Artist B. A. Van Sise’s photo series Children of Grass—featured in “The Written Image” in the March/April 2017 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine—consists of portraits of American poets who have been influenced by Walt Whitman, with each photograph based on a poem. Browse through some of Van Sise’s portraits or select any other poet portrait of your choice, and taking a reverse approach to Van Sise’s project, write a poem based on the image. How does the language, tone, and rhythm in your poem relate to the composition, props, and background of the portrait?
The Time Is Now
Have you ever taken a job you didn’t want in order to support yourself? In “The Meaning of Work,” an episode of NPR’s TED Radio Hour, psychologist Barry Schwartz asks, “Why is it that, for the overwhelming majority of people on the planet, the work they do has none of the characteristics that gets us up and out of bed and off toward the office every morning?” Write an essay in which you explore Schwartz’s question by recounting your own work experiences. Has anything surprised you? Consider what your dislike or delight with certain jobs reveals about your own ideas regarding the purpose of work.
Social justice movements require strong leadership, organization, and resources, often starting with a demonstration leading to more action. Write a short story in which the protagonist wants to organize a demonstration for a cause. What events lead her to this point? Who does she turn to for help? Use the backdrop of this activity to reflect on the growth and development of your character as a leader.
Writing an unsentimental love poem can be one of the more difficult endeavors a poet can take on, whether the subject of that poem is a lover, a family member, or friend. Taking inspiration from the popular film 10 Things I Hate About You, a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, write an ode to the aspects of a loved one that downright irk you. How might you use a form of repetition in your poem—like an anaphora or refrain—to build tension and showcase either the unlikable or admirable aspects of this person?
Poet, jazz musician, woodcarver, multimedia artist, painter. A variety of hidden talents may in fact lie behind the familiar faces of an apartment building porter, doorman, handyman, or other neighborhood figure. Write an essay about a time when you learned about someone’s secret skill or hidden talent. What are the assumptions that accumulate when you only encounter someone in a professional or public capacity? What might be inspiring or exciting about the idea that anyone—perhaps even everyone—may have a hidden talent?
Researchers recently discovered a new addition to the genus of lizard species that can shed their skin and scales when grabbed by a predator, in order to slip away and escape. The Geckolepis megalepis has the largest known gecko scales, and is able to shed them with particular ease, looking like a “raw chicken tender” before its scales are regenerated over the course of a few weeks. Write a short story in which your main character is able to escape from danger by altering her physical appearance in a drastic way. Why is it imperative that she escape? How does her transformation both save her and make her vulnerable? What is her “regeneration” process?
“The Love Song for Shu-Sin”—written around 2000 BCE in ancient Mesopotamia—is considered the oldest love poem that exists in text form, but also functioned as a song performed during a sacred marriage ceremony for Shu-Sin, a ruler in the city of Ur. Read through Sumerologist Samuel Noah Kramer’s translation and think about the elements of the writing that tie it to its specific time and context. What feels ancient about the poem? Can you extrapolate or interpret its meanings in a way that reflect your own experiences of contemporary love? Write a love poem that meditates on love as it might have been expressed four thousand years ago versus how you see it today.
Cabbages, pumpkins, eggs, sugar, honey, fleas, gazelles, doves—all are terms of endearment lovingly used in different cultures and languages. Think of a pet name you have used for a loved one, or one that has been used for you, and write an essay exploring your memories of the word or phrase’s usage. Is the term connected to a specific story or event? Is it used during particular moods? Does it soothe or ruffle feathers? Consider how these terms reflect a certain aspect of your relationships.
Last month, hundreds of thousands of red Skittles were found on a highway road in Wisconsin, having spilled from a truck transporting the candy for integration into cattle feed. Write a short story that starts with a similarly striking image of something highly unusual found on a road. As the story progresses, continue escalating the mystery and oddity of the situation. Does the story end with a satisfactory resolution, or does it leave the reader with lingering questions?
The Bop is a form of poetic argument consisting of three stanzas, each followed by a repeated line or refrain. The first stanza is six lines and presents a problem; the second stanza is eight lines and further expands upon the problem; and the third stanza is six lines and either resolves or documents the failure of resolving the problem. Read a Bop poem by Afaa Michael Weaver, who created the form during a Cave Canem writing retreat, and then try writing your own.
