My Surrealist underpinnings are with me always. Buried beneath a responsible looking exterior and piles of laundry, is a one time surrealist adventurer who believes in accident, as a way of infusing life—and art—with a requisite wildness. Louis Aragon’s prologue to Paris Peasant still has the power to move me and remind me of the priorities of my youth. At the ripe old age of twenty-six, Aragon announced, “I no longer wish to refrain from the errors of my fingers, the errors of my eyes. I know now that these errors are not just booby traps but curious paths leading towards a destination that they alone can reveal.” At twice his age, I’m less a surrealist of the streets these days but my connection to Surrealist philosophy is evident, especially in my writing. I court chance and coincidence, and invite “that which I cannot control” to sit at my table and be my muse.
Aragon continues in the prologue to ponder how long he can retain his youthful sense of the marvelous, since he’s witnessed it “fade away in every man who advances into his own life as though along an always smoother road…who rids himself progressively of the taste and texture of the unwonted.” I’ve taken that smoother road—for all the obvious reasons—but I haven’t entirely shut the door to the “unwonted”; rather, it serves my writing well, ensures that the unexpected, pure majesty of the everyday does not disappear from my work. I also have more fun as a writer.
Accident alone simply cannot lead to good writing; a balancing act is required. That’s where the tightrope walker comes in, the quintessential image of the surrealist and, as I see it, the writer I strive to be. To maintain balance, the tightrope walker inhabits the space “between” opposites. The Surrealists wanted to walk the line between childhood and adulthood, for example, striving to take the best part of childhood (the magic, faith, and fearlessness) and the best part of adulthood (the freedom to fall in love, stay up late, make choices). Too much child or too much adult, life and art will suffer. Lean too far into the chaos, for example, and all order is lost. The surrealist/writer descends into madness or paranoia, thinking there is a greater design than there is; that chance has happened for a reason.
The ultimate, dynamic goal is reconciliation of opposites. In writing Nadja (which is not a novel, though you’ll find it in the fiction section of your bookstore), Andre Breton provides a how-to book for the careful undertaking of Surrealist activity. He offers a record, with photo documentation, of how he met his muse, Nadja, and the time they spent together. The lesson is in the conclusion of their story. Breton ends up with a book. Nadja ends up in an insane asylum. Too much freedom, we see, without any control, ultimately leads to a loss of that freedom.
Conversely, if pulled too far in the direction of control and order, misled by the overreaching desire for “perfection,” the surrealist and the writer will become tiresome, stodgy, and academic. We need wildness (wilderness) in our work. (I think it is relevant that today’s domestic turkeys drown in rain and starve while standing in feed; they cannot stand up, or mate, on their own; we’ve bred out their wildness in our search for superior breast meat. American Indians encouraged wild birds to stop over and mate with their domestic birds, thereby ensuring a live DNA pool and ongoing evolution.)
I’ve redirected my obsessive side—from being the go-to gal for info about books, films, what to do with kids—to scouring the landscape of small publications as I reinvent myself as a writer. While strongly attracted to post-card formats, broadsides delivered guerilla style and, publication in a box of chocolates, what I’ve come to crave most are themed issues. Someone in, say, Minnesota or Kansas flings an idea or a request out into the beyond, trolling for possible submissions. “Got anything on piano? Nuns? Mushrooms? Perfectionism? Accident vs. design?”
I am lured by the chance meeting of the theme, whatever it might be, and my work, not unlike Lautreamont’s “chance meeting between an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table,” a surrealist precept. I fiddled with a particular poem for decades, always returning it to the drawer. My poem meets a new context, comes alive in my hand, when it’s married suddenly, like a bolt from the blue, to the theme of, say, “Festival!” Whether it’s published or not, isn’t the point; what matters is that my poem has met the outside world and is changed, transmuted in a way that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. The result—I am not a writer toiling alone but a member of the greater universe, with whom I, thrillingly, collaborate. This is the perfect writing plan for me. I see it allows me to enjoy myself and forget my “inner critic.”
