from 33 Sonnets Flattened

Frédéric Forte

he looked at shoes · his reflection in the display case · shows signs of use · his deflated face / visibly the particu · lates of his voice splay · around him as he articu · lates the de— / buts of sonnets his tongue · it was that that-tongue · what did it say / in ten days we'd like to know it · which what to do and push on to see it · to see summer was hot every day 

and if the mysterious will jail · the least appeal · the least appeal · is in the veil / over parts of you I'd like to reveal · nice and slow · to make time my goal · and never made real / imagine from a hill's crest · the finesse · of a body— yours / don't do less · be the witness · the decor

mister explorer · what's the program · to design a sham · or play the angelic consoler / if I were the conjurer · I would never take a gram · and even if I vanished on the lam · from the animals the animators / in my pocket my meteor · young as ever · would show me the north / but really I must decide either · to change guide or if easier · to change course 

the first word is gong · but despite my tries · my efforts I · don't know which is the secong / is it the word tong · the word denied · the word that we read in the mind · of the other when we taste his tongue / you smile · I see clearly that you smile · at the creation / but it's not me it's the poem · that rolls out to show 'em · its deviations

in a parallel world · I / devise sonnets of surprising sizes 

translated from the French by Emma Ramadan

Read the original in French

Read translator’s note

Frédéric Forte was born in 1973 in Toulouse where he studied communication and sociology. He now lives in Paris where he does residencies, public readings, and workshops as an Oulipo representative. He is one of the few members of the Oulipo to be born after its inception, and reading their works, most notably Queneau's Exercises du style, had a big influence on him and his writing. After completing the bilingual N/S with the English Oulipian Ian Monk, and going on to publish his own Opéras-minute (forthcoming from Burning Deck), Forte was adopted into the group as its thirty-fifth member. To date Forte has published five books, two translations, and numerous chapbooks.

Emma Ramadan studied comparative literature at Brown University and is now pursuing a master's in cultural translation at The American University of Paris. Her translation of Anne Parian's Monospace is forthcoming from La Presse, and her translation of Anne F. Garréta's Sphinx is forthcoming from Deep Vellum. Her writing has appeared in journals such as Recess, Bluestem, and Gigantic Sequins.

Frédéric Forte's 33 sonnets plats, which I've translated as 33 Sonnets Flattened, is a classically Oulipian text, composed of thirty-three flattened sonnets squeezed horizontally on the page rather than displayed vertically. Forte explores the potentiality of one of the oldest western poetic forms and achieves linguistic feats only possible in a flattened space, where meter is pushed aside in favor of an intricate and changing rhyme scheme. The fourteen lines are separated by dots or slashes indicating a sonnet's traditional two quatrains and two tercets, and Forte concentrates only on rhyme, recreating what a sonnet is or has the potential to be. Forte has compared this book to freeze-dried food that expands and takes on its true shape in water—his sonnets take on their full potential when they're read by a reader who recognizes the classical form within the flat space. The difficulty in translating 33 sonnets plats comes from this fidelity to a rhyme scheme that demands a certain musicality, a playfulness that can't be forced, and that loses all power if it comes off as unnatural.

I had to figure out what my goal as a translator of 33 sonnets plats really was. I wanted to preserve the musicality and flow, not necessarily to keep the same words or lines, but to prioritize the rhyme and only that, and let everything else fall into place after. My justification for this is that, for the most part, Forte was not thinking about his lines, about what they would mean to the reader, about what his poem would communicate to its audience. Instead, he often let the rhyme scheme guide him and choose his words for him, and so I had to do the same.