Surrealist Games

by Justin Evans

This Christmas, I watched my nieces play a game that they called “Guess the Face”. It was one of those simple and childish games that at first might seem like a way to kill time but actually develops some very practical skills. My brother’s family receives a lot of Christmas cards, so many that they cover a wall of their kitchen. Some are from cousins and aunts, while some are from relatives so distant and acquaintances so vague that no one seems to know who they are.

To play, my older niece would point to a somewhat random and very likely unfamiliar face and my younger niece would try to recollect their name and how they were related to her and her big sister. I’ve always struggled to keep up with the names and faces of my extended family between big reunions, so I had to immediately admire the practicality of this game that my newly teenage nieces were playing. On one hand, they were developing a very robust memory for family and friends, especially useful for the daughters of a minister. On the other hand, they were bonding with each other. They were also entertaining me, who loves seeing people yell about frivolous things. And they were doing all of this without making their day more painful or boring.

I often think that at some point in literary history, writers forgot how to play games. I don’t know when, but every now and then if you’re reading about writing culture from other times and places you’ll find evidence that something’s been lost: Bedouin poets improvising lines together on long and visually boring desert trips; Renku giving Japanese poets an opportunity to showcase their wit before the court; Greek symposiasts inventing improvised poetry games to rib and delight each other over wine. One hypothesis could be that as we lost our interest in poetry as an aural medium, we also lost our joy in using it to play.

I refuse to believe that this is a positive change. There are way too many benefits from improvisation, playfulness, cooperation, and competition for games to be ignored in writing education and development. And besides, it’s about time that writers admitted that, when judged against a lot of other artistic mediums, we are a comparatively boring bunch of people. We occasionally half-play games with ourselves. We’ll trade poems through correspondence or challenge ourselves with form. But there always seems to be a refusal to let go or to do something purely for the sake of the action itself. Writing is hard and arduous, but it doesn’t have to always be that.

In my opinion, the Surrealists were the best game makers of any modern movement. Maybe it takes a group of people willing to be ridiculous to invent the best methods of play. There’s a lot to be said about surrealist techniques for accessing the subconscious etc., but that’s a different conversation. I prefer a more pragmatic appreciation of games. Some games involve collaborating under a shared sense of negative capability. Others simply require you to write flexibly. Many focus on the sound rather than the meaning of the words. But what’s most important is to engage seriously on a pursuit that lights up the parts of your brain that are looking for excitement, drama, and play. Its that old conflict between the Apollonian and the Dionysian paradigms.

And it’s a deeply fulfilling way to socialize while working on a craft you love. Writing is an inherently solitary pursuit, but it doesn’t have to be. Competing in free writing, writing collaborative and nonsensical translations, and playing memory writing games over the phone can feel deeply frivolous until you see and feel the benefits of finding new ways of engaging with writing with different consistency and joy. If the Surrealist’s style or philosophies bug you, I highly recommend trying out their methods for the sake of play alone. It can be a little hard to find the good ones, but with a little effort and a sense of exploration and experimentation, they can add a lot of richness to the writing life and to communities.

Explore Surrealist Games with Justin Evans

Come prepared to ignite your imagination at our very first Surrealist Salon! Through discussion and play, we’ll access
the unconscious parts of us that, among other things, build the dream landscapes we visit in our sleep so that we can bring those images into the light of our writing—and our lives. We’ll explore games of collaboration, chance, and automatic writing developed by members of the Surrealist Movement. Discussion will include the history of Renga and other classical poetry games, as well as the development of poems like Yeats’s “The Second Coming.” We’ll explore games like Exquisite Corpse, Tennis, Question & Answer, and Poems by Numbers and witness how automatic writing and accessing your dreams can generate new ideas and poems.

Thursday, May 4 | 6:00 – 8:00 pm| Charlotte Lit @ hygge Belmont | Members $45, Non-Members $60. Register

Justin Evans is a poet and electrician and a few other adjacent things. He’s served as co-editor of Vanilla Sex Magazine and poetry editor of QU. His poetry has appeared in Gutslut Press, Blood Orange Review, Defunct, and elsewhere. His writing credits for the stage include A Tonguey Kiss for Samuel Davidson, Satan v. Laundry, and Ubu Roi: A Reading with Rage Games and Weepery. He holds an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte.