Worcester County Poetry Association
Established 1971
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Surrealism on Paper: Found Words

In 2006, WCPA hosted a series of writing workshops inspired by the Worcester Art Museum exhibit Surrealist Works on Paper with the objective of exploring the surrealist literary movement.

The were six writing exercises used in the workshop sessions:
Exquisite Corpse
Automatic Writing
Tactile Poems

Each workshop session held six or eight participants. Because some of the works generated were the result of group efforts, a concurrent workshop webpage was maintained for the participants.

The workshops were conducted at the Worcester Art Museum and coordinated by Francine D'Alessandro. No gallery readings were held.

Additional notes for Tactile Poems:

Czech film maker, writer and visual artist Jan Svankmajer (1934-1959) inspired our textile poem exercise. 

A YouTube interpretation of "In the Cellar" 

a tactile poem by Jan Švankmajer

Something coarse, cracked
Crumbling away
Something cold, metallic
Somewhat greasy
Something smooth, round
Opposing soft resistance
Something rough
Something rough
Nothing, something rough
Nothing, something rough
Something notoriously rough
Something slippery, metallic
Something crumbly, broken, hard
Something powdery
Something crumbly, broken, heavy
Something broken, hard, powdery
Something soft, supple
Something soft, sticky
Something sharp

Exercise Three: Automatic Writing

The Surrealist Movement was fascinated by Automatism, or Automatic Writing. Contemporaries Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung inspired exploration of the subconscious mind.  Automatic Writing involved writing without any attempt at control over content and was considered to reach the unbound creative center.  It's more difficult than it sounds.  For our exercise, we wrote in a darkened room while listening to the work of three different composers. 

  • Erik Satie (1866-1925) is considered forerunner and inspiration to the Surrealist Movement and other modernist movements.  He called some of his compositions "furniture music" - music to be perceived as the background to another other activity rather than to be listened to in a formal concert setting.  Although his work does not sound particularly odd to a modern ear, it was considered avant garde at the time and some people thought him extremely eccentric or insane.  We listened to "3 Genuine Flabby Preludes for a Dog". 

  • Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) is known for his compositions for Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and especially for those works choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky.  These were compositions and dances at the cutting edge of the modern movement.  He is considered to have reinvented music for the modern era.  We listened to "Ritual of the Ancestors" from Rite of Spring.

  • We also listened to a modern piece, a portion of "A Rainbow in Curved Air" by composer Terry Riley, to get a sense of how avant garde the previously listed works may have sounded to 19th and early 20th century audiences. 

Other composers considered for this exercise included Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, John Cage, and Philip Glass. 

The original game called for each player to choose a letter with which each sentence would begin and that certainly helps focus the attention on the act of writing rather than the subject. 

Try writing with no music at all.  The primary difference between automatism and traditional free-writing is to completely give yourself up to the subconscious.  We used music to help distract the mind from controlling the act of writing. 
Exercise Four: Cut-Ups

The Surrealist Movement was interested in remaking the world.  A game called Cut-Ups involved cutting words from newspaper headlines then rearranging them into a new phrase, poem, statement.  The process is both creative and challenging but can be time consuming. This variation was created for the workshop.

Each participant was given an envelope containing cut-outs and provided with a few general guidelines:

  • Create a poem or prose composition using only the words available to you - the words in the bag.

  • You may not add words.

  • You are not required to use all the words.

  • In the spirit of the surrealists, don't worry about making sense.


Exercise Five: Definitions

A variation on a Surrealist Movement game, Definitions
  • An "object word" is randomly chosen from a deck of prompt words.

  • Players spent approximately 5 minutes compiling a list of words found within the object word, aiming for a minimum of 15 words. 

  • Using the "discovered" words, players fashioned new definitions for the object word.

Example based on the object word "preparation":
Exercise One: Exquisite Corpse

This exercise is a variation on the word game Exquisite Corpse.
Each of several 'players' adds a line to a poem. With a small group, it may be necessary to go around the circle two or three times. A prompt list of words printed on index cards helped facilitate responses.

  • From a deck of prompt cards, each player choses a word at random for inclusion in a line, phrase, or sentence written at the top of a sheet of paper.

  • Line #1 is hidden by folding the paper which is then passed to the player to the left. 

