Behind the Curtain
of . . .
. . . Nathan Austin’s
Three weeks ago, I raved about Nathan Austin’s Survey Says! (click here to see!). It’s a 50 plus page prose poem made up entirely of re-ordered answers given during certain periods of time by contestants on the TV game show Family Feud.
I’m still enjoying, really enjoying, the book, and now there’s yet another reason to like it.
You see, Austin in both public readings and in e-mails has now explained how he went about re-ordering the answers. (So, yes, it’s not really a secret in the strict sense, but it is a mystery revealed.)
I gotta tell you: Austin’s re-ordering method is really, really good. It’s one very clever and effective procedure.
As you may remember, part of what I like in Survey Says! is how the re-ordered answers/sentences play together. Sometimes the answers/sentences seem in combination to have traditional poetic relationships, as in repetition and quasi-repetition, rhyme and quasi-rhyme. Other times, the combinations are less traditionally but certainly poetic, as when answer/sentence combinations show the word as object or when they result in Gertrude Stein-ish rhythms. It’s really a lot of fun that way.
I also wrote three weeks ago that in some sections of the poem, “the connective thread between the sentences seems invisible, and may be non-existent.” Here’s an example of a passage from the book that to me seems to have no obvious connections between the re-ordered answers/sentences:
Reading this passage, “Coyotes” and sentences that immediately follow, including “Spaghetti” and “A pool stick” and everything else, aren’t obviously linked. To say it again, the connective thread seems invisible, and may be non-existent.
But oh reader of this here glade-blog, how wrong, or really half-wrong, but in a major way, I am! You see, the connective thread does indeed “seem invisible,” but it most definitely is NOT non-existent. To eliminate the double-negative: there is a connection, a very rigorous one, between all of Austin’s re-ordered answers/sentences.
Ready to take a look behind the curtain of Survey Says!?
Here is Nathan Austin’s explanation of his method, quoted direct from an e-mail he kindly sent and agrees I can share here:
“It’s alphabetized . . . I wanted a system of ordering the answers that would leave the juxtapositions between different items out of my control. Alphabeticization provided a solution, but it looked too natural, too predictable.
So instead of using the initial letter of the word or phrase, I used the second. Instead of the list:
Adam, baby, catI got:
baby, cat, AdamI also decided to disregard spacing and punctuation. So the list:
I will be old.Gets ordered as follows:
I’m going to say “hello.”
She is going to the store.
What are you doing?
What are you doing?So this gave me all the strict rigor of alphabeticization, but without being so readily apparent as to appear “predictable.”
She is going to the store.
I’m going to say “hello.”
I will be old.
And the effect is one of not being able to pin down the system. It’s there, but it eludes easy recognition.”
Ain’t that something?! Austin alphabetized, but did so based on the second (and, in case of a “tie” the subsequent) letters in each sentence. In the excerpt above from Survey Says!, Austin runs through the o-y’s, then the p-a’s and p-e’s, then has a single p-i’s, and finally a few p-o’s.
Switching the alphabetizing key from the initial letter greatly masks the method, or at least it did for me. I sure didn’t pick it up, and I doubt others do (Austin in an e-mail says that to his knowledge nobody has figured it out, and that it’s usually an early question at post-reading discussions). There’s a famous Heraclitus aphorism, sometimes translated as, “A hidden connection is stronger than an obvious one.” Well, Austin’s method is yet further proof of how right the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher was.
[Added info, June 12, 2009: It turns out, some have figured out Austin’s method. The observant and knowledgeable John Cotter, in a recently published and terrific review of Survey Says! -- which he kindly sets out in a comment to this post (please see below, or which can be viewed on his blog [click here to go]) -- stated precisely how Austin did it, while also mentioning he didn’t see it at given the fun of the answers/sentences. Elisa Gabbert, in a post about the book also mentions the method, and also makes the marvelous observation that a passage of the poem has a “Dr. Seuss flarfy trance magic” (click here to read her review).]
Austin’s method, at least for me, is hard to pick up even when it’s known and being specifically looked for. There are several reasons why it stays hidden. Each sentence’s initial letter predominates in the mind, particularly given our shared habit of alphabetizing words and names by that letter. Those first letters can and do change in Austin’s poem, even while an the alphabetical progression goes forward just a letter (or a space and a letter) away. Also, the remainder of the word and/or sentence quickly seizes attention when reading. Basically, the second letter gets left in the dust, especially when that letter ends a word and is thus followed by a space before the subsequent letter. All this just make it really difficult to isolate the alphabetical order in Survey Says!. It’s marvelous that way, I think.
Austin’s re-ordering method is marvelous too because the second-letter based alphabetizing tends to carry forward phonetic similarities and even word groupings sentence-to-sentence. This of course fosters alliteration, rhyme, near rhyme, Stein-ian rhythms and other word-gasms. And because the method is essentially hidden, it permits readers, as I discussed in the original post, a seemingly endless cascade of curiosity and reverie about possible connections between the sentences.
And there’s more! Now that Austin’s method is known, readers can also appreciate the sheer wonder of certain combinations of sentences/answers wrought by the deterministic procedure. It’s a classic example of how a rigid system can nevertheless result in whacked-out (i.e., great) wonderful poetry, or maybe how such a pre-determined method fosters such a result.
Survey Says! has plenty of quasi-surrealist “umbrella and sewing machine on an operating table” type encounters, including for example:
Pizza man. A Jack Russell terrier. A judge. Skating.Now that’s a madcap scene, no matter which way you go at it. Add Laurel and Hardy, or Abbott and Costello, and you could almost pitch a film project with that series of answers!
But there are also combinations brought on by the alphabetizing that are, if I may put it this way, quite inspired. For example, in the passage re-produced above, the sentence:
A Pig.is immediately followed by:
A Police Officer.The order of those two sentences is required by, and exactly correct under, Austin’s alphabetizing method. Yet the resulting combination is much more than the sum of its pre-determined by procedure parts, yes? Oink, oink! Readers will also come across:
Color it. Polyester.a sentence combination that cracks me up, although I’m not sure why, and
Having sex. Cavities and drilling.which did bring on a half rip-snort although an allowance must be made for the limited view of amorous activity the joke embodies. I could list a bunch more wondrous and/or funny sentence combinations, all of which fell into place via the pre-determined procedure. But I won’t list anymore: you should discover them yourself.
Austin by my estimate had upwards of 2,500 answers/sentences to re-order (read: alphabetize using his method) in Survey Says!. Given that large number, perhaps it is not too surprising that he wasn’t perfect. There’s at least one mistake, where a sentence appears in place inconsistent with the controlling alphabetizing principle. Can you spot the glitch in the following passage?
Survey Says! is not a machine-made text, but a work by a human. Being human, imperfections will happen, at least for most of us. We people make mistaakes.
The error in the passage may be an advantage, actually, if the goal is (as it should be) to draw the reader into the work. Having spotted the one mistake, I wonder if there are others. There’s only one way to satisfy that curiosity: read the poem again, and again, carefully looking at the second and subsequent letters of each sentence in relation to those of the sentences that precede and follow it, checking in that way to see if there are any other alphabetizing mistakes. This sort of supplemental digging in and around the sentences, a close reading of a very extreme kind, would be unnecessary if Survey Says! had been perfect. The mistake, then, results in an even stronger bond between the reader, or at least me, and the poem.
So that’s the scoop on Austin’s method, and a bit more. I love this book, which transmutes daily TV blather into big fun crazy poetry. Order via Amazon (click here if you please), or for a currently less expensive alternative, via Lulu (click here for that option).