What is documentary poetry? In “Where Poetry Meets Journalism” in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, documentary poetry, also known as docupoetry, is described as “socially engaged poetry that often uses nonliterary texts—news reports, legal documents, and transcribed oral histories.” Select a piece of journalism that particularly catches your eye or imagination, and then search for nonliterary texts around the same topic or theme. Write a docupoem that chronicles a story or experience by combining these found texts with your own observations and language.
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.
A recent study published in Open Science reveals that the songs of male humpback whales are informed by the exchanges they have with each other during their travels. In this way their vocalizations denote their migratory route. Throughout the day, jot down bits and pieces of conversation you’ve either partaken in or overheard, song lyrics you have in your head, and any phrases or words that strike you. Use these bits of language to compose a poem that will then become your travel song, a way of detailing the encounters you’ve had throughout your daily voyage. Where have you been and what have you heard?
Last year a British ultramarathoner competing in northwest Canada donated his frostbitten amputated toes to a Yukon hotel bar. Renowned for serving the Sourtoe Cocktail, a shot of whiskey with a mummified human toe dropped inside (the toe is not swallowed, but must touch the drinker’s lips in order to join the club and receive a certificate), the bar depends on donated digits. Write a poem inspired by emotional and visceral responses to this unusual cocktail and ritual. Explore the possible themes of human connection, extreme adventure, sacrifice and generosity, and horror with humor.
“When you get into the occult community and the literature, it’s not just about ‘talking’ to or ‘communing’ or ‘feeling’ spirits. It’s also at the other extreme, evocation,” writes Katy Bohinc in “Poetry as Magic” in the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog. “Evocation is the practice of calling a spirit into a room, getting its signature on a piece of paper, interpreting its messages as divination, and then sending the spirit into the world to do your bidding.” Have you ever felt yourself in the presence of a spirit, or seen evidence of one? Write a poem that revolves around a real or imagined evocation of a spirit. What do you ask of this spirit?
The “Don’t have a bookmark?” meme began as a brand marketing tool on Twitter showing photos of objects—including Chex Mix, Oreo cookies and milk, and Vitaminwater—poured into the pages of books to use as bookmarks, which quickly ignited a storm of retorts. In one response, a librarian posted a photo depicting a soft taco that had actually been flattened into the pages of an edition of Edward Lear’s 1871 book, Nonsense Songs and Stories, found at her library in Indiana. This week write a poem inspired by this literal mash-up of food and words. How can you play with diction, line breaks, spacing, and typography to express humor, dissonance, and a mix of themes?
“I focused on myself all this time because that’s what I thought poetry was—personal narrative,” says poet Jake Skeets in an interview about his debut collection, Eyes Bottle Dark With a Mouthful of Flowers (Milkweed Editions, 2019), in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. It was during his time with mentors at Santa Fe’s Institute for American Indian Arts that Sheets began to see the intersections between his personal life and broader explorations of the New Mexico reservation where he grew up. Jot down a short list of seemingly disparate topics you’ve written about in different pieces or projects, and write a poem that combines two or more of these themes. Consider both the natural intersections you land on initially, and perhaps some distant connections that require more of an imaginative stretch.
In “Sisters,” from Brian Evenson’s story collection Song for the Unraveling of the World (Coffee House Press, 2019), the narrator recounts her sister’s observations of an unfamiliar holiday: Halloween. “The carving of pumpkins into the shapes of those rejected by both heaven and hell, the donning of costumes (by which she meant a sort of substitute skin affixed over the real skin, though in this locale they used an artificial rather than, as we were prone to do, an actual skin), and the ‘doorstep challenge.’” For the family of ghosts new to the neighborhood, the contemporary customs of scary costumes and trick-or-treating are defamiliarized, and the reader is presented with parallels between humans wearing costumes—“artificial” skins—and the ghosts’ tendency to inhabit real human bodies, or “actual” skin. Write a poem in the first person that explores the idea of slipping into another’s skin. Invoke both horror and humor as you consider what might become unfamiliar once you experience the world through someone else’s eyes.
How many people does it take to make a community? At Station Nord, a Danish military outpost and research facility located in Greenland just over five hundred miles from the North Pole, only six people and two dogs live there year-round. Even with such a limited population, isolated locale, and frigid temperatures, inhabitants establish a convivial sense of home and community with shared meals, silly rules, pig roasts, and game nights. Write a poem about a group of people that has provided you with a warm sense of community. What small, perhaps mundane, moments do you recall that have helped create a sense of belonging, support, and bonding?
“Autumn nibbles its leaf from my hand. / We are friends. // We shell time from the nuts and teach them to walk. / Time returns into its shell.” In an essay on Lit Hub, Sara Martin writes about compulsively reciting Paul Celan’s poem “Corona” on first dates as a “beautiful but impersonal” way to expedite intimacy. This week, write a poem you can imagine reciting to a new romantic prospect or lover, one that doesn’t necessarily dwell on traditional images or vocabulary of seduction but strives for a subtle sense of hope and urgency. What kind of language do you use to invoke an immediate intimacy?
For many of us, the elevation in temperature and invitation to spend more time outdoors during the summer can usher in a flurry of changes—both atmospheric and emotional. As Nina MacLaughlin writes in her Paris Review summer solstice series: “In summer we tend skyward. It invites us out and up…. We can stand outside when it’s dark and lift our faces to the sky and get spun back to childhood or swung into the swishing infinity above.” Write a poem that embodies this transformation. What smells, sounds, and sensations do you associate with the season? For more examples of warm weather poetry, see the Poetry Foundation’s collection of summer poems.
How’s the view from above? This week, browse through these aerial photographs from National Geographic of animals, including flamingos, sharks, elk, whales, camels, hippos, and salmon, to discover beautiful shapes, colors, and patterns in nature. How can a different perspective provide new insights, emotions, and modes of thought? Write a poem that considers a familiar subject—perhaps one you’ve written about before—from a bird’s-eye view. Consider what the tops of things look like and what you see from a wider range.
“I wanted to leave behind speakers who succumbed to paranoia, emaciation, and sleep. More and more, there arose in me speakers who would self-emancipate, lurk and leap, bite and fight, and consume ravenously,” writes Justin Phillip Reed on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog about the poems that came after finishing his book, Indecency (Coffee House Press, 2018). In his essay, Reed considers the figure of the monster in mythology—as a metaphor and an agent of dehumanization— and its relation to anti-Black constructions, and finds a revitalizing sense of urgency in confronting these ideas. Think of a current topic or personal situation that has been troubling and exhausting you for some time. Write a poem that combats succumbing to this conflict, one that lurks and leaps, bites and fights.
What happens when your favorite children’s book character grows up and moves out? A piece for the UnReal Estate series on Apartment Therapy’s website imagines what the studio apartments of characters like Ramona Quimby and Nancy Drew would look like if they designed their homes as adults. Taking inspiration from this idea, envision a favorite book character’s home years after the events depicted in the story. Write a poem that describes this environment—the furniture, colors, lighting—reflecting upon how your understanding of the character’s personality and narrative arc are physically manifested in this imagined grown-up home.
This past weekend marked the fiftieth anniversary of the first moon landing by NASA’s Apollo 11. Along with footprints and the American flag, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left behind about one hundred other objects. Browse through a list of these items, which include a blanket, armrests, space boots, and cameras. Select one and write a poem from the point of view of this object, imagining its original trajectory from Earth to the moon, and the fifty years spent on the lunar surface. What emotions are evoked when you consider this lunar inventory?
“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?
“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?