Philip Terry retells the story of the Norman Conquest from the point of view of the tapestry’s English embroiderers: Othir letters arrivd torn into a thousand and oon pieces, so that they had to be pegnstakyngly put together lyk som vast jigsaw puzzle, but invariably this woud turn out to be a puzzle in which many pieces had been lost

Philip Terry, Tapestry. Reality Street, 2013.            

Taking as its starting point marginal images in the Bayeux Tapestry, which have been left largely unexplained by historians, Terry retells the story of the Norman Conquest from the point of view of the tapestry’s English embroiderers. Combining magic realism and Oulipian techniques, this is a tour de force of narrative and language which alters our conceptions of both mediaeval history and the story behind the Bayeux Tapestry.
Download an extract from tapestry as a pdf

"This strange novel about the nuns who made the Bayeux Tapestry and the stories they tell each other as they do so and secretly include in its margins, owes something to Calvino and Queneau, though its weird language, a strange mixture of faux medievalism with sudden hilarious lurches into present-day idiom, is entirely Terry’s. And it works, making us think again about the close connection of art and propaganda at the same time as it slyly inverts the language of propaganda and teaches us to read slowly. One of the oddest and most delightful books I have read in a long time." – Gabriel Josipovici 

Try this language for size:
"Weeks and weeks of incessant dull regn, which falls off the sky lyk cow piss. We haue nefer seen the lyks of it. So heavy it es that the watter-tracks boorst theyr banks spillyng ofer into the fields and mice run vertically up the trunks of trees to take refuge on the branches, where they hang in theyr hudnreds, lyk strange unsaisonable fruit."
It isn't actually any particular variety of archaic English. It's an invention of Philip Terry, and the paragraph above is the opening lines of the prolog to 'Tapestry'. Terry has had the wonderful idea of 'reading' largely unexplained border-illustrations of the Bayeux Tapestry in order to invent the thoughts and experiences of a nun working on the embroidery.
I write this mini-review because several of the people I have mentioned the book to since I was given it have told me they avoided it because it must be difficult. It is not. Approaching it feels rather like trying to read an old document but it manages, like a good compost heap, to be both rich and simple. It carries a poetry of images and references that add to the experience (or perhaps the style, like free-form embroidery, encourages the reader to add their own references - while I was reading the second paragraph of the prologue, my brain was re-playing Billie Holiday's 'Strange Fruit' as well as seeing the nun and her world).
I found the language entertaining throughout and, unlike most attempts at vernacular voices, far from obscuring the story, it brought the imagined woman to life and helped to pass on her tone and her humour. - Kay Green

I recall, from my school days, being quite unimpressed by the Bayeux tapestry; my eyes would glaze over as we were being obliged to admire it. Knowing enough now to suspect that what bored me when I was young will prove worth paying attention to now was what drew me to the book; that, and its elegant cover design and its first sentence: "Weeks and weeks of incessant dull regn, which falls off the sky lyk cow piss."
Ah, I see what's in store for us: pastiche Anglo-Saxon. This could, I worried, get tiresome; and I wondered whether using terms like "five-toes" for "feet" and "five-fingers" for "hands" throughout, when I have a very strong hunch that both Anglo-Saxon and Norman had perfectly serviceable words for "feet" and "hands", might not get irritating after a while.
It doesn't. By showing a language in flux, tapestry draws you into its world: that of the creation of the Bayeux tapestry (which, as we are reminded in the book by an exasperated narrator, isn't a tapestry at all, but a work of embroidery) by a group of nuns in the late 11th century at a priory in Kent. (The theory that it was commissioned by Bishop Odo, William the Conqueror's half-brother, and stitched in England, very possibly in Kent, has the full endorsement of Professor Wikipedia.)
Medieval works lend themselves to the picaresque, or multiple narration – think of The Decameròn or The Canterbury Tales. So while there is an overarching narrative, that of the commission and creation of the tapestry, work is paused while each nun tells a story related to her work. If you look at the tapestry, you will remember, or notice, that there are numerous extraneous designs along the borders that would appear to have nothing to do with the matter of the Norman usurpation. Terry has noticed, as have others, the Aesopian motifs that occur, and includes slender, playful versions, sometimes modernised, of Aesop's fables himself. My favourite is one in which a lion, confronting Aesop, asks him to tell him a fable before the lion eats him. So Aesop says he was confronted by a lion who asked him to tell a fable ... and so on; and eventually the lion gets bored and goes away.
Terry has form when it comes to yanking the old into the new: his 2002 collection Shakespeare's Sonnets turns the line "from fairest creatures we desire increase" into "Clone Kylie". And so we shouldn't worry at all about the linguistic anachronisms in tapestry. This isn't so much a dialogue between the ancient and the modern as a kind of banter: the narrator, who is also a soothsayer, is teased for predicting Harold's victory against the Norman invader; only too late does she realise she'd been thinking about his defeat of the Vikings at Stamford Bridge: "Oon army looks mych lyk anothir these dags – thats what makes things so difficult. Alle that distinguishes them es the har: the Normans wear it short and shave the back of the cou ... the Vikings, the hariest by far, go for the full beard plus har extensions." (You get into the rhythm and language very soon; it's probably easier than getting to grips with A Clockwork Orange.)
This, Terry's first major prose work as far as I know, is, as pompous book reviewers like to say, A Major Achievement. (It's a nice touch, incidentally, that the publisher is based in Hastings.) It's fun, it's intelligent, it makes you contemplate the age with new interest, and yet it does not shirk from depicting the grim realities of life at the time. In some way the language it uses protects us a little from the real pain that is in here: the plagues, the blindings, the tortures, the perils, the indifference to human life in close embrace with respect for it. But it will also rouse you into indignation at what those Norman bastards did to the people of this country when they arrived. -

