Poetry News

Harry Mathews Interviewed by Barbara Henning at EOAGH

By Harriet Staff

EOAGH has an interview up with Harry Mathews, conducted by Barbara Henning! These two have been corresponding for years, sayeth BH. This particular conversation focuses on the women of Oulipo, who we don't often hear much about. "What Harry wanted to talk about was Juliana [Spahr]’s comment [in Looking Up Harryette Mullen], “It is also a group that is not only mainly French but also mainly male. I believe they admitted a woman once. She seems to have quit at some point.” Here's a smidge, but read all at EOAGH.

Barbara: Could you talk about the Oulipo and women in the early years?

Harry: In the beginning the Oulipo was entirely male and they weren’t making a point about that. It was just that Raymond Queneau invited a lot of friends to be the first members. There were two founders, Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais. Queneau was the more literary of the two and he asked poets and novelists that he knew to join the group and I don’t remember how many there were, maybe 8 or 9 in the beginning. That’s easy enough to find out. There were no women and that may have been due to a somewhat misogynistic streak in Queneau. Sexually he was enthusiastic about women, but I think he had a sort of Swiftian skepticism about them as pure beings, not that males are pure beings. I don’t know if you know this kind of misogyny in men which includes a lot of physical involvement and in his case an intense devotion to his wife whose death really precipitated his own death. He depended upon her entirely. Any one who is interested can read about how they met and how he courted her in one of his earliest novels, called Odile.

Barbara: I read that novel quite a while back, and I loved it, an intimate autobiographical novel that gives some sideways glimpses into the Surrealist movement.

Harry: Yes, it’s extraordinary. It shows a whole side of Raymond Queneau which is not so evident in his other more impersonal novels. Anyway, in the beginning there were no women. Oulipo was founded in 1960. Perec became a member I think in 1966, maybe 65. And I became a member in 73, the same time that Calvino did. The first woman was elected to the group in 1975, an extraordinary performance artist.

Barbara: Michèle Métail?

Harry: Yes, Michèle Métail. She is the one that Juliana refers to, saying that she quit the group, and as I told her you cannot quit the Oulipo. She doesn’t participate anymore.

Barbara: Why not?

Harry: Because she felt that we were not going her way or maybe she disapproved of the way she thought we were going. It’s hard to explain. She was always independently minded and did what she wanted to do. And I think that, it is just an opinion, that her work took on a more personal vent in recent years and she found that there was no room for her anymore in present day Oulipo activities. I’m not sure. I regret her absence because she was a knowledgeable confident participant in the group’s activities.

At top: Michèle Métail, by Reinhard Winkler.