What Are You Working On?
I'm writing poems I perform with a dance troupe, led by choreographer Erin Mitchell. She and two dancers dance, I recite and walk around. It's called "The Hearing."
I have also been writing cento poems, where you make pieces out of pieces from other finished pieces. For example, I just wrote The Waste Land backwards. And I've been playing around with the double novel form, using various constraints to produce two novels that reflect each other, to be published as a double-fronted book, like the old Ace Doubles: The Mudflat Man/The River Boys (to be published by Soultheft Records).
These works, as well as the poetry and performance works, stem from a decision I made about 20 years ago to apply myself to a methodical approach to writing.
About 20 years ago I met Harry Mathews when he came to Seattle. He was and still is the only American member of the Oulipo, the Paris-based group of writers and mathemeticians founded by Raymond Queneau and Francois Lionnaise (sp?) in 1960. By reading his work, the work of other Oulipo writers, mainly Georges Perec, and by trying out the methods they used or suggested, methods based on formal constraints, some of which were based on mathematical procedures, I found a more productive and interesting way not only to write, but also to reach an audience.
If you have the book Oulipo Compendium, co-edited by Harry Mathews (now available from Make Now Press in L.A.), you see that many works that seem to have been based on elaborate systems are not based on anything like that. It's like a bluff in poker. I've found that now people mostly expect I'm up to something, when I'm not. That is, I still write works that don't have a formal constraint under them. And yet, the constraints or rumor of them make people wonder.
Erin asked me, after we had done a show where she performed solo dances and I read poems, separately. She had a piece she had already choreographed and wanted to see how it would go to text rather than to music.
It was very difficult, especially after I managed to erase the video of the dance. Eventually, after watching rehearsals and timing the various phrases and sections, I came up with something that went with it. From there, we expanded the piece, and we're still expanding it. That's all new to me.
Each time we do the piece, there are slight variations--and some that are not so slight--but the first time we did it all the way through, the dancers and I were perfectly in synch. Their ability to adjust, to recover from a mistake was amazing to me. It's harder for me to adjust on stage, but not as hard as writing words for a dance that was already choreographed. What surprised me was that memorization came as a matter of course, after so many rehearsals. I'm not good at memorization.
In general, I've found the hardest part of making new work, particularly when you make a point of doing stuff you haven't done before (I am relentlessly and unapologetically experimental), is editing. What I mean is, back when I wrote quirky, voice-driven fiction with the hope of getting published by some commercial house, I knew what the prose was supposed to look and sound like, and it was fairly easy to edit and revise to come up with something "good." With stuff you haven't tried before, especially when it's driven by some constraint, you have to exhaust the possibilities of expression so you know what can be done, and in so doing, you run the risk of making an overstuffed piece of art that would be better if you cut more.
Doing this has opened up a new range of possibilities, both for writing and for finding a new audience.
We're doing "The Hearing" in New York the first weekend of June and may expand it to a longer show for a Seattle run.
I have two novel manuscripts and one poetry manuscript I just sent to various places.
Wikipedia page on Oulipo
Doug Nufer reviews Oulipo Compendium.
The author on Why People Write Book Reviews
See more What Are You Working On? interviews.
published 21 Feb 06 on Too Beautiful. email copyright 2006 Mark Pritchard, Bernal Heights, San Francisco