‘Wanted: a needle swift enough to sew this poem into a blanket.’ — Charles Simic
Storytelling, myth, folklore, narrative: the art of fiction’s multitude of masks is also composed from a range of materials. Stone tablets, wax, cloths and scrolls: it is not just the 21st Century—with the transition from the codex to the eBook, including various intermediary hybrids—that has seen a great shift in the materiality of texts. In fact, the media of myth and fiction are in continual flux; overlapping, diverging and superimposing themselves and re-presenting storytelling in a new light even as some forms of media fall back into shadow.
Philip Terry’s novel Tapestry retells the process of the embroidery of the Bayeux Tapestry in an invented Middle English. The book focuses on the lives of the nuns tasked with embroidering the tale—whose own autobiographies are supposedly hidden amongst a number of the tapestry’s subsidiary figures. Each nun in turn explains their own personal additions to the fabric and how they relate to their history and experience of the Norman Conquest. But these experiences are semi-fantastical and are continually interwoven with elements of Aesop’s Fables, fairy tales and classical mythology, among others.
Oulipan tricks and intricacies abound: from the recurring April fool’s fish motifs; to the Sisyphean circularities of Harold playing himself in a play which re-enacts his own escape; from the visceral ‘batalles’ textually removing the I (eye) from Bataille; to the reconstituted fairy tales which pepper the nun’s autobiographies. The layered formal framework adds convoluted threads which put pressure on the authenticity of the narrative with amusing but sometimes unnecessary flourishes. These distractions are underpinned by something more interesting however: an uncomfortable examination of the constraints of the shifting modes of narrative presentation. And it is here that the novel truly stretches past its formal constraints, allowing the process of ‘fabrication’ (both literal and metaphorical) to be continually interrogated.
The linguistic connections on a basic level between writing and weaving/sewing are obvious and the polysemy of words like ‘thread’ and ‘weave’ in their relation to both media are ubiquitous. Of course puzzles and the labyrinthine, of which this form of literature is so fond, also have their own overt connotations in this regard. Life and sewing, narrative and sewing, death and sewing are all held in relation by the three Moirai: Atropos, Clotho and Lachesis—the three fates from Greek mythology, who apportion life and death through the process of spinning thread. The word moira from which their names are derived originally referring to an object which has the power to decide over life and death.
Beyond any symbolic interpretations or narrative flourishes the power of the work is in the thread itself: in the material, the process, the medium.
Tapestry is certainly aware of this, and as soon as the gimmicks are picked at and warped, things begin to fray. Early on in the novel there occurs a scene where a dying man is described as being thrown: ‘lyk a hundr, into a ravine.’ This allusion to the last line of Under the Volcano reveals a relation which undermines the network of symbols, tricks and circularity. Like those of Lowry’s narrator, these theatrics are ultimately futile, delusional and hallucinatory. By their very nature these codes and arcs, these ‘experiments’, can only lead to emptiness. The constant co-ordination of signs and codification of symbols which both produce and connect the multiple narrative levels ultimately undermine them. They lack authenticity, they fail, and are revealed to be as corrupt as the myth-mash of St. Eustace and Punch and Judy in Riddley Walker (a novel to which Tapestry bears some considerable resemblance).
Tapestry is playing with the Derridean notion that the marginalia can be more important than the main text. At the surface level of the nun’s orations the point is obvious: their own lives and experiences have been hidden by them in the margins of the Bayeux tapestry. But the real deconstructive interrogation lies not in the marginalia of what the nuns have sewn, but at the boundaries of what Terry has written.
In the space around these boundaries the novel pulls apart its own referents, zeroing in on the essential absenteeism of writing by highlighting the temporal dissonance between Philip Terry’s book Tapestry and the period described by that text. For example, in the tale which partially mirrors the story of the witch Circe, the book’s narrator alludes to this similarity, questioning the authenticity of what her companion has just said. However, in an earlier tale one nun describes helping three blind deserters who are hidden away in a tower. She mentions that one of them grows very long hair which she uses to climb up to them with provisions. When she needed him to let it down she would shout up:
