Doug Nufer is one of the foremost constraint-based writers in the United States. You could even say he's part of the definition of constrained writing. Seriously, type it into Wikipedia and see where hisnovel, Never Again, in which no word is used more than once, gets mentioned. His most recent book is By Kelman Out of Pessoa. He was kind enough to tell me about it by email over the course of a few weeks. Also discussed: the Oulipo, performance, and African Gray Parrots. Here is up to his neck in the Stillaguamish:
Tom DeBeauchamp: Why did you start writing from formal constraints?
Doug Nufer: Harry Mathews and Jacques Roubaud came to Seattle in 1987 to read at Elliott Bay Books and to do a show with Invisible Seattle. I then met them literally and literarily through my common law brother-in-law Philip Wohlstetter. That is, I read books by them and other members of Oulipo, as well as books about Oulipo. Life: A Users Manual by Georges Perec,Cigarettes by Harry, and the Warren Motte books about Oulipo and Perec are the ones that most impressed me at the time. I wasn't entirely sold on the practice of writing that way, but a few months after that, I thought it was worth a try. Unlike some of the Oulipian constraints, that are mathematically complex, I wanted to have a constraint I could follow easily. I also was working on a typewriter, so I didn't want to use a constraint that would need a computer to guide me. So I came upon Negativeland: every sentence would have a negative. That was the main constraint, but there were others that I thought I should address if I was going to deal with negativity. I would explore opposites, alternatives, reversals, and reflections, along with considering the movies (the movies as a neutral art form, film, but mostly as a representative of the dominant culture's art of choice, and how that dominance had come to influence literature).
TD: How did adopting the constraint for Negativeland change your writing practice? Had you been exploring opposites, alternatives, reflections etc before hand?
DN: I had worked from premises before, using procedures that those premises dictated. For instance, I wrote a novel, The Office, which I later adapted to make a monologue with the same name that was released (by softpalate in Minneapolis) about the time that the sitcom of the same name hit the US. The premise was, a guy comes to in the middle of work, with no memory of what he does for a living. So he has to figure out what he does before his boss and co-workers see that he has lost his mind. The procedure was constraint-like: in order to feel his way along, he writes down everything he does, as he does it. This record of what he does becomes the novel, or, in the CD, the dictaphone recording becomes the CD. Of course, someone must discover this record and he has to deal with the consequences. WithNegativeland, I was using a constraint and set of procedures that made the process of writing easier, in that many decisions were automatic, but harder, in that it became easy to go too far in piling on negatives. Some earlier versions read like self-parodies, with double, triple, quadruple negatives all over the place. What I wanted to come up with, finally, was a version anyone could read as if it were an unconstrained novel, just as one reviewer supposedly did when he read Perec's La Disparition (sans e). In the case of Negativeland, I had an agent who took it on and sent it around to editors for a few months before I told her about the constraints. Nobody had noticed, and the agent thought it best not to mention constraints, Oulipo, etc., when trying to sell the book. That all happened years before I did find a publisher for it.
TD: That's funny. I also missed Negativeland's constraints at first. It wasn't until you reverse them in the third chapter, when Chick and his girlfriend are mistaken for movie stars, that I had any inkling of what was going on. Things suddenly got much brighter, and I thought, hey, that's a neat trick! To what extent is constraint-based writing about hiding the artifice of your work. To what extent is it about showing it off?
DN: I think the greatest constraint-based works show the extremes of those extents. Both novels by Perec: Life: A Users Manual (La Vie Mode d'Emploi) and A Void (La Disparition). Life(trans. David Bellos) has an elaborate and mostly hidden system of various schemes that stay out of the way of reading the book; Void (trans. Gilbert Adair) consistently hits you with the audacity of the constraint. For me, Negativeland may have the most laid back constraint, although most of my new novel, By Kelman Out of Pessoa doesn't push the constraints into your face (except for the thinking backwards sections). Never Again would be at the other extreme. When no word appears more than once, you're bound to take some time dealing with the constraints, if you're going to read it at all. On showing it off, I think the best way to do this is to exhaust the potential of the constraint without exhausting the reader. Tell a story, don't go crazy with lists or description, move around a lot, make a game of it. In my novels I like to deploy what I think of as the Exercises in Style imperative: as in Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style, where he repeats the same vignette 99 times, using different methods and constraints, I try to subject whatever constraint I'm using to various other, far more common constraints: punch lines of old jokes, song lyrics, lines from famous speeches and ad slogans, etc. Another strategy I use, which may deal with this to hide/ to show question, is that I explain what I'm doing in the course of doing it, but not in a way that might be readily apparent. I mean, the books don't come with instructions of how to read them, but in the course of the novel, here or there, I try to discuss what I'm doing. So, in By Kelman Out of Pessoa, not only is there an introduction of sorts, where I say that each character makes up the others and sends them out into the world (as Pessoa did), where they play the ponies using a scheme described by James Kelman, but there's a detailed run-down of how the order of winning post positions could determine who says what where in the book.
