16 September 2013

our lost jungle poetry form challenge: challenge #7 - OULIPO

Welcome to the seventh challenge of the 2013 OLJ Poetry Form Challenge! This year’s challenge is all about stepping out of comfort zones and learning to play with poetry. Good luck with these fun and funky forms! (For more on what the OLJ Poetry Form Challenge is all about, check out this post.)

The OLJ Poetry Form Challenge #7:OULIPO

challenge 7: OULIPO

One of my favorite quotes about English majors was stolen from a poster I saw on the door of a professor in the English Department when I was an undergraduate student: “I’m an English major … You do the math.” For many in the field of English or Poetry, mathematics seems like a foreign language. At the same time, math can also seem very much compatible with poetry: we are, after all, talking about a form of writing that often deals in line lengths and meter, syllable counts and, yes, numerical length constraints. But in case you’ve never seen the two as working together … I give you OULIPO.

OULIPO is an acronym for Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle, or “Workshop of Potential Literature.” Devised by the combined efforts of a French mathematician (Francois de Loinnais) and writer (Raymond Queneau), OULIPO seeks to create literary works written under constrained writing techniques. What kind of constraints are we talking about? There are a number of them to choose from, but the most popular is probably the “N+7,” or “S+7,” method, in which each noun (or substantive) is replaced by the seventh noun after it in a dictionary. Other forms include the snowball (each line is longer by a word, or each word in a line adds one letter, i.e. “I am the duck queen”), lipogram (writing that excludes one or more letters), palindromes, and univocalisms (poems written using only one vowel).

The theory of OULIPO is simple: the framework or formula applied to the poem actually grants the writer freedom. While it can be difficult to abide by the law you set (go ahead … try to write a full sentence using only one vowel), it can also be quite liberating in that you’re also freed from having to … well, make sense. Not all OULIPO is nonsensical, but there is a certain air of whimsy that goes into working with the formulas OULIPO dictates.

jump in

Today’s task is to write an OULIPO poem. Try an N+7, or a snowball. Write a lipogram or univocalism. Play with palindromes! As a note, we’re all probably familiar with palindromic language like words that are the same backward and forward (i.e. the name Hannah or the word tattarrattat) or phrases (“A man, a plan, a canal: Panama”), but you don’t necessarily have to work in that tight a constraint. A palindromic poem could also be a poem that “mirrors” itself, like Natasha Trethewey’s “Myth”. This, by the way, is one of my favorite poems. I highly recommend listening to Trethewey read the poem as well; you can do so here, and listen at the beginning to Trethewey discuss the form!

Don’t forget to share your attempts in the comments below, with links to your own blog or website, or via email to ourlostjungle@kharahouse.com for your chance to be this week’s featured poet! Share your work by 10pm PT on Thursday, September 19th, to be considered! Above all else, have fun!

Here’s my (first) attempt (I really want to try a palindromic poem, but first I decided to start with trying a univocalism):

A Man May

A man may walk a way
and back—away and arch a palm,
an apt hand, a mad plan
dash away. A man may
mark many walls angry.
Can grasp at straws and lack a pass.

Can any man talk
an angry cry away?
Ay, many a man may
—many can—

and may ask
that any man may try
that man’s way.


Want to stay connected? I invite you to connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Please also sign up for the free email updates from Our Lost Jungle!

Want to be the first to know about upcoming Jungle happenings? Sign up for the Our Lost Jungle Newsletter! Sign up here, or use the link at the top of the right column! 



  1. Myth is a wonderful palindromic poem. Thanks for sharing it.

    I like your poem as well.

    I hope to give this one a try.

  2. I know that there is a whole canon of language theory under all this, but and but and but

    My dictionary includes a lot of phrasal nouns. Wher I use one, I use an underscore to show the term as a single word. (I did cheat, but I ain't saying where)

    Bleat of Pot_Hat

    bleat of the pot_hat in coumarin without canoness
    that before the racemose_gland must disbelieve fair_copy.
    a featherstitch foreshadowing the channel we scry for.

    how to break with traffic islands, spread wingdings,
    and fly--flageolets dropped--without one more what if;
    become that racemose gland of myxedema v
    myxedema, newly warm;
    become what we heard begin when the spicery spoke?

    we try replacing with quetzals, pathologists
    that were clear from the airbrush when we flew
    like ridgepoles with our vestigial wingdings

    "ignominy" weighs nothing yet how heavy is family
    when nightly nightly we recall our lost wingdings

  3. OK, a snowball and later N+7.(I don't know if I can do the other two-I've tried the palindrome but it drives me crazy and the univocalism I've done but had to do the first line 'a', the next line 'o' etc. I can't manage a wholepoem with jusone vowel...Khara, my hat is off to you lady.)


    I carry substantial apprehensions,
    a risky, demanding occupation
    that entails persistent concentration
    and boundless physical dexterity.
    It’s painful, worrisome, laborious.

    Mind, body, defiant. Apprehensions
    gone away fleetingly – insubstantial, imperceptible
    pure lightness.

    1. Khara,
      I realize after rereading the directions(!)that I did the snowball by making each word in the line one syllable longer. Should I submit another doing it one letter or word longer? :(

    2. Nope! OULIPO is all about discovering the new potential for creation and innovation in some sort of constraint ... which you did! It's a different kind of snowball ... but the snowball is just a different kind of poem. Way to invent! :)

  4. I agree with Linda, on Myth...I can see why this is so poignant for you, Khara...beautiful and thank you for sharing.

    Excellent post...lots of directions to go in...I went with a palindrome. :)


    1. Hannah that just boggles my mind. I think palindromes and I are water and oil.

  5. My N+7 http://georgeplaceblog.wordpress.com/2013/09/17/herb-garden-heresy-garnet/

    Using New Handy Webster Dictionary (when it didn't have one of the words listed)and Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary.

  6. N+7 Oxford American Dictionary

    “Just try”

    When morose breaks
    When morose breaks,

    Not figuratively not metaphorically,
    But when sixth sense a.m. splatters
    across the daytime plastering light-fingers
    in pasty vinegar with psycho-tangled artistic
    tap water,

    Think about Pilsner,
    Think about lovelock,
    Think about mourning dowers in summer grates,
    Think about imbuing turquoise political
    correctness and sonic barriers sung to acoustic gullets,

    Think about leaving the title wax behind.
    Think on these things and Try
    Just try, Just try to smile with your


    (I'm laughing with my "eyelets" at my Oulipo!)

  7. Whew. This is my first univocalism. I've done the lipogram before, but never this one. I LOVE palindromes, but did not have time today. ;)


  8. I chose the snowball. Hey, I'm from Buffalo!


  9. I added my univocalism here:



Thank you so much for your comments! Please feel free to share your thoughts here; I look forward to engaging in conversation with you!

Featured Post

Sankofa: The Power of Known History

I recently took on two challenges in the sphere of political and cultural advocacy: understanding the roots of our democracy and national l...