[ Thurs May 10 12 ]

The Booksmith presented a panel discussion on the topic: “What Literary Communities Can Tell Us About the Future of Literature” at Z Space. Moderated by John McMurtrie, panelists included Daniel Levin Becker, Robin Sloan, Matthew Zapruder and Scott Esposito discussing Oulipo member Daniel Levin Becker’s recently published book, “Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature.”

Above is the entire conversation and the subsequent Q&A, and below is an index of each video. Feel free to weigh in! We’ll be back with some thoughts on this soon… in the meantime, maybe we’ll see you at one of The Booksmith’s events. Staying in? Check out what happened across town on the very same evening. Sometimes, community is so large it becomes somewhat fractured. What do you think about this?

  1. Inroduction: Booksmith owner Christin Evans introduces the panel
  2. Moderator John McMurtrie introduces the book Many Subtle Channels 
    1. Daniel Levin Becker tells the story of how he became involved with the Oulipo community
    2. “Not so much a literary movement as a pretty informal research group”
    3. “Active membership should be limited to as many people as can fit comfortably around a dinner table”
    4. Other English language books on the subject: A Primer of Potential Literature (“a sort of theoretical sampler of things the group has been up to”), ed. by Warren Motte; The Oulipo Compendium, “kind of a glossary of Oulipo terms and techniques” put together by Harry Matthews – the first and only other American to be asked to join the group
    5. Becker: “I felt that there was a lack of treatment of why people thought this was cool and who the people who were doing it actually were as people rather than as literary figures, and that’s the book that I set out to write.”
    6. Becker reads a short passage from the book
  3. The other panelists weigh in
    1. Scott Esposito talks about his forthcoming book on Oulipo with Lauren Elkin: What is the group up to now and how much does the historical legacy constrain what they’re doing? What writers today who are not official members have been heavily influenced by the Oulipo authors (such as Christian Bök)
    2. Robin Sloan speaks of these ideas through the lens of his experience working at Twitter, quotes Becker: “The most important point of this book is that it makes no difference whether you’re an official rat or just a slightly intrigued onlooker; the potential of literature, the potential of language to be literature, is squarely in the public domain and every bit as much yours as it is mine.” – “It sounds like open source, like a set of tools to help more people be creative or produce creative work, not fewer.”
    3. Matthew Zapruder: “I sort of stumbled upon Oulipo after I had been writing for a while and recognized in them the impulse that I had had myself to impose arbitrary and… humorous constraints upon myself to see what would happen to my imagination.” Oulipo as an example of an alternative approach to the concept of artist: “it’s super productive to have people who come at it from a completely different way and strange-ify that idea so that we don’t take for granted these hackneyed and repetitive ideas of artistic inspiration.”
  4. On the applications and resonances of Oulipo, particularly the mechanical: “treating a piece of writing as something you can run experiments on.” Oulipo workshops: something clicks and you realize you’re doing something you didn’t think you were capable of.”
  5. Esposito talks about Matthews’ interview in The Paris Review and how constraints can be personal and existential, and then reads a short excerpt from Christian Bök’s Eunoia — listen to Bök read from it here. Becker answers: is Oulipo essentially French? Why not write a novel in txt msg speak? Offshoots of Oulipo.
  6. The excitement at the meetings. What if you could read all of Baudelaire and take out every instance of a certain word, for instance. Flarf poetry. Translation as an Oulipian exercise. “Language poetry and conceptual poetry have generated essentially no works of literary merit, and that is not the case with Oulipo.” Why? American didacticism vs. humor and the extremism of absurdity. “The urge to commodify or brand one’s literary output in America is what’s at the heart of this failure to take it to an interesting level where a willingness to be unreadable – you have to have that willingness, the glee in your own unreadability, to really do anything that’s interesting.” The Philip K. Dick BART stop.
  7. Q&A 1:
    1. How does serial music fit into this? Somebody like John Cage
    2. CA Conrad‘s somatic exercises: what would Oulipo say about practices such as these?
  8. Q&A 2:
    1. Is there any sense in which Oulipo feels threatened by computers? Not so much if they feel threatened but if they think computers serve as a threat to potential literature. Computer generated newspapers. Language APIs that might analyze language on a large scale to make sonnets out of tweets. The difference between being good and being awesome.
  9. Q&A 3:
    1. How is a poem a machine? Valéry‘s essay Poetry and Abstract Thought: “a poem is a machine for creating the poetic feeling in a person – that’s what it’s for; that’s it’s purpose.”
    2. Proto-Oulipians, cultural background of 1960 (the official founding) and what associations the group has had with other, similar organizations