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This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, cover language with shiplap.
Coming up in today’s show: obstacle courses for words.
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On with the show.
HZ: Gather round, everybody, it’s story time.
JEZ BURROWS: Genesis I:
“In the beginning, God created heaven and the earth. Then came a lot of titillating tabloid speculation and slanderous allegations: he was stepping out with a redheaded waitress, and he was in debt to the tune of $40,000. He pled not guilty to murder, and insisted that the cocaine in the glove compartment was a plant. He was found guilty of mismanagement of public funds and sentenced to six hundred hours of community service. He went into self-imposed exile, and after a while, the noise died down. The scandal had no discernible effect on his career.”
HZ: Hmm. That sounds...unorthodox?
This is not only not from the usual book of Genesis, it’s not from a usual book.
JEZ BURROWS: My name is Jez Burrows, I'm designer and illustrator and writer and the author of a book called Dictionary Stories: Short Fictions and Other Findings.
HZ: And what is Dictionary Stories?
JEZ BURROWS: Dictionary Stories is a collection of short stories - there's about one hundred and sixty of them - and all of them are entirely composed of example sentences taken from a variety of dictionaries.
HZ: Now why would you do a thing like that to yourself?
JEZ BURROWS: That's a really good question. Why would I do that? Well, I was at home on a Friday night reading the dictionary, because I'm a very exciting person with a lot of friends and plans.
HZ: You're talking to your kind of people. This is very identifiable.
JEZ BURROWS: Yeah! I don't need to explain myself. I was reading the dictionary on a Friday night, and it was fantastic. And I was looking at the definition of a word, 'study', and instead of concentrating on the definition I was reading instead the example sentence for it, which was: "He perched on the edge of the bed, a study in confusion and misery," which is pretty heady stuff for a dictionary, not necessarily the thing that I was planning on finding. And that tipped me off that I had never really paid a lot of attention to these example sentences before, and they all seemed like little fragments of larger stories. And so the book is an attempt to try and write those stories - or rewrite those stories, I suppose.
HZ: These sentences Jez is talking about are an essential part of lexicography. A dictionary will collect written samples of every sense in which a word is used - sometimes thousands per word, gathered over decades or even centuries. Then, when compiling or updating that dictionary, the lexicographer will select example sentences that best demonstrate the usages of that word. These citations vary from dictionary to dictionary, as each dictionary will draw on different written sources, and each dictionary has a slightly different style and editorial intent. So Jez had quite the variety of material at his disposal, garnered from several dictionaries.
JEZ BURROWS: It was a dozen dictionaries; but what it ultimately took the form of - which I imagine will make for great radio - is spreadsheets.
HZ: I love spreadsheets.
JEZ BURROWS: Me too, I’m a fan. I will say the best thing about this book has just been meeting people who just love a good spreadsheet because they don’t often come out much and you know they're nice folks.
HZ: It's an unspoken pleasure.
JEZ BURROWS: It is. It's forbidden, almost.
HZ: It's private.
JEZ BURROWS: Yeah, yeah. What I do with my spreadsheets in my house is my business.
HZ: You're not harming anyone, you’re just organizing data.
JEZ BURROWS: But yes, just a lot of spreadsheets. I would start categorizing all the sentences that I found: these sentences would be great for a drama or a murder mystery or a romance; or these sentences have a particular linguistic structure, they begin with a particular pronoun, or they would be great at the beginning of the story or at the end of a story. Sentences about mystery, sentences about nature, sentences about parties or politics; but then there are all these subcategories: sentences that have a cardinal or ordinal number, sentences that use Yiddish, sentences in the form 'the X of Y', like "the accumulation of wealth" or "the advent of television". The most useful ones, I will say: I have a whole section where it's just sentences that begin with the word ‘don't’. Sentences that begin with the words "I was". And maybe the most fortuitous one was sentences that begin with 'It's' - just the contraction ‘It's’. Because they always tended to be kind of colloquial. "It's going to be a doozy of a black eye." "It's blatantly her first kiss." "It's been about a week since I last blogged." Just stuff that I would not anticipate on being in the dictionary. "It's been an absolute bastard of a week." I don't think I ever used it but I'm so glad that it's there.
