“Most of life is ordinary...ordinary isn’t the enemy but instead something nourishing and unavoidable, the bedrock upon which the rest of experience ebbs and flows,” writes Mike Powell in a recent New York Times essay about embracing the process of washing dishes as a ritual practice in patience. Write a poem that considers a household chore in a new light. Is there anything extraordinary about the ordinariness of an everyday activity such as your job commute, making your bed, taking out the trash, brushing your teeth, washing dishes, or pumping gas into your car? How can these tasks be viewed as a nourishing element of your life?
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.
“Language is a living being. I think that language came before humans, not the other way around…. It might not have been a particularly logical language; more likely, it was paradisiacal and timeless, a kind of happy babbling for the sake of babbling, a kind of music.” In her essay “Language and Madness,” translated from the Swedish by Johannes Göransson and Joyelle McSweeney and posted on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog, Aase Berg writes about the influence of power and patriarchy on language and describes an evolution by which language has become self-conscious and utilitarian, “more descriptive instead of creative.” How has your own language output—in both everyday and poetic usage—been tamed? Write a poem that plays with the idea of timeless, illogical language. What does happy babbling look or sound like? What expressive potential can you tap into to write with childish madness about the banalities of private life?
Enclosed within black iron gates in the Alnwick Garden in northern England is the Poison Garden, a collection of one hundred deadly plants dreamed up by the Duchess of Northumberland as a unique way to entice and educate visitors about the medicinal and toxic quality of plants. This week, browse through Encyclopedia Britannica’s list of world’s deadliest plants and select one to read and think more deeply upon. Write a poem inspired by the unique capabilities of the plant, meditating on both its superficial characteristics and its potential to heal, harm, or do both.
Who were you when you first fell in love with writing? In “Be Bold,” Rigoberto González’s profile of Ocean Vuong in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Vuong describes the importance of consistently reminding himself of who he was when he first discovered his passion for writing, explaining, “I bring him to the present, not the person who won the awards—he has nothing to teach me.” Spend some time thinking of the person you were when you first came to writing. What were your intentions? What did writing provide that nothing else did? Write an ode to your younger, novice self inspired by the emotions and intentions that still excite you.
Have you ever listened to a plant? Adrienne Adar’s “Sonic Succulents: Plant Sounds and Vibrations” exhibit at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, in which plants are attached with sensors to record their vibrations, revolves around the sonic life of plants, presenting recordings of their sounds to be heard by visitors and other plants, and exploring human reactions, perspectives, and relationships with plants and the natural world. Listen to some sample recordings, and write a poem that imagines what transpires during plant communication. Is the content urgent, mundane, profound, or silly? Perhaps play with arrangements of spacing, language, syntax, and sound to create an atmospheric piece that reflects your vision of plants in conversation.
A recent United Nations report found that nearly one million species are at risk of extinction in the not-so-distant future, in large part due to human overconsumption of land and resources. This week, write a poem to honor one of these endangered species—perhaps the South China tiger, the Bornean orangutan, or the Hawksbill sea turtle. Frame your dedication as a love poem, an epistolary poem, a note of apology, or an elegy. What would you say to these creatures if they could understand you? For inspiration, peruse these animal-themed poems from the Academy of American Poets archives.
Created by former Disney Imagineer David Hanson, Sophia is one of the world’s most expressive robots. She can mirror people’s postures, discern emotions from tone and expression, and react with her own realistic facial movements. National Geographic photographer Giulio Di Sturco says about their first meeting, “She started to look at me and smile, and I looked at her, and at that point for me, she was not human, but there was kind of a connection.” Write a poem about an imagined encounter with Sophia. How do you envision an emotional connection with a lifelike robot? What kind of language would you use?
Sandra Simonds’s essay “Riot Girl,” published by the Poetry Foundation, praises the work of Chelsey Minnis and her “unladylike poetry.” Of a Minnis poem titled “Anti Vitae,” Simonds notes how it is organized as “a humorous, self-reported catalog of failures in the form of a faux CV.” For this week’s prompt, choose a form that is not inherently inspiring—a tax form, visa application, or cover letter—and borrow from its prescriptive language and structure to format your own poem. Let the form constrict your writing as much (or as little) as you’d like—perhaps writing an “anti” poem like Minnis’s or embracing the form faithfully for effect.
Scientists have discovered new evidence that perception of odors can have extremely significant variations from person to person. According to a recent study published in the science journal PNAS, depending on different genetic codes, one person might find the scent of a compound in men’s sweat intensely disgusting, while someone else might find it similar to the scent of vanilla, or might not be able to smell it at all. Write a poem that begins with a scent that you find intense. Then consider the idiosyncrasies of sensory perceptions: Can these experiences be both personal and universal?