I regularly played the game, “The One in the Other,” as part of the Dada and Surrealist Practicum I taught for years. It helps keep the creative juices flowing, and is another example of how the Surrealists walked the tightrope between opposites. One person, let’s call him or her The Poet, selects an object, let’s say, a piano. The Poet keeps the object a secret, but asks the group to “Guess what I am?” Individuals suggest possible objects, for example, “Are you a nun”? The Poet responds, for example, “No, I’m not a nun, but like a nun from afar you see only pattern, black and white.” Or, “No, I’m not a nun, but like a nun if you close your eyes and touch me, you will find yourself touching a medium for spiritual transcendence.” The possible answers are infinite. The poet tightrope walks between the two images, and brings them together. The poet’s job is to make poetry, to take whatever comes his or her way (like a magician) and transmute it into poetic gold by finding the metaphoric similarity that exists between the two objects, any two objects. The poet must be able to “see” the objects deeply. Sometimes, when editing a piece of writing, I use “The One in the Other” to help my paragraphs flow into one another, to connect seemingly disparate thoughts.
The surrealist/writer must be prepared for accident; this means more than having the requisite tools. Aragon prepared himself to accept errors in a new, enlightened way. Being prepared means ready to listen or see, so that you receive and not reject. If I am fearful of being blown off course, I close myself off to the marvelous. In Sonnets to Orpheus, Rainer Maria Rilke writes about der Blumenmuskel, a sea anemone, which opens so far it cannot close again. When, the poet asks, “are we finally open and receivers?” When I am receptive, a flood of rich raw materials comes to me. I can weed through them afterwards!
Victor Brauner’s painting The Surrealist provides another opportunity to think about the balancing act. Brauner depicts the surrealist artist as The Magician from the Tarot who holds in his hands the powerful forces of the universe. What is unique here, however, is that the Magician’s hat is marked with an aleph, the symbol of another Tarot card, The Fool. The Surrealist, Brauner tells us, is both Magician and Fool, two seemingly opposite characters. The fool is innocent, experiencing things for the first time; the magician has knowledge of the world. Like the tightrope walker, The Fool is depicted walking on the edge, this time of a cliff. The writer has the Magician’s knowledge but must be able to see things afresh, as though “for the first time.” (I had the first line of Surrealist Paul Eluard’s poem, “Always for the First Time/Toujours pour le premiere fois” engraved into my husband’s wedding ring; my friend chose to read Eluard’s poem at my wedding without knowing this.)
I usually began the Dada and Surrealist Practicum by giving students an assignment based on Tristan Tzara’s “How to Write a Dada Poem”:
- Take a newspaper.
- Take a pair of scissors.
- Choose an article as long as you want to make your poem.
- Cut out the article.
- Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag.
- Shake gently.
- Then take out the words one after the other in the order in which they left the bag.
- Copy conscientiously.
- The poem will be like you.
- And here you are a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.
The assignment provided a deceptively simple entrée into a complex course of study, and gave an opportunity to better understand the difference between Dada and Surrealism. It also left a great deal of room for variations in interpretation. Completed student poems generally fell into three general categories: 1) poems by students who felt the assignment was beneath them and who, therefore, put little time into creating the poems, 2) poems by good little girls and boys, often from religious schools, who faithfully copied each and every word, even though they found the poems meaningless, especially when the tiniest words often fell to the bottom of the bag and 3) open-minded students who accepted the process and, at times, manipulated chance. The comparison of student poems was interesting to all, especially when it proved how right Tzara was; the completed poems did indeed reflect their writers.
While the cutting up of words, of sense, of logic is Dada, the act of putting word beside word is surrealist. Some students let the words run on in paragraphs; a line ended where the page ended. When different readers read these poems, the meaning kept changing because the author did not assign line breaks. Other poets made meaning by deciding that the 5th word pulled from the bag, for example, would be the last word in the first line, rather than the first word of the second line. Here we see the writer as reader; this is often the case in situations that involve chance. As the words leave the bag, the reader becomes the author. The act of reading sets the words in their context. Each word takes its meaning because of context. When words are set free from their conventional moorings, we see them afresh, with all their potential; the same is true for color. A particular red, placed next to a particular brown, will appear to be a different color altogether when placed next to blue. The Cut-Up poem is, again, a balancing of accident and order. Two words may converge, linked by the reader/writer, for the first time. The spontaneous result may or may not feel inspired.
As someone who has begun to write, finally, in middle age, I recognize how my surrealist roots serve me. They’re the tools I can turn to when I need a breath of fresh air or just plain fun. Should I decide to get down from the tightrope, there’s always the possibility of getting into the car and taking off down new roads, some with switchbacks, perhaps, which are really like tightropes with hairpin curves. The goal is the same, being focused, going with the flow, not over the edge to the right or over the edge to the left, but staying the course, keeping straight down the middle of the road, and taking in all the random sights and sounds along the way.