Although we often associate travel writing with essays about journeys or road-trip novels, poetry has had a long, rich history of association with travel. Many nineteenth- and twentieth-century poems explore wanderlust and faraway locales and new modes of transportation, which can be seen in the exoticism of John Masefield’s “Cargoes” and Rudyard Kipling’s “Mandalay” and the romanticization of rail travel in Thomas Hardy’s “On the Departure Platform” and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Travel.” More recent poems, such as Khaled Mattawa’s “The Road From Biloxi,” Jenny Xie’s “Rootless,” Naomi Shihab Nye’s “The Burn,” and Roger Reeves’s “Brazil,” explore themes of identity, migration, and diaspora. Write a poem based on a favorite travel memory that brings to mind a rich mixture of emotions and a connection with contemporary issues, perhaps touching on ideas of alienation and belonging, or the allure and repulsion of a certain mode of transit. Consider the binaries of travel and home, movement and stillness, the foreign and the familiar. Where have you been and, perhaps more important, where are you going?
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.
Do digital assistants like Siri and Alexa really understand what you’re saying? Last month, a Portland, Oregon couple’s Amazon Alexa device misinterpreted a series of sentences it overheard as instructions to record a private conversation and send it to an unsuspecting person in their contact list. Write a poem that centers on a misheard conversation between two people. Experiment with different homonyms or homophones, or other ways the sounds of different words or phrases can be misheard. How might the misinterpretation of words create unexpectedly fresh ideas or images?
“I wrote an American Sonnet to Wanda Coleman, and I sent it to her. We exchanged letters,” says Terrance Hayes about the inspiration and motivation for his new collection, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (Penguin, 2018), in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. This week, write a sonnet as an homage to Terrance Hayes, or another favorite poet. What types of imagery, tone, and emotional resonances are inspired as you focus on this poet’s work and life?
Real lightning or lightning lite? Hungarian scientists published a study last week in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society A examining how realistic paintings portraying lightning are compared with photographs of lightning. They found that the bolts of electricity in artistic depictions typically show far fewer branching offshoots of electricity than actual lightning. Browse through painted versions of natural landscapes you are familiar with and note the differences between the artist’s rendering and the real life phenomena and scenery. Write a poem that explores these differences and reflects on your own emotional or aesthetic responses to the painted version versus your view or memories of that place.
When you search for your name online, who else appears in the results? This week, write a poem inspired by your online doppelgänger. The poem could be a playful amalgamation of various characters, as in Mark Halliday’s poem “Google Me Soon,” or it could be an occasion for a more meditative address to an individual who shares your name, as in Jacques J. Rancourt’s poem “Hello My Name Is Also Jacques Rancourt.” How does it feel to imagine somebody else with the name you consider your own? If you can’t find someone else with your name, is that reassuring or disheartening?
Earlier this year, researchers published a study in the journal Scientific Reports about the discovery of an organ called the interstitium, which exists as a flexible, meshlike web of fluid-filled compartments forming a layer right beneath the skin and between other organs. Drawing inspiration from this and the word “interstice,” which refers to a small space between things or a break between events, write a poem about being in-between. You might write about when you’ve been between homes, jobs, or relationships, or about experiences between different phases of your life.
“To start with two lines then in black and white / and continue to see a way in them.” So begins Michael Joyce’s collection Biennial (BlazeVOX, 2015), which is comprised entirely of two-line poems. As Joyce explains in the introduction of his book, he decided to write one two-line poem per day, every day, for two years. This week, try writing your own two-line poems, one per day, and observe how they relate to each other. Perhaps the poems combine into a larger sequence or each stands alone. If this daily habit feels generative, keep going for a full month!
In Samoan American poet William Alfred Nu’utupu Giles’s “Prescribed Fire,” the narrator compares his family to a group of towering redwood trees whose roots wrap around each other to create more stability. This week, write a poem that revolves around an extended metaphor for characteristics or experiences unique to your own family. Approach the metaphor from a variety of angles in order to understand or see different qualities of your family through this lens. Play around with unusual or unconventional comparisons that further the exploration of your family’s history and heritage.
Would you describe the smell of an herb as simply “musty” or “like old rainwater in the hollow stems of bamboo?” In a study published earlier this year in Current Biology, linguists compared a group of indigenous Malay hunter-gatherers with a neighboring group that depends on trade and agriculture, and tested their ability to name odors. The researchers found that the hunter-gatherers were much more adept at articulating the subtle qualities of different odors because of their direct reliance on the forest’s animals and plants for survival. This week, write a poem that explores the contrasts between scents in natural outdoor spaces versus cultivated environments. Instead of circular or synonymous descriptions, focus on inventing specific and colorful phrases.
