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Oulipo (French pronunciation: [ulipo], short for French: Ouvroir de littérature potentielle; roughly translated: "workshop of potential literature") is a loose gathering of (mainly) French-speaking writers and mathematicians which seeks to create works using constrained writing techniques. It was founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais. Other notable members have included novelists Georges Perec and Italo Calvino, poets Oskar Pastior Jean Lescure and poet/mathematician Jacques Roubaud.
The group defines the term littérature potentielle as (rough translation): "the seeking of new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy."
Constraints are used as a means of triggering ideas and inspiration, most notably Perec's "story-making machine", which he used in the construction of Life: A User's Manual. As well as established techniques, such as lipograms (Perec's novel A Void) and palindromes, the group devises new techniques, often based on mathematical problems, such as the Knight's Tour of the chess-board and permutations.
Oulipo was founded on November 24, 1960, as a subcommittee of the Collège de ‘Pataphysique and titled Séminaire de littérature expérimentale. At their second meeting, the group changed its name to Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or Oulipo, at Albert-Marie Schmidt's suggestion. The idea had arisen two months earlier, when a small group met in September at Cerisy-la-Salle for a colloquium on Queneau's work. During this seminar, Queneau and François Le Lionnais conceived of the society.
During the subsequent decade, Oulipo (as it was commonly known) was only rarely visible as a group. As a subcommittee, they reported their work to the full Collège de 'Pataphysique in 1961. In addition, Temps Mêlés (French) devoted an issue to Oulipo in 1964, and Belgian radio broadcast one Oulipo meeting. Its members were individually active during these years and published works which were created within their constraints. The group as a whole began to emerge from obscurity in 1973 with the publication of La Littérature Potentielle, a collection of representative pieces.
Some examples of Oulipian writing:
- Queneau's Exercices de Style is the recounting ninety-nine times of the same inconsequential episode, in which a man witnesses a minor altercation on a bus trip; each account is unique in terms of tone and style.
- Queneau's Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes is inspired by children's picture books in which each page is cut into horizontal strips that can be turned independently, allowing different pictures (usually of people: heads, torsos, waists, legs, etc.) to be combined in many ways. Queneau applies this technique to poetry: the book contains 10 sonnets, each on a page. Each page is split into 14 strips, one for each line. The author estimates in the introductory explanation that it would take approximately 200 million years to read all possible combinations.
- Perec's novel La disparition, translated into English by Gilbert Adair and published under the title A Void, is a 300-page novel written without the letter "e," an example of a lipogram. The English translation, A Void, is also a lipogram. The novel is remarkable not only for the absence of "e," but it is a mystery in which the absence of that letter is a central theme.
- Singular Pleasures by Harry Mathews describes 61 different scenes, each told in a different style (generally poetic, elaborate, or circumlocutory) in which 61 different people (all of different ages, nationalities, and walks of life) masturbate.
Some Oulipian constraints:
- S+7, sometimes called N+7
- Replace every noun in a text with the noun seven entries after it in a dictionary. For example, "Call me Ishmael. Some years ago..." becomes "Call me islander. Some yeggs ago...". Results will vary depending upon the dictionary used. This technique can also be performed on other lexical classes, such as verbs.
- A poem in which each line is a single word, and each successive word is one letter longer.
- Writing that excludes one or more letters. The previous sentence is a lipogram in B, F, H, J, K, Q, V, Y, and Z (it does not contain any of those letters).
- Prisoner's constraint, also called Macao constraint
- A type of lipogram that omits letters with ascenders and descenders (b, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, p, q, t, and y).
- Sonnets and other poems constructed using palindromic techniques.
- A poem using only one vowel, although the vowel may be used in any of its aural forms. For example, "born" and "cot" could not both be used in a univocalism, unlike "sew" and "beau".
- Noël Arnaud
- Valérie Beaudoin
- Jacques Bens
- Claude Berge
- Jacques Duchateau
- Anne Garréta
- Michelle Grangaud
- Latis (Emmanuel Peillet)
- François Le Lionnais
- Jean Lescure
- Michèle Métail
- Raymond Queneau
- Jean Queval
- Albert-Marie Schmidt
Members as of 2011
Note that Oulipo members are still considered members after their deaths.
