Author’s preface to 107 âmes

At the time I composed the poems that make up 107 âmes, all I knew of the perfectly real persons concerned were the written answers to a questionnaire I had drawn up. A recruiter whom I had solicited had the job of convincing individuals of his own choosing to accept the contract. He transmitted the questionnaire to each of them and returned it to me once it had been filled out. As soon as a poem was written, I sent two copies to my recruiter, who then gave one of them to the person the poem was about.

My questionnaire was accompanied by an Announcement to the subscriber worded thus:

“If you agree to complete the attached questionnaire, I shall use it to write a poem – a descriptive poem, as impersonal as possibility allows. There will be neither judgment nor evaluation on my part.

“I request that you answer the questions in the most official manner possible.

“Our rule is that I do not know you, even by hearsay. Someone who knows us both has agreed to act as intermediary.

“Your side of the bargain is to agree to let me quote the substance of your answers, to include your name, and to publish the poem. The fact of your filling out the questionnaire will vouch for your acceptance.

“I shall see that the poem reaches you as soon as it is written.”

Dated and signed, Jacques Jouet

My questionnaire comprised ten questions:

  1. 01. Your first name followed by your family name.
  2. 02. Your age at the present time.
  3. 03. Your training – schooling completed, professional capacities.
  4. 04. Your profession at the present time and, if appropriate,
    earlier ones, in chronological order.
  5. 05. Your place of birth.
  6. 06. The town or village in which you are living at the present time
    and, if appropriate, your earlier residences.
  7. 07. The type and nature of your lodging.
  8. 08. Your monthly income at the present time.
  9. 09. Your domestic status at the present time and, if appropriate,
    those that preceded it.
  10. 10. One or more events that were decisive factors in your life.

The rule I followed was to make use of the facts provided on the completed form – all the facts, nothing but those facts.

The 107 poems were written in accordance with a fixed form (with slight variations) that emerged from work done with a particular rhyme-scheme that was named by the Oulipo “rime berrychonne” [berrichon normally means “associated with the region of Berry,” in central France]. The name was chosen simply because Harry Mathews had unearthed the rhyme-scheme in the first of John Berryman’s Dream Songs; so the rime berrychonne has nothing to do with the stained glass of Bourges, the wildfowl of the Brenne, or the wine of Sancerre.

The Berrychon rhyme-scheme involves three verses, using the following elements:

verse 1: consonant(s) of the final syllable
verse 2: vowel-sound of the final syllable
verse 3: a final syllable uniting the consonants of the first
with the vowel of the second

Example (from “He’d more than one adventure … ”):

... progress
... Évry
... degrees

Another example (from “Close onto 10,000 days … ”):

... unknot
... talent
... net

In other words, the third verse is consonant with the first, assonant with the second, and rhymes with the sum of the two.

These poems were written between September, 1987 and August, 1988.

(from 107 âmes)

Translator’s Note:
In replicating the length of the original verses, I have followed the syllable-counting principle of French metrics; accentuation is not taken into account. — Harry Mathews