Susan Tichy
George Mason

Bouncing Off Walls

W r i t i n g  O p e r a t i o n s

Many of these terms are defined and included in
Harry Mathews & Alastair Brotchie's Oulipo Compendium (Make Now Press, 2005) - a book I highly recommend. The Oulipo group clearly distinguishes their practices from aleatory writing, but on this page you will find operations and exercises that include the workings of chance, as well as the working of systems. Those marked O are textual operations that originated in the Oulipo group. 

Another source for forms is the Scottish poet and artist Alec Finlay. Browse his website for circle poems, grid poems, credos, mesostics, and more. Many will be found in the "You are invited" section.

Some of these operations produce a poem; some produce a lexicon from which to produce a poem; some can be adapted for altering text or altering a book; some can be combined with manipulations of book form or with three-dimensional forms.
° Many can be adapted for collaboration. C marks a spot where I've made an explicit suggestion for collaboration. ° F/C indicates an operation that involves, or can involve, found text and collage.

You will also find links to a few web sites that offer exceptional resources for writing poems.

Acrostic / Mesostic / Telestich
A vertical succession of letters that, in a series of lines or stanzas, forms a word or phrase. Acrostic signifies a vertical sequencing at the beginning of the lines. Mesostic sequencing appears in the middle of the text and telestich at its end. 
° Mesostics were invented for modern use by John Cage, and have been further developed by Alec Finlay.

An anagram is a word or phrase created by rearranging the letters of another word or phrase. Potentially, an entire poem might be created by rearranging the letters of a selected passage. °  A poem or aphorism may also be created by rearranging a set of words, as in Ian Hamilton Finlay's invitation to readers to cut out the words of Saint-Just's motto "THE PRESENT ORDER IS THE DISORDER OF THE FUTURE" and rearrange them. ° Ian Finlay also created visual anagrams by using a proofreader's mark indicating that two letters should be reversed.

Lipogram O
A text that excludes one or more letters of the alphabet. Variations include poems in which the excluded letters are those of a particular word or name. (When it's a name, the poem is called A Beautiful Outlaw.) ° If you reverse the logic, you can write a poem in which only letters occuring in a particular word or words may be used. (When it's a name, the poem is called A Beautiful In-Law.) ° One popular idea is to write an epithilamium using letters from the names of the bride and groom. For example, in a form invented by George Perec, the first stanza uses the letters of the bride's name, the second stanza uses the letters of the groom's name, and the third stanza uses the letters from both names.

Canceled Text / Erasure F/C
Cancelled text poems have two brilliant points of origin: Ronald Johnson's Radi Os, created by erasing words from John Milton's Paradise Lost to make a spiritual poem of a very different kind, and artist Tom Philips' A Humument, created by altering (or 'treating,' as he says) a victorian novel (William Mallock's A Human Document) to make a new story and a stunning work of visual art. ° Wave Books' interactive Erasures page allows you to create a cancelled-text poem, then print it, send it, or archive it on their site. Or work with a text of your choice.

A perverse is created by splicing together two lines of poetry, often two lines of canonical verse. Classic examples include: "To be or not to be only stand and wait." ° Iambic pentameter lines can be spliced in a way that preserves the meter, and such lines can be recombined into a new poem. ° Jacques Roubaud's "The train passing through the night" is a further variant, in which spliced metrical lines exploit relative stress, ellision and other metrical peculiarities with the goal of creating lines that are especially long or especially short.

Breaking Words
Breaking open words can lead to a number of results.
° In a technique known in France as rime asiate, a word is broken into syllables and each syllable is then used as a rhyme sound for a poem or stanza. (Each word in a poem's title, for example, could be used as the basis for rhyme in a stanza. So a poem called "Basic Complaint" would have two stanzas. The first stanza would use the rhymes "ay" & "ic," and the second stanza would use the rhymes "om" and "aint.") ° Words can be found within other words, in order to generate a lexicon for a poem. For example, determine might be used to deter a mine; disappearance conceals a pear and an ear, as well as the verbs is and sap; and a boar seems to have eaten both an oar and a boa. ° O Marcel Bénabou has shown that word fragments can become wee poems simply by finding their true definitions. His 1990 Bris de mots (Word Breakage) includes such shards as:
BLE  the limit of the supportable
ICH  the artichoke's heart
RRI  a parcel of territory
Concrete poetry sometimes relies on such breakages by rendering them visually.

