Teaching the Oulipo

Teaching Oulipian work has proved immensely rewarding; it produces for professor and students alike a mix of pleasure, surprise, and challenge. Teaching the Oulipo means either studying their literary works as one would in a literature course, or using some of their methods to set students to writing constraint-based texts. I have found that mixing both reading and writing in the Oulipian style is most effective and most enjoyable for everyone.

Oulipian literature offers several different kinds of ways to view and understand writing produced under constraints. Some works provide the opportunity to appreciate the way in which the constraints that govern a text are not noticeable--e.g., Perec's Life A User's Manual or Calvino's If on a winter night a traveler. Other texts constantly refer to their own constraints--e.g., Perec's A Void or Roubaud's The Great Fire of London. Reading constraint-based works helps students see the underlying structural architecture of texts in general--one rediscovers the work of other writers in this way, such as the German-American founder of the detective story, Ulli Poe.

Writing under constraints turns any class into a workshop. With the appearance of the Oulipo Compendium, teaching constraint-based writing has become much easier. The Compendium is a handbook full of possible assignments, and exploring it opens up several different challenges for the student. Once the class becomes attuned to the idea of constraints, things tend to take on a life of their own. For instance, a class ended up in a contest of writing "sushi palindromes," palindromes that were in some way connected to sushi consumption. The first and last in the genre were written by Kevin Gallo: "I has a asahi," and "A nut ward Ned orders raw rodent tuna."

I have taught Oulipian texts primarily in a course called Style in Writing. I also taught Perec's A Void and Benabou's Why I Haven't Written Any of My Books in A Course About Nothing. Because I think it is one of the century's important novels, I teach Perec's Life A User's Manual all the time!

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