Wednesday, June 10, 2009

pssst! . . . wanna know how he did it?

Behind the Curtain

of . . .

. . . Nathan Austin’s

Survey Says!

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, cat
I got:
baby, cat, Adam
I also decided to disregard spacing and punctuation. So the list:
I will be old.
I’m going to say “hello.”

She is going to the store.

What are you doing?
Gets ordered as follows:
What are you doing?
She is going to the store
I’m going to say “hello.”

I will be old.
So this gave me all the strict rigor of alphabeticization, but without being so readily apparent as to appear “predictable.”

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?

Now, let me be clear: although this mistake (hint: it’s after the end of the m’s) is a flaw, it does not spoil the poem. Actually, it makes me embrace Austin’s effort even more. 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).


John Olson said...

In his anthology Imagining Language, Steve McCaffery offers a term, the clinamen, for any deviation from a rule that gives added life and seasoning to a text. "A disturbing but informing particularity," as he describes it, "the clinamen is swerve as inclination, initiating the body's erotic profundity... by linking desire and love to the clinamen, Pierssens restores the deviant individual to a pleroma of errancy; and as Roland Barthes says, 'errancy does not align -- it produces iridescence: what results is the nuance."

Chris said...

Alternatively it might have been transcribed as "in a backseat", then alphabetized, then emended to the more likely "in the backseat" without realphabetizing. Anyway it's a clever way of dealing with the obviousness of alphabetizing!

Elisa Gabbert said...

I just want to point out that John Cotter reviewed this book in Open Letters and I think he was the first to talk about the ordering method in a review (without having it disclosed to him by the author) (I also blogged about it here: I knew about it before I read the book so I can't say for sure, but I think I would have seen the pattern pretty quickly. Probably a matter of how the individual processes words, on the semantic level only or also visually (I definitely register the shape etc. of the letters as well as the meaning)

Steven Fama said...

Thanks all who've commented (so far!), and Elisa thanks in particular for mentioning John Cotter's and your own review of the book.

When you comment in your review, about a particular passage in Survey Says!, that it's "Dr. Seuss flarfy trance magic" I agree totally, and love the way you put that, although I'm less keen on the "flarfy" part.

I can't find the Cotter essay on-line, or I'd revise the post here and include a link to it. If you've any leads, including even to a website for the 'zine it's published in, please let me know.

As for me not picking up the method on my own, what can I say! Others may disagree, but I think most would be like me. Thank goodness there are John Cotters in this world who can spot these things.

Thanks gain for pointing me to this stuff, and offering a different view as to the whether the method is hidden.

Either way, Austin's book is great fun -- on that I know we agree!

Elisa Gabbert said...

Steven, I wanted to provide the link but couldn't find it myself! I think the blog where it appears is temporarily down but I do link to it within my own blog post. Here's the link and hopefully it'll be back up soon (

Thanks for your compliment on my post; FYI I meant to imply not that the book is a literal example of flarf, but that the effect is similar to examples of flarf I've seen (especially the more anaphoric sections e.g. "I'm going to have to say X" ... I thought of KSM's recent "I'm trying really, really hard" ( Nor did I mean to insult you for not noticing the pattern on your own. :)

And yes, the book is very fun, such a good idea.

Steven Fama said...

Thanks Elisa --

I saw that you've the link to John Cotter's review in your blog-review, but when I clicked to go, good ol' Google displayed an ominous looking attack site malware warning, that when clicked for further info, asserts rather incredibly and breathlessly that there have been "x" number of awful infestations from the openletters site in the last 30 days!

It all seems impossibly overblown, but on the other hand it scares me (maybe I'm a chicken!).

Of course this drives me crazy because I'd like to read John Cotter's review . . . plus of course credit him and give him a link-to in my post.

I'll try the openletters site again at home later tonight, maybe it'll be different.

And finally -- I didn't take your comment about me not spotting the method as an insult, and even if it were, it might be a fair comment.

I wondered if I was just (forgive me using a colloquial expression) "a dummy" about this. I was insecure enough about it that I asked Nathan Austin via e-mail whether others also couldn't figure it out, and reported in the post what Austin had kindly told me: that the question of how he did it is usually asked early on in discussions after he reads from the book.

