Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Still a Vowellable Form

Constraint-based literature is often discussed in terms of exemplars. After a form has been elegantly and expertly executed, it is often set aside and treated as though it has been completely exhausted. While Oulipian Georges Perec’s La disparition takes the lipogrammatic cake in French, in English it is Christian Bök’s Eunoia that owns the form. It’s almost impossible to imagine a more complete univocal lipogram than Eunoia, to the point that the text constitutes a kind of encyclopaedia or dictionary of lipogramatic words and phrasal tricks for any future writers of lipograms. In this way, Eunoia impresses itself upon all later lipograms, making it impossible to read such poems without recalling this exemplary text. However, JonArno Lawson’s A Voweller’s Bestiary from aardvark to guineafowl (and H) suggests that in constraint-based writing an exemplar, no matter how complete, can still be expanded and enhanced.

Sold as a book for children of all ages, A Voweller’s Bestiary is a collection of entertaining poems about animals, each with a different rule taming the poem’s vowels. The book begins with univocal lipograms, such as “Ants and Aardvarks,” where we read how, “An ant’s bad karma/ has blatant drawbacks:/ An ant’s bad karma/ attracts aardvarks” (8). The book then moves on to a variety of other lipogrammatic forms, where the vowels in the title are reproduced in the same order in the text of the poem, for example, in “Opossum,” where, “Opossum’s monotonous stupor/ clouds opossum’s thoughts (36). While the univocal lipograms take on a kind of eunoian tone, especially the U poem, “Stuck-up Gulls Must Trust Dumb Ducks,” A Voweller’s Bestiary still manages to infuse the lipogram with a unique sense of play. The book is full of personalities, events, and adventures that never appear in Eunoia, allowing us to explore another very different world that the lipogram can create.

A Voweller’s Bestiary demonstrates that even if a form seems to have been thoroughly explored, employing it can still lead to new discoveries, and in this case, new lipogrammatic species never before documented. Eunoia shows us how language, no matter how abused and constrained, still strives to communicate, while A Voweller’s Bestiary shows us that language can achieve this in a number of ways. Lipograms that lean too heavily on Eunoia risk being repetitive and redundant, but A Voweller’s Bestiary builds on the exemplary text, constructing a new and engaging world on the foundation Eunoia has laid. This fun book not only introduces us to a menagerie of lipogrammatic creatures, but it also encourages us to release forms back into the wild. Even if a form has been carefully observed and studied in one setting, it could behave entirely differently in a new habitat.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Processed Exhaustion


I’ve mentioned this before, but the whole NaNoWriMo thing really intrigues me. I just can’t believe that 30,000 people each managed to write a 50,000 page novel in a month. I am typing this after writing just a 5,200 word essay in 24h, and the thought of continuing to type coherent and persuasive academic prose may be enough to make my eyes bleed. So, I’m curious about the idea just for the sake of the experiment—I want to know how literally tens of thousands of people could manage this.

Contemplating NaNoWriMo has brought me to a question, however. It’s sort of an unproductive question, since the answer is yes, no, or maybe. My question is: Does NaNoWriMo pose a serious problem for any writing that emphasizes the process rather than the product? I’m thinking Allen Ginsberg… I’m thinking Jack Kerouac. Does the whole “first thought best thought” theory hold when it comes up against an army of 30,000 one month novelists? Is sitting down at your typewriter and pounding out a novel in a few days enough to make something like On the Road?

I have a suspicion that the answer is no—the process isn’t enough to make the work a work of genius. If the answer was yes, after all, the NaNoWriMo competition last year would have produced 30,000 works of new, completely important, utterly literary material that we would all be scampering to read and study and dissect and analyse and understand. But that hasn’t happened. Of course, I have had my head stuck in the medieval sand for the last few months studying for my MA, but to the best of my knowledge, the NaNoWriMo-ers have not overrun the literary landscape of English speaking North America yet.

So, why not? If process is everything, this is a pretty extreme process. Like I said, my hunch is that process isn’t enough… that everyone’s first thought is not a literary best thought. I don’t mean to suggest that successful free-writing experiments are only possible through some innate genius. In fact, I’m not really suggesting anything. It really is a question… how important is process, and if process is important, why aren’t NaNoWriMo novels, produced under extreme conditions similar to those of other literary novels, a wild and valid literary success phenomenon? Is it a lack of training? Foresight? Does this writing rely on personal genius for its quality? I don’t know. But it’s weird.

Seriously. 30,000 50,000 word novels in a month. That’s bananas.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

NaNoWriMo Caveat

A few weeks ago I proclaimed December would be NaNoWriMo month for me... but with about 45 more pages of essay to write by the 10th, I won't be starting my novel until the 11th or 12th... from my parents couch, while eating christmas cookies.

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