Pie Corbett: Surrealist Games

Surrealist Games

     As a teacher-writer, I often use surrealist procedures because, ‘Poetry should be made by all. Not one’. The Surrealist’s first manifesto argued that the imagination should be free; every human was endowed with imagination; through various games and techniques, ‘the marvelous is within everyone’s reach’. These ideals suggest that every child can succeed uniquely, opening playful possibilities. Early on, I used simple approaches such as Kenneth Koch’s suggestion to write about dreams or crazy wishes: ‘I wish I was/ a silver fish swimming in the sunset sea.’ Here are a few games:

     Random Pairs – involves juxtaposition of ideas and words. Play in pairs.

  • Partner A writes down 5 adjectives
  • Partner B writes down five nouns.
  • Put lists together and read.
Partner A – adjectivesPartner B – nouns= new phrase
darkdeliverydark delivery
ravenousfeetravenous feet
softfestivalsoft festival
shinyhorseshiny horse
pixilatedsunflowerpixilated sunflower

     Children MUST combine the words in the order they are written to overcome the desire to combine words into known patterns … clichés. To break this habit, random selection should rule so fresh combinations occur. Lengthen mini sentences or use in paragraphs. Create other constraints:

  • List pairs of words that alliterate:
  • Work in threes to create sentences using adjective+noun+verb;
  • Experiment in fours to produce sentences using adjective+noun+verb+adverb;
  • Try other combinations, e.g. adjective+noun+verb+simile.

     Initial letters and acronyms – in pairs, use initials. Child A lists random adjectives for a given name. Child B lists for the family name:

Harry Potter is – a Hairy Promenade, a Handsome Party, a Helpful Peach …

     Use number plates or acronyms such as BBC, ITV, DIY, UFO, FBI, LOL to create mini sentences:

Adjective Bold

Noun Baggage

Verb Celebrates

     Consequences – called ‘the exquisite corpse’ by surrealists, play consequences to create sentences. Pieces of paper are passed round from child to child using a grid. Remind children about word classes. Control the movement of the papers to avoid pandemonium! Start simply:

DeterminerAdjectiveNounVerb
Ashyeggsneezes

As children become confident in word classes, expand the grid:

Determiner  Adjective  Noun  Verb  Adverb  Preposition  Determiner  Adjective  Noun  

     It is important that the paper gets passed on and is folded over so the next child cannot see previous words. Hence, random juxtaposition creates surreal sentences to tweak:

Those pink axes whisper brightly inside that timeless parrot.

Six snoring keys stay exhaustingly below these cold peppers.

Example from a teacher poetry group run by Talk for Writing trainer, Maria Richards.

Vary the grid with different challenges to include phrases, e.g.

Determiner  Adjectives  Noun  Verb  simile  
Thesnarling, bare-toothedcataloguesimperslike a moss-smothered rock

Liam, yr 5, starts his paragraph with a sentence from the game:

Confused, the pencil lay hidden in the chaos of the desk. Why do they hide me away, while I’m destined to write the stories of their imagination? Why trade me for a pen, when my point is ready, sharp and poised for action? Creativity lies within me.

     Time traveller’s potlatch – what gifts would you give historical figures or book characters? One version we play involves children in trios passing round folded paper as in the consequences game.

  1. What present would you give: I will give you a mute swan’. Fold paper over and pass on.
  2. Without peeking, extend the description: which is slimmer than a mouse’s whisper.’ Fold and pass.
  3. Add on what the gift might do: and can bake buns faster than pastry chef.’

Surrealist games make poetry accessible, build confidence, break barriers and encourage daring combinations.

Pie Corbett

Pie Corbett is a teacher-poet – his collection ‘Evidence of `Dragons’ is used in many classrooms. He has published and edited over 250 books, runs ‘Talk for Writing’ and was made an honorary Doctor of Letters for services to creativity, poetry and social justice by the Open University. He runs online training for teachers and every Monday works with about 6,000 children on @TeachingLive, running writing sessions of poetry, creative nonfiction and story. 

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