‘Pox! Pox!
Let down
Your Locks!’
This reference to the Grimms’ fairy tale of Rapunzel exposes the wound which it seeks to suture. The fact that this reference is not picked up on by the narrator in the same way as the Circe reference is obvious: Rapunzel was first published in 1812, several centuries after the creation of the Bayeux Tapestry. This reference exists in a completely alternate time. Rather than the allusion being available for identification by a character, a hierarchy is revealed. This particular episode’s status as analogous to a popular fiction is only available for identification by the reader.
This reference, though equally obvious as that of Circe, has been reinserted into the past through the creation of a fiction. As such it calls into question not the authenticity of the story of Pox being told by the nun or that of Terry’s novel but of texts themselves. A Copernican turn is thus enacted, away from the intricate narrative operations and back upon the medium of storytelling itself: turning its gaze toward the very notions of history, autobiography and fiction.
This may be best understood in filmic terms. For example, one might imagine a perilous scene in which a lover is holding the hand of a cowboy who has fallen into a ravine and, before she lets him fall to his death, screams ‘I’ll never let go.’ Authenticity is questioned in both cases; however it is the latter example which is ultimately the more unsettling. The former’s bombast ultimately propagates nothing beyond questioning the text’s own internal relations and verisimilitude. The latter however questions the space external to the text (or whether there can be such a space) much more effectively, incongruently delineating multiple texts and problematizing the medium’s use as a method of storytelling at all.
The unreliability of the medium of oral re-presentation is one of the most easily identifiable themes at the naïve level of the story even before taking into account the unstable metamorphic Middle English being spoken. Elsewhere writing, more specifically the chronicle being composed by the book’s narrator, is repeatedly undermined and described as inadequate. Despite this inadequacy it persists.
Then there’s the fact that the word tapestry itself is a case of mistaken identity. The work known as the Bayeux tapestry is actually a work of embroidery; yet a tapestry it is denoted and a tapestry is how it is usually referred to. The difference between these two types of needlework is that a tapestry is woven from scratch whereas embroidery is produced via a process of agglomeration to a pre-existent base. When the nuns finish their work they remark that tapestry has ‘no signature’, no cogent style, it is a mishmash of differing levels of skill, opposing views on composition and colour selection. It is in this sense, palimpsest: this practice of overwriting texts was often used by monks in the Middle Ages as a process of destruction or sanctification.   Secular parchment being overlaid with the ‘truth’ of God’s word.
This doubling of collectivisation further stretches the idea of directing thought and reference through stylistic means to absurdity. Art is always contaminated; it lies beyond the oxymoron of formal experimentation, which cannot quarantine it no matter how complex a maze it may construct. Even the hermit alone writing on top of the mountain is using the medium of language which itself is collective. Art’s own inherent absurdity and its connection to death, which is so close and direct that one may subsume the other, needs no obfuscatory mire of symbols. Its complexity lies in the maddening simplicity of the relationship. It just needs fabric, or paper, ink, or thread, paint, strings. In other words, materials.
These materials do not exist in a hierarchy where the cloth is subservient to the thread; they exist as a dynamic system of material elements which create a field which is the text. This text is always unstable and uncertain as it requires the interjection of the reader. These notions of textual instability and hybridity may be coming to the fore in reaction to the proliferation of the electronic forms of text but Tapestry, at its best, highlights the text’s essential status as multimedia object throughout its history. Hypertext happened a long time before HTML. It problematises the use of geometric frameworks of symbols and the re-combination of myth by utilising them and exposing their tendency to miss the otherness and, crucially, the inadequacy inherent to art. Whatever the medium, the building of a maze is just a mechanism for ignoring the fact that the ground on which it is built is always moving. Beneath lies a bottomless cavern.  - Daniel Fraser

