I haven’t scoured the web for reports but I would love to hear a bit about the other Oulipo events that happened that week. Other than Tom Motley’s sketches I have only come across reports here and here.
On Sunday, April 5, I showed up at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy on 79th St. and 5th Ave., checked my coat, and made my way up the grand stairs to the invitation-only brunch. The group was much smaller than I had expected, maybe 40 people snacking on (quite decent) cheese and charcuterie on the second floor landing of that very impressive building (I felt like I was on the set of a Resnais/Robbe-Grillet feature, or, more precisely, the decadent French consulate in India in Duras’s India Song). I filled myself with St. Albray, Morbier, and soppressata and a few glasses of white wine as I tried to figure out how to approach the members of Oulipo, these semi-mythical figures who were standing right next to me. I had been counting on Harry Mathews being there to show me around. We still haven’t met in person, to my regret, but we have at least corresponded a fair amount. Rescue came in the form of Claire B., one of the hosts from the embassy (with whom I bonded about food and drink—she does a quite impressive food blog that is well worth a visit). I told her of my plight and she introduced me to the nearest Oulipian, Hervé Le Tellier, who, to my great surprise, said “Matt Madden, I have all of your books!” and revealed himself to be something of a comics geek. We talked about Oubapo’s activities and he showed me on his iPhone some illustrated poems he does for Le Monde. As for Oubapo, Le Tellier is particularly impressed by the work of Etiènne Lecroart, whose Bandes de Sonnets (comics following the sonnet form to various degrees) was reviewed by Dr. Bart Beaty a while back on The Comics Reporter and is indeed and impressive achivievement.
Not without some logistical difficulty, I managed to get another attendee to snap a few shots of us:
We milled around a while longer and Hervé made a quick introduction to Marcel Bénabou, then we all moved to the adjacent room for a fairly brief reading. In the course of the getting settled I managed to meet Jean-Jacques Poucel, a Yale professor and editor of the Drunken Boat Oulipo issue which features my comics, and also Lee Berman, founder of an interesting experimental website called UpRightDown which I’ll post about here sometime soon. (Lee also posted a report about the week’s event’s here.) The one person I didn’t get to meet was Michael Silverblatt, host of the wonderful LA-based radio show Bookworm. He’s a great booster of Oulipo and experimental, formalist writing in general.
The members present did a quick reading, alternating French (sometimes then translated into English, usually not) and English. Jacques Roubaud read an entertaining piece from The Loop dealing with familial confusion about which train station exit young Roubaud was meant to meet up with his grandfather. Next, Le Tellier read a very meta excerpt from a novel where the narrator introduces, with merciless frankness, a protagonist in full-on mid-life crisis mode.
Ian Monk then read a few sonnets, whose constraints he declined to reveal and which I wasn’t able to pick up on in a single hearing. Later on he read an amusing piece call “The 9 Ages of Man” (expanding Shakespeare’s 7 to include pre-birth and death) which in places was quite expeltive-filled, to the scandalized delight of the 12 year old sitting in front of me.
Then Marcel Bénabou, whom I forgot to photograph, read the also meta, and rather Calvino-esque introduction to his book Jette ce livre avant qu’il soit trop tard, published in English as Dump This Book While You Still Can. The intro consists in a narrator trying to convince you not to read the book you are reading but despairing of being able to (because obviously if you’re reading his words, you haven’t dumped the book yet).
Anne Garréta, about whom I was only able to find this short page in French, talked about some of her earlier constrained work that combined formal constraints with issues of identity politics, such as her novel Sphinx, which is a love story where the genders of the characters are never specified. She then read from a novel (Pas un jour, I believe) with a Roubaud-inspired (it seemed to me) writing schedule constraint: every day for a certain amount of time (a month?) she would write for five hours on her memories of a single instance of love or desire. She then changed all the names, assigning each one a letter of the alphabet and subsequently re-ordered her writings so that they followed the alphabetical order of each character. The excerpt she read was about a light night road trip along the east coast (I remember the Merritt Parkway figuring into it) and didn’t mention a particular character, just the sense that the narrator must be heading to see someone important.
After the reading I got to meet Roubaud who, it turns out, owned a copy of the French edition of 99 Ways to Tell a Story and was au courant about my association with Oubapo. I gave copies of A Fine Mess #2, featuring my alphabetically constrained “Prisoner of Zembla” and my comics sestina “The Six Treasures of the Spiral” to him and the other Oulipians (though I unfortunately didn’t get to meet Garréta). Le Tellier gave me a copy of his book of illustrated poems, Les Opossums Célèbres, signed to me “oulipiennement”. I was disappointed not to get a chance to really spend time with any of them but Le Tellier invited me to come to an Oulipo meeting in Paris next time I’m there so that gives me extra motivation to go back asap, as if I needed it!