As teenagers growing up in Utah, my friends and I often played party games: The pick-up-the-paper-bag-with-your-teeth-while-standing-on-one-foot game (it was awesome), Spoons, a game similar to the concept of Button, Button, Who Has the Button? called Signs, a Mormonized version of Spin the Bottle, and, my particular favorite, What If.
How to Play What If
Needed: lots of strips of paper (long enough for a long sentence), some type of container to randomize the strips of paper and redistribute them, and writing utensils for everyone playing.
Slips of paper are then put back into the bowl/hat and mixed again. One person starts by reading her What If question, but the person next to her answers it with the answer from his slip of paper. Nonsense, hilarity, or profundity ensues. The process is then repeated by the second person reading his What If question and the next person answering it. The last person in the circle has his or her question answered by the person who started the round.
The Surrealism of What If
What If is unique in that it is a group literary effort that involves taking sense, making it nonsense by randomization, and attempting to make sense again. The game reflects an era in literary history: Surrealism and its basis in the Dada tradition. As Peter Stockwell discusses in "The Surrealist Experiments with Language" (from The Routledge Companion to Experimental Literature), there were many methods to accomplish an "effacement of intention": " . . . clipping words at random from newspapers, picking words at random from a hat, nominating page numbers from a dictionary" and other ways to "bypass the wilful, artistic shaping of the text in order for it to be a genuine surreal object" (55). The results of What If, therefore, are attempts to subvert the traditional Question-Answer linguistic pairing and a surrealist literary experiment.
To provide examples, I have typed up the slips of paper from a few rounds of What If that I played with my family last year (yes, I've been thinking about this topic for a while now). I paperclipped the slips from each round together, in the order they were read, but one of the bundles fell apart while en route back to the Marshall Islands, so I had to randomize them (which I did honestly, without looking). Here they are, but I must warn you: some contain inside family jokes. That's just part of the fun, particularly if you know my family. So here are a few rounds for your surrealistic enjoyment (but don't miss the last part of this blog inviting you to participate in a meaningfully chaotic internet chain poem):
What if men had to shave their legs and armpits?
Then we're all doomed!
What if iPhones are secretly robots that will take over the world?
Then it would be a lot easier to become a thief.
What if all buildings and structures were made of LEGOs?
Then we would hear "Welcome Welcome" more often.
What if Max could teleport?
Then my life would suddenly get a lot shorter.
What if you started aging backwards?
Then Skittles would have a trademark lawsuit on its hands.
What if we could taste colors?
Then we would all fear for our lives.
What if Jamie actually had mutant powers granted by her 3rd earlobe?
Then Mitt Romney might actually win the election. [ironic, since I didn't vote for him]
What if Emily face-painted Mitt Romney?
Then we would all respond, "Say, what?"
What if the teleological suspension of the ethical was really just a fancy way of describing religious hypocrisy?
Then it would no longer be socially unacceptable to not shave your legs.
Round 2 (This is the pile that got mixed up, so this is a new iteration since I don't remember the old one)
What if every Tuesday we had a government-mandated pajama ice cream party?
Then Katie would have gun-toting, car-slamming, slang-speaking kids wearing spurs.
What if Katie had married [name redacted for privacy]?
Then shaking hands would be awkward and/or going to the bathroom would be disgusting.
What if we smelled with our fingers instead of our noses?
Then you really would be the apple of my eye.
What if we could grow fruit from our bodies?
Wait, what do you mean "what if"? I thought this was already a thing?
What if we licked each other to express affection?
What do you mean "what if"?
What if the creature from the Black Lagoon was your boss?
Then I would purchase flood insurance.
What if all the rain from a rainstorm was condensed into one big drop?
Then the moon would explode and tsunamis would engulf the earth.
What if all humans in the world pointed lasers at the moon at the same time?
The global economy would collapse.
What if we could predict the future, but only 30 seconds before the event happened?
Then vegans would throw a fit.
[The two hyperlinked questions were written by my husband and me, since earlier that week we had both read xkcd's What If blog, which legitimately answered those questions using physics. We think it is brilliant. And my (honest) randomization of this round just so happened to put those two together, which is fun.]
What if we played another game?
Then we could eat whenever we wanted.
What if we had different stomachs for the different food groups?
Then Sigmund Freud was right.
What if, right now, we are living in a dream?
Then there would be no such thing as privacy.
What if we could hear what someone else was thinking?
Then Andrew would be the mastermind!
What if Andrew's mind was tethered to all of the Stecks' brains?
I die happy.
What if Pluto was reinstated as a planet?
We'd sing, "I'm Livin' in a Box."
What if we all lived in refrigerator boxes?
I would beg to be voted off the island.
What if our family was forced to live within a 5-square meter room 24/7?
Life would be much more dramatic.
What if we always sang when we talked?
Then Andrew's mind would be blown by the possible economic implications of such an action.
Chain poems, emerging later in surrealism, became a similar way to subvert the traditional authorial process. Chain poetry is made of different lines or words written by different authors, who may or may not know what the previous line (or lines) said. These lines or words are reassembled, and the result is a chain poem. We could also argue that the "What If" game could also be considered a form of chain poetry, each poem being two lines long but connected to the next set semantically as we piece together what the original question to the nonsense answer was.
I would like to propose the creation of a "blind" chain poem. Email me one line of poetry using my contact page and I will post the resulting cacophony—as I receive it—in my next post.
1. Each line must stand on its own, but can be either a phrase or a sentence.
2. I reserve the right to throw out submissions if someone is being grosero.
3. If you would like to have your line credited, let me know. I'll number the lines and include your name and/or a link afterward. Anonymity is fine, too.
4. The subject for this poem is "Chaos."