We’ve reached the Oulipost halfway point! Nearly 80 poets are participating in this month-long National Poetry Month project, which leaves FPR editors and staff sadly behind on reading. While we cannot read every single poem (yet!) we have seen a lot of excellent work from Oulipost poets so far. The range and quality of the Oulipost output is truly impressive. At halftime, Editor-in-Chief Jenni Baker, Senior Poetry Editor Beth Ayer, News & Resources Editor Marty Elwell, and Book Reviews Editor Doug Luman set out to round up some of the pieces that have caught our attention among the over 1,000 poems written so far. You can keep up with the daily prompts and poems through Facebook, Twitter (#Oulipost), and here on the FPR blog. Each poet posts a link to their poem in the comments of each day’s prompt.
Definitional lit – in which each word is replaced by its dictionary definition – has been my favorite prompt so far this month, and I’m particularly impressed with what Sonja Johanson accomplished in its execution. Starting from a single phrase “snow days are unpredictable,” her poem evolves into a piece that is as much about snowfall as it is about time passing. The multisyllabic words strung together in prepositional phrases bring movement to the piece, and the poem hides its work well – a rare occurrence for these experimental poems.
Nancy Chen Long’s “Vested in Virtue” – an epithalamium – is another favorite from the first two weeks. So many writers turned this “wedding song” prompt into something else, and I particularly applaud Nancy for her craft within the constraints of both letter and topic. Of particular note in this piece is how adopting Oulipian constraints forces the writer to use words outside of one’s normal vocabulary. Her poem is rich with unusual terms – umber-hued, ramekins, absinthe and bantam – just to name a few.
Also of note:
One of the things I’ve enjoyed about Oulipost is the locality that emerges naturally in some poems. Many poems by Katy Acheson, writing from Cape Cod, provide good example of the ways the local news can provide locality in a poem (without the news necessarily becoming the poem’s topic). And as many Ouliposters have done with some of the more challenging prompts, Acheson approached the Definitional Lit prompt from her own angle, defining the same word (“gift”) over and over in different ways rather than simply moving on to the next definition. (read her poem here)
While experimentation and creativity under constraint are the main expectations of Oulipost (and not necessarily the creation of 30 fully formed poems on the spot) it is particularly impressive when a poet manages a piece that does not sound constrained. In Barbara Crary’s April 11 response to the Univocalism prompt (in which the text is written with a single vowel), her resulting poem could be read without detecting the constraint.
Roxanna Bennett adds a disclaimer to her blank verse poem “Rightful Heir“: “Full confession: I can’t really hear metre. I don’t read my work or anyone else’s, for that matter, aloud and so my ears are not trained to hear rhythm.” Bennett’s comments about iambic pentameter serve as a reminder that traditional forms are themselves constraints. In Oulipost, we see the traditional and the experimental side by side. Bennett’s poem caught me with one of those opening lines that immediately demands attention: “The one thing you can be certain of, your/ favourite character is going to/ die.”
Other noteworthy posts:
- “Ahead, Separate” – E. Kristin Anderson
- N+7 translation – Nathalie Boisard-Beudin
- “The Old Boys Club Handbook” – Patrick Boyle
Any time one sets out to write a poem and share it with the universe in the same day, a great risk is taken. Most poems improve with revision, and often a poet’s eye and ear for a poem change with time. For me, Oulipost has always been about process and innovation more than output. As a participant, I don’t expect every poem to be my best, and as a reader I don’t expect flawless poetry from my fellow participants. Reading the bizarre constraints, inventive processes and surprising poems is entertainment enough. Greatness is unnecessary. As we celebrate National Poetry Month through Oulipost, we are fostering community, sharing poetry and process, creating readership, learning, experimenting and writing. The rest of the year will be left for refinement of the poems written this month, as well as for applying our newly learned techniques and innovations in other settings.
While reading poems for this roundup, I found that I was most engaged and interested when the poet introduced an innovative solution to the problems posed by the assigned constraint. Here are some of the poems I wanted to highlight and why:
Kate Moore: “Harmony, A Fibonacci Sequence for Two Voices”
- Kate describes her dissatisfaction with the outcome generated by following the rules of the “Fibonacci Sequence” prompt. Her innovation was not to completely break the rules, but to create two Fibonacci sequences and place them side-by-side. The result is an interesting and mathematically sound poem.
Jody Rich: “Bluegrass, Red Snow”
- This is a well-executed sonnet (which was the prompt), telling a local story in rhyme and meter. In his post, Rich describes how he used www.rhymezone.com to help him locate found language needed to complete his poem.
James W. Moore: “star in the underdog”
- The prompt was to make a poem from headlines, and James took that literally. I loved the visual of the cut-up headlines in this poem. I also enjoyed James’s description of his process.
Robin Meister: “We Are New”
- I liked this poem for its sarcasm and its lyric quality. The prompt was “Epithalamium,” or wedding song, and this poem really nailed it.
Kelly Nelson: “Galaxy”
- “Column Inches” was a fairly free prompt, allowing the poet to combine two sources into a single piece. Kelly used the language to her advantage and made a musical poem with a literal punch.
Reiser Perkins: “Gas Masks, Fairy Wings”
- “Definitional Lit” was a deceptively challenging prompt. The words chosen by the poet at the start could result in an interesting poem or a flat poem. Reiser’s title (and chosen words) is fantastic, and the poem that follows doesn’t disappoint.
What we’re seeing at the Oulipost halfway mark has energy and potential. I am sure that the Oulipo would be proud of all of our Ouliposters. Always good to start out strong, and that’s certainly what Margo Roby did in her first post, the Quote Cento from 1 April (“I’m Always A Dancer“) when she writes “There are lots of people trying things –” and concludes that “All we can do/is try to trace out patterns”.
When constraints start to create special problems for poets, such as the Tautogram mode, creative solutions come in handy. Pulling from news sources, often political topics will crop up. With the advent of “Bridgegate” in New Jersey, Maribeth Theroux’s concrete poem “closed closed closed closed” works well within constraints.
A significant number of Oulipost participants are Canadian. For those who are also Quebecers/Quebecois, Greg Santos captures the recently-passed Quebec election with a wild satirical take, applying the N+7 method to a campaign ad (poem here). With the N+7 constraint falling on the election day proper, Carol Stephen (another Canadian Ouliposter), writes in “Behind Closed Doors on Parliament Hill” of all “Between the sweat and the technical, in prostate and poison,/by resolution or vocal, harvested yes-men.”
Of the more energy-driven posts, Richard Thompson’s “breadfruit!” is an exploration of women’s roles in the workplace and academia, writing of “(asterisk) audits // general; make less on average / than mandibles” in the place that “She supports joist accompanist” with images and associations playing with and against each other in wild chaos. A deceptively tough challenge, the Univocal method relies on a critical eye for associations limited to words that only contain one particular vowel. Reinhardt Suarez, in “Lassa Man,” uses his text to ask “What may a man carry that any man carry?/Days and days,” in an elegant answer to a complex task. The Univocal mode seemed to be a popular venue for rumination on the role of self as Melanie Wilson considers “I think,/bird thinks,/I with bird –”.
We look forward to the rest of April. Please share your favorites in the comments!