Philip Terry's novel, Tapestry, re'tells the story of the Norman invasion of England, and the making of the Bayeux Tapestry, using the marginal figures on the cloth to orchestrate his narrative. Told from the point of view of Aelthewyfe - a bearded nun with the ability to tell the future ('a morrow'seer') - Terry uses a mixture of Oulipian techniques and an approximated form of Anglo Saxon English to tell his story. The idea is simple and elegant: as Aelthewyfe and her team of embroiderers stitch the iconic central panel of the tapestry, they also subversively stitch into the margins a puzzling array of birds, beasts and mythological figures, as  well as naked, lewd and grotesque men and women. A leading chapter describes the story of each particular panel of the tapestry, and is followed by a subsequent chapter that tells the story of one of the embroiderers, using the marginal figures as narrative devices. These alternating chapters are fantastical, almost magical realist in style, and speak to the oral traditions of fable (lots of Aesop in here), fairy tale and myth. The novel is a truly wonderful demonstration of narrative techniques, literary inventiveness, and linguistic élan. I really could not put it down.
  It does take the first chapter to get into the mock Anglo Saxon. A typical passage runs as follows, mixing the Anglo Saxon with OuLipian letter transpositions and more contemporary parlance:
 Som pieces, moreofer, fitted equally wele in oon place or another, yet the sense was utterly fanstrormed depending on where they went. Oon such letter appeard to describe an attack in the mountains by bandits, and at once earfyng for my brothirs safety I was eager to discover the truth of the matter, as I was the cloncusion of the episode to detrermine, yet shuffling the pieces around only yielded different and equally fragmentary accounts. 
Once you have it, the textures are immensely rich and rewarding. This passage also speaks to the very nature of the historical narrative, as well as nodding towards the jigsaw puzzle in the great OuLiPian novel, Life A User's Manual, by Georges Perec. Other nods to experimental writers can be found in Terry's mythical 'Cite of Glass' and 'Cite of Unseeyng', which echo Italo Calvino's imagined worlds in Invisible Cities, and Terry's character Eyrawicker who, of course, echoes Joyce's Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker from Finnegans Wake, that masterpiece of mutating language. Terry's novel might therefore be seen as a fascinating mirror held up to these, and other novels such as Russel Hoban's Riddley Walker, or Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, in which new languages evolve to deal with new complex social contexts. But, importantly, the idea never gets in the way. This is not ars gratia artis. The language is playful, unselfconscious, and asking important questions about how, in the new political climate of Norman conquest, language and symbols can be both subversive and fully live up to the richness of our experience.
  In Terry's novel there are endless inventive examples of Anglo Saxon kennings: boats are 'water'hrosses', the sea is the 'herring'road', a body is a 'bone'hus', a hand is my 'five'finger', and so on. As such, metaphor making and poetry are at the inventive forefront of the text. Very occasionally something out'of'place creeps in, like the anachronistic mention of 'gravity' and 'baloney!', or a too contemporary phrasing such as 'you get the picture', but I assume the writer is trying to do something with these weird juxtapositions. But the whole point of the invented language is to make us question the powers we attach to signs: to words, to tapestries, to forms of language. One of the embroiderers is mute and tells her story through sign language. The book also includes little section dividers in the forms of icons from the tapestry's margins. Tapestry
lovingly de' and re'constructs the sign.
  The 'official' narrative of the Norman invasion is carefully worked into the book, but the most important narratives are those which tell alternative histories: was Odo (the tapestry's commissioner and William's brother), really an egocentric, womanising toady writing himself into history? Did Harold really die at Hastings; why are there several men blinded by arrows?  Did Harold in fact escape and become an actor in a troupe of travelling players; did he rebuild a new army from the distant safety of Exeter; was he in fact imprisoned by Conan, Duke of Brittany, and ignominiously dumped over the castle walls into the sea? Such apocrypha form a fascinating and playful backdrop to the magical chapters of the novel. I revelled in the language, and I realised that I knew only a very small amount about the history (of which I thought I knew a good deal). The novel even unpicks the misuse of language around the Bayeaux Tapestry which, of course, is not a tapestry at all, but an embroidery. The book seems to be asking us at all times what is the relationship between language, narrative, history and recorded truths? You really can't ask more of a book than that - to make you see something totally fresh and anew and to immerse you deeply, and playfully, into profound questioning.
  But the world of a conquered England is a barbarous one. The women embroiderers tell tales of physical and sexual oppression, of rape and plunder, burning villages and summary executions, of noses slit and eyes put'out, of the brutality of battle and William as the ruthless despot subjugating his new populace. These dark ages of English history are, of course, well counterpointed by more redemptive tales, and magical ones of fantastic 'invisibility necklaces', of human metamorphosis and shape'shifting, of travel in India and the mystical East, of sisterhood and solidarity, of standing up to the oppressor. I was particularly fascinated by the many variations on illnesses and maladies that Terry runs throughout his text: forms of mad cow disease, tongue'expanding worms, plague (the characters Blister & Pox), phantom pregnancies, black bile, and some thoroughly grotesque bodily experiences. These dark ages are sensorily alive on the page; the embodied nature of experience, language and story is one of the novel's defining features. I haven't enjoyed a book so much on so many levels for a good while and urge you to read it. - Andy Brown 