HZ: But that does seem a little more personality filled than they're often allowed to be.
JEZ BURROWS: Yeah. I think the best example that I found was 'gallon', as a unit of measurement, and the example sentence for it was just "gallons of fake blood".
HZ: Of all the things to choose.
JEZ BURROWS: Milk, water -
HZ: - petrol -
JEZ BURROWS: blood, real blood! Somehow real blood is less creepy than specifying that it's fake blood. But I always really enjoy that one and that's my favorite example of someone had to make that choice. The worse the example sentence is, it's almost as if the better it becomes for my usage. One that is very distracting, because there's a lot of fiction in it or it you know it's such an interesting sentence that you're not concentrating on what it says about the usage of the word, then that becomes very very useful for me.
HZ: I don't know that I'd consciously thought about the example sentences very much at all until this time in both of our lives. But it actually must be quite a hard task for them to choose one where it demonstrates unambiguously that particular sense of the word.
JEZ BURROWS: It's such a rigorous process and they need to meet so many criteria. The examples aren't provided for for whimsy's sake, they're an instructive piece of language. They need to complement that definition and help your understanding of it and it can't be too interesting. It can't be too distracting.
HZ: But then you're trying to make something interesting out of a collection of deliberately not interesting sentences.
JEZ BURROWS: Yes. It was a rough year! And so it was a lot of collecting and then categorizing, and then the biggest portion of it ultimately was just kind of a trial and error. Kind of like collage, just putting sentences together and see if they fit. And then trying to aim for getting a coherent story out of all of these disparate pieces. Dictionaries all share the same intent, and so it was interesting watching how they differed, when they would specifically try and define the same word, and then also try and provide a sample of it. And everybody's supposed to be impartial, everybody’s supposed to be the invisible author, but even the kind of trace differences from dictionary to dictionary, it was really fascinating, and I guess the thing it just confirmed to me about language is the interpretation of it can can differ so wildly, even through people who are attempting to define it, and to explain to us all how to use it.
HZ: Were there any things that you found particularly difficult?
JEZ BURROWS: Writing dialogue that felt natural with found content is just a nightmare. Because I was using found content, I think I learnt to not begin a story thinking "I'm going to write a story about X, or Y" and "this character is going to do these things", because you literally have to find all of that content. So I think teaching myself to just submit to whatever I found in the dictionary and let it tell me what the story was going to be about and have that be fine, that took a while to adjust to; but it created some stories that I think I would never have written just by myself if I was just writing short stories of my own.
HZ: Are you naturally drawn to creative restrictions?
JEZ BURROWS: Yes, definitely.
JEZ BURROWS: Generally, I am a designer and an illustrator by trade and am often working within constraints on those kinds of projects - I'm given a typeface or a color palette or a set of images that I need to work from. So it's just my natural way of working. And particularly, as a first time author, it also felt like a nice sort of springboard into being able to write these stories because I couldn't rely on the constraint. I was really inspired by a lot of the writers of the Oulipo.
HZ: The Oulipo is a group founded in France in 1960, dedicated to creating art with constraints. Such as lipograms - excluding certain letters - or univocalism - using only one vowel in a whole piece - or palindromes, which read the same backwards and forwards, or composing poems using only words in the lexicon of a computer language, or writing to mathematical rules. Why? To spark new ideas, to experiment, to alleviate the fear of the blank page…
JEZ BURROWS: I feel that one of the Oulipean ethoses is, if you sit someone down and ask them to write poetry they're going to look at you like some sort of terrified rabbit; but if you ask them to write poetry without using the letter E, it suddenly becomes a puzzle instead of writing poetry, and what people produce tends to be looser and more interesting. So I think it's a really useful tool for writing in general.
ROSS SUTHERLAND: It is like doing really lame drugs. You haven't got access to any psilocybin, but you can mess with grammar.
HZ: That's legal though.
ROSS SUTHERLAND: It is absolutely legal.
HZ: Ross Sutherland is a poet and performer - you’ve heard him on the podcast Imaginary Advice. And he’s fond of a writing constraint.
