“Minute-Operas” by Frédéric Forte [Why This Book Should Win]

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Becka Mara McKay, BTBA judge, author (A Meteorologist in the Promised Land, Happiness Is the New Bedtime), translator (Laundry, Blue Has No South, Lunar Savings Time), and director of the Creative Writing MFA at Florida Atlantic University. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.


Minute-Operas by Frédéric Forte, translated from the French by Daniel Levin Becker, Ian Monk, Michelle Noteboom, and Jean-Jacques Poucel (France, Burning Deck)

In 2005, shortly after the publication of his innovative, entrancing collection Opéras-minute, the French writer Frédéric Forte was elected a member of the OULIPO—the innovative and entrancing Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle (Workshop of Potential Literature). Reading Minute-Operas, with its masterful translations (and transformations) by Daniel Levin Becker, Ian Monk, Michelle Noteboom, and Jean-Jacques Poucel, it’s quite easy to see both the necessity and vitality of Forte’s membership in the group, and the difficulty and pleasure that translating this book must have presented.

As the title states, Forte’s poems are miniature performances enacted on every page. With a vertical line running down each poem’s face, Forte creates areas that he terms “stage” and “wings,” and uses an extraordinary variety of typographic techniques—erasure, diagram, blank space, symbols, and much more—to write the poems. Each opera, then, can be read in a number of ways, from a number of directions. For me, these are not so much poems that have moved from French to English—they are boldly original creations in one poem-language that are recreated in a new poem-language. The results are infinitely engaging. Forte’s poem-language takes the form of stage directions, lists of props and other materials, and process notes, among the more recognizable gestures. Yet these gestures and typographic techniques never overwhelm or overshadow the words that Forte (and his translators) choose. The writing remains meticulously original, tightly crafted, yet still ludic and lyrical. While some of my favorite of these poems are difficult to reproduce here, the following excerpt gives a sense of Forte’s mischievous mixture of the playful and the grim:

A wall
erected for tennis
and what if we changed
it to something else
to handball
o sacrificial

Ceaseless games       Interchangeable massacres
Dismal demigod


Minute-Operas is divided into Phase 1 and Phase 2 (each phase consists of five twelve-page sections). Phase 2 draws on dozens of existing poetic forms (listed in a brief appendix—the book’s only paratext) from the very traditional (triolet, villanelle) to much newer forms (including the minute-opera itself), some invented by earlier Oulipians. The work of the translators on this section of the book is most interesting to me, as form is so clearly integral to the text that it, too, must be translated. There is something quite sculptural in these efforts, as though Forte’s text were three-dimensional and the translators needed to find its new language on a number of axes.

I have spent hours combing through the layers of this book, reading the poems in order, reading them at random, reading them aloud, and I have yet to grow tired of what Forte and his translators have achieved. Minute-Operas is meant to resound loudly in the readers’ heads and then force us to grapple with the uncomfortable, uncomforted silence that follows.

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