From Harry Mathews’ excellent, engaging Paris Review interview.
Is that when you found out about the Oulipo?
I had first heard about the Oulipo from a friend who mentioned Georges’s novel A Void, which is written without the letter e. The idea of not using the letter e made no sense to me. I was not intrigued, I was horrified.
After Georges and I became friends, he asked me if I’d be interested in joining. After all, he said, I had unwittingly written some purely Oulipian pieces. One of them was excruciatingly hard to do: I took two texts, Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” and a cauliflower recipe from a Julia Child cookbook. I made a list of the vocabularies in each piece and I rewrote the poem using the vocabulary of the recipe and vice versa. It was agony. But I discovered something very important, which is that once you start on a project like that, no matter how insane it is, you rapidly become convinced that there’s a solution, which is, of course, nonsense. You have to make it happen. When I first visited the Oulipo, I told them about this. And what I had thought had been a shameful, secret habit was, to them, perfectly fine. I won the approval of these august people and I was elected in 1973, around the same time as Italo Calvino.
What exactly happens at an Oulipo meeting?
We have a very strict agenda. First there’s “creation.” A member will propose a new method and supply a description and an example. There has to be at least one new creation per meeting. Then comes “rumination,” which means possible creations that you have not yet fully worked out. Then “erudition,” which is discussion of Oulipian works by writers who are not members of the group. Then “action, past and future,” which describes Oulipian activities around the globe—a brief report on, say, a presentation of Oulipian texts in Warsaw. And then “small talk.” At the last meeting, during small talk, I pulled out my old Florida license plate, which read oulipo and which I donated to the archives, and they were thrilled with that. And then I told them about somebody I know in Scotland who always buys houses for palindromic sums. He claims that he gets good deals that way. Say it’s £30,003—although these days that’s probably not enough for a crofter’s hut in the Orkneys.
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