Writing around Postcards for Perec

Special Collections & Archives, Cardiff University are currently (May- September 2022) hosting the Postcards for Perec exhibition. This was a project curated by Linda Parr based around Georges Perec’s Two Hundred and Forty-Three Postcards in Real Colour. These were postcard messages dedicated to Italo Calvino, which were published in 1978 as a long list and without any images. Artists were invited to respond to the texts, by making postcards and creating the missing images. The postcards have previously been exhibited at UWE Bower Ashton Library, Winchester School of Art library and on The Street Gallery of Bath Spa University. A full colour catalogue of the project containing images of all the postcards plus informational essays has been published and was launched at BABE – Bristol Artist’s Book Fair at Bower Ashton, Bristol in April 2022.

Whilst hosting this exhibition we also wanted to actively engage with it, and so as part of the Cardiff University PHEW (Positive Health, Environment & Wellbeing) fortnight I ran a creative writing workshop themed around the project. As a member of the French group OuLiPo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle) Perec was renowned for his experimental word play, constrained writing techniques (including his 300 page lipogrammatic novel La Disparition (1969) which was written without using the letter ‘e’), and embracing of mathematical problems to trigger ideas. Due to this I wanted the group to experiment with different constrained writing techniques, as well as engaging with the postcard images.

Perec’s postcard messages were compiled using mathematical permutations, and Parr assigned the messages to contributing artists by using the knight’s tour of a chess-board, because of this I wanted to utilise a numerical technique to help the workshop participants pick postcards to work with. I decided on the use of dice, and told the participants to roll three times – the first number would decide the case they would look in, the second number the board (on which the cards were mounted in groups), and the third number they could count up (or down) along the board to find their card. I wasn’t too prescriptive about how they did this, and to be honest if they preferred a card next to the one their dice led them to I was happy for them to go with that instead. We used the dice rolling method for three of the four writing exercises completed. As well as being a nod to Perec’s numerical methods it also helped the participants to choose a card without spending too long looking at all the wonderful postcards. Each exercise was further constrained by time limits (generally only 7 minutes on a piece of prose or poetry).

The first exercise involved choosing a card via dice roll, then writing down 5 words that came to mind whilst looking at the card, these could be descriptive, impressionistic, emotive etc. Next participants had to write a paragraph/piece of prose about or inspired by the card incorporating their 5 words. Once this had been done they were then asked to see if they could turn their prose into poetry. Some participants found that by already having ‘source’ material in their prose the poetry came a bit easier.

The second exercise followed along the same lines as the first except participants had to choose whether to exclude the letter ‘e’ (and thus produce a lipogram) or for the only vowel used to be ‘e’ (a univocalism). Prose and poetry were both produced, and it was agreed by all that this was a difficult exercise. Although with the restrictions in place it was felt to be easier to create a poem, as for some the prose was almost poetry already.

With the third exercise we took a break from interacting with the postcard images and instead wrote a postcard message of our own. These were messages to/from/about a library, and participants were restricted to only using 50 words.

For the fourth and final exercise we returned to using dice and the postcards, skipped the prose and went straight to composing a poem but this time experimenting with the concept of a tautogram. Participants were given the option of either doing the whole poem using the same letter to start every word, or to use a different letter for each line. This proved to be another difficult exercise with several people feeling that they were really just writing a list of words that began with the same letter rather than composing a poem. Although see the two shared examples here which did a good job.

All in all the participants bravely embraced the exercises and despite feeling unsure of themselves, and being additionally deliberately constrained by time, produced some wonderful writing. I asked to share some of their pieces and they have kindly agreed – this has been done anonymously as was the wish of most. Copyright remains with each individual author. Most include the number of the postcard with the piece so if you come to the exhibition (or buy the book) you will be able to see which image inspired which text. We have gone in a circle (or perhaps spiral?) from (Perec’s) TEXT to (the artists’) IMAGES and back to TEXT again, perhaps someone out there will be inspired to create more images from our texts…

(To better see the pictures of the poems please click on the images.)

Many thanks to Anna, Beverly, Kathleen, Markku, Milena, Sarah, Sue, and Zoe.

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