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Constraints of Art

I’ve always pitied Americans. Freedom of speech. Freedom. Makes me huff. Nothing saps creativity like a blank page… if there were some blemish, instruction or rule for every naked sheet, it would at least give you something to work against. The great void of white, that perfect pasture dares you to sully it with one of your piffling ideas.

I was at a gig recently when I was told in no uncertain terms by the promotor ‘best not to swear’. Can’t have a comedian swearing, who ever heard of that? Word of advice, never tell a comedian not to do anything. It is a direct rule, a challenge, to that inner schoolgirl, to swear in ways that are both obvious and innocent. A piss-off cake to a seasoned act.

The old saying goes “rules are there to be broken”. I somewhat disagree. All rules should be stretched and challenged, but actually the rules themselves force you to create in unique and innovative ways to express yourself.  I sometimes challenge myself to write bad puns, huge lists of them in order to wake my brain up. I attempt to get them down to as few words as possible, delighting in ones under four words long. E.g. Chapel: a male apple.

Doing this inevitably leads me to plotting ways to cram them into my set that evening, and usually results in me writing a routine. A routine that usually ends up being told without the initial joke that sparked its inception.

The way we think always needs to be pushed and prodded to stay fresh and interesting. Rules can be too much for some. Domga cinema can leave audiences cold, but the challenge that it lays down to a film maker is one that can be played with and fought against.

In writing the Oulipo movement truly brings together the concepts of art and maths verging on the downright pedantic. Back at the Edinburgh festival in 2006 I watched Demetri Martin perform his 224 word palindrome (a poem or word that reads the same back to front e.g. Anna… or for the advanced… Hannah.).

“Dammit I’m Mad”

Dammit I’m mad.
Evil is a deed as I live.
God, am I reviled? I rise, my bed on a sun, I melt.
To be not one man emanating is sad. I piss.
Alas, it is so late. Who stops to help?
Man, it is hot. I’m in it. I tell.
I am not a devil. I level “Mad Dog”.
Ah, say burning is, as a deified gulp,
In my halo of a mired rum tin.
I erase many men. Oh, to be man, a sin.
Is evil in a clam? In a trap?
No. It is open. On it I was stuck.
Rats peed on hope. Elsewhere dips a web.
Be still if I fill its ebb.
Ew, a spider… eh?
We sleep. Oh no!
Deep, stark cuts saw it in one position.
Part animal, can I live? Sin is a name.
Both, one… my names are in it.
Murder? I’m a fool.
A hymn I plug, deified as a sign in ruby ash,
A Goddam level I lived at.
On mail let it in. I’m it.
Oh, sit in ample hot spots. Oh wet!
A loss it is alas (sip). I’d assign it a name.
Name not one bottle minus an ode by me:
“Sir, I deliver. I’m a dog”
Evil is a deed as I live.
Dammit I’m mad.

It was both irritating, incredible, funny, impressive and slightly arousing to watch.

Palindromes are of course not the only weird rules you can live by. In fact, the beauty of making your own rules is… there are no rules. Yesterday  A F Harrold agreed to my filming him in preparation for his performance that evening. He had been asked by a music promotor to read the lyrics of the Pulp song “Common People” as a poem for a themed music night. He decided that instead of doing this, he would apply one of the old Oulipo methods of altering the text . He chose to take every noun in the lyrics backwards 27 entries in his copy of the Oxford English Dictionary and every adjective forwards 12 entries.

The results are below – do excuse the camera shakes, I was stifling my laughter too hard.



Iszi Lawrence is an English comedian and paid doodler. Iszi helps run skeptics in the pub Oxford and performs throughout Europe. Listen to her free weekly podcast She has up to ten toes at any one time.

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  1. Whoa. 224 word palindrome. Demetri Martin just went up 12 points in my book.

    And that video is hilarious! It’s like Mad Libs for grownups!

  2. I’m an immense fan of the use of constraints in creative endeavors. Narrowing your options narrows your focus as well, taking it from a dispersed flailing in a sea of options to a laser beam of concentrated action. Plus, it typically has the added bonus of silencing your internal editor. When your hands are tied, you’re no longer trying to create the best thing ever, because you’re happy just to be able to make something coherent. Some of the best recordings I ever made was done back when I was a starving college student trying to make do with woefully inadequate equipment.

    I was originally introduced to the Oulipo by Martin Gardner (like many people, I suspect). I’ve since done many different kinds of constraint writing, with lots of fun results. Lipogrammatic writing (avoiding all wrods that include a particular letter, typically “e”) is actually not too hard after some practice. Monovocalic writing (restricting yourself to only one of the vowels) is a hell of a lot harder, but I’ve managed to write some short bits of poetry. Here’s a description of the Theory of Relativity using words no more than four letters long:

    Nanowrimo is another sort of constraint writing. In that case the constraint is one of having too little time, but still it has much the same effect of silencing your internal editor and forcing your creativity to flow hard and fast.

    In this point in history, with so many technological and digital tools that were unavailable before, it may not be as inevitable for modern artists to instinctively to appreciate the importance of constraints. But they are really a valuable tool in the creative endeavor. I highly recommend that all artists, of all kinds, spend time working/playing with new and unfamiliar constraints.

  3. Oh, and don’t pity us Americans our freedom from constraint. Remember, you don’t really value something until you’ve had it taken away from you.

  4. … if there were some blemish, instruction or rule for every naked sheet, it would at least give you something to work against. The great void of white, that perfect pasture dares you to sully it with one of your piffling ideas.


    That’s one of the first lessons I remember learning about painting. My art teacher in high school would always remind us to “kill the white [page]”. Get rid of the blankness. It remains one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned about art.

  5. I can’t stop giggling 🙂

    Contraints can be good. I sew, bags mostly, and I had a commission to make a bag for someone that had some size and design constraints, but it also had to somehow include dolphins. I don’t do dolphins, not my thing, so it was a real challenge to have to come up with something like that.

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