In Rachel Mannheimer’s debut book, Earth Room (Changes Press, 2022), the book-length narrative takes the reader to places such as Los Angeles, Berlin, the Hudson Valley, and Mars. Some of the settings are used in a straightforward and narrative way, but others act as a sort of emotional backdrop against which intimate relationships and observations on sculpture, performance art, and land art can be examined. Inspired by Mannheimer’s original use of place, write a poem titled after a city. Try to challenge yourself by exploring the emotional and psychological undertones you associate with that place.
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. For weekly writing prompts delivered via e-mail every Friday morning, sign up for our free newsletter.
In a recent installment of our Agents & Editors Recommend series, Kristina Marie Darling, editor in chief of Tupelo Press, suggests taking risks with form in order to stand out from other poetry manuscripts. “Do something interesting with the space of the page,” writes Darling. “Be creative with how language is laid out on the page. Take risks with typography. Use white space as a unit of composition.” This week approach the page like a canvas. Let the visual element of your poem help tell the story and expand your language.
Award-winning and former U.S. poet laureate Charles Simic, who died last week at the age of eighty-four, was best known for his surrealist and often devastatingly funny poems. His poem “The Voice at 3 A.M.” reads in its entirety: “Who put canned laughter / Into my crucifixion scene?” In “Eyes Fastened With Pins,” Simic depicts a scene in which death is looking for “Someone with a bad cough, / But the address is somehow wrong, / Even death can’t figure it out.” Inspired by Simic, write a poem that mixes dark humor with a serious subject matter. How does integrating humor help balance and enliven the voice in your poem?
In David Kirby’s poem “The Hours,” published in the latest issue of the Bennington Review, the poet reflects on a subject that feels more significant at the start of a new year: the presence of time. “I’m going to rely on you hours to lead me, / to open one door after another and beckon / me through. Look it’s time to make lunch. / Look, it’s time to go back to work. Look, / it’s time to rub cat Patsy’s belly again,” he writes. This week, write a poem that ruminates on the presence of time in your life. How does your perception of the passing minutes change from season to season?
In his poem “The Wellfleet Whale,” Stanley Kunitz elegizes the majestic presence of a finback whale beached and dying on the shores of Cape Cod. The narrator of the poem, which is written in five sections, speaks to the whale in second person and recounts the last moments of its life. “You have your language, too, / an eerie medley of clicks / and hoots and trills, / location-notes and love calls,” writes Kunitz in the first lines. The rare sight is then celebrated through the awe of the spectators: “We cheered at the sign of your greatness / when the black barrel of your head / erupted, ramming the water, and you flowered for us / in the jet of your spouting.” This week write a poem that celebrates an animal of your choice. Whether through elegy or ode, which animal speaks to your senses?
Pulitzer Prize–winning poet James Merrill’s “Christmas Tree” is a wonderful example of a concrete poem, in which graphic patterns of words, letters, and symbols create a visual impact. Written in the shape of a Christmas tree and from its point of view, the poem captures the brief life of an iconic holiday decoration. “To be / Brought down at last / From the cold sighing mountain / Where I and the others / Had been fed, looked after, kept still, / Meant, I knew—of course I knew— / That there was nothing more to do,” writes Merrill. Taking inspiration from Merrill, write a poem from the perspective of a short-lived and celebrated object. If ambitious, try to incorporate a graphic element for more impact.
“This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun. // Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to / celebrate the terrible victory.” In her seminal poem “Perhaps the World Ends Here,” Joy Harjo explores the shared history of humanity through the image of a kitchen table. “We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here. // At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks,” writes Harjo. Write a poem that explores the joyful and sorrowful history of a past or present family home. What stories do the rooms, tables, and walls of your home tell you?
“I first started writing poetry (and still write it) because the world, its people, and their ideas are wrong, insane, immoral, flawed, or unimaginably terrible. I write because I feel wrong, sad, crazy, disappointed, disappointing, and unimaginably terrible,” writes Rachel Zucker in “The Poetics of Wrongness, an Unapologia,” the first in a series of lectures delivered for the Bagley Wright Lecture Series in 2016 and collected in The Poetics of Wrongness, forthcoming in February from Wave Books. In the form of an unapologia, a reversal of the traditional apologia form that typically consists of a defense of one’s own opinions and actions, Zucker posits that “wrongness” is intrinsic to writing poetry and that poetry asserts “with its most defining formal device—the line break—that the margins of prose are wrong, or—with its attention to diction—that the ways in which we’ve come to understand and use words [is] wrong.” Write a poem in the form of an unapologia. Identify when you have been wrong in the past, and try not to defend yourself. Instead, speak through your feelings of wrongness.