Elisa Gabbert said...

I think John knows that the blog is somehow infected and hopefully is working on amending that ... NORMALLY it's perfectly safe! If you're dying of curiosity, you can backchannel me (see my blogger profile page) and I can probably get you the full text via email.

I believe that most readers don't catch on to the method right away (or at all). The only explanation, of course, is that John and I are extraordinarily intelligent!

John Cotter said...

Hello Steven!

I've been enjoying the chat here so far, except for the part about the Open Letters Blog being blocked. It's true! But it's actually fixed now. We somehow got infected with a malware, and we cleaned it off, but not before getting flagged by Google. What a nightmare! Anyway, the blog is perfectly safe now but, of course, so covered in ominous warnings that I'd avoid it myself if it wasn't my own...

We're in touch with Google & should be able to get the warning taken off fairly soon. So please try us in a couple of days!

In any case, should anyone still be curious, the full text of last weekend's review is here:

Microreview: Survey Says!

Survey Says is a short book of white margins and large type, considering solely of answers provided on The Family Feud (in 2005 and 2008):

I soak my dishes. Bambi. Hamburger. Hamburgers. Camel. Camera. James Bond.

The answers are complete — the author says he didn’t skip any, and we’ll just have to trust him — arranged in alphabetical order by the second letter of each phrase: Sing, Singer, Lingerie, Fingernails. What emerges is something like rhyme, and it carries the sound of the long poem well. Sometimes Austin lucks into the first letter, too “A bra. Abraham Lincoln.” I didn’t notice the pattern being disrupted, though I might have missed it. I didn’t even notice the pattern itself at first because the phrase combinations can be a lot of fun. Hillary and Bill Clinton still manage to wind up next to one another (can nothing sunder their love?), pigs is preceded by nightsticks.

They brush their teeth. They buy groceries. They cash their check. They change their jobs. They change their underwear. They cheat on their spouse. They chew gum. They comb it over. They develop more hair. They don’t like to look pretty. They don’t put on their seatbelt. They don’t take care of their bedroom. They dry flowers — like dried flowers. They dye it. They eat. They fall out of love. They gargle. They go out to dinner. They go to see a Woody Allen Movie. They have kids.

Reading this, I occasionally worry about taking part in a cruel mocking of Middle-America, and middle-of-the-afternoon America. And then, I think, well why shouldn’t I have a laugh at boobs on game shows? They’re not an endangered species or anything. “I’m going to have to go with Ashley Simpson.” Yeah.

And if you’re a word artist looking for non-academic and non-specialized language to manipulate, look no further than game show answers. Quite quickly, I quit reading the poem as a social critique and settled in for the flipping-channels. A nice Robert Ashley-like rhythm develops. The voices almost never come off as individual; a single soul is trying to communicate. Stories emerge:

A nice, comfortable mattress. Knives. In line. Only tell one person your secret. Enquirer. Insomnia. Insult them. Insurance.

O mercy! America’s dark heart. A mirage?

Steven Fama said...

Thanks so much for sharing your review, John. It's great!

I'm going to say (yep, reference to Survey Says! intended!) your review is especially great if only (though not solely) because you said something in the review (re: Robert Ashley rhythms) that pointed me to another part of my ignorance. On top of everything else, I've several hours of learning/enjoying of his work to look forward too.

I'm about to revise the main post, to point out your review, and to say it can be found down here).

Good luck with Goggle. that is some mighty frightening sounding stuff hey haul out and pin on folks!

Steven Fama said...

And sorry for all the typos in my last comment above. I count about a half-dozen.

John Cotter said...

Thanks so much, Steven. Yes, Robert Ashley is amazing. I'd suggest starting with Peter Greenaway's documentary

Also, for what it's worth, my latest note from Google (re: Open Letters) reads: "A review for this site has finished. The site was found clean. The badware warnings from web search are being removed. Please note that it can take some time for this change to propagate."

So It's safe, if you feel like linking. But I totally understand if a sign reading "Plague House" may put some readers off!

John said...

Hey, I just saw the addition & am flattered.

NB: Open Letters is now fine: