Making the Surreal Poem, On Purpose! (A Prompt)


Over the last month I’ve been intensively preparing for my Found Poetry Workshop at the Squam Arts Retreat in early June. I’ve compiled binders, ripped up books for repurposing into poems, separated the pronouns and articles from the ‘big’ words in my magnetic poetry horde, done a lot of hole punching (discovered I’m not good at hole punching), but I primarily collected and devised prompts and example poems derived from the prompts.  I now have a full-fledged six hour workshop which had previously been a few ideas kicking around in the ether. I also have a boatload of prompts. I’ve posted a lot here about prompts, but I really only use them sometimes. My use of a prompt looks something like this: read the prompt, sit down with the intention of following the prompt, begin writing to the prompt, take a left and never return. Prompts work for me the way they’re supposed to I guess, they work too good, but never the way the prompt-writer would have intended. Except….. The following prompt is unique, can be applied to almost any piece of writing, is kind of like a party game and will result in a poem I’m categorizing ahead of time as surreal. Have you read those poetry collections where you have no clue what any of the poems are about but you understand the language and are happy to go along for the ride? Surreal poem alert! Now, there are plenty of bad surreal poems which juxtapose disparate things left and right and never surprise, dazzle or deliver substance, or do surprise, dazzle and still not deliver any substance. But, I don’t want to get all William Logan on you. Logan once wrote of Louise Gluck’s poetry: ” The lines are long, the poems sputtering on, sometimes for pages, until they finally run out of gas, as if they were the first drafts of a torpid afternoon.” Ouch! Let’s not think a bit about what William Logan would make of our little exercise. Here it is:

Write about a memory of an intense experience with another person (or just an intense experience) about 3 sentences. Interrupt this with 3 sentences about a dramatic weather event, memory or otherwise, followed by 2 to 4 more sentences about the intense personal experience (about a para. in all) Cut the writing in half vertically with a piece of paper and transcribe.


Write anything you want and cut it in half vertically. Take an existing poem and cut it in half. Or, how about this, cut it in half HORIZONTALLY! The point of the exercise is to fragment your piece of writing, creating accidental meaning and connections that could lead to something wholly new. Try as I might, my brain appreciates story, sense, logic. Sometimes I have to trick it into lightening up a little. When I do this exercise, I usually end up with a passable surreal poem containing a few lines or images I’m happy to have discovered. Here’s my version, which does not include any weather, because I liked this one better than the one with weather in it. I like some of the juxtaposition in this, but think I’ll be keeping the original. And don’t forget, if you cut a word in half, use it. Try to ‘transcribe’ faithfully.


on every side

that led into one

large enough for us to hide

beveled and caught.

dipped donuts

us to eat

that octagonal

part of our visits

orange carpet I don’t want to

mean to imply

was the color of dried blood

little house so clean

learned it

muffled every noise, all

nets were oversized

Hansel and Gretel

white little red riding hood

enormous. I think it was a trend.

blown and distorted

leered out from the pages

the collective beauties

candlesticks and cushions

wolf even.

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