Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Stephen Dunn died on his eighty-second birthday on June 24. Over the weekend many fans and readers shared memories and favorite poems on social media, collectively mourning the loss of this major literary figure. One such poem of Dunn’s is “The Routine Things Around the House,” which tackles the difficult subject of grieving a mother through a memory of when he was twelve and asked his mother if he could see her breasts. “She took me into her room / without embarrassment or coyness / and I stared at them, / afraid to ask for more,” writes Dunn. “This poem / is dedicated to where / we stopped, to the incompleteness / that was sufficient.” This week, write an elegy that focuses on a memory that would be considered uncommon or surprising. See where it takes you.
The Time Is Now
The Time Is Now offers a weekly writing prompt (we’ll post a poetry prompt on Tuesdays, a fiction prompt on Wednesdays, and a creative nonfiction prompt on Thursdays) to help you stay committed to your writing practice throughout the year. We also offer a selection of books on writing—both the newly published and the classics—that we recommend you check out for inspiration, plus advice and insight on the writing process from the authors profiled in Poets & Writers Magazine. And don’t miss Writers Recommend, which includes books, art, music, writing prompts, films—anything and everything—that has inspired other authors in their writing.
In an article published by the Millions, Louisa Ermelino, editor-at-large at Publishers Weekly, writes about Anthony Doerr’s highly anticipated forthcoming novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land (Scribner, 2021). Doerr says that the book is “a love letter to libraries and books” dedicated to librarians, and that through the novel, he wanted to dramatize the power of books. “Each character falls in love with this text as it moves through history, and each becomes a steward for the text,” he says. Write an essay about your relationship with a particular library and how it made an impact on you as a writer and reader.
“My first book was a memoir, so I wanted to write my second book about something outside myself completely—something universal. What was more universal than loneliness?” writes Kristen Radtke in “The Loneliness Project: My Journey Through American Loneliness,” an essay featured in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. In the essay, Radtke talks about the process and challenges in writing her graphic nonfiction book Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness, forthcoming from Pantheon in July. Write a story in which a protagonist grapples with loneliness. How will you communicate this universal feeling in a specific way?
In many countries, Father’s Day was observed this past Sunday, an occasion in which fatherhood is celebrated and reflected upon. Over the centuries, poets have explored and honored their relationships with their fathers in poems such as “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden, “Yesterday” by W. S. Merwin, and “My Father. A Tree.” by Tina Chang. This week, write a poem dedicated to a father figure in your life. Try writing it from the perspective of a child as an added challenge.
“I went to Bolivia assuming I would have connections with Indigenous Bolivians because of our shared identity as Indigenous people,” writes Ursula Pike in the preface to her memoir, An Indian Among Los Indígenas: A Native Travel Memoir, published in March by Heyday Books, recounting the years she served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bolivia. In the memoir, Pike, a member of the Karuk Tribe, questions her role as someone who experienced colonialism firsthand and follows “in the footsteps of Western colonizers and missionaries who had also claimed they were there to help.” Pike’s travel narrative upends the canon of white authors of the genre, helping the reader to examine the overlapping tensions of colonialism across cultures. Write an essay about a trip that helped you realize your complicity in a social issue. Think about the perspective of the spectator inherent to the travel narrative as you consider the conflict in the essay.
In Joss Lake’s debut novel, Future Feeling, published in June by Soft Skull Press, the absurd meets the epic in the story of Penfield R. Henderson, a former dog walker obsessed with the social media presence of Aiden Chase, a fellow trans man and influencer documenting his transition into picture-perfect masculinity. After resentfully attempting to hex Aiden, Penfield instead curses another young trans man named Blithe to “the Shadowlands,” an emotional landscape through which “every trans person must journey to achieve true self-actualization.” What follows is the journey Penfield and Aiden take to save Blithe and the lessons the three learn about the power of human connection and choosing your family. Taking inspiration from Lake’s epic tale, write a story that establishes how three strangers meet to achieve a common goal. How can you challenge yourself to imagine a plot that, like a puzzle, positions these three characters to save one another?
Black Earth: Selected Poems and Prose, a new collection of writing by Osip Mandelstam, translated from the Russian by Peter France and forthcoming in July from New Directions, offers a fresh look at the celebrated work of the revered Russian poet who died in a Stalinist labor camp in 1938. Known for the electric and haunting poems written toward the end of his life, Mandelstam was also part of the symbolist movement, as evidenced in his poem “Notre-Dame,” which reimagines what the Parisian cathedral looked like when it was built in medieval France. “Here, where a Roman judge once judged an alien people, / stands a basilica, fresh minted, full of joy,” he writes, “as Adam long ago stood tall and flexed his sinews, / its muscles ripple through the light crisscrossing vaults.” Write a poem about an old building in your neighborhood that reimagines what it looked like when first constructed. Try to combine images of the structure with the history behind its survival.