ROSS SUTHERLAND: I first discovered the Oulipo in my 20s; and I was writing before, but as soon as I started reading about the Oulipo, it really helped me understand my relationship with writing and it helped me articulate the purpose of writing.
ROSS SUTHERLAND: My early writing is very very cliched. I think lots of poetry which I was writing in my early 20s - surprise surprise! Not particularly great.
HZ: You're not alone.
ROSS SUTHERLAND: Pretty didactic, me getting on a soapbox - I was quite a polemic writer, and I think what Oulipo really helped show me was that our minds are stuck in ruts, we are trapped in thought patterns that we repeat every day, and it's hard to examine the validity of those thoughts because we're thinking them without realising that we're doing it. But through writing, we can force ourselves out of those rights. And I think what the Oulipo are really good at is putting arbitrary rule systems into writing that block you from using the obvious answer and force you to explore new territories instead. I think what I loved about that was this idea of launching into writing when you yourself don't know where you're going, and just allowing your subconscious to lead you on the journey. Now, of course, there's nothing special about the Oulipo, I think what they're doing, is really what poetry is always doing, which is using arbitrary rule systems; but I think the Oulipo turned up to 11. So while poetry will have a sonnet form, and that's got a line length and a rhyme scheme etc - and I suppose grammar itself is a set of rules which can't help but shape the way that we think - you take those existing rule systems and you just start tinkering with those rules. You start adding to the rules or taking rules away, and naturally that changes the way that language works and that changes the way that our brains work. The harder you make the rules, the deeper into your subconscious you go. And in fact, in order to reach a level of freedom, it's not about removing the rules, it's about adding rules. And so they thought - and I think it was partly because the Oulipo was half scholars of literature and half mathematicians - they thought maybe, by flooding the work with rules and making it punishingly difficult to write, you have to go deeper inside yourself, you have to root around in your subconscious, and if you can find an answer to the puzzle that you've set yourself, that was something that you had to look so hard for. The Oulipo, they described themselves as rats trying to escape a maze of their own construction.
HZ:When you were driven deep into your own subconscious, what did you find?
ROSS SUTHERLAND: First of all, the first form that I tried out was univocalism - also known as a univocal lipogram - which is a poem that only contains one vowel. They're really fun to do, it is like learning another language.
HZ: Which vowel did you choose?
ROSS SUTHERLAND: I did O.
ROSS SUTHERLAND: I think all the vowels do have a different kind of personality; I think O is quite melancholy. As far as I understand it, when you write librettos for baritones, they have quite a lot of round chocolatey vowel sounds, and that's quite good for a baritone, and baritones are quite melancholy, you're meant to fall in love with a baritone. Whereas tenors are given quite reedy, meaner, sounds so I think E is a slightly needling sound.
HZ: Well, it's formed higher up in your mouth isn't it?
ROSS SUTHERLAND: And the less said about U the better.
HZ: Very difficult vowel.
ROSS SUTHERLAND: Very difficult. but I think the more difficult it gets, the more scatological it gets. I think that's possibly because your ability to express yourself, when that's reduced, you want to rattle the cage a little bit - you're a little bit like a trapped animal. And so as language gets smaller and smaller, there's a tendency to get quite rude and quite juvenile. So everybody that I know who's attempted a univocalism - they end up being quite juvenile, they get they get quite rude.
HZ: So you go deep into your subconscious and you find a 12 year old schoolchild.
ROSS SUTHERLAND: Well yeah. My poem I ended up writing was about a bunch of teenagers drinking in a park that get so wasted that they cannot find their way home again. And so there were lines like "Rob shows Gordon how to body pop - slow Robocop foxtrot to Bobby Brown".
HZ: That is a surprisingly long sentence given that you're only allowed to use O.
ROSS SUTHERLAND: Yeah. You repeat people's names a lot. That's quite useful. I think we do tend to end up being quite story-led. Me and a few of my friends wrote a whole bunch of univocalisms and we got an opportunity to read them in front of actual members of the Oulipo and we were so excited and they were so disappointed because we used "Y".