Although late spring and early summer are typically associated with the bloom of brightly colored flowers and warming sunshine, “June Gloom” is a very real phenomenon on the southern California coast. May and June constitute the cloudiest months of the year in SoCal, with particularly cool, overcast, and drizzly days marking a gloomy turn not only in the sky, but also in the hearts of regional sunseekers. Does “unseasonable” weather strike you as irritatingly misaligned or unexpectedly refreshing? Write a series of four poems—one for each season—that plays with paradoxical imagery such as a spring snowstorm or an autumn heat wave. Does the unseasonable weather cause unseasonable emotions? How might this be expressed in the manipulation of rhythm, diction, line breaks, punctuation, and spacing in your poems?
Several years ago, journalist Geoffrey Gagnon observed that there were bowhead whales—who are among the world’s longest-living mammals with life spans of over two hundred years—still alive in the Arctic that were born long before Moby-Dick was written in 1851. This week, write a poem that imagines being in the presence of a creature that has been alive for over two centuries. What might this being have seen or experienced that you would ask about? What historical events pertinent to you have occurred over its lifetime? How does perspective shift over such a long period of time?
“‘When you finish the book, you close the pages and let your mind wander to the first thing you remember—the most vivid moment, a feeling, a character, a phrase, or even something in your own life experience that resonated and has been resurfaced by the story,’” says Ben Please in “The Bookshop Band” by Dana Isokawa in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. The duo, comprised of Please and Beth Porter, composes and performs literary-themed music by a wide range of authors, oftentimes inspired by just one book. Try this exercise while composing a new poem: Select a book you read recently and let your mind’s wandering—and lingering on a word, phrase, or feeling—lead you to the starting point of a poem.
In the Paris Review’s advice column Poetry Rx, Sarah Kay recommends the poem “On This the 100th Anniversary of the Sinking of the Titanic, We Reconsider the Buoyancy of the Human Heart” by Laura Lamb Brown-Lavoie to her heartbroken correspondent. “My heart has an iceberg with its name on it, I told / Titanic, so I need your advice. Tell me, did you see the / iceberg coming?” the poem’s narrator asks the sunken ship. Write a poem this week that addresses and personifies a historical object or place, drawing parallels with the speaker’s present-day problems and plea for wisdom. What advice can this relic offer your speaker?
The first-ever picture of a black hole was revealed last week, an image from the Messier 87 galaxy taken by eight radio observatories on six mountains and four continents in 2017. Spend some time looking at the picture online, including a wider, zoomed-out view. The New York Times calls it a “doughnut of doom,” while Vice Motherboard says it looks like a SpaghettiO. What emotions does the image bring to the surface for you? Write a poem that captures the wondrous significance of the image, perhaps imbuing your verse with humor, terror, and a mixture of scientific vocabulary and figurative language.
“I remember what it did to me. I got up and I began to wave my hands above my head, alone in the dark,” writes Moeko Fujii in the New Yorker about watching the final scene of Claire Denis’s 1999 movie Beau Travail, in which the protagonist bursts into dance while alone at a nightclub—a captivating glimpse of a private exuberance rising momentarily to the surface. Think of a memorable scene from a favorite movie that has a character joyfully engaged in a physical activity—dancing, running, singing, cooking—that has made you feel something resonant, and perhaps inspired you to move your own body. Write a poem about this connection and the impact it had on you.
TED Talks have been translated into over one hundred languages, and their translators are often challenged by peculiar turns of phrase. Inspired by this predicament, TED asked translators from around the world to share their favorite idioms along with baffling literal English translations such as “the thief has a burning hat,” a Russian phrase that means, “he has an uneasy conscience that betrays itself.” This week, write a poem that incorporates one or more of these eccentric sayings and create a world in which the literal interpretation holds water. Use the five senses—sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch—to help illustrate these verbal expressions and your interpretation of them.
“I’ve always been interested in a bigger form, one that doesn’t just rest quietly on the page,” Anne Waldman said in a 2017 Wire interview in which she talked about mixing forms and incorporating song and chant into her work. “Rather than reading quietly, I feel the physical need to do something bigger.” In a New York Times review of Waldman’s most recent collection, Trickster Feminism (Penguin, 2018), Daisy Fried wrote, “The metaphor that comes to mind is of a river, its great volume washing by,” noting Waldman’s coverage of matters “ancient and contemporary, local and global.” Try writing a dynamic poem that washes by like a loud river, flowing through a wide range of topics. Don’t be afraid to mix the public with the personal, the ancient with the contemporary, the magical or spiritual with the mundane or mechanical. Imbue your lines with a playfully performative quality; read them out loud for rhythm as you compose them.