“The poem, to me, is a conversation between people,” writes Alex Dimitrov in the latest Craft Capsule installment, in which he talks about his 2014 project Night Call involving reading drafts of poems from his second book, Together and by Ourselves (Copper Canyon Press, 2017), to strangers in their apartments in New York City. Through intimate conversations and exchanges, he is forever connected with these lives and places as the poem “keeps people’s voices and things right there, outside time.” Write an essay inspired by a conversation with a stranger you met in passing, whether at a grocery store, on a train, in a park, or elsewhere. Challenge yourself, as Dimitrov does, by including gestures or specific phrases you recall into the essay. How were you changed by this brief exchange?
Austrian poet Friederike Mayröcker, who the German Academy for Language and Literature in Darmstadt once stated made German literature richer with her “streams of language, word inventions, and associations,” died last Friday at age ninety-six. Acclaimed for her poetry, Mayröcker also wrote novels, memoirs, drama, radio plays, and children’s books. In each work, she created new ways for her language to flow freely, such as in her 1988 story “my heart my room my name,” which was written entirely without punctuation, and her book-length lament Requiem for Ernst Jandl, which exhibits a liberal use of capitalization. This week, inspired by Mayröcker, write a story with a protagonist whose perspective requires an associative, free-flowing use of language. How does pushing the limits of language produce a fresh perspective?
“I wrote a good omelet… and ate / a hot poem… after loving you,” writes Nikki Giovanni in her poem “I Wrote a Good Omelet.” The poet, whose seventy-eighth birthday was earlier this week, describes going about various common tasks in strange and humorous ways, replacing, for example, “car” for “coat” in the phrase “drove my coat home” and “bed” for “hair” in “turned down my hair.” Through these playful reversals, Giovanni mimics the dizzying feeling of falling in love, as if the speaker is unable to focus on anything after being with their beloved. Write a poem that expresses this giddy feeling of love by using unexpected combinations of phrases and words.
In an article published by Literary Hub, Emily Temple compiles statements by famous writers on what their most loved and hated punctuation marks are, including Donald Barthelme on hating the semicolon, R. L. Stine on loving the em-dash, and Toni Morrison fighting over commas. In each, there is a distinct preoccupation the writers have with the technical and emotional resonances the given punctuation mark has on their prose, often revealing how they compose their sentences. Write a statement for each punctuation mark listed in the article—the semicolon, the exclamation point, the em-dash, the comma, the hyphen, and the period—characterizing the effect they have on your work. Do you use one more than the other? What does this say about your writing?
Last week, Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan’s eightieth birthday was celebrated across the world and on social media, and many fans shared their favorite songs from his illustrious repertoire. The singer-songwriter has also inspired many famous writers, including Joyce Carol Oates, whose story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is dedicated to Dylan. This week, write a story inspired by a singer or a songwriter. Is there a particular song or are there lyrics you’re drawn to, or is it just the aura of the artist that inspires your story?
“Whatever comes to pass: you know your time, / my bird, you put on your veil / and fly through the mist to me,” writes Ingeborg Bachmann in her poem “My Bird,” translated from the German by Mark Anderson and published in the Summer 1984 issue of the Paris Review. In the poem, twilight passes into dawn as the narrator follows the owl through its many nightly transformations and their relationship is described by Bachmann in uncommon and evocative ways, such as “my nighttime ally,” “my ice-gray shoulder companion,” and “my weapon.” This week, write a poem about a bird that you think of as a companion. Try addressing the bird directly as Bachmann does in her poem.
On Elle.com’s books column Shelf Life, Ling Ma, author of Severance (Picador, 2019), answers a questionnaire about her favorite books, including the one that made her weep (A Sorrow Beyond Dreams by Peter Handke), the one she would pass on to a kid (Jesus’s Son by Denis Johnson), and the one she considers literary comfort food (Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto, among others). This week, answer the questionnaire for yourself, then write an essay that focuses on one of these questions and the book you recommended. What was happening in your life when you read this book and why are you still so deeply connected to it?
“It seems to me that people undertake pilgrimages because they’re stuck; they’re in some kind of situation in their life, or their mind, where they don’t want to be the person they are, and they don’t know how to change that unless they change everything,” says Anne Carson in this conversation with her partner and collaborator Robert Currie and poet Sara Elkamel on the poetry and prose of pilgrimage and stasis that was recently published on Literary Hub. “Oddly enough, it’s a kind of freedom that is also a sort of bondage, because when you undertake a pilgrimage, you’re bound to everything about the road.” Write a story with a character who seeks change and undertakes a pilgrimage. How will the protagonist be challenged by the landscape surrounding them?
The months of May and June mark the time when most schools and universities celebrate graduations, and poetry is oftentimes relied upon for commencement speeches and congratulatory messages to express feelings of hope and possibility. From Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” to Langston Hughes’s “Dreams,” poets offer timeless, thoughtful, and even funny responses applicable to this unique transition in a person’s life. Write a poem for a graduate that expresses your advice or some words of wisdom. For inspiration, browse the poems for graduation resource page from the Academy of American Poets.