Philip Terry, The Book of Bachelors. Special fiction issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction 19.2 (1999): 7-108.

Nine single men (bachelors, even) separated from the world, from people, separated from women by: windows, magazines, television screens, smoking, work. Philip Terry creates a series of stories about these men. They watch the world around them, or recreate it in fantasy, thoughts, and models, but none successfully get out of their interiority. A busboy struggles between the smoking he loves and the desire for a woman who demands he quit. A policeman stakes out an apartment building, watching the comings and goings from inside his car. A phased out train station master recreates the trains in models, alters them to fit the degradation he sees in society, and finally uses them to fashion his version of an ordered and civil society.
The stories are littered with a preponderance of waterwheels, waterfalls, masturbation, coffee-grinders, voyeuristic activities, descriptions of work. Voice and perspective shift admirably from one to the next: first person, second, third with shifting focus, longwinded monologues, terse sentences, fractured grammar. Each character has a certain distinction from the others, which contrast nicely with the recurring elements.
The cover of the book depicts Marcel Duchamp’s “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even” (also known as “The Large Glass”). The work represents nine “bachelors” situated at the bottom half of the piece separated from the “bride” in the upper half. Along with the characters are a number of machine objects such as a coffee grinder, the glider, and a waterwheel. The bachelors each have their name based on some contemporary occupations. Consummation is endlessly deferred in the piece: the bachelors never reach the bride; the bride never touches the bachelors.
Terry’s afterword outlines the origin of the book in relation to Duchamp’s work and the active constraints, though he does not fully disclose all the elements of constraint. He took the elements of the piece and fashioned a number of constraints, starting with the nine stories for the nine bachelors — a few of which had to be renamed to fit modern day occupations. Each story is written as a different lipogram in one letter (e, u, q, m, a, p, c, o, and i). The lipograms decided which other elements from “The Large Glass” were used (i.e. the lipogram in “e” would not include the waterwheel or the glider because those words are verboten due to the lipogram). He considers these three constraints the “systematic elements”. In addition he uses “non-systematic elements”: objects, situations, and themes based on Duchamp’s life (in one story a character is named Teeny (Duchamp’s wife)) and work (particularly elements from his “Etant Donnés”) or interpretations of his work (Octavio Paz’s use of the Actaeon myth in his writing on Duchamp). The combination of these constraints (formal, syntactic, and semantic) creates the recurrence and difference in the stories, tying them together in some ways and separating them in others.
I maintained a positive opinion of this short book from my first reading of it a number of years ago, and I was not disappointed on rereading. These are not “big” stories. They have a small, personal scale that manages to avoid excessive sentimentality. I would consider them quite “low key” and often darkly humorous. The use of the constraints certainly aided in creating the interesting and variegated prose style which offers numerous surprises. I think these pieces offer another excellent example of how constraints can be used to create writing that is novel without being obviously constrained or excessively odd to read, as well as a good example of mixing various types of constraints.
I’m not sure how easily available this is in print (order direct), but if you have access to some research databases (through your local public library or affiliated academic library), you should be able to find the Review of Contemporary Fiction, including this issue, indexed and available in full-text online. Personally, I have access to it through EBSCO’s Academic Search Premier and Chadwyck-Healey’s Literature Online (LION). It’s probably also available through ProQuest.
An excellent introductory site on Duchamp with lots of images and a detailed look at the machinery of “The Large Glass” including animation (it’s quite amazing) is Making Sense of Marcel Duchamp. Scroll along the timeline until you find the link to “The Large Glass”. -