In her fourth poetry collection, Oceanic, published by Copper Canyon Press in April, Aimee Nezhukumatathil explores themes of love, discovery, family, motherhood, and home, often through a lens of connectedness with the natural world, focusing on the wonders of the ocean and the shapes, movements, and behaviors of flora and fauna. In “Penguin Valentine,” a penguin waits for his partner, and the speaker asks, “During those days of no sun, does he / remember the particular bend / of his mate’s neck, that hint of yellow / near her ears?” As spring transitions into summer, look to the flora and fauna in your local neighborhood, at the park or the beach, or on a vacation or a trip, for inspiration. Write a love poem that uses animal or plant behavior as a lesson about how we interact as humans. How might tendencies or characteristics of nature resonate with your own relationships?
In “The Love of Labor, the Labor of Love,” Rigoberto González’s interview with Carmen Giménez Smith in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, she talks about the experimentation in her new book, Cruel Futures (City Lights Books, 2018). Smith discusses releasing her writing from her usual “taut lyric voice” and allowing herself to “fly without punctuation...employing more cloudiness, maybe more impressionism.” This week, make an effort to let go of your own poetic safety blanket, and do away with the most clearly defined aspects of your lyric voice. Dispel with punctuation, wreak havoc with line breaks and syntax, and write a hazy series of impressionistic, cloudy poems.
Zachary Schomburg’s poetry collection Fjords Vol. 1 (Black Ocean, 2012) was inspired by his desire to write poems based on the dreams his friends had shared with him. In an interview for the Pleistocene, he explained that part of his process was “e-mailing my friends or having a beer and talking to them about their most interesting dreams or their most recent dreams, and trying to make poems out of them.” The resulting poems have the odd clarity of dream logic. This week, reach out to some friends and ask them to share their most vivid dreams with you. Then try turning that material into a poem: include both the surreal and the concrete.
Makeshift bridges, highway bridges, living root bridges, suspension bridges, viaducts. Across the earth, there are a variety of bridges we use, often without giving their significance much thought. Write a poem about a bridge you’ve encountered, perhaps one you pass over frequently or one you once stood on while traveling. Consider what emotions or memories you associate with the bridge, and if there are unexpected metaphors to unearth. What does the bridge cross over? How can you manipulate the structure, shape, or rhythm of the poem to reflect your themes?
“Spring is like a perhaps hand / (which comes carefully / out of Nowhere)arranging / a window,into which people look,” writes e. e. cummings, using the image of a hand and its actions to describe the nature of spring. His musings go on in the poem to make various imaginative leaps, but its twists and turns are held together by the shared exploration of a specific subject. This week, as spring comes on, try writing your own poem that begins with, “Spring is like…” and explores the season through simile.
Manipulating the shape of a poem on the page has a long history, from George Herbert’s seventeenth-century religious verse “Easter Wings,” which was printed sideways, its outlines resembling angel wings, to the “concrete poetry” of the 1950s in which the outline of poems depict recognizable shapes. More recently, Montana Ray’s gun-shaped poems in (guns & butter), published by Argos Books in 2015, explore themes of race, motherhood, and gun violence, and Myriam Gurba uses a shaped poem in Mean (Coffee House Press, 2017) to probe acts and cycles of assault on and abuse of women’s bodies. Write a series of concrete poems, perhaps first jotting down a list of resonant images, subjects, or motifs that already recur frequently in your work. How can you subvert or complicate the reader’s initial response to the shape of the poem? How does your word choice shift when you’re confined to predetermined shapes and line breaks?
The candy manufacturer Just Born has been producing their popular Peep confections since 1953. Over the years, these seasonal sugarcoated marshmallow chicks have expanded into a year-round line of different animals, colors, and flavors, and spawned a Washington Post diorama contest, countless creative recipe ideas, eating competitions, and other offbeat uses. This week, write a Peep-inspired poem, perhaps exploring themes of springtime, holiday consumerism, kitsch, iconic candy design, or childhood nostalgia.