- Noël Arnaud †
- Michèle Audin
- Valérie Beaudouin
- Marcel Bénabou
- Jacques Bens †
- Claude Berge †
- André Blavier †
- Paul Braffort
- Italo Calvino †
- François Caradec †
- Bernard Cerquiglini
- Ross Chambers
- Stanley Chapman †
- Marcel Duchamp †
- Jacques Duchateau
- Luc Etienne †
- Frédéric Forte
- Paul Fournel
- Anne F. Garréta
- Michelle Grangaud
- Jacques Jouet
- Latis (Emmanuel Peillet) †
- François Le Lionnais †
- Hervé Le Tellier
- Jean Lescure †
- Daniel Levin Becker
- Harry Mathews
- Michèle Métail
- Ian Monk
- Oskar Pastior †
- Georges Perec †
- Raymond Queneau †
- Jean Queval †
- Pierre Rosenstiehl
- Jacques Roubaud
- Olivier Salon
- Albert-Marie Schmidt †
- Mathews, Harry & Brotchie, Alastair. Oulipo Compendium. London: Atlas, 1998. ISBN 0-947757-96-1
- Motte, Warren F. (ed) Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature. University of Nebraska Press, 1986. ISBN 0-8032-8131-5.
- Queneau, Raymond, Italo Calvino, et al. Oulipo Laboratory. London: Atlas, 1995. ISBN 0-947757-89-9
- The State of Constraint: New Work by Oulipo. San Francisco: McSweeney's Quarterly Concern Issue 22 (Three Books Held Within By Magnets), 2006. ISBN 1-932416-66-8
- Marc Lapprand, Poétique de l’Oulipo., Amsterdam, Rodopi, coll. « Faux Titre », 1998, 142e éd.
- Warren Motte, Oulipo: A primer in potential literature, University of Nebraska Press, 1988
- (fr) Jean-Jacques Thomas, La langue, la poésie - essais sur la poésie française contemporaine : Apollinaire, Bonnefoy, Breton, Dada, Eluard, Faye, Garnier, Goll, Jacob, Leiris, Meschonnic, Oulipo, Roubaud, Lille, Presses Universitaires de Lille, coll. « problématiques », 1989
- (fr) Christelle Reggiani et Georges Molinié (dir.), La rhétorique de l'invention de Raymond Roussel à l'Oulipo, thèse de doctorat (nouveau régime), Université de soutenance : Paris-Sorbonne, 1997
- (fr) Oulipo poétiques : Actes du colloque de Salzburg, 23-25 avril 1997 / édités par Peter Kuon ; en collaboration avec Monika Neuhofer et Christian Ollivier, Tübingen : Gunter Narr Verlag, 1999
- Peter Consenstein, Literary memory, consciousness, and the group Oulipo, Amsterdam, Rodopi, 2002
- (fr)Carole Bisenius-Penin, Le roman oulipien, Paris, l'Harmattan, 2008
- Alison James, Constraining chance : Georges Perec and the Oulipo, Evanston, Ill. : Northwestern University Press, 2009
- (fr) Christophe Reig, Anne Chamayou (dir.) et Alastair Ducan (dir.), L’Oulipo sur la scène internationale : ressorts formels et comiques, PUP, 2010 / Actes du Colloque « Le rire européen - échanges et confrontations »
- (fr) Christophe Reig, Henri Béhar (dir.) et Pierre Taminiaux (dir.), Oulipo-litiques : Poésie et Politique au XX° siècle, Paris, Hermann, 2011 / Actes du colloque de juillet 2010, Centre Culturel International de Cerisy
- (fr) Anne Blossier-Jacquemot et Florence Dupont (dir.), Les Oulipiens antiques : pour une anthropologie des pratiques d'écriture à contraintes dans l'Antiquité, Université Paris Diderot - Paris 7, Atelier National de Reproduction des Thèses, 2010
- Excerpts from the Oulipo Compendium
- A special Oulipo folio, Drunken Boat
- Monica de la Torre, "Oulipo", Poets.org Website
- Queneau, Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes, BevRowe, interactive version in French and English
- The N+7 Machine
- (French) Official Oulipo Website
- (French) Oulipo mailing list
- (French) Oulipo Games Website
- Absurdist Monthly Review, The Writers Magazine of The New Absurdist Movement
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