How to Write a Surrealist Poem by Forrest Armstrong
The idea of what surrealism means has definitely changed since its incarnation in the ’20s, but when I say “surrealist poem” I’m holding closer to the original definition than how we see it now – meaning the exploration of the unexplainable processes of the subconscious. The thing that’s changed about the term is that the dreamlike images (also associated with the original definition of exploring the subconscious) need no longer be attached to the subconscious for the definition “surrealist” to apply.
Basically, I’m trying to say that a good surrealist poem is both dreamlike and retrieved from the subconscious, the two of which go hand in hand. Let me try to articulate by explaining how I go about making surrealist poetry. This is the way I do it, but I think any process that involves much more of the conscious mind than I employ would be veering away from what I mean by “surrealism.”
1) Don’t think – If you have ideas in your head for pieces of the poem before writing, those ideas aren’t going in the poem. All the noise and trembles you’ve got in your skull is gibberish on a blackboard from yesterday’s lesson; disregard it. Today begins new.
2) Clear your head – So nothing already active in your head is going into the poem. Now let’s do more than disregard that gibberish, let’s wipe it all out, turn your head into a snowed field. Lots of different ways you can do this – you know what works for you. Some people can sit down and be blank-headed off the bat. Some people fast regularly to stay clear-headed or do yoga or excercise or I guess eating healthy helps but I don’t know anything about that, seeing as I live off of cereal and bacon. Some people do drugs – drugs being marijuana, ’cause you’re crazy if you think mushrooms or acid can help quiet the head down. Personally: marijuana can be nice for poetry, for the sole reason that it’s like a pair of scissors to snip the secondary, editorial voice out of your head. I never write my novels high because that second voice is actually like a co-pilot, making sure you’re continuing to lay the meat on the skeleton right. But, for the sake of this write-up, we’re talking single session poems. Do what you gotta do homie.
3) Become a tuning fork and strike yourself – Don’t walk blindly into the jungle. We are explorers of the subconscious when we do this: so pick a vibe and get into it. Could be anything – could be an exploration of heartbreak, an exploration of laziness, or an exploration (this is wonderful) of feelings you don’t understand but can only really visualize as tones inside the body. I recommend picking something, a certain tone of subconscious emotion – no need to be something you understand. This will keep your poem from being a random ejaculation of verbage onto a page that have no relation together – you’ll find when you explore in one certain direction, your subconscious, after training, will provide the structure and thrust of it naturally.
4) Now dig – What we’re looking for in a surrealist poem is the images, situations, fragments of speech, etc. that hold weight in our minds without us understanding why. Scroll up and read that Buñuel quote again. You know, I have a Dali tattoo on my arm, the melting clocks, and so many people ask me, “What’s that symbolize?” It’s hard for people to understand the concept of creating something purely abstract without trying to tie it down to a purely concrete idea or thing. WE ARE NOT LOOKING FOR INTENTIONAL SYMBOLS. You’re looking for the unexplainable images in your mind that hold weight, a weight you can really feel – like if I were the come up with one off the top of my head it would be a rhinoceros lying on clouds with thumb tacks spread all over them, eating bananas. I see it in my head and it’s got a heaviness, and I don’t understand it.
What actually happens with almost every single thing I write is that, later, I understand it. I go “Wow, all of this happened for a reason!” and it’s very beneficial for me, because I understand that mysterious tone I struck in myself when I had no idea what it was before. In that way, writing a surrealist poem is exactly like meditation and I promise you enormous personal, mental, spiritual etc. benefits by engaging in the continual practice of them.
5) Logic excercise – Writing of any kind is an excercise in logic. Same goes here. All these pieces will be flowing out at you, these heavy images and voices you don’t understand, and you gotta put them together in a coherent form. But with a surrealist poem, it’s much more intuitive, much more of a kneejerk thing. Say with a short story, you might sit back and go, “Alright, I got the dude in the kitchen and blah blah blah… what would he do?” But that’s not the kind of way to approach the surrealist poem. Picture this: that all the things you’ve been digging out of your subconscious are different objects you’re trying to keep balanced on a suspended blanket or hammock or something. The logic excercise here is, how do I keep these things balanced, how do I fit them on without upsetting things and spilling everything? Which doesn’t end in the first draft but carries over into
6) Revision – I don’t believe that you shouldn’t revise surrealist work. The idea is to capture the subconscious, yes, which is why the old guys believed you shouldn’t touch what you wrote. Which would make sense, if we could guarantee that we really had contacted the subconscious in every line we wrote. But we don’t. Even the process of staying engaged in the subconscious IS a conscious act, in many ways. So what you are going to do in revision is remember the tuning fork you struck and see what of what you wrote actually resonates on the same frequency. For sure, some of it won’t.
And remembering the idea of keeping things balanced – you will be able to intuitively feel the heaviness and lightness of each line you wrote, and, if you shut off your conscious mind, your subconscious mind will know how that flow of weight throughout the body of the poem will need to be adjusted. THE KEY to doing this in revision without spoiling the subconscious nature of the initial draft is that, any time you scrape lines off the skeleton and replace them with new lines, you have to get those new lines from the same place. You have to go back to being the fisherman of your subconscious, but now with a better understanding of the tone you’re going for. Not a complete understanding – or the poem would be finished. But a better understanding, ready to pull the zipper up all the way on the poem and call it complete.
One last quote to keep you juiced on this, and to help explain why I think surrealist poetry in particular is so important: this one coming from my man Dali: “If you understand your painting before making it, there is no reason to make it.”
That’s all. Do this every day and eat all your vitamins!
Forrest Armstrong is the author of Asphalt Flowerhead and the Wonderland Award Nominated This City is Alive