On constraint

When I teach my intro poetry classes, I focus on form — mostly traditional ones, as a way of filling the new poet’s toolbox with useful items: meter, rhyme, lining/enjambment, voltas/cuts/turns, etc. But when I get into the more advanced classes, I assign “constraints” rather than forms, even though some of the constraints area really just creating their own new forms. This women did a Perec and wrote an entire novel without the letter O in it and here she talks about how her own self-imposed constraints helped her get it done.

It seemed like building with Meccano minus the nuts and bolts to secure all the pieces. But as the writing progressed, new thoroughfares opened up where I’d expected impediments. A simple descriptive sentence such as “Sunlight shone through the windows” became “Sunlight blazed in the single-glazing”. The constraint made me work harder to look beyond obvious ways of expressing things. I had to slow down and consider my medium. I had to weigh each word.

Writing with no O started out as a method of subtraction and distillation, but it grew into a form of play. The dictionary was indispensable. Much of my writing time was spent looking up words, their etymologies, and, of course, scanning for O-less synonyms. It brought me back to the days of amazement as I observed my daughter learning language when every word was a kind of revelation. I remember one summer day cycling with her on the back of my bicycle chattering away to herself while I pedalled toward the local farm. At one point she sing-songed, “Li-am in the fil-lum mu-se-um. Mummy, that rhymes!” She was completely tickled with what her tongue had stumbled upon. What a singular state that time of life is, when language is a plaything, a novelty, when it’s not yet second nature.

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