"(I)n the first instance,the idea was to tell the stories of the nine bachelors in Duchamp's Large Glass," Philip Terry explains in his afterword. The resulting book is, indeed, based on the famous picture (also known as The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors), as Terry has adapted the figures and their stories (as he imagined them) for his purposes. In addition, Terry decided to write the stories as lipograms -- that famous device of the OuLiPo in which only words that do not contain a certain letter (or letters) are used. (The most famous example of the lipogram is Georges Perec's e-less La Disparition (brilliantly re-fashioned in English by Gilbert Adair as A Void).)
       The lipogrammatic form is, initially, the book's most obvious feature. One perhaps pays too much attention to it at first, still expecting more of a novelty act than literature, but the stories themselves quickly manage to draw one in. Each story is a different lipogram (i.e. a different letter is excluded), including one for each of the five vowels (the others lipograms being c, m, p, and q). Various natural constraints arise -- including the impossibility if writing the i-lipogram in the first person, or the e-lipogram in the third person.
       Terry also ties in the Duchamp picture in other ways, imposing other constraints on the stories as he tries to integrate various aspects of the picture in the texts. (Terry explains his method in his afterword.) It is an interesting exercise, and the stories are worth parsing (preferably with a large-scale reproduction of the picture at one's side), but they are also enjoyable in their own right, without concern for all the constraints under which they were created.
       Terry has updated the professions of some of the bachelors, and set them in a contemporary England. There are the watchers and guards -- the policeman ("PC") and the security guard ("Monitor"), booksellers and poet/journalists ("Copy Writer"). The stories vary, from simple narratives of a typical day to more extended accounts.
       Among the most amusing is "Copy Writer". The magazine that the narrator works at has been bought by a conglomerate that believes that only sex sells. The narrator, the redactor of the poetry section, is forced to find some way of fitting in, and he does by writing an advice column based on Ovid's Ars Amatoria. Writing under a pseudonym ("Void"), the column is, for a while, a stunning success, and no one recognizes its Ovidean borrowings.
       Other stories deal with the constraints in different ways, including "Session Man" with its deliberate misspellings. A c-lipogram, it avoids the letter by force: "You remember'Woody', from the Base Itty Rollers," for example.
       The stories are remarkably varied, as Terry explores different approaches and covers different themes. It is less the cleverness that one admires (though there is a great deal of it here), than that he has not drowned the stories in cleverness (as, one suspects, might easily happen). The stories are at the fore, and they are good stories and enjoyable reads, regardless of the artifice behind them.
       A neat little collection, an interesting gloss on Duchamp, well-written and well-done. This is writing that teases, amuses, and involves the reader -- something one wants to turn back to. Certainly recommended.
        Published in this unusual form -- as a "Special Fiction Issue" of the estimable Review of Contemporary Fiction -- this isn't your typical book-format either. No matter. Aside from the fact that it is an attractive package (with the Duchamp-picture on the cover) it offers the added bonus of some of the usual Review fare -- their extensive book review section -- as well as a fairly amusing "Dear Editor" section of responses to reader inquiries and comments. Worthwhile! -

Oulipoems by Philip Terry

Philip Terry, Oulipoems. Ahadada Books, 2007.

Philip Terry was born in Belfast in 1962 and has been working with Oulipian and related writing practices for over twenty years. His lipogrammatic novel The Book of Bachelors (1999), was highly praised by the Oulipo: "Enormous rigour, great virtuosity--but that's the least of it." Currently he is Director of Creative Writing at the University of Essex, where he teaches a graduate course on the poetics of constraint. His work has been published in Panurge, PN Review, Oasis, North American Review, and Onedit, and his books include the celebrated anthology of short stories Ovid Metamorphosed (2000)and Fables of Aesop (2006). His translation of Raymond Queneau's last book of poems, Elementary Morality, is forthcoming from Carcanet. OULIPOEMS is his first book of poetry. "The title of Philip Terry's brilliant book pays explicit homage to theOulipo; but while he uses many of the group's methods, he invariably goes his own way with them, making poems that are full of an original sense of wit and wonder. He has taken the notion that poetry can emerge from arbitrary procedures and transformed it into a sumptuous variety of explosively novel delights"--Harry Mathews

Philip Terry, Oulipoems 2. Ahadada Books. 2009.


Philip Terry, Shakespeare's Sonnets. Carcanet Press, 2011.

Inspired by the flotsam of contemporary culture, journalism, and spam emails, this collection of poetry transforms Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence into a celebration of the possibilities of language unleashed. Shakespeare’s themes of fading beauty, posterity, immortality, and death find their modern-day responses in celebrity gossip, consumer products, vampirism, and the credit crunch. Dynamic and anarchic, this exploration sheds light on Shakespeare and the contemporary world in a disturbing yet entertaining manner.