  • Without viewing the first line, the next player adds a line inspired by their prompt word, then folds the paper to hide the first two lines and passes the paper left.

  • Each player repeats, selecting a new word from the deck each time and folding the paper to hide previous additions.

  • The originator of the completed 'poem' reads aloud the finished work.
Exercise Two: Opposites

This exercise is a variation on the word game Opposites

  • Prompted by a randomly selected image, each player writes a statement written on a sheet of paper.

  • The paper is passed to the right; the next player writes a statement that was the opposite of the first.

  • The paper is folded to hide the first statement, revealing only the most recent statement, and passed to the right.

  • The next player writes a statement contradicting the previous statement and again folds the paper to hide all but the most recent accition. 

  • The interpretation of what constitutes "opposite" is left to the player.

  • The originating player added a final line and read out the finished 'poem'.
Exercise Six: Tactile Poems

This exercise generated Tactile Poems inspired by the poem "In the Cellar" by Czech artist Jan Svankmajer.

  • "In the Cellar" was read.

  • Objects hidden in boxes were randomly selected

  • While the objects remained hidden from other participants, the object owner is given five minutes to generate a list of descriptive words relating size, color, texture, density, etc.

  • Participants are allowed a freewrite session of 10 or 15 minutes.

  • The object should not be named in the title or otherwise.

  • As each draft was read, the group tried to name the object described.

(Click on thumbnail to view image.)
Additional notes for Exquisite Corpse:

It isn't essential to use word prompts but they can speed the writing process. The cards were also used in subsequent exercises.

The words were drawn from a prepared deck of 9-letter words culled from WCPA broadsides since 1972. (print pdf list)
Additional notes for Opposites:

The images used were postcards but any printed images will do. 

Each image is placed in a folder, hidden from view and the players are only aware of their own initial prompt.

Below are the images used in the WAM workshop. (Click image to enlarge.)
Additional notes for Cut-Ups:

When assembled as originally intended, the words actually make a paragraph of between 50 and 60 words.  The source paragraphs were taken from various websites. (See sample beow.)  After the exercise, participants where provided with their source document, which often had a wildly different meaning from the cut-up.

The resulting poem can be pasted or taped down on a sheet of paper or simply copied, if the cuts-ups are to be re-used.
Additional notes on Definitions:

The same deck of prompt words was used for each of the exercises and nine-letter words were chosen with this exercise in mind.

Definitions can be as simple as one item:
"Preparation - intro to parapet repair."

or as complex as the example cited below.
This paragraph from the website of a commune called The Farm....

The Farm exists as a sanctuary, a place of peace and freedom, still we are not insulated from the realities of the greater world and culture. Through thick and thin, friendships that have grown over many decades form the glue that allows us to continue this experiment in lifestyle, sharing fortunes as a tribe.
resulted in this list of words........

which may be interpretted

as this....

Culture glue exists and realities
continue insulated in sanctuary,
sharing freedom over fortune,
decades grown thick from peace
and tribe culture friendships form
still greater in the world
or this.

Freedom from friendship exists,
thin glue realities in decades-
thick culture grown over and
through fortune,
sharing place
not santuary.
Partial list of "Discovered" words:

Re-definition of Preparation by Joyce Heon

1Preparation:  n. [OE one paper tier to appoint]  1 : an ornate protein pie  2 a : an irate pit tapir  b : inept raptor or apparent papa  3 : inert ratio in porn or Parton  4 : a torn piñata prior to  5 : rare terrain in a pore  6 : pop top art i.e. pre-eon pap  7 : intro to parapet repair  8 : trope on a rope of poet pot

2Preparation: vt : 1 : to inter a piano in pine tar  2 : to prorate an ion into papion  3 : retrain a trap nor retain 
4 : to pine or opt into tar rot  5 : dial. to earn patina
vi : 1 : to atone en papier  2 : to appear apart in neap rain  3 : to prop an errant parrot  4 : to print or narrate an earpin  5 : to opine or pin errata to a partner  6 : p.p. of trio

3Preparation: adj. 1 : in riot apron or tarp  2 : on paper enrapt  3 : apt to trepan in tarot prep

ant:  reparation, not a ton (Erato in a pinto tie)