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Friday, February 10, 2012

Zombie Poetry

Nobody who knows me could be surprised to learn I have an interest in Oulipo, the crossroads between mathematics and poetry (according to the Academy of American Poet's website However, in general I've found the processes of Oulipo more interesting than the products. And now I've discovered at Mad River Anthology a podcast by Brent Jenkins in which he sets up an Oulipo project and walks the listener step-by-step through the process of applying constraints to a system to force a result. Have you ever wondered what happens when the formal constraints pre-established for an Ouilipian  project suddenly don't cover an unanticipated occurrence in the creative process? Turns out there are rules for these oversights, which this podcaster happily walks you through.

Jenkins began with a 4-CD collection called Poetry on Record,  98 Poets Read Their Work from 1888 to 2006. He decided to make a mash up of these recordings, choosing excerpts based on the following rules:

1) Using the run-time clock of the movie Night of the Living Dead, he noted every onscreen appearance of a zombie, and using the initial time and the length of the zombie's appearance, he sampled from the CDs at the same beginning time and length of recording. Since he noticed that the running time of the movie was shorter than the running time of the CDs taken together in order, and that the rule strictly applied would mean disks three and four (and thus the entire 20th Century poetic canon) would never be used in the mash up, he made an amendment to his original rule:

1a) Jenkins allowed himself to sample from all four disks (at the correct initial time of zombie appearance and running the same length of time as the zombie was on screen), and at his whim (already somewhat violating the strictness of Oulipo) chose which sample or samples to include in the mash up.

2) Eventually he ran into the problem of multiple zombies appearing on screen simultaneously. To deal with this, he didn't want to run multiple poetry reading samples at the same time, as an Oulipian purist would argue was the proper interpretation of the first rule, because that resulted in cacophony. Instead, Jenkins decided to have the same number of voices as zombies (in the first instance, 3 zombies, so 3 voices from 3 of the disks) but to allow one of them to be dominant, while the others receded into the background.

3) But what happens when there are more than 4 zombies, you ask? With only 4 CDs, that's a seemingly insurmountable problem. Luckily, Oulipians have a provision for extreme circumstances called "the Clinamen," which allows the constraint to be broken within the following parameters: only if the project can proceed without it. In this way, Jenkins considers the fifth zombie voice to wrap around to the 1st CD again, and since it has the same time constraints as the 1st zombie since both 1st and 5th zombies appeared as part of a zombie mob, it doubles the first zombie excerpt, making Jenkins' job more manageable.

4) What to do when zombie hands appear onscreen before the entire zombie? Are zombie hands enough to invoke the first rule? The consideration of this questions leds Jenkins to consider what it is to be a zombie, which he decided is really a rephrasing of what it means to be human....Listen to the podcast to hear the entire philosophical discussion.

When 16 zombies appear simultaneously, Jenkins gave up, invoking "the Canada Dry," a well-known Oulipian Clinamen, a huge surprise, and I'll let you find out what that is, if you want to listen (hint: it confirms my observation that the process of Oulipo is often more interesting than the product). He does suggest an arbitrary rule that could be used to deal with zombie hordes though: for example, he says that whenever a zombie horde appears, a 100-second sampling could be taken from the 100th minute of the recording, in 10-minute increments for successive zombie mobs. Obviously it's a completely arbitrary rule, but that's fine, as long as the constraint is well-defined and strictly followed.

Does this inspire you to try "ZombiePo," or any kind of Oulipian experiment? I'm thinking about trying the famous N+7 technique (which is discussed in the link about, if you are interested). Long live Oulipo (and especially the Canada Dry)!

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