A travel website recently compiled a world map showcasing the slogans of different countries, most of which were created by tourism boards to promote tourism. Take a look at the wide variety of national slogans, or find the slogan or motto of a U.S. city or state you’re familiar with, and write an essay inspired by the phrase. Explore the ways in which the slogan touches upon the projected image or desired impression of your locale, and how it might resonate or conflict with your own memories.
Craft a piece of flash fiction based on the art of the rant: What exercises you? That is, what gets you in high dudgeon? Who pisses you off? Be specific: not just “I hate that guy,” but a riff on the last three times he cut you off in mid-sentence, the poisonous glow of his smile, and the unfortunate fact that he’s your brother-in-law. Now invert the previous exercise: How would he rant against you? Provide plenty of ripe details along with an incident or two.
This week’s fiction prompt comes from David Galef, author of Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook (Columbia University Press, 2016).
Many of the food-related traditions associated with the Chinese New Year—including eating fish, sweet rice dumplings, and certain vegetables—have their origins in Mandarin-language homophonic puns. Jot down a list of food-related homonyms, such as homophonic pairings like “lettuce” and “let us” or “beets” and “beats,” or homographic words with multiple meanings like “cake” or “milk.” Create a festive poem using some of the words or phrases you come up with that celebrate the start of a new year.
Last month, “bundespraesidentenstichwahlwiederholungsverschiebung” was voted Austria’s word of the year, which roughly translated means “postponement of the repeat runoff of the presidential election.” Likewise, words tied to politics such as “xenophobia,” Dictionary.com’s word of the year; Oxford Dictionaries’ term for 2016, “post-truth;” and Merriam-Webster’s plea for users to stop looking up the word “fascism” to prevent it from becoming its word of the year (“surreal” was the eventual winner) reflected what was on everyone’s minds last year. What was your word of the year for 2016? Write a short essay where you explore your interactions with that word and its meaning. Look up the word’s etymology for a deeper exploration.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal explores bibliotherapy, “detox” book recommendations to help treat issues like stress, procrastination, and bereavement. The founder of the Book Pharmacy in Berlin suggests that “there are ‘detox classics,’ including epics like The Odyssey, and ‘detox-by-distraction’ bundles of crime, romance, or fantasy.” Write a short story in which a character visits a “book doctor.” What might prompt this sort of treatment? Which books are prescribed, and do they work as a cure? Are there any side effects?
Starting a new year often means an attempt at challenging resolutions or constraints, but in poetry, constraint can seem natural and even fun. For example, in Oulipo, formulas and frameworks (some more complicated than others) are applied to the lines and words of a poem. Try this exercise in constraint: Write a poem in which all of the words contain a vowel of your choice. For inspiration, read “Ballad in A” by Cathy Park Hong.
One of the possible origins of the phrase “the elephant in the room,” which generally refers to a problem that is glaringly obvious but willfully ignored, is thought to be Russian writer Ivan Andreevich Krylov’s page-long 1814 fable, “The Inquisitive Man.” In the story, a man visits a museum and recalls seeing a multitude of tiny animals, but not the elephant. Write an essay about a time when you failed to see the idiomatic “elephant in the room”—was it difficult or easy to ignore the issue? Did the people around you help or hinder the situation? What were the consequences of your actions, and what did it reveal about your tendencies in social interactions?
Within some cultures in Africa, Australia, and India, there exist strict rules which regulate the type of language permissible to use with one’s in-laws—for example, married women in Ethiopia who speak the Kambaata language and follow the ballishsha rule are forbidden to use any word that starts with the same syllables as the names of their parents-in-law. Often the solution is to use synonyms, euphemisms, or more generic terms. Write a scene in which two characters must have a conversation while abiding by a law that restricts particular words. Why is this law in place, and how do your characters deal with it? What power dynamics are involved? Are there hidden messages within the dialogue that cause a misunderstanding?
