“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.
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.
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?
“In times of crisis, we must all decide again and again whom we love,” writes Frank O’Hara in his poem “To the Film Industry in Crisis,” in which the Beat poet writes an ode to his favorite movie stars and the magic of movies. Listing thirty actors from the Golden Age of Hollywood in relationship to one another, O’Hara describes, with humor, their personalities and appeal on the movie screen. “Mae West in a furry sled, / her bordello radiance and bland remarks, Rudolph Valentino of the moon, / its crushing passions, and moonlike, too, the gentle Norma Shearer,” he writes. Write an ode to your favorite movie or movie star. How can you employ techniques often seen on the screen through the language of the poem?
Kayleb Rae Candrilli’s poem “Ghazal Connected as Though Cargo Freights,” winner of Winning Writers’ Tom Howard/Margaret Reid Poetry Contest for traditional verse, uses the Persian poetic form as a way of capturing the landscape in which the speaker grew up as a trans child while balancing the taut music of the line with a narrative propulsion that grounds the story. The ghazal, which originated in seventh-century Arabia, consists of at least five couplets that are structurally autonomous—the first stanza ending both lines with the same word and each stanza that follows repeating the same word at the end of the second line. This week, write a ghazal that explores your childhood. For more guidance on the history of the form and to read examples, visit the Poetry Foundation’s glossary entry on the ghazal.
In an afterword to The Essential June Jordan, edited by Jan Heller Levi and Christoph Keller and forthcoming in May by Copper Canyon Press, Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Jericho Brown writes about how the legacy of June Jordan, who died in 2002, “allows another opportunity to think not only about what poems are, but also what poems can do.” In this definitive volume the celebrated poet’s voice shines as she explores difficult subject matter, such as racist police brutality and violence against women, with a commitment to global solidarity and radical kindness. She dedicates many of her poems to lovers and friends, along with historical and pop culture figures, including “1977: Poem for Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer,” “Poem for Mark,” and “Poem on the Death of Princess Diana.” Taking inspiration from Jordan, write a poem that is dedicated to a single person. Consider using your new poem’s title to help frame a complicated subject.
In Tomas Tranströmer’s lyrical autobiography Memories Look at Me (New Directions, 2011), translated from the Swedish by Robin Fulton, he describes his high school experience of reading the work of Horace out loud in the original Latin and instantaneously translating it into English. “This alternation between the trivial and decrepit on the one hand and the buoyant and sublime on the other taught me a lot,” writes Tranströmer. “It had to do with the conditions of poetry and life. That through form something could be raised to another level.” Write a poem with a central moment or image that risks being ridiculous. How can form be used to tether that moment to a more sublime mission? For inspiration, read “Old Man Leaves Party” by Mark Strand and “The Indoors Is Endless” by Tranströmer.
In an interview with Paisley Rekdal curated by Victoria Chang for Tupelo Quarterly, the poet discusses how she always writes in pursuit of a form. “Once I have an idea (really, more of a feeling than a subject), I’m always trying to find a way to shape the material of that feeling,” says Rekdal. As an example, Rekdal talks about her poem “Philomela,” from her book Nightingale (Copper Canyon Press, 2019), and how identifying what dissatisfied her about the poem allowed her to find a form for it. This week, find an unfinished poem that you’ve been dissatisfied with and try to express why in a brief sentence. Next, write a new poem that directly addresses this dissatisfaction. Does this exercise help you discover new forms?
Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, who died on March 21 at the age of seventy-five, was known for his intermingling of, as he once put it in an interview, the “historic world with the cosmic world that is static, or rather moves in a totally different rhythm.” The title of his poem “Mysticism for Beginners,” translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh, is taken from a book cover the speaker notices and then uses as an opportunity to describe his surroundings with a mystical sense of praise: “Suddenly I understood that the swallows / patrolling the streets of Montepulciano / with their shrill whistles” and “the white herons standing…like nuns in fields of rice” are only “mysticism for beginners, / the elementary course, prelude / to a test that’s been / postponed.” Write a poem “for beginners” about a concept that is explored through concrete, physical descriptions. Take a note from Zagajewski’s poem and start by writing down a list of images.
Springtime, the season between the barrenness of winter and the exuberant heat of summer for those in the northern hemisphere, has always been a source of inspiration for poets as it signals new life and change. From T. S. Eliot’s famous first line in “The Waste Land” (“April is the cruellest month”), to contemporary poems such as “Instructions on Not Giving Up” by Ada Limón, “Lilacs” by Amy Lowell, and “Crisscross” by Arthur Sze, spring can bring to mind themes of rebirth and transformation. This week, write a poem inspired by spring. Challenge yourself by writing about how springtime is personally significant to you.