In a 2013 interview for the National Book Foundation, poet Lucie Brock-Broido, who passed away earlier this month, spoke of a leather-bound journal she kept with lists of names and titles. “Sometimes, I just place a title at the top of the undisturbed, blank page and that name becomes something like a piece of sand that happened into the delicate flesh of an oyster, blank itself and closed off from the world…. The result, eventually, is a pearl.” Spend several days jotting down phrases and combinations of words you come across, either out in the world or from your imagination, that seem particularly imagistic, evocative, or disquieting. Select one to use as a poem title, and then let a poem build intuitively, layer by layer, around the “disturbance.”
“Poetry isn’t a cure, and it isn’t a miracle…. But there are words, phrases, whole poems that—in the grimmest, loneliest, most shattered moments of my life—have offered me a lozenge of light,” writes Anndee Hochman in “The Poem Chooses You” in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, about the national recitation competition Poetry Out Loud. Think of a poem that resonates with you emotionally, perhaps browsing through the Poetry Out Loud online database for ideas. Then, use your favorite words or phrases from the chosen poem as inspiration for your own poem filled with light and solace.
While scientists might describe the motion of snakes as rectilinear motion, Emily Dickinson’s poem “A narrow Fellow in the Grass” refers to the snake as “a Whip Lash / Unbraiding in the Sun.” This week, read scientific descriptions, or browse through video clips, of your favorite animal’s movements. Then, write a poem that employs unusual word choice, unexpected imagery, or mimics in some way the physical motion of an animal. Perhaps the manipulation of rhythm, sound, spacing, or repetition will help highlight the movement you capture in your poem.
In her book Madame X (Canarium Books, 2012), Darcie Dennigan uses ellipses throughout her poems, which drastically alter their shape and texture. This week, try writing your own poem that employs ellipses. Do you find yourself writing in a different rhythm or omitting more words with this tool? There is something mysterious and suggestive about ellipses, as if a truth is being hinted at but not fully revealed. Perhaps this quality has a place in your poem.
Many cultures have expressions to describe the phenomenon of sunshowers. In Japan, a sunshower is said to mean that foxes are getting married; in Iran, that a wolf is giving birth; and in the United States, that the devil is beating his wife. In her poem “Sunshower,” Natalie Shapero uses this American expression as a refrain and twists it in a way that critiques both the saying and the culture it represents. Using Shapero’s poem as a model, try taking one of the many cultural expressions for a sunshower and use it as a refrain for a poem. Begin with the words: “Some people say…”
In one of the most famous cat poems published, “Jubilate Agno, Fragment B, [For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry],” eighteenth century English poet Christopher Smart uses anaphora (each sentence in the poem begins with the word, “for”) to thoroughly meditate upon his cat, Jeoffry. More recently, the poet Chen Chen borrowed this form for his own poem “For I Will Consider My Boyfriend Jeffrey.” This week, try joining the tradition by writing a poem with the same form that begins with the words: “For I will consider.” Use the form to explore the behaviors and characteristics of a beloved person or pet in your life.
Ted Berrigan, a prominent figure in the second generation of the New York School of Poets, is best known for his book The Sonnets (Lorenz and Ellen Gude, 1964). Berrigan’s sonnets were assembled using collage techniques. For instance, many of the lines are found text from outside sources, and many of the individual lines are recycled throughout the book; two of the sonnets even use the exact same fourteen lines, presented in different orders. This week, try writing your own Berrigan-style sonnet (free verse or rhyming, as you please). Create a bank of individual lines—these could be original lines that you write, found text, or some combination—and then assemble these lines into a sonnet. Allow the poem to be nonlinear, if that is what the process calls for, and travel down unexpected trains of thought.
Swiss photographer Steeve Iuncker has photographed Yakutsk, Siberia (coldest city in the world); Tokyo, Japan (most populous city in the world); and Ahwaz, Iran (most polluted city in the world) for a photo series project focusing on different record-holding locations. Write a poem about a record-holding city, using a real or humorously obscure record of your invention. You might find inspiration in a city you’ve lived in, loved, have never been to, or that only exists in your imagination. How are the geography, culture, and inhabitants affected by the extreme conditions? What kind of behavior and interaction unique to this place will you explore?
Celebrities are often used as subjects in contemporary poetry, from movie stars to athletes, to singers and reality TV stars. In his poem “Marilyn Monroe,” Frank Bidart considers Monroe through a symbolic, almost metaphysical lens. In her poem “Beyoncé in Third Person,” Morgan Parker presents Beyoncé as a point of contrast for reflecting upon her own life. This week, try zeroing in on a celebrity that fascinates you. Start with a few notes on why this celebrity is iconic and build upon these points for your own poem.