“I began writing poetry as an act of survival,” writes Safiya Sinclair in “Shadows of Words: Our Twelfth Annual Look at Debut Poets” in the January/February 2017 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Think about how you might look at your own writing as an act of survival: What are the most troublesome issues and sources of conflict in your everyday life, whether small and tangible or large and amorphous? How might the practice of putting pen to paper and giving words to emotions be integral to your encounter with these obstacles? Write a poem that helps you think through and voice your troubles.
“Surely nothing as simple as a notebook and a pencil could have saved my grandma, just as when things turned darkest for me, my wife had to intervene. Yet I still feel lucky that I became a writer when I did. Because for years those journal pages helped me hold myself together when the world pulled me apart.” In “Writing the Self: Some Thoughts on Words and Woe” in the January/February 2017 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Frank Bures discusses the benefits of expressive writing and the power the practice has to expand one’s sense of self. Over the course of several days, jot down notes exploring your current emotional state. Perhaps these notes will be the start of an essay or an exploration that continues.
Wraps, bubble tea, pork belly, kale, elaborate hamburgers, macarons. Different years are prone to different food trends, with the popular items appearing everywhere from fine-dining establishments, to fast food joints and snack trucks, to packaged goods and home cooking. Incorporate a trending food item from a certain time period into a short story. How does the insertion contribute a specific sense of time and place into your piece? What does it tell the reader about your characters’ lifestyles?
The cento, whose name is derived from a Latin term meaning “patchwork,” is a form of fragmented poetry originating in the third century consisting of lines taken from poems written by other poets. Contemporary centos often offer a humorous juxtaposition of contrasting images, ideas, and tones. Read centos written by John Ashbery and Simone Muench, and then try writing your own, sampling verses from diverse time periods, styles, and subject matter, and citing your sources at the end.
“Truth is a matter of the imagination,” wrote Ursula K. Le Guin in her 1969 novel, The Left Hand of Darkness. For many writers, artists, and filmmakers in the latter half of the twentieth century, envisioning the truth of the twenty-first century and beyond meant creating dystopian worlds, universes in which human society has adapted its systems to accommodate technological transformations, global climate change, postapocalyptic geographies, and consumerist greed. Consider the 1971 episode of Name of the Game titled “L.A. 2017,” directed by Steven Spielberg; the 1982 film Blade Runner, set in 2019; Stephen King’s 1982 novel, The Running Man, set in 2025; the 1993 film Demolition Man, set in 2032; and William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson’s 1967 novel, Logan’s Run, set in 2116. Do you remember your childhood fears and visions of what the future would hold? What dramatic changes in society have you witnessed? Write an essay about the hopes, worries, and predictions for the future that are most pressing for you know. Do you have any dystopian predictions for the future? How are your worries a reflection of both your individuality and the larger world?
Last year the Atlantic reported that researchers using computer systems to analyze the emotional trajectories of protagonists in nearly two thousand works of English-language fiction found that there are just six basic storytelling arcs: “1. Rags to Riches (rise), 2. Riches to Rags (fall), 3. Man in a Hole (fall then rise), 4. Icarus (rise then fall), 5. Cinderella (rise then fall then rise), 6. Oedipus (fall then rise then fall).” Think of a story that you often tell in your own life, perhaps a childhood memory that involves schools friends or a family occasion, or an adventurous incident that happened on a trip or vacation. Does it seem to align with one of these basic plotlines? Write a short fiction piece that maps the major elements of your story onto a different, unexpected arc.
“I’m Nobody! Who are you? / Are you – Nobody – too?” wrote Emily Dickinson in one of her most popular poems, published in 1891. Have you ever jotted down a memo to nobody in particular? Ever sent out to sea a message in a bottle? Left a note on a wall or a park bench to someone, anyone, who might happen upon it? All these types of missives have in common a sense of mystery surrounding the identity of the recipient, and an uncertainty about the intended recipient ever receiving the communication. Write a series of short poems addressed to an unknown person. How does removing the certainty of an addressee place more emphasis on other external factors, like geography and physical distance, and your own current preoccupations and state of mind? As you engage in a conversation with Nobody, what insights are revealed?