In his essay “What My Korean Father Taught Me About Defending Myself in America,” published in GQ, Alexander Chee writes about his father’s adventurous life as a tae kwon do champion and community organizer in Maine, looking back on his father’s life as a way of learning how to protect himself and speak out about racism, and in particular, attacks against Asian Americans. “My father’s advice, about fighting being the last resort, has given me another lesson: You turn yourself into the weapon when you strike someone else—in the end, another way to erase yourself—and so you do that last.” Write an essay about a skill you learned as a child from which you can glean lessons as an adult.
“So, what comes after irony? For me, it’s wonder and horror, magic and sorrow,” writes Brenda Peynado in her essay “Is Fabulism the New Sincerity?” published on Literary Hub. In the essay, Peynado describes how she grew up in an era when irony and sarcasm were default ways to express oneself and how her writing turned to fabulism, a change prompted by a desire to “save realities from erasure” and inspired by writers such as Isabel Allende, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Toni Morrison, as well as more contemporary writers such as Carmen Maria Machado, Nana Kwame Adjei Brenyah, and Te-Ping Chen. Write a short story inspired by fabulism that relies on “wild conceits” to express a truth and offer social critique, such as Peynado’s short story which includes angels appearing after a school shooting.
“She seems a part of me, / and then she seems entirely like what she is: / a white dog, / less white suddenly, against the snow,” writes Carl Phillips, recipient of the 2021 Jackson Poetry Prize, in his poem “White Dog” from his collection The Rest of Love (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004). In the poem, the speaker recounts walking their dog during the first snow of the year and realizing through their relationship the limits of love and loss. Inspired by Phillips, write a poem featuring a beloved pet of yours or an animal you’ve befriended in which you learn something new.
“Is it the timbre of the voice, the poetry of the words?” writes Alessandra Lynch about becoming transfixed while watching Samuel Beckett’s play “That Time” in a piece for Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Books. In the lyric essay, Lynch tracks the emotional experiences of reading the works of her favorite writers aloud, quoting and discussing passages from the texts. This week, list writers whose works make you want to read them out loud and reflect on what emotions their words bring up for you. Construct an essay inspired by their works and consider how their words “gather and hold” you.
In an article for the Guardian featuring six poets and their reflections on the past year, Kae Tempest writes about the process for their short, four-line poem “2020.” Tempest mentions that the poem was longer, and then they realized the poem only needed four lines: “Sometimes it takes writing the thing to know what it is you are trying to write.” Inspired by Tempest’s process, choose an abandoned draft of a story and rewrite it as a concentrated version of itself. Does this exercise help you get closer to what’s essential about the narrative?
“The only way to know tenderness is to dismantle it,” writes Diane Seuss in “White violet, not so much an image” from her 2015 poetry collection Four-Legged Girl about how the flower is “not so much an image of tenderness as an image of a memory of tenderness.” In the poem, she dissects the flower petal-by-petal, trying to capture its fragility, and associating between the metaphors and memories this act conjures. This week, write a poem about the memories a particular flower conjures for you. Like Seuss, let yourself associate as freely as possible considering all the senses and try to go beyond the traditional portrait of a flower.
In an interview with Alison Bechdel by June Thomas for Slate, the author and cartoonist discusses the process behind her latest graphic memoir, The Secret to Superhuman Strength (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021). “This book was set up in such a way that it had to end at the end of my 59th year, because each chapter is about a decade of my life, beginning with my birth in 1960,” says Bechdel. “I didn’t actually get to the end of the drawing until November, until the throes of the election. I felt like I can’t end the book until I know what happens.” Inspired by Bechdel’s book, write an essay in which each section focuses on a decade or stretch of time in your life. How will the historic events of that period inform your point of view?
“If something is forgivable, and we forgive, is that really worth that much?” says Viet Thanh Nguyen about his latest novel, The Committed (Grove Press, 2021), and how the narrator wrestles with his unforgivable deeds in an interview with Mitzi Rapkin for an episode of the podcast First Draft: A Dialogue on Writing, excerpted on Literary Hub. “While whatever constitutes the unforgivable is very subjective for each of us,” he continues, “if we cannot forgive the unforgivable, then maybe we’re not really truly capable of forgiveness.” Write a story in which a character is contending with something “unforgivable.” How will the protagonist deal with this unconscionable deed?
Forrest Gander’s poem “Pastoral,” published last month in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day, begins with a scene of a couple gazing out a window that is interrupted by a stanza with a parenthetical meditation on the act of looking before the last lines complete the description of the scenery outside. The middle stanza in parentheses questions the language used in the first stanza’s description and moves away from the physical into the interiority of the speaker’s mind. Inspired by the poem’s form, write a poem about the act of looking. How can you subvert the expectations of the reader by leaving the scene to go into the interior of your mind?