Is your telephone number secretly a portal to mystic truths? In “This Mysterious Website Generates Weird Short Stories About Phone Numbers” published in Electric Literature, Kristen O’Neal writes about a website where the ten-digit number in its URL can be modified and repeatedly refreshed for countless iterations of mysterious and inscrutably poetic sentences in the comments section. Try typing your own phone number into the URL and select one or two sentences from the resulting page that seem particularly evocative. Write a poem inspired by the strange resonance of these words to your own experiences.
“I am a love poet, or a poet in love with the world. It is just who I am…. Is it foolish to speak of little joys that occur in the middle of tragedy? It is our humanity.” In “Still Dancing” in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Garth Greenwell interviews Ilya Kaminsky who speaks about writing poetry that witnesses and explores moments of joy, love, and tenderness even in the face of horror, violence, war, and tragedy. Write a poem that confronts an issue of strife or suffering, but also recognizes and allows room for the existence of love and little joys. Consider how you might strike a balance between the two emotional experiences and how they are intertwined.
This week, write a poem that explores the overlap, transformation, or melding of two seemingly opposing or unrelated ideas or words. Loosely use a version of the diamante poem, a form often taught to young students, which takes a center-justified diamond shape and begins and ends with one-word lines. In this seven-line form, the first line of the poem starts with one subject, and the following two lines consist of modifiers describing this word. The middle of the poem has the longest line, a phrase that describes both the word in the first line as well as the word in the last line, the second subject. The next two lines shift to describe the subject that ends the poem in the last line. Play with the form and use a variety of adjectives, adverbs, and verbs to bring your two subjects together.
“Beech bark is a tender thing.” In C. D. Wright’s Casting Deep Shade (Copper Canyon Press, 2019), the late poet writes of childhood memories, climate change, art in nature, and other topics, all revolving around a single entity: the beech tree. This week choose a tree, flower, or similarly nonverbal but living being that has held some significance for you over the course of your life. Write a poem in its honor, toeing the line between verse and prose, research and memory, fact and speculation. Get to know your muse and move your reader to care for it as well. What sights and smells does it evoke from your past? How do you interpret its silence? What does it offer to you and the world?
In The Kindergarten Teacher, a remake of the 2014 Israeli film of the same name, Maggie Gyllenhaal stars as an aspiring poet and elementary school teacher who becomes obsessed with the writing of a five-year-old boy named Jimmy. To craft the young boy’s verses, Gyllenhaal and director Sara Colangelo commissioned poetry from Kaveh Akbar and Ocean Vuong. In the New York Times, Vuong spoke about his creative process, which involved cannibalizing several of his own poems “to shift the complexity from the syntax to images.” This week, rewrite one of your poems so that the voice is from a child’s perspective. Pare down your language and focus on the core images. For ideas, read more about how Vuong adapted his poem “The Bull” to fit the character of Jimmy.
“I attempt to discuss, through a conflation of creation myths, the idea of being formed by literature,” writes Paige Ackerson-Kiely on the Poetry Society of America’s website about the title poem in her second collection, My Love Is a Dead Arctic Explorer (Ahsahta Press, 2012), which began as a response to arctic explorer Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s memoirs. “One fact of my life...is that I have often been consoled by books, have found a life for myself within those pages, when that sort of life was not available to me on the outside.” Write a love poem that points to how you have been formed by your favorite books, writers, and literature. How has a particularly memorable work of literature provided you with consolation and love, and helped create an inner vitality?
Since 1886, every February 2, a strange celebrity garners national attention: Punxsutawney Phil, a groundhog with the power to predict the severity of winter weather based on his shadow. The tradition purportedly has roots in an ancient Christian holiday that involves bringing candles to church to be blessed for winter. It wasn’t until the holiday was introduced to Germany, that a small animal and his prognosticative shadow became a part of the tradition. Although there are others, the celebration at Gobbler’s Knob in Pennsylvania is arguably the most popular, and even inspired a movie. For this week’s prompt, think about an unusual ritual or belief among your family, friends, or community. Write a poem about your knowledge of its origins and how it has evolved over the years. What has been lost or gained with time?
One day doesn’t always last twenty-four hours in the universe: A day on Saturn lasts a total of ten hours, thirty-three minutes, and thirty-eight seconds, according to a recent paper published in the Astrophysical Journal. Jupiter’s day lasts approximately nine hours and fifty-five minutes, whereas it takes Venus two hundred and forty-three days to rotate around the sun. Write a poem that explores the idea of a day that lasts not twenty-four hours, but is shortened to just a fraction of that, or conversely stretches way beyond it. How might a distorted sense of time and urgency change your concept of aging? Can you convey this difference with rhythm or the format of your lines on the page?