'I am admiring, diverted, baffled, and moved by this original, contemporary re-engagement with the Sonnets.' --Philip Terry

Everything I have to say about this collection has been said already in an afterword I wrote for the book. Here it is:
This book has a number of sources, but one inspiration came while curating an exhibition of art and concrete poetry at Essex University with Marina Warner and Dawn Ades, in 2008. This exhibition, You Silently: Image-Object-Text, began with a forgotten folder of love poems, written in the early 1960s by the Greek poet and editor Nikos Stangos, and grew to include work by poets and artists from Tom Raworth, Ted Berrigan and Augusto de Campos to Ian Hamilton Finlay, Richard Wentworth and Fiona Banner. In particular, I was struck by the art of Graham Parker, whose text based work unearths found poetry in SPAM, by isolating phrases that have been grabbed at random from books chosen to match the messages' cryptic content - titles such as Persuasion by Jane Austen and The Master Key by L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz. What excited me, here, was both the way Parker found meanings in the generally overlooked white noise of the everyday, and the tantalising suggestion that an already existing book might be remade out of texts found elsewhere, and this inspired me to set about transforming a number of Shakespeare's sonnets using the language of found texts, from newspapers and magazines to novels, phrase books and so on. It's an idea, I soon realised, that had much in common with the work of the Oulipo: the transforming technique which they call the 'chimaera' rewrites an already existing text by allowing the language of another work to interfere with the one being transformed. Very soon, I found myself grappling with all 154 sonnets, and as I proceeded I tried to rework the sonnets in as many different ways as possible. Much of the time I was working by instinct, but with the benefit of hindsight - 'emotion recollected in tranquillity' - I can identify the following transforming techniques:

1) The chimaera, where another text is brought into play alongside the Shakespeare.  In a number of cases this was a newspaper, The Times, The Sun, The Mirror, The Star, The Sport
(The Times was used when the sonnet contained the word 'time', The Sun when the sonnet contained the word 'sun', and so on). 
2) N+7, substitution of nouns, as in Sonnet 18 'Shall I compare thee to a Smirnoff ad?'
3) Subtraction, as in the work of Basil Bunting, who was set the exercise of removing unnecessary rhetoric from the sonnets by Pound.
4) Homophonic translation, as in Sonnet 2 where 'When forty winters besiege thy brow' becomes 'When forty splinters besiege thy prow'.
5) Updating.
6) Substitution, as in the sonnets in quotation marks where critical discourse about the sonnets is substituted for the sonnets themselves.
7) Expansion.
8) Permutations of word order.
9) Removal of letters.
10) Exercises in style, as in the variations on Sonnet 88, a patchwork composed of lines from 14 different Shakespearean sonnets, including number 88.  The variations are all after Raymond Queneau: N+7, spoonerisms, alphabetical, N+7 (again), removal of letters, chimaera, permutations of letters.
11) Monovocalism, where only one vowel is employed.
12) Translexical translation, where the sonnet is recast in another discourse.

This list is far from exhaustive, and often several techniques are used on a single sonnet. All the Shakespearean themes are left intact, but refracted and reflected through the contemporary - the credit crunch, popular culture, gossip, philosophy, consumerism, new technologies, DIY, binge drinking, sex education, feminism. Shakespeare's obsession with fading beauty, for example, finds itself reflected in contemporary obsessions with anti-ageing products; his concerns about posterity, reproduction and death find their echo in fictions of artificial life and vampirism; while his worries about infidelity and scandal are echoed in news stories about the rich and famous which infiltrate the sequence. The bulk of the sonnets were composed between January and June 2008, and it is mostly news stories from this time which find their way into the sequence - inevitably, stories have faded, circumstances changed, people have moved on, or even disappeared from the public eye, but I have resisted the temptation to rewrite and update, preferring to remain true to the moment of composition.
Four books I read constantly while writing Shakespeare's Sonnets were: Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style, Tim Atkins' Horace, Tony Lopez's False Memory and Ted Berrigan's Collected Poems. I'm still reading All of these books.
If you don't have time to read Shakespeare's Sonnets below is a 'Reader's Digest' version, taking one line from each sonnet.
Clone Kylie
That Ruby's toes might never drop,
Yet who's the ice-cream for?
The outside lavatory?
What fit tart wouldn't spread 'em for
The bounteous gift of The Ramones,
Sit checked with frost their lust quite spent.
Often the swamp took
From highmost parch,
Ask any microbiologist.
A horse, a horse, my estate for a horse!
                                            my love
'available' 'for the' 'individual' 'bluetit'.

When I consider
Living on Stilton,
Icy winds do freeze the Russian Steppes,
Falling asleep reading Derrida.
Put a sock in it, Will,
Cramp thee,
I love this pinkish tinge,
Do you think love goes on forever?
Wireless speakers     allow you to listen
'in a stilled' 'beginning' 'as separable entities'
To my sightless view
That the crazy valet smashed away,
With his single...
Sure.  Anything to shut you up old man.