HZ: Ross has used several writing constraints, such as in his play Partytrap, which is palindromic -
ROSS SUTHERLAND: You have to watch like 35 minutes of this play before you even get to the interesting bit, before it starts moving back.
HZ: - and the Oulipo technique known as S+7 or N+7.
ROSS SUTHERLAND: Which is where you take an existing text and then you replace every noun and verb from the original text with the word seven places below in a dictionary. Or at least that's what the Oulipo originally suggested, they suggested seven places below, but I think it really depends on the size of your dictionary. I did an adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood in N+7, which becomes "Liverish red blooded riff raff hoo ha", ‘grandma’ becomes ‘Great Britain’, so it feels weirdly political.
HZ: Did you ever cheat on the rules?
ROSS SUTHERLAND: I give myself a lot more liberties with that kind of thing. I think when it comes to the final editing stuff... for example in the Red Riding Hood ones, which I did with 23 places below, I cheated all the time, all the time. Because if I saw that the word before or afterwards was better, I just chose that. Because actually, I don't want to feel "I can make this a so much better piece, if I wasn’t stuck with these these dang rules." No, I will absolutely go off piste if it makes something better.
ROSS SUTHERLAND: I'm quite comfortable if someone was to call shenanigans on those pieces. I'm comfortable with that.
HZ: Well, who's the umpire? It's you.
ROSS SUTHERLAND: Exactly! Yeah! I do what I want! It's my party.
HZ: Also, what's most important? Is it the audience for the work? is it the rules and adherence to the rules? Or is it your own satisfaction?
ROSS SUTHERLAND: Yeah, good point. So done badly, playing with rules just looks like showing off. It just looks like "Look at this big obstacle course I've created. Look at how clever I am jumping all around it." And that is just like self-gratification. And I would say if it is done well, then you're just giving the audience the tools to continue to create that world without you. And it’s hopefully pointing at something more than the sum of its parts.
HZ: So would you say ultimately the rules are to stimulate art and creativity but they are not the art themselves?
ROSS SUTHERLAND: They're not the art themselves, they are they like an opening into art. There are ways to disrupt thought patterns and a way to begin the process of mapping our thoughts in a more interesting way. But it's a launch pad, right? You have to take the ideas that it gives you and they have to live on their own. They have to feel that they live outside of the game, I suppose. We're taught from a young age to be good sports at losing games. Sportsmanship as a concept is all about being a good loser. And yet we're terrified of the concept of losing art. It's a horrible thing to try and to put yourself out there and for it to fail. So if you can reframe it as a game then all the better.
HZ: Because if you fail again you've just failed at the game and not at art entirely.
ROSS SUTHERLAND: Yeah, exactly. You fail at the game, but then you can play again. it's less of a referendum on your own self-worth if you just lose a game, because we play games all the time and so we're very comfortable with our odds. Whereas I feel when it when it comes to art the odds feel a little bit more important, and they shouldn't.
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Radiotopia exists thanks to you listeners. Your randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
rangle, noun, rare: gravel given to a hawk to improve its digestion.
Try using it in an email today.
This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman, and Martin Austwick, who also makes the music you hear in each episode. Jez Burrows is the author of the book Dictionary Stories, which is out now; he’s also a designer and illustrator, and has some intriguing new projects brewing; find his work at jezburrows.com. Ross Sutherland makes the podcast Imaginary Advice. He’s also doing a live tour this autumn. Find his work at rosssutherland.co.uk.
And! The autumn 2018 Allusionist live tour is upon us! Over the next few weeks, come and see me and Martin perform Allusionally in Glasgow, London, Bristol - sold out, sorry - Dublin, Chicago, Austin - we wanted to get there before the end of Bat Season - DC, Philly, New York, Boston, Toronto, Seattle, Portland, Vancouver and Los Angeles. Along the way, I’m also doing a couple of workshops and suchlike. All events are listed at theallusionist.org/events. Find me online: allusionistshow is the handle on Facebook and Twitter. And you can find further information about every episode and additional reading matter, as well as transcripts AND the full dictionary entry for each randomly selected word of the day at the show’s home, theallusionist.org.