I first saw Doug Nufer when I was in college, at a reading series for a class on poetry and opera. It was a slimy gray night, and a woman in the front row of the auditorium, who appeared to be wrapped in a tarp, snored like a garbage disposal through every reader. No one could wake her. Doug, unfazed, walked onstage and proceeded to read a series of lively, surreal poems, each accompanied by its own dance. The reading's awkwardness dissolved, the snoring now just another element of delightful weirdness.
The class's most recent lecture had been about Oulipo, short for "Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle," or "Workshop of Potential Literature," a group of French writers and mathematicians founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnias. Oulipo-associated writers practiced a variety of constraint-based writing techniques. Georges Perec, for instance, wrote an entire novel (A Void) without using the letter E. Other constraints were generated by mathematical equations, or involved the use of palindromes. I didn't care for the constraint-based writing I had sampled at that point, as I felt that putting such emphasis on the way a poem is constructed detracts from its emotional qualities. Constraint-based writing seemed more like a puzzle than an art form worth venerating.
As it turned out, I just hadn't met the right constraint-based writing yet. Or I should say I had and didn't realize it—after all, what are sonnets and villanelles if not formal constraints? But the first Oulipo texts I read seemed to lack self-awareness. Nufer's work, in which pulp, noir, and pop function like clippings from familiar magazines in an elaborate collage, changed all that. His first book of poetry, We Were Werewolves, contained "Poem Noir," a series he wrote by rearranging and otherwise manipulating lines from classic film noir. The humor in these pieces provided a handrail to guide me to the pleasures of Oulipo—the thrill and beauty of hearing the music of your own language as a nonspeaker does, of seeing language used in a way it's possible that it never has been before. At its best, constraint-based writing creates a feeling something like learning an entire language in the time it takes to read one text.
Nufer began writing with constraints in 1987, after meeting Oulipo writers Harry Matthews and Jacques Roubaud. His first constraint-based novel was Negativeland (Autonomedia, 2004), in which each sentence has a negative and the narrative progresses backward and forward simultaneously. In his novel Never Again (Black Square, 2004), the story of a gambler's struggle to avoid repeating his mistakes, no word is used more than once.
His new novel, Lifeline Rule (Spuyten Duyvil), employs an even more severe constraint: the conovowel. At no point in the text do two vowels or two consonants appear in a row. The hero is a military code specialist. The book consists of his transliteration of his own story into this form. The results render conventional scenes—like this familiar bar pickup scene—dazzling and disorienting:
One kamikaze was an ace. His amore line was a lazy, care-liberated I-got-it. If a lady gave her evasive rebuke to his inane polo poke, he faked a soporific, "Aloha," to mimic a jet of enema hosed ah, or a catatonic, "Oh, a loser." On average, no line was a surefire lure. Was a zany rap a ceremony to make women adore moronic apes or, as I came to deduce, were my men of a tame type, solely busy in a rite to deify men?
The constraint necessitates gymnastics that will have you googling a word per page, but it also results in a unique narrative structure and perfect sentences like this: "Civility paraded in every tic on a face beveled in age lines."
Nufer's poetry and prose succeed the way his buoyant, bizarre stage presence does, even when someone is snoring. Both will be on display when he reads from Lifeline Rule at Phinney Books on Tuesday, June 2, and at a yet-unscheduled event with Paolo Pergola, a member of Oplepo (the Italian answer to Oulipo), at which there will actually be a chance to taste the constraint—only wines with conovowel names will be served.