t so sue that this was eally a feminist, antiacist self-investigation…It was often as if they wee using these techniques as a sot of dominance itual in the classroom, that at the women’s college whee we taught (although the gaduate pogram admitted both men and women) was aleady somewhat of a gende loaded space. (8)

While using constraints themselves, Spahr and Young present a complex vision of experimental writing that suggests the oulipo tradition remains at once subversive and patriarchal. Raising significant questions about the ways gender politics encourage and/or stifle art, “‘& and’ and ‘foulipo’” offers goals for the Oulipo community to strive for in the twenty-first century. Like many of the literary essays in The Noulipian Analects, this piece by Spahr and Young assesses and critiques while acknowledging the possibilities for activism via the tradition of constraint-based writing.

Other essays in the anthology treat such diverse themes as electronic writing, “‘Axioms’ of Oulipian,” the option of revealing or not revealing constraint to the reader, and new media writing. Although the book presents a wide range of ideas pertaining to constraint-based writing, the theme of new directions for Oulipo writing continues to resurface, raising questions about the types of writing that belong or don’t belong in the canon. I enjoyed Brian Kim Stefans’ essay, “Electronic Writing (or Privileging Language),” which discusses both the shortcomings and the opportunities offered by this medium, evaluating whether or not it really should be classified as poetry. He writes:

I’d also like to argue that in much electronic writing…language is being used to solve a formal problem in the artistic project—often to make the experience more concrete or to found out a metaphor—and the electronic elements of the project have not come around in order to solve a problem in the literary effort. Which is to say: digital art quite often needs poetry more than poetry needs digital art, though one would think in the field of electronic writing the latter should be more true. (61)

By implying that in poetry, language should take priority over the visual, Brian Kim Stefans presents a vision of experimental writing as being grounded in the techniques of traditional poetry. While acknowledging the potential for avante-garde literature to subvert such conventions, he also suggests that there’s a limit to what aspects of more traditional poetry can be abandoned altogether. Just as other essays in the collection delineate new possibilities for Oulipo writing and other experimental endeavors, Stefans’ essay and others strike a cautionary note in pursuing them.

All points considered, the Noulipian Analects is a diverse and provocative read, ideal for experimental writers and scholars alike. Five stars.

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