We interviewed Mark Zimmermann, author of Pebblebrook Press's forthcoming poetry collection Impersonations, to find out more about his writing process and his experiences with the literary form of the lipogram. Zimmermann is a Wisconsin native currently living in Milwaukee. He was featured in Pebblebrook's first release, the anthology Masquerades and Misdemeanors, and he has spent time teaching humanities and writing courses, both abroad and here in the United States. Impersonations is his first collection.
To pre-order Impersonations, visit Pebblebrook Press's website.
How did this collection evolve? Where did the idea come from?
Initially there was no idea. One morning in the summer of 2002 I was at home scanning the shelves for a book to read, when I just started rattling off words I could make from names appearing in this or that book title. I had no thought of even getting a poem or a few poems out of it, much less a book-length work. It was all free associating and vocal riffing—playing with language and seeing what would happen.
What happened was a stream of patter, as in these words made from letters in Napoleon: “Lo! An ape on a neon pole. Lope on, pal…” which turned out to be one of the more coherent results of that morning. Still, this was enjoyable enough, so I began writing some things down. I should also mention that ever since I was a kid I’ve enjoyed word search games, Scrabble, palindromes, and rearranging letters from terms and short phrases just to see what else was there. Writing lipograms is in part an extension of that.
When did you discover the lipogram form? How did it grab hold of you?
I came across the lipogram sometime around 1990-91 when a sprinkler malfunction flooded the UW-M bookstore, where I worked at the time. Hundreds of books were damaged and ended up being sold for 75% off the cover price. Employees got first choice and I took advantage, buying a pile of hardcovers that I never could have otherwise afforded. One of them was O.B. Hardison’s Disappearing Through the Skylight, which included examples of lipograms. The form intrigued me as novel, challenging, and a little crazy, but I didn’t pursue it further.
Has working with a constraint like this ever surprised you, and if so, how?
Yes, I’ve been surprised in different ways at different stages of writing the work. At first, I remember being struck again and again by how often “renegade” letters kept creeping into what I was writing: “Damn! How did the letter ‘b’ get in here?” Then I’d have to go back and take out every word that had a ‘b’ in it. This happened countless times, and occasionally it spelled the end of a poem, but as the months and years went by I noticed that this was happening less often. This was another surprise, slowly dawning though it was: No matter what poem I was working on, I was becoming adjusted to the constraint to the point where it felt natural and comfortable. Not only was I making fewer mistakes, I began to feel that the form itself afforded the kind of creative freedom that can come from working with a constraint that guides one into places they’d not otherwise go.
How did the idea to write persona poems evolve? Were your early lipograms based on fictional characters, cultural icons, and historical figures, or did this focus develop over time?
As much as I enjoyed the initial wordplay mentioned earlier, it wasn’t too long before I knew that I didn’t want to just play around for the sake of the form itself. So, I set myself to trying to see if I could work out some material where form and subject came together in a way that I hoped would convey something essential about each poem’s speaker. As for who to write about, I went with persons and characters that interested me. My wife Carole has been a great help on this count, giving me suggestions at times when I was at a loss for who to write about. The Rasputin, Friedman, and Gaga poems are a few of the works that got started because of her.
Who are the main lipogram writers? Who else is exploring the form?
Writers who gave or are giving sustained attention to the form make for a very short list of works available in English. The most celebrated lipogrammatic work is La Disparition (1969), a French novel by Georges Perec in which the letter “e” is not used and is a key part of the story “chock-full of plots and subplots, of loops within loops, of trails in pursuit of trails, all of which allow its author an opportunity to display his customary virtuosity as an avant-gardist magician, acrobat and clown,” according to the lipogrammatic cover flap of Gilbert Adair’s e-free English translation.
Perec also wrote an essay “History of the Lipogram,” which appears in Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature, edited by Warren F. Motte, Jr.
Other lipogrammatic novels are Ernest Vincent Wright’s Gadsby: A Story of Over 50,000 Words Without Using the Letter E (1939) and Ella Minnow Pea (2001) by Mark Dunn. Christian Bok has written an unusual work, Eunoia, part novella and part prose poem, in which the constraint in each of the work’s sections is univocalic, using only one vowel. Bok further set himself to a variety of subsidiary rules pertaining to subject matter. His work won’t be mistaken for that of anyone else.
What advice would you give to other poets who are interested in using this form?
Pretty much what I’d suggest to any writer. Start with a sense of curiosity and play, but expect difficulty too. You need not have a goal at first; give it time. Concentrate. Turn off your goddam cell phone and other gadgets. Try to think of new ways or reasons to use the form. If you develop a feel for the lipogram at some point, read up on its history and authors.