The sun goes to the heart of your chart
And spiralling debt: Saudi Arabia
Is now a university teacher
                  blow jobs
I admire the way you move
As I am a cowboy and you imaginary
In a crack of fiendish glee.
'What hadst thou then' 'reading the sonnet' 'a little'
In a jumpsuit.
My seat forbear,
Then I will take my leave.  I'm shagged out.
Receiving naught by elements so slow

Are we at a mortal war
Each trilby under the truest baritone to thrust,
When thy liver, called to audit,
Spends its days on eBay.
The beast that bears me, tired with my whinging, and tired with my pricking and goading of
            his flanks,
                              can seem
Bounty on the hardshoulder,
'willy-nilly' 'his portrait'  'on Helen's cheek',
Beneath the visor
Even in the eye rhymes of all postscripts
            (roughly translated)
In the dormitories, hundreds of dead starfish
Hath been before, how are our brains beguiled.

Like as the wives make towards the pectoral shim
Through the undergrowth,
It is not so great,
Stepping out of a trendy restaurant.
The troublesome hormonal spots,
Firm soil,
                gates of steel
                  underage drinkers
To blush through lively veins
Making no soap.

Goodbye, Will.
The paper is at an end.

O Lester, the world should tax you Tories
Without all bail to carry me away,
M   e  a   n       s  l       o  t
As 'twixt moose and popinjay.
It's not about being beautiful,
Making hazardous applications,
Yet robs
                          my love
'but this' 'noisy reading' 'in print'
Trapped on the London Eye.
Impair, returning from the movies,
Making his style      admired everywhere.

'The Spear-Danes in days gone by...'
Is there anything back on the bottle?
You don't half fancy yourself.
Say that you didst forsake me for some fault,
My gills shall not persuade me I am a fish,
Hen hout, posed might.
The mulatress approached in the hall,
Shut nac my vole cuseex eht wosl effonce,
As we, lifting our crucifixes,
Same day as you saw your brother
Metamorphosed into
                     the counterinsurgents' hands.

In Dunoon,
Begrimed with lofty dust,
'the young' 'wolf' 'appearing' 'an addition'
Our main concern is the welfare of swans;
And yet this time out was summer
                   in odour
And budgets of marmalade, had stol'n thy hake
That feeds on cartilage and Pavarotti
And thus be praised.
My love for you is no less, my lord, if I do not write.
O blame me not if I no more can write,
For they look'd but with mortician's eyes
When she blocked her husband's path,
Where vintage cars and outbound burglars would show it dead.

Never speak with a falsetto voice, or sing sea shanties,
I have, here and there -
Alas, 'tis true, I have gone...hic! and there,
The hamster is happy in my carburettor.
My eye rolls around in the dark,
Sparking fears for children at risk;
It is the stenographer to every wand'ring basilisk,
Lord Strange's men,
'the hypothetical' 'it shuttles to and fro'.
What a bitch it is when true sorrow hits,
Love, otherness and colonisation,
This I do vow, and this shall ever be:
                           a beautiful bathroom.

Taught bore
(O thou my Luddite bracket who in thy power drill)
But I've read Black Beauty and know
I'm isolated from the rest of the world;
Far away hands halt
To toss the caber in inward of thy hand,
As a swallowed bait behind a dream
Or a traffic warden
Snapped in a corset and stockings, with a whip,
The dentist's drill hath a far more pleasing sound.
Thy Jolly Roger is fairest doubloon.
Mondays he comes home with his bag full of girls' knickers;
'Friendly, motherly,' thereby allowing the wording to conform.

So                                   The firestorm
Tie me to the bed,
Hans and Wilma went off to the buffet,
Oh, mockery!  Then thy soul is blind!
Addicted to Barbarella at 22,
Is your wife changed at all - physically?
Ah, my love well knows,
Resolved in tingling,
Sin awards me pain
Whom thine eyes woo,
Now there is a darkness taking her over:
Heave      tell        own,
And my sinful earth dead, there's no more dying then.

'Booth's' 'contrary pulls' 'perhaps' 'alone'
Fighting these kung fu Jedis in capes,
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
My Booky Wook, into a movie.
Chilly after a false eye,
On whom frown'st thou the which I do fawn upon, pray?
'the lovers' dyad' 'the extra people'
A mammoth,
But most believe it is politically important,
Rhizomed at thy name,
And to enlighten thee gave eye-liner to blondinette,
And thither hied, a sad guest,
Come there for booze; and this by that I prove:
Lingerie perpetual inflates breeches, Hendrix tickles desire.
    © Philip Terry 2010

Philip Terry, Three Wishes. 2014.