“It was all so different than he expected,” writes Henri Cole in his poem “At Sixty-Five,” published in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series. Written on Cole’s birthday, the third-person perspective of the poem offers a distance from the poet and his life. The details in the series of observations create a portrait of a fully lived life with accomplishments and opinions: “Yes, he wore his pants looser. / No, he didn’t do crosswords in bed. / No, he didn’t file for Social Security,” writes Cole. Write a poem that focuses on what your age means to you. What details will you include to make this self-reflection unique?
“And some time make the time to drive out west / Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore, / In September or October,” writes Seamus Heaney in his poem “Postscript,” which describes in detail an Irish county that the speaker recommends the addressee visit. The poem uses deep observation to create an all-encompassing description of this craggy coastline’s geographic features and fauna along the Wild Atlantic Way. “The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit / By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,” writes Heaney. This week, think back to a natural landscape that has made a lasting impression on you and write a poem addressed to a loved one that describes this unique terrain’s lasting beauty.
“I write for my people. I write because we children of the lash-scarred, rope-choked, bullet-ridden, desecrated are still here standing. I write for the field holler, the shout, the growl, the singer, the signer, and the signified,” says Imani Perry in her moving acceptance speech for the 2022 National Book Award in nonfiction for her book South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation (Ecco, 2022). In her powerful message, Perry repeats the refrain “I write” as she lists the many reasons that lead her to the page. Inspired by Perry’s acceptance speech, write a poem that lists what drives you to write, including the people, languages, and beliefs that move you.
“Where are you from / is a question I field too much. Once / I said Vietnam and the white man said I fought there. / I loved the country. I love their people. / That’s the day I started to lie / about my birth,” writes Kien Lam in his poem “Lunar Mansions,” published in the May/June 2018 issue of the American Poetry Review, in which he recounts the apocryphal story of his birth. Lam weaves in the story of the birth of Jesus, often conflating it with his own: “In the stable / the horses kicked me from their wombs,” he writes. Write a poem that tells the apocryphal story of your birth incorporating, as Lam does, a fantastical tone.
“I think one of the civic responsibilities of poets in America today is to continue to encourage a sense of civility among us and a sense of curiosity about one another’s lives,” says Naomi Shihab Nye in a conversation with Juan Felipe Herrera and Jane Hirshfield at the 2015 National Book Festival captured on video by the Academy of American Poets. What do you feel is one of your responsibilities as a writer? Write a poem that answers this question by considering timely issues—whether global or personal—that fuel your passion for writing.
In his poem “Magritte Dancing,” Gerald Stern captures the frustration of struggling to fall asleep while paying close attention to the rhythms of his body and passing thoughts. Stern builds the scene by beginning with the mundane: “Every night I have to go to bed twice, / once by myself, suddenly tired and angry.” Then he turns to the passionate intensity of memory and the surreal: “I look at the morning with relief, with something close / to pleasure that I still have one more day, / and I dance the dance of brotherliness and courtliness.” Inspired by the award-winning poet, who died last Thursday at the age of ninety-seven, write a poem about falling asleep. Try to combine reality with the surreal as you toe the line between waking and dreaming.
Is it possible to achieve mastery of an art form? In Carl Phillips’s essay “What We Are Carrying: Meditations on a Writing Practice,” excerpted from his book My Trade Is Mystery: Seven Meditations From a Life in Writing (Yale University Press, 2022) and published in the November/December 2022 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, he argues that “the relationship—between two people, between art and maker—is symbiotic and organic, ever changing, on both sides” therefore it is the commitment to writing that outweighs any idea of mastering it. Drawing from various practices such as learning to speak Italian and playing the clarinet, Phillips writes about the importance of “useful mistakes” and how revision reveals the ways in which a poem is a map, “not a way of getting somewhere, but a record of having been lost.” Keeping Phillips’s essay in mind, write a poem with the intention of getting lost in the writing process. Let your imagination guide you toward surprise.
In his essay “The Medium of the English Language,” published in Poetry magazine in 2014, the poet and critic James Longenbach, who died in July at the age of sixty-two, wrote about the ways in which the English language was his medium, the way that “the medium of Giorgione’s Tempest is ‘oil on canvas.’” Longenbach wrote: “How can art be something made of words, the same words used for newspapers and parking tickets? Unlike the media most commonly associated with visual and sonic artistry, words are harnessed by most people during almost every waking moment of their lives.” Taking inspiration from Longenbach’s essay, write a poem that reflects on how your everyday language becomes the medium for your poetry. Do you see a link between how you use language to communicate in your daily life and how you use it to communicate in a poem?
“Each poem or song has a genealogy of sorts. When I speak with singers from our ceremonial ground about a song, they tell you who taught you the song, where the song came from, who has the authority to sing/speak it,” writes former U.S. poet laureate Joy Harjo in her Blaney Lecture “Ancestors: A Mapping of Indigenous Poetry and Poets” delivered in 2015 at Poets Forum in