Li Po Meets Oulipo (Belladonna*, 2015)

Li Po Meets Oulipo

Thanks to the great people at the Belladonna* Collaborative for publishing my latest chapbook, Li Po Meets Oulipo, which is #177 in the Belladonna* Chaplet Series. Here’s my introduction to the chap:

Li Po (701-762), also known as Li T’ai-po or Li Bai, is one of the most renowned poets of the High T’ang period, the so-called Golden Age of Chinese poetry.  Translated by such illustrious poets as Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, and William Carlos Williams, Li Po’s writing—however mediated and refracted—exerted a considerable influence on American modernist poetics, and the early twentieth-century reception of his poetry helped pave the way for Imagism’s anti-decorative compression and minimalism.  Yet how much do we really know about Li Po and his work?  According to translator David Hinton, Li Po is “as much unknown as known, as much legend as history.”  Out of the several thousand poems that Li Po supposedly authored, only about a thousand remain and many of the extant poems are of questionable authenticity.  In the face of such loss and uncertainty, Hinton suggests that we, in fact, “re-embody the legend that Li Po is…even if that legend has little to do with historical fact.”  “Li Po Meets Oulipo” explores other forms that this re-embodiment might take by appropriating translations of Li Po’s surviving writings by using a range of Oulipian procedures.  If, as Michel Foucault provocatively stated, “the author is the principle of thrift in the proliferation of meaning,” then legend, by contrast, is a privileged conduit for proliferating significations.  I wish to bring together the poetry of Li Po and the procedural ingenuity of Oulipo to create a provocative proliferation of meanings that can stand in—however incongruously—for the enormous amount of Li Po’s writings that have been lost.  The Oulipo (Ouvroir de Littérature potentielle [Workshop of Potential Literature]) is a neo-avant-garde group founded in 1960 by former surrealist Raymond Queneau and mathematician, engineer, and pataphysician François Le Lionnais.  Oulipo members included such luminaries as Marcel Duchamp, Italo Calvino, and Georges Perec.  As a conglomeration of mathematicians and writers, the still-active Oulipo group is interested in both theorizing and engineering literary forms based on extreme restrictions and rule-bound procedures.  For example, the basic algorithm “N + 7”—perhaps the most famous of all Oulipian constraints—involves replacing each noun of a source poem with the seventh subsequent noun in a specified dictionary.  What follows are the results of my experimentation with N + 7 along with eight other constraints, part of my ongoing search of how one text can lead (in)directly to the next.  Queneau famously described Oulipians as “rats who build the labyrinth from which they will try to escape.”  This chapbook begins and ends in the labyrinth for it is, to quote Chinese fabulist Can Xue (who has written a book on Calvino), “an experiment without an escape route.”

Samples from this project have been published in Drunken Boat and Silenced Press.

~ by Michael Leong on April 21, 2015.

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