N + 7
Invented by Jean Lescure, and perhaps Oulipo's most well-known operation, N+7 is very simple: choose a text you want to alter; replace each noun (N) with the seventh noun following it in a dictionary (+7). ° Base text can be original or found, famous or obscure. ° Choosing a dictionary is equally important. As the Compendium puts it: "When choosing a dictionary, it is useful to remember that the smaller it is, the greater the alphabetic distance between the original word and its replacement and the simpler the words found." The example provided is the begining of the Book of Genesis, altered using a large, a small, and a very small dictionary. The results begin:

In the beguinage god created the hebdomad and the earthfall. And the earthfall was without formalization, and void; and darnex was upon the facette of the deerhair.

In the behest God created the heckelphone and the easement. And the easement was without format, and void and darshan was upon the facial of the defeasance.

In the bend God created the hen and the education. And the education was without founder, and void; and death was upon the falsehood of the demand.

Other considerations: When the base text includes nouns in apposition, such as trail head you can make your own rule: apply N+7 to both words; consider the first word an adjective and alter only the second word; or take the expression as a single noun trailhead, and alter it by the normal practice. ° When altering a metrical poem, you can choose to respect or to ignore meter. To preserve the meter, start with the 7th noun and continue searching until you find a noun that will fit the meter. In some cases, the alphabetic distance may be very great, even crossing into subsequet letters.

Fair Flow'rs Among the Weeds
English prose includes a surprising number of iambic pentamter sentences and phrases. This operation calls for a poem composed entirely of such flowers plucked from the weeds of prose. The Compendium (which calls this "Blank verse amidst the prose") includes a poem composed with lines from an F. Scott Fitzgerald story.

Diction Cloud C F/C
Choose a poem and list all the words in the poem in alphabetical order. Write a poem using these words. Don't look at the original again until you have made several drafts of your own poem. °
How flexible can you be? Since the purpose of the exercise is to place you in someone else's diction cloud, I recommend either a very strict rule or something like "80% of the words in your poem must be from the list." Another possibility is to limit yourself to the list for substantive words but allow flexibility for small words (articles, conjunctions, prepositions). ° Variation: have a friend choose the poem and list the words, so you won't know your source till your poem is finished. A lesser-known poem by a poet you admire, perhaps? Or a poet you have never read.

Boolean Poetry
Take two texts and consider them as two sets of words. Determine where those two sets overlap, and you now have three sets of words: those appearing only in text A, those appearing only in text B, and those appearing in both A & B. These three sets can be used to create separate poems, different verses of the same poem, or in some other pattern. C To collaborate: each poet chooses a source text and the three word sets are identified. Each poet then writes a poem (or poems) according to any plan you devise. It is important, however, that both poets use the word sets in the same way.

Analytic Dictionary Definitions O
A creation of Noël Arnaud. Take a simple or rather short word and use each of its letters as the initial of a longer word. The longer words then serve as initial letters to a further set. Use these words, in order, to write a definition of the original word, in the form of a prose poem. You may add function words, but beyond that be sparing; keep to the spirit of the procedure. ° This form has many possibilities for collaboration, with different poets supplying words at chosen stages. ° Here's a poem I wrote after visiting a couple of closed-down slate mines in Scotland:















































































































SLATE: Its silver latitudes alarm the territory, enclose or impose an alien leniency. Not easy to navigate, its little temper may act as response to cartography. A view intervenes: this river is real and its longitude is error. Lacking talent to manage, it rarely includes orphans. Still, no rude or undue terror can solidify this danger. What’s over is elder, what’s elder is roofed. And yellow.

Translexical Translation F/C O
From the Oulipo Compendium: "A text on a given subject is emptied of all its key words, which are then replaced by a different set. The relationships between these new key words must be similar to the relationships which existed between the words in the original. The syntax and secondary words of the original are left unaltered." Others have called this a 'Transfusion Poem'.

Grid Poems
Draw a square or rectangle and divide it into rows and columns of squares. The Table funtion in a word processing program works well. Write a poem by placing one letter in each square, eliding gaps between words and breaks between lines. You must fill the grid completely. ° Samples can be seen on at (Look in "You are invited.") My home page offers another example.

Circle Poems

Circle poems have long been popular with poets, artists, and embroiderers. The key is to compose a ring of words that can be entered at various points and read continuously.
° Circle poems also lend themselves to 3D forms, such as cylinders, mobius strips, and books whose pages can be read as a continuous loop. Shorter loops retain more circular energy than longer ones.

Diagrams C F/C
The online journal Diagram publishes poems, prose, and schematics of various kinds. Occasionally, poems & diagrams converge as original diagrammatic texts, though not as often as you might hope. Try browsing the site for diagrams that interest you, then plugging in your own text in place of, say, hydrology terms or age/sex ratios. C You could turn this into collaboration by assigning each other diagrams to work with. Take this schematic explanation of basic hydrology, for example <>, and hand it to a friend with the instruction: "Make this into a diagram of your family." Or try this "exploded view" of a Winchester rifle <> as a way of explaining the economic interests that produce wars.