TD: The constraint in By Kelman Out of Pessoa seems to me to be of a different category from these other constraints. Where Negativeland or Never Again's constraints were sentence specific, By Kelman has a more autobiographical focus. That is, as you wrote it, it wrote you. You actually took these fictional characters to the racetrack and placed bets for them, didn't you? How precisely did you plot the wins and losses of your characters against your own real life wins and losses? Did it ever seem necessary to break the rules?
DN: Yes, it is a lot different to write from data patterns than from rules set by grammar and diction. There were some sentence specific rules in By Kelman Out of Pessoa. When each of the "normal" characters conceived of somebody who thinks, acts, and talks backwards, one has the backwards man expressing himself via inverted word order and the other has him expressing himself via scrambled syllables, mostly through Spoonerisms. The main constraint in that book, though, is that each character makes up the others, and whatever happens to them happens as a result of the outcomes of their wagers. I really did think of these wagers as theirs, since most of the wagers were not plays I would have ordinarily made. I wasn't risking that much money (instead of the $20-$80 run I wrote about, I bet in runs of $2-$8), so I was prepared to dump $1000 or so, if I had to, on the season. Cheap for a health club (I rode my bike to the track--about 2 hours each way). When it turned out that many of the bets won, I was pleased not to be shelling out so many twenty dollar bills. I also found that there was a more complex pattern of wins and losses developing--one that I could use to make more of a narrative. Then again, the possibility that all characters would turn out to be miserable losers offered a potential for maximum dramatic sturm und drang. So it wasn't necessary to break any rules. In a way, though, I did break my own rules by setting up the backwards character. Each of these characters went to a handicapping seminar to learn the basics of how to "lose themselves and beat the races" by splitting themselves into other characters and having these characters make bets for them according to a set money management program. For me to have one of these characters do everything backwards or the opposite from what the course taught was a built-in rule breaker. It happens all the time in life, where you wonder what would have happened if you just had done things differently, but at the track and for the book I wanted it to be ludicrously systematic. In constraint writing, there's even a principle about breaking your own rules. The clinamen is that deliberate break from the pattern a writer makes just for the hell of it. Like that passage in Negativeland you mentioned, where there are no negatives.
TD: The By Kelman Out of Pessoa constraint involves a kind of performance. You split yourself, as it were, into characters and gambled as them. The result was a novel. This seems to me to be kind of an inversion of the public reading, where you write something first and then perform it. For you, what's the relationship between public readings and writing?
