Oulipost Warmup #3: beautiful outlaws

Time for Oulipost warmup #3 with the countdown clock to NaPoMo at just 6 days. This time, I was working with a much more time-consuming form: the belle absente, or beautiful outlaw. The basic idea is similar to the lipogram, a text that excludes a particular letter. In the belle absente, you start with the name of a person (or you could use a place, thing, or idea, I suppose). For each letter in the name, you designate a line in which you will employ every letter of the alphabet except the letter from the name.

For this warm-up, I took the first name, Inez, who happened to be the subject of the main front-page article of the Seattle Times edition I purchased last Monday explicitly for these warmups. My initial goal was to use only the text of the article I pulled the name from since it was long enough to potentially contain every letter of the alphabet. On that count, I wasn’t disappointed, except that the only “z” in the article was in the name Inez, which wouldn’t work, since her name can’t logically be used. That was an easy problem to correct, as I did a quick scan for z’s in the other front page articles. The real enemy here was time — this one poem took nearly 5 hours! — however, that’s what warming up is for. Now that I’ve composed one of these, there are some time sucks I can more easily avoid.

1. For starters, I’ll need my computer and the Seattle Times website for this one. I’m pretty adept at pattern recognition, but I’m comfortable admitting that my John Henry eye can’t beat my trusty machine. And why should it? Wading through random words can be an unnecessary headache. The more interesting skill in this form is word and phonic manipulation, not spotting words without “e” in a newspaper article.

2. Having played my fair share of Scrabble, I know which letters are going to be hardest to squeeze in to the poem (z,q,j,v,k,w and f), so I realized immediately that I should simply scan the text for words with these letters, as a way to quickly narrow my word pool and maximize my word choices. The find function on MS Word worked perfectly for this.

3. My fellow Ouliposter, Doug , came up with a couple of time-saving tools for this particular form (as well as others) — a text-sorting form that can do some word pool narrowing in seconds (bravo, Doug!). That saved me a lot of time. I simply plugged my 10$ word list and generated four new sub-lists: 1 without i, 1 without n, 1 without e, and 1 without z.

4. After a few fitful starts, I realized it would be best to start with the “no-e” line, as that was the most restrictive word pool. I then worked back to n, i, and finally z. Doug rescued my afternoon again with a handy Excel spreadsheet that tracks the use of letters for a given line. Again, this is something I could have done in my notebook, but it’s far easier to just cut-and-paste to get instant feedback.

I like how the final product turned out, with the lines somewhat relating in spirit to the article, which was about local city councils limiting citizen voices in order to allow for more city business. That’s at least in part because I primarily stuck to the text of a single article. I imagine if I had more time to spend with it, I could pull the diction a little tighter in that direction, but this works well as it is, especially given that I composed it in a single morning.


For Inez, rabble-rouser of Renton

(a beautiful outlaw)

Dozens of advocates except frequent verbal jewelry, only the talk may move a handful of angry

voters to realize hurtful policy examples require wayward waifs believe their fight may just look at how

six amazing nonprofits quit giving vicious Duck Dynasty watchdogs job information,

quashed those excluded viewpoints, and publicly joined staff in duplex government slack.



In all, the digital tools are a real time saver with such an acrobatic form as this. Now that I have a solid game plan down, this whole process can be drastically expedited come the end of April when this little devil arrives for real.




3 thoughts on “Oulipost Warmup #3: beautiful outlaws

  1. Exceptional post however , I was wondering if you could
    write a litte more on this topic? I’d be very thankful if you could elaborate a little bit more.

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