First up from the American Literary Translators Association, 2016 National Translation Awards longlist for Poetry (geez that’s a mouthful), is Minute-Operas by Frédéric Forte (Translated from the French by Daniel Levin Becker, Ian Monk, Michelle Noteboom & Jean-Jacques Poucel).
Stepping into Frédéric Forte's work is like stepping into a vast sparse gallery space, open space around you, take time to ponder what your eye has been drawn towards. Broken into two sections, “Phase one – January – October 2001” and “Phase two – February – December 2002”. Each section containing 55 “poems” or creations.
Each poem is “Staged” on the page, where a “simple vertical line of 3 inches (I measured the line thinking it would more likely to be in centimetres, but inches it was, I wonder if this is part of the translation or a US audience too?) separates, what Forte calls the stage and the wings”. Typographically the word creations then perform on this stage created on each page. It is probably best to cite an example.
This example showing the passing of time, the polar opposites of marking off weeks but stating that during a “poem’s construction you never count your days”, ageing and creation (in the wings) whilst the seconds pass on the stage. Complexity all on a single page. To quote the ‘Preface” from “The End of Oulipo? An attempt to exhaust a movement” by Lauren Elkin and Scott Esosito;
The concept of potential literature is founded on a paradoxical principle: that through the use of a formal constraint the writer’s creative energy is liberated. The work which results may be “complete” in itself, but it will gesture at all the other work that could potentially be generated using that constraint.
The poem I have used as an example doesn’t actually fall into the Oulipian section of Frédéric Forte’s work, which in fact comes in phase two, but the concept of the paradox and liberation are stunningly obvious.
This is a collection that forces you to pause, as if in an art gallery, to observe, linger, absorb, reflect before moving on, each poem an artwork in its own right, a creation that can work on numerous levels, artistically, literary, poetically, theatrically or even structurally.
Phase two’s poems come with a “Detailed index of fixed forms” where the poem uses existing poetic forms, either traditional or invented by the Oulipo. Another example for you;
Here the detailed index explains that the poem is a “Quintina. Level-5 quenina. In (central pillar of a house [the title of the poem]) the permutation operates on punctuation marks.” Permutations boundless in this example, I‘ll leave it for you to ponder.
This book is not only a feat of typographical wonder, to even contemplate the translation that would have been required, is a feat in itself. For example, the oulipo ‘heterogram’ “invented by Georges Perec. The letters chosen by the poet (the ten most frequently used in the French alphabet, plus one) cannot be used again before the whole series is completed. In the poem ‘(whistle statue II)’ the letters “SILENTBAROU” go through various iterations as words (eg. Silent Bar: our tale is….) eleven times until they end with the words “burial stone”. How on earth did this originally appear in French and how did the translator make it coherent in English? I’m still astounded, initially upon reading the poem, again when taking my notes, and now when attempting to explain it.
The cover of the book tells us that the content of the poems “also constitute, in their cryptic way, a journal of the poet’s life during the period of composition (2001-2002): his love life, the loss of his father…” unfortunately this depth was something that was personally lost in the translation. Whilst the word games, and cryptic style was extremely impressive, the content, as a cohesive whole, seemed to fall by the wayside.
Phase two of the book containing fifty-five word games for you to explore slowly, wonder upon, stretch your limits, refer to the index and back to the poem, research, ponder. An absolute marvel of potential literature. The first fifty-five poems more structured within the space confines, created by the poet, or simply the limits of the page, but still wonderfully rich and detailed in their construction.
A collection that I think would not be out of place in an art gallery. Illuminating and one I will revisit often, if simply just to be stunned at the creation involved.
In a nut shell this is a book I can't adequately review, here’s what others have said….if that helps…
“A book as intriguing (by its staging of typographic variations) as it is invigorating (in its micro-narratives).” —Emmanuel Laugier, Le Matricule des Anges n°67 (octobre 2005)
“Extraordinary inventiveness…funny, original, brilliant” —Jean-Michel Espitallier, Caisse à Outils: Un panorama de la poésie française aujourd’hui (Pocket, 2006)
“positively acrobatic, even balletic” – ALTA Blog
How about you buy a copy and see for yourself? I can guarantee literary lovers, Oulipo readers and poetry aficionados will not be disappointed.