The best experimental poetry from the outposts of potential literature

Daniel Levin Becker Author Of Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature
By Daniel Levin Becker

Who am I?

I’ve always been preternaturally attentive to the way words work—as components of meaning, but also as visual, aural, and functional objects with their own erratic behaviors. Since joining the Oulipo in 2009, I’ve had even more occasion to think and talk about how those behaviors can be pointed in a literary direction, and to recognize successful experiments when I read them. 


I wrote...

Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature

By Daniel Levin Becker,

Book cover of Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature

What is my book about?

Many Subtle Channels is a hybrid of portraiture, history, and philosophy centered on the French literary collective OuLiPo (ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or workshop for potential literature). Drawn in by a penchant for word games and an enchantment with the work of Georges Perec and Italo Calvino, Daniel Levin Becker moved to Paris to get to know the group, its characters, its contradictions, and its place in the broader cultural landscape. Many Subtle Channels is an enthusiastic, entertaining, and often irreverent account of that journey, which culminated in Levin Becker’s election as the group’s youngest member and second-ever American. 

The books I picked & why

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Shelf

By Rufo Quintavalle,

Book cover of Shelf

Why this book?

A full-length rewrite of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” that preserves only the first and last letter of each line, Shelf is a consummate work of potential literature—from the “why on earth would someone do that” all the way to the “wait, this is actually dope.” Without ever estranging himself from Whitman’s transcendentalist trumpeting, Quintavalle burrows deep into the poem’s form and instills a disenchanted eloquence all his own.

Shelf

By Rufo Quintavalle,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Shelf as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Poetry. In this poem, Rufo Quintavalle has rewritten Walt Whitman's Song of Myself keeping the first and last letter of each line, and replacing the middle. Within this strict constraint, Quintavalle the poet has achieved a remarkable and touching intimacy at a distance with Whitman's inner world.


Ink Earl

By Susan Holbrook,

Book cover of Ink Earl

Why this book?

I truly never thought I’d laugh out loud at an erasure poem. Then Ink Earl came along. Holbrook starts with a hundred copies of the original fifties ad pitch for the Pink Pearl eraser—get it yet?—and hacks away different parts of each, yielding a series of meditations and diatribes and bouts of spirited near-nonsense. The poems are consistently clever delights, and the project’s conceptual wholeness is icing on the cake.

Ink Earl

By Susan Holbrook,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Ink Earl as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Shortlisted for the ReLit 2022 Poetry Award

ink earl takes the popular subgenre of erasure poetry to its illogical conclusion.

Starting with ad copy that extols the iconic Pink Pearl eraser, Holbrook erases and erases, revealing more and more. Rubbing out different words from this decidedly non-literary, noncanonical source text, she was left with the promise of "100 essays" and set about to find them. Among her discoveries are queer love poems, art projects, political commentary, lunch, songs, and entire extended families.

The absurdity of the constraint lends itself to plenty of fun and funny, while reminding us of truths…


Personals

By Ian Williams,

Book cover of Personals

Why this book?

Subverting common non-literary forms is a staple of Oulipian exploration, and here, as the title suggests, Ian Williams trains a laser-guided eye on the personal ad, that essentially bygone realm of yearning and melancholy and lust. The gimmick is quick to give way, but the author’s obsessive formal restlessness remains, and the resulting poems, with their twitches and swerves and pitch-perfect interruptions, are all the more devastating for it.

Personals

By Ian Williams,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Personals as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The poems in Ian Williams's Personals are jittery, plaintive, and decidedly fresh. They are almost-love poems, voiced through a startling variety of speakers who continually rev themselves up to the challenge of connecting with others, often to no avail. Williams pays beautiful homage to traditional poetic forms: ghazals, a pantoum, blank sonnets, mock-heroic couplets, while simultaneously showcasing his own inventiveness and linguistic dexterity through the creation of brand new forms: poems that spin into indeterminacy, poems that don't end. With a deft hand and playful ear, Williams entices the reader to stumble alongside his characters as they search, again and…


Hoarders

By Kate Durbin,

Book cover of Hoarders

Why this book?

A bracing slap to the face, this book. Or maybe a punch to the gut. The conceit is the series of portraits of hoarders based on the reality show of the same name, and the recipe is to combine their testimonials—“I save old soda cans and turn the tin snips into flowers,” say, or “I want desperately to change”—with lists of objects, described as though in a slow camera pan across a filthy room. But the alchemy is the way Durbin mashes the two together, not quite at random but not correctly either. It’s a harrowing litany of fragments, so specific that the unspoken point is all too clear: what’s broken is much bigger than any of these individual people or things.

Hoarders

By Kate Durbin,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Hoarders as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Lit Hub Most Anticipated Book of 2021
An NPR Best Book of 2021
An Electric Literature Best Poetry Book of 2021
A Dennis Cooper Best Book of 2021

In Hoarders, Durbin deftly traces the associations between hoarding and collective US traumas rooted in consumerism and the environment. Each poem is a prismatic portrait of a person and the beloved objects they hoard, from Barbies to snow globes to vintage Las Vegas memorabilia to rotting fruit to plants. Using reality television as a medium, Durbin conjures an uncanny space of attachments that reflects a cultural moment back to the reader…


Eecchhooeess

By N.H. Pritchard,

Book cover of Eecchhooeess

Why this book?

First published in 1971 and reissued in 2021, EECCHHOOEESS is a gem of visual and/or concrete poetry, a book whose narrative universe is the physical space of the book itself. Pritchard, a member of the radical Umbra collective, is in good company among textual experimentalists like Robert Lax and bpNichol, to name two more or less at random, but among the pileups and run-ons and gibberish, the constellations of words repeated and skipping and laid out backwards, he creates his own elegant vibe, at once frenetic and deeply serene. 

Eecchhooeess

By N.H. Pritchard,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Eecchhooeess as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An exacting facsimile of Umbra protagonist Norman H. Pritchard’s long-rare 1971 collection of visually kinetic poetry

American poet Norman H. Pritchard’s second and final book, EECCHHOOEESS was originally published in 1971 by New York University Press. Pritchard’s writing is visually and typographically unconventional. His methodical arrangements of letters and words disrupt optical flows and lexical cohesion, modulating the speeds of reading and looking by splitting, spacing and splicing linguistic objects. His manipulation of text and codex resembles that of concrete poetry and conceptual writing, traditions from which literary history has mostly excluded him. Pritchard also worked with sound, and his…


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