DN: From 1998 to 2003, I was in a spoken word troupe with Anna Mockler and Greg Hischak called Staggered Thirds. We took what we each had written and scored the pieces for 3-part readings. At first, we took stories and poems that had been written to be read silently or read, faithfully as written, by the author. Soon we began to write material with the idea of scoring it for multiple voices. The performance shaped the material. Now when I read, I rarely read from the printed book. For prose, I take manuscript pages and edit them—usually in advance; occasionally as I read on stage—for the show. Many constraints, such as Never Again (no word repeats) must be delivered that way, or something like part of a hyphenated word might sound like a repeated word. And for poetry, I've memorized enough material to be able to do a "reading" without having to worry about the dim light of a bar (where so many fun readings take place). One poem, based on homophonic translation of its own lines ("A Ghost Echoes") I've performed many times but I haven't read it in years. I don't know if I could write it out any more, because the lines begin to make up other like-sounding lines. Being in character has been more important for the performance of this poem than word-for-word clarity, and because the narrator is a human cannon ball who used to be the knife thrower until it slipped (and he slipped into drinking all the time), I get carried away on stage. Coming up though, I'm doing a reading that will be recorded by Penn Sound, so I may have to read the poem again and work on pronunciation. More and more I rely on reading aloud in performances to shape what I write. First, I read to Pollock and Hektor, an African grey and a Lilac-crowned Amazon parrot. They help me anticipate audiences, even if they are often more attentive and enthusiastic than the material deserves. I should add that I went for many years without reading in public. I did this on purpose, because back in college I was very good at delivering my stories in creative writing classes—so good that it just became an exercise in writing for laughs. These days, I still set out to write some pieces that absolutely resist being performed. Then I dare myself into giving them a try, and next thing you know they're in the show, where, if performed properly, they make more sense than they do when confined to the page. In a way, though, the public performance of part of a novel has nothing to do with the novel. It is a performance in itself, and the time it takes to read or recite something is all there is to it, and I try to make the most of that time to deliver the material such as it is. Presentation, not representation, is all that matters, and any explanation of the material is (usually to the detriment) part of that performance. The novelists who read in public as if they are aware of this probably don't outnumber the typical crowd at a reading. But for many poets, the performance of the poem on stage can be or seems to be the primary place for the poem's publication, while the print version often exists more as a document, the way a screenplay of a great movie might be published afterwards.
TD: How did you get involved with Penn Sound?
DN: The Segue Reading Series, which takes place at the Bowery Poetry Club and gets recorded by Penn Sound, asked me to read. I don't know how they came to invite me, but the timing is good for me. I have a homophonic geographic mystery narrative poem that would ideally be published as a book/ CD. I'm applying for grants to get it recorded and also looking for a publisher. I've done quite a few readings in New York and I also performed in a dance show (reciting—not dancing), so the people at Segue might have caught my act even if they hadn't seen any of my books. Usually it's a friend of a friend who taps you, but I've also been invited to gigs where there's no trail of friends of friends.
TD: I'm really excited for the Segue show! Going back to what you said about Presentation not Representation and the way a poem's performance can be its publication, what do you think about works of literature being committed only to audio recording, or to video recording for that matter. Is there a big difference between a book of poetry and an mp3 of poetry? I'm also interested in your thoughts around the economics of these different forms. CDs of poets or novelists have never been as popular as the books themselves. With recordings becoming so cheap to produce, what do you think the future of literature will look like?
DN: Yes, there is a big difference between a book of poetry and a sound or video recording of it. When I wrote The Dammed, I threw myself into the problems of homophonic confusion, and the difficulty of being able to render these sonic riddles on the page. When I recite the prelude to this 66-page poem, the last word of the last line, "In the dreams of the dammed" can be heard as "damned" and the poem only gets more confusing from there. Daniel Comiskey and C.E. Putnam made a book/ CD of their long poem Crawlspace (P.I.S.O.R.) for very little money, thanks to Chris having a studio in his basement and the skill to use it. Other people I know, along with friends of friends, have home studios that I could rent for a few hundred dollars, and I'm applying for grants to cover that. Even without a grant, the CD recording part of the deal is the easy part. The hard part is always the part where you find the right publisher. Or, if you publish it yourself, where you find a way to get the book out there. When I looked for possible publishers of this thing, I just wrote to people I know who seemed open to this kind of poetry, like Anna Moschovakis at Ugly Duckling (for the Dossier Series) and Debra DiBlasi at Jaded Ibis (where they don't shy away from mixed media), but then I checked and found that almost no small presses were doing book/ CDs. Typically, you had to be a Made Poet like Robert Bly to get the book/ CD treatment. I don't understand that at all. I think that, given a manuscript and a CD (in as many copies as they require), any small press should be able to make book/ CDs, For many if not most poetry, I don't think the CD will come across as well as the printed matter, but for a significant amount of exciting and serious work, the CD would be the ideal presentation, while the book itself might come to exist as the printed lyrics in a Bob Dylan album. This may not be the future of literature, but many of the present and future poems live on stage, in recordings, and on You Tube. But what do I know? I get most of my advice from an African grey parrot.