Cut-Ups F/C C
Take any text and cut it up (literally) into individual lines, phrases, sentences, or even words. Drop the bits of paper into a bag or onto the floor. Mix them around, then start drawing out the pieces and assembling them into a new text. Make your own rules for using all the pieces (or not). C You can make it collaborative by working with a partner to assemble the new text. °  To make the new text even more material and visual, cut the source text into blocks, circles, or other geometrical shapes, ignoring syntactic or linear boundaries. Reassemble the parts as a visual poem, with or without other materials.

Pulled Text: Make Your Own System F/C C
For this exercise you must, as the poet Jackson Mac Low says, make your own system for collecting material out of a text. You may collect sentences, phrases, or words. The key is to choose your source text subjectively, but devise an objective method for selecting language from it. ° Go here for detailed instructions. ° Collaborators can make endless use of this basic idea, by choosing different texts, changing the system for pulling text, or changing the method for assembling the poem. The next exercise is but one example.

Exquisite Corpse Cut-Up Collabotion F/C C
The original Exquisite Corpse was a game played by surrealist painters. One of them drew the head and shoulders of a body, then folded the paper so only the bottom edges of the drawing showed. The next one began his drawing from those visible edges and drew the torso of a body, then folded the paper in the same way. The third began his drawing from the visible edges of the torso and drew the legs. Only when all were finished could the paper be unfolded and the whole body revealed.

An Exquisite Corpse in words is created by writing two or more lines of verse, then folding the page so only the last line shows. The second writer continues from that line and writes two or more lines of her own, then folds the paper so only her last line shows. The next writer continues from there. Unlike a body, an EC poem can continue around a bar room indefinitely.

Your EC should be a bit more intentional than a bar game, but the exact rules are up to you. You may want your procedures be completely random and objective, or completely subjective and personal. Personally, I like combining elements of each.

Please keep a careful record of your rules and planning. Examining your method and what kind of poem resulted from it will be a large part of what the rest of us gain from reading it.

Here are your steps:
  • Choose collaborators -- I suggest you work in pairs or in trios. You may include poets from outside this class, so long as they commit to the project and to the time frame. It's important to work with someone you like to hear from!
  • Choose a number of lines for each bit of verse you'll create. In these directions I'll assume you are writing couplets and working with only one other person.

  • Choose a title, a subject, a theme, or an idea. Make it broad -- e.g. "Africa," "Getting Home," "Arrivals & Departures," etc.

  • Each collaborator chooses a book as a source text. The books need not be related in any obvious way to your title or idea, but you may wish one of them to be. Don't tell each other what books you've chosen.

  • Choose a method for generating page numbers. Examples I've used or discussed with collaborators: lottery numbers from a state or country associate with your theme, numbers derived from birth and death dates on the obituary page of a chosen newspaper, longitude & latitude of selected locations, winning and losing poker hands, dictionary pages on which selected key words appear.

    You may have to modify your system to create usable numbers above or below certain thresholds, depending on your system and the length of your books. (For example, if the number is 560 and your book has 350 pages, you might subtract to get page 110.) Whatever your system, each person should use the same page number through each round.

  • To begin: turn to the designated page of your book and choose text from that page from which to compose a couplet. You and your collaborators will set the rules for how that's done. Will it be random & objective? Wholly subjective? Must you choose whole phrases or lines? or may you choose and recombine individual words? May you use a word twice that appears but once on the page? etc. At this stage you should not change the found text in any way: i.e., don't change a pronoun or the tense of a verb or the number of a noun.

  • Write a couplet using only text you have pulled from your page.

  • Once you have a couplet, record someplace you won't lose it, then send only its last line to your collaborator.

  • Your collaborator duplicates the process, using the same page number from his or her book. The new couplet follow in some way from the line you've sent.

    This is where it gets interesting. You are holding one card and playing one card, and your partner has to play next. Will your second line be narrative? a single image? a list? Will it be enjambed, offering a phrase that must be completed? And will your partner respond at the level of narrative? image? rhyme? rhythm? One of your rules could be that the poem will be metrical.

  • Whatever your rules, and whatever the outcome, your collaborator sends back to you only the final line of his or her new couplet, and that's the end of round one. You write a new couplet from a new page & send off the last line. Etc.
  • The length of each exchange may be determined arbitrarily in advance, or may be determined by the numbers you are using. You may wind up with a single poem or with a set a poems derived from different sets of numbers, different books, or any other scheme you devise. You may want to postpone some of these decisions until after the process has begun.
Once you have finished an exhange, first put together the whole sequence of couplets and see what you have. Keep a copy of this unedited version. At this point you have more procedures to agree on. Who edits? What kind of editing is allowed? etc. Keep copies of your steps during editing.