Mudlark No. 56 (2015)

Re: (This) One

The idea began rather accidentally, but as with many “accidents,” a deeper look discovers that it might not have been so accidental after all.

Responding to a challenge to write something in a “form,” and not wanting to write a sonnet (had just written a series) or a villanelle, pantoum, sestina, etc. (which often seem self-conscious in a look-at-me-I’m-writing-a-sestina sort of way), I cast around briefly, took a walk/began focusing on the varying rhythm of my footsteps/settled on the idea of writing a piece in single-syllabics that would hold, if possible, a rhythm & music & energy containing at least a fundamental poetics/melopoeia.

That attempt became the first draft of a piece called “Her Red,” a strange prose poem about a miscarriage.1

The writing of it engaged me in a new way, and I decided to try a few more, imposing a few rules:

1) Monosyllabics. Compound words O.K. but only allowable if the word could well be split, each discrete syllable holding its own semantically/contextually. (The word primrose, for example, would be out of bounds: that flower’s primness is not usually what we consider.)

2) The monosyllabics ought to be oral, monovocalic in the way I myself pronounce them. (Fire seems certainly to have two syllables, at least the way I say it.)

3) No ridiculous circumlocutions to achieve what a polysyllabic word would have achieved. (One area where I “push” this somewhat is in the occasional use of words from other languages. My sub-rule here was that bilingual transfer had to be absolutely germane to the piece’s content.)

4) Though monosyllabic, each piece ought to have integrity as decent writing, and not prance as some trick pony.

5) No restrictions as to topic.

So I plunged forward, sent a few out, editors started taking them. The venerable Hanging Loose magazine in New York took a goodly number, and that of course buoyed me, so I continued, and more magazines seemed to want them. I kept on, doing other work, of course, but weaving the One Project into my routine, as they announced themselves to be such during their writing.

I mentioned above the non-accidentalism of “accident.”

When I began thinking about my immersion in this undertaking, a few factors jumped out at me. The first was the memory of a particular student in a middle-school class I taught2 (see the first poem below) who kept whispering to a student teacher, during her turgid talks with the class, “Break it down! Break it down!” That kid’s words have stayed with me as a writer always: that’s what we’re about, so often—breaking it down.

A couple of other things occurred to me in this “accidentalism.” Many years ago I’d been attracted by the title of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, and ordered it, thinking it might go well with my Strunk & White and my Sheridan Baker—books I’ve loved. Little did I know that when it arrived I’d have my first exposure to an Oulipian writer. For those who aren’t familiar with Oulipo3, it’s not a country (though we could make a great case that it’s a state of mind), but a poetic movement co-founded by Queneau; its hallmark is constraint of one type or another. (It’s been said that its practitioners are word-fetishists, into “literary bondage.”4) There’s not world enough or time to jump into a decent explanation of Oulipo here—the reader might look into it if he or she is interested—but it might be mentioned that constraints used by its practitioners have varied widely/wildly, from the refusal to use any word containing “e”5 to replacement of nouns with the seventh-following noun in a dictionary6 to layer-upon-layer of multilingual translation of the same core story or poem.

So there was that.

What also occurred to me in thinking about the genesis of this thing was an event from my (Early Pleistocene) graduate school days: having been smitten with Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures, and in particular his concept of the kernel sentence—that concentrated nuclear energy holding the core sense of a sentence, and, implicitly, its transformational potential. Break it down.

Finally, the almost embarrassing wealth of our own language: its often brute Anglo-Saxon foundation (hey, don’t the Jutes get some monosyllabic credit?), the base or basic utterances that afflict us or grace us during times of stress or lovemaking or exultation, the clichés we return to, the overheard clips of conversation—gentle and otherwise, the Americanisms, all held within the inch-by-inch Sisyphean trial-and-error effort involved in communicating anything with anyone at all.

That’s more or less how these things came about.

Now: what are they? Prose poems? Blocks of prose? Flash fiction?

I don’t know what they are. I call them prose poems because of the elements I mentioned earlier, but, like much of what I’ve written over the past ten or so years, they seem to exist in a kind of literary No-Man’s-Land. That’s a problem when it comes to getting genre grants or fellowships or prizes, but I must say that working in this liminal space has given me great (non-competitive!) freedom, and the “One” Project, along with my last two books, have felt free, as perhaps the Oulipians in their own land have felt free, judged maybe by their fellow Oulipians,7 but probably not giving much of a damn what they thought, either. (Of course, there’s the irony, not lost on them, in creating restrictions to that freedom. Choose your fetters, I guess.)

I’ll end by saying that the constraint in these pieces is undoubtedly not original—surely others have done it before—but if the reader takes them in without thinking of their monosyllabic restriction and nonetheless finds them satisfying, I’ll be happy.

— Gerald Fleming

1 “Her Red,” Paris/Atlantic magazine, spring 2014.

2 I taught in the San Francisco middle schools for many years.

3 Ouvroir de literature potentielle. The movement continues strongly and internationally to this day, attracting not only poets but also mathematicians, physicists, and others drawn to its nearly infinite possibilities.

4 Practitioners of Oulipo posit that all literature, in the traditionalism and/or contemporary literary norms it inherits, is constrained.

5 Georges Perec, La Disparition, 1969, a “lipogram” (no, not a novel written in fat...)

6 Known as S+7 in French, or N+7 in English, invented by Jean Lescure. There’s a delightful generative “N+7 Machine” on the internet. (One might try it and compare results to many poems appearing in lit mags today.)

7 I want to be clear that for many reasons I don’t consider myself either a practitioner of Oulipo or a great fan. Although there’s plenty of interesting (and sometimes spectacular) Oulipo text that spurs a reader to look at language in new ways, much of what I’ve read seems either shallow and empty—exercises in style, sometimes akin to brain games created to fend off the lost-dendrite diseases of old age—or so completely narcissistic and arcane that my reader-self flees.

Gerald Fleming | One
Contents | Mudlark No. 56 (2015)