A New Game
A few weeks ago, I came across an article in my news feed about OuLiPo that piqued my interest. I had never heard of the technique before, and I could easily imagine how the simple substitution method could be applied in a classroom scenario.
When I was a Library Assistant at an elementary school, I was in charge of teaching "library" to Kindergarten children. One of the lessons I used during National Poetry Month (April) was a classroom version of MadLibs, where the students would come up with substitution words for a chosen poem. Once they had gathered the necessary number of words, I would read the original work and then read their "MadLibs" version, to sometimes hilarious results. It was a lot of fun and the kids would remember the exercise for a long time.
I decided to try the n+7 OuLiPo exercise on a poem I wrote in elementary school. I must have been no more than 10 years old when I penned The Willow. Apparently, I've always been fascinated by Salix babylonica
I was excited to use my massive 1947 Webster's dictionary that I had purchased years ago at a flea market for $9. Imagine the possibilities with all those words!
I decided to be stringent with the rules, and to also only count entries that actually had the "n." after them, because I quickly discovered many proper nouns were included as entries. I followed the suggested method below from poets.org:
"Care is taken to ensure that the substitution is not just a compound derivative of the original, or shares a similar root, but a wholly different word. Results can vary widely depending on the version of the dictionary one uses."
Here's what happened:
"Le branchos"? Is it a hare? Is it a fish?
I've never heard anyone use "breloque" in a sentence.
I was a little disappointed with the outcome. Not gonna lie. But that's what I get for using a 70 year old dictionary. What did I think would happen?
Not one to be deterred, I decided to try the exercise with another, newer (1995) dictionary that my children used in elementary school.
Here is the result:
All right. A bit funnier. It calls me back to my Medical Technology days with nouns like "B lymphocyte" and "trematodes".
I was still a little disappointed with the results. Should I be disappointed? It's all about the process, right? I wonder how many poems and how many tries it would take to create something more palatable?
I must also remember that I used a poem written by a 10 year old.
I knew the method must have resulted in some fabulous poems at some point, so I did a quick internet search and found a seemingly endless supply. Here is one I enjoyed:
The extract, from Blake:
They did the work so you don't have to. Isn't that better? There are many more examples, and I even found an online N+7 generator, but that seems like cheating.
I think this exercise is a valuable tool to help those struggling with creativity in writing, at least as a structured way to break out of a rut. It seems to me children would enjoy the safety of the set parameters at first, and then maybe veer off into more creative writing. It got me thinking about words in a different way and it made me use an actual dictionary, rather than searching online for a word.
I will use this exercise again, whenever I am struggling with a writing rut. The spark has been lit!
I write novels and poetry and this blog.