“In this city / each door I cross / in search of your room / grows darker / than the sky,” writes Aldo Amparán in “Aubade at the City of Change,” published in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series. In The Essential Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch, an aubade is defined as a poem or song for the dawn expressing the regret of parting lovers at daybreak that dates back to Europe at the end of the twelfth century. In Amparán’s poem, he uses the form to meditate on the mourning of a loved one and conjures images of light to illustrate how loss can leave one feeling “suspended in time” even as the world continues to shift and change. This week, write an aubade. Use the dawn as an image to illustrate the theme of change in the poem.
Rick Barot’s poem “The Wooden Overcoat,” published in the April 2012 issue of Poetry, begins: “It turns out there’s a difference between a detail / and an image.” Barot develops this train of thought and proceeds to engage in differentiating between the two, positing that a dandelion on the sidewalk is “mere detail,” but “the dandelion inked on a friend’s bicep / is an image because it moves when her body does.” Write a poem that sets up an argument in the first sentence and then proceed to test it through rhetorical devices and concrete imagery. How can you use a poem to prove a thesis?
In the introduction to The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem: From Baudelaire to Anne Carson (Penguin Classics, 2018), editor Jeremy Noel-Tod asks, “How do you define a prose poem?” Literary critic Michael Rifaterre once characterized the prose poem as a “genre with an oxymoron for a name,” while Noel-Tod simply defines it as “a poem without line breaks.” This week, try writing a prose poem. As Noel-Tod says in the book, “Our habitual expectation when we see a passage of prose is that it will explain, not sing.” How can you make your prose poem sing more than traditional verse might? For inspiration, read exemplary poems from this anthology, such as “Borges and I” by Jorge Luis Borges, “The Colonel” by Carolyn Forché, and “Deer Dancer” by Joy Harjo.
“You must accept the door is never shut. / You’re always free to leave at any time, / though the hostage will remain, no matter what,” writes Erin Belieu in “Instructions for the Hostage,” from her fifth poetry collection, Come-Hither Honeycomb, published in February by Copper Canyon Press. In this villanelle—a strict poetic form wherein the first and third lines of the poem are repeated throughout—the terms of the metaphorical hostage scenario underpinning the poem are recontextualized, their meaning deepened as the reader learns that the speaker is both captor and hostage. In this way, the hostage scenario could be applied to any number of situations in which one is complicit in a kind of self-entrapment. Think of a time when you stood in your own way of progress, then write a poem in which you offer instructions to show that the door was never shut.
In an essay published on Literary Hub, Urvi Kumbhat writes about the use of the mango in diasporic literature, asserting that it “rests uneasily between symbol and sumptuous fruit.” Kumbhat begins by exploring her memories of eating mango in Calcutta, and how “in the global South Asian cultural and literary lexicon, the fruit is a metonym for the home country,” but also discusses why she has avoided using the fruit in her writing for fear of “self-exoticization and unoriginality.” What serves as a metonym for the place you call home? Write a poem about your chosen symbol that embraces, as well as complicates, what it represents.
In Mary Ruefle’s poem “Snow” from her book The Most of It (Wave Books, 2007), she starts with a simple sentiment: “Every time it starts to snow, I would like to have sex.” From that line, the reader is welcomed into a series of meditations on sex, devotion, birds, and love. The poem takes the form of a column with several enjambed lines as if the prose text were confined into a narrow space the way one may feel while stuck inside on a snow day. Write a poem in a conversational manner that describes how you are affected by certain types of weather. What is the first thing that comes to mind when you look out the window?
Published by BuzzFeed News, Natalie Scenters-Zapico’s “Buen Esqueleto” reimagines the popular poem “Good Bones” by Maggie Smith through the perspective of an immigrant mother. Using the original structure of the poem—and replacing “my children” in the original with “mis hijas”—an urgent narrative is imposed as Scenters-Zapico writes, “It’s not my job to sell / them the world, but to keep them safe / in case I get deported.” This week, choose a poem you love and write your own version of it, following the original structure and adding a new perspective.
“A title has the capacity to do an immense amount of heavy lifting,” writes torrin a. greathouse in the January/February 2021 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. “It is what calls a reader into the work; it can construct an entire world before they enter it and is the first frame of reference for it once they have left it.” This week, choose an abandoned draft of a poem and revise it by changing its title. How is the tension raised by creating a new way for the reader to enter the poem? How has the poem stopped being stagnant and lifted off?
