When we were developing Modern Masters: 20th Century Icons from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, I became intrigued, delighted, and sometimes a little freaked out by some of the “games” that surrealist artists like Salvador Dalí would play in 1920s Europe as a way of accessing their unconscious as creative fodder. They’d practice automatic writing (free association) and drawing (essentially doodling), make collaborative drawings and stories called Exquisite Corpse (download MoMA's Play Exquisite Corpse worksheet), and even practiced “sleeping fits,” which were kind of hypnotic séances. These exercises were ways for the surrealists to let go of rationality, free their unconscious, and leave some of their creative product to chance.
But how could this type of play translate to contemporary life? In Denver?
I approached Michael Henry, executive director of Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, about putting a surrealist poetry challenge to some local writers, and he was all for it. In the original Dada or surrealist poem, players select an already-written passage from a newspaper, magazine, or other source. Then they cut up the words and phrases, put them in a bowl, mix them up, and paste down the scraps one by one, in the order retrieved.
The Lighthouse poets cleverly tied their works to an event already on their calendar: The Big Read, a program of the National Endowment for the Arts, designed to revitalize the role of literature in American culture and to encourage citizens to read for pleasure and enlightenment.
Three local poets used page 124 of Housekeeping, a novel by Marilynne Robinson, Lighthouse Writers Workshop’s Big Read selection. The results are astonishing and offer a varied and transformed perspective on the same words. You can see two of the poems, by Chris Ransick and Richard Froude, on view in Modern Masters, near the works of our writers’ forebears Dalí, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, and others. The third, #124, is by Joanna Ruocco. (Click on images below to enlarge.)
This spring, Lighthouse is leading Drop-in Writing Sessions at the DAM. Also, through April 25, Lighthouse is engaging Colorado in a community-wide exploration of Housekeeping, so join in the discussions and try an experiment of your own.