“One day Juan Felipe Herrera said to me, ‘Abandon the left margin.’ It was a new liberation to my practice and process,” says Anthony Cody in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine about his debut collection, Borderland Apocrypha (Omnidawn, 2020). Consider breaking away from the traditional mold of a poem and write one that feels free from expectations. Try using center-alignment or footnotes, or redacting a text the way Cody does in his poem “In the Redaction of the Fake 45th.”
In the introduction to an issue of Ploughshares edited by the late poet Jean Valentine, who died in December, she says: “My dreams were very important to me right in the beginning. I had a teacher in college who said ‘You could write from your dreams’ and that was like being given a bag full of gold.” Inspired by Valentine and her award-winning first collection, Dream Barker, write a poem that begins with an image from one of your dreams. Allow the internal logic of dreams to guide your lines.
“Young walruses, we must all adapt!” begins Matthew Olzmann’s “Commencement Speech, Delivered to a Herd of Walrus Calves,” published in Four Way Review. In the poem, as the title reveals, a speaker offers advice to a herd of walruses on courage, evolution, and survival: “You need to train yourself to do what they won’t expect.” Write a poem in the form of a speech addressed to a group of animals or objects that offers advice and encouragement for challenges only the subject could encounter. Try to use the title, as Olzmann does, to set the scene and the tone for the poem.
“Mars Being Red” by the late poet Marvin Bell lyrically explores the color red as a state of being, likening it to a list of images that both physically resemble the color and provide memories, such as that of youth. In this compact, twelve-line poem, Bell begins what seems to be a portrait of the planet Mars and then delves into a series of digressions that find resolve in a meditation on the possibility of change: “You will not be this quick-to-redden / forever. You will be green again, again and again.” Inspired by Bell, write a poem that serves as a portrait of a color. Use physical descriptions to begin and then personal memories to develop a transformation in this study of hue.
“When we name things simply, with words preceding their meaning, a cosmic narration takes place. Does the discovery of origins remove the dust?” writes painter and poet Etel Adnan in Shifting the Silence (Nightboat Books, 2020). “It reminds me of a childhood of emptiness which seems to have taken me near the beginning of space and time.” Following her thoughts as they “drip, not unlike the faucet,” Adnan demonstrates the power in trusting clear language, without ornament, and in doing so she offers a testament to poetry as a space built by the self for illumination and inwardness. Spend some time in a space where you can observe nature and take note of your surroundings. With Adnan’s words in mind, write a poem that considers what you see without concentrating on its meaning, when you “remove the dust.” How does this exercise strip the poem’s voice to its essential parts?
“Everybody’s got a song / they’ve gotta sing. / So they say. So they / think,” begins Rita Dove’s poem “The Spring Cricket’s Discourse on Critics,” published in the Believer this month. The deftly enjambed poem uses the perspective of a cricket and its ability to use its legs to chirp, known as stridulation, to discuss an artist’s defense against critics believing “they can / just… crank out the golden / tunes.” Use the perspective of an insect or an animal whose abilities come naturally to examine an aspect of being a poet. Try enjambment in your poem to emphasize particular words.
Humans may no longer have the nictitating membranes, tails, and vomeronasal organs possessed by birds, monkeys, or reptiles, but we do still have vestiges of them, whittled down to nonfunctioning parts of the body: the folds at the inside corners of the eyes, tailbones, and the tiny sac in the nasal cavity above the roof of the mouth. What use, then, can one imagine for nictitating membranes that no longer draw laterally across the eye, tails that no longer help maintain balance, or Jacobson’s organs that no longer detect moisture-borne odor particles? Write a poem that considers the beauty of a body part with no clear-cut function. How might the specificities of the body be appreciated in different ways given our contemporary circumstances? What is the value in imagining new functions for old forms?
Hannah Sullivan’s T. S. Eliot Prize-winning collection, Three Poems (Faber & Faber, 2018), begins with “You, Very Young in New York,” in which she recounts experiences living in New York with details akin to the intimacy found in some of Frank O’Hara’s poems: “Rosy used to say that New York was a fairground. ‘You will know when it’s time, when the fair is over.’” In a poem that sprawls across twenty-three pages, Sullivan covers a wide range of registers and tones, ranging from the high lyric, philosophical musings on youth, to the comical and familiar recounting on what cocktail or dessert is in fashion. Write a poem divided into three sections that captures the quick-paced and unceremonious experiences of youth. Try to include specific scenes to avoid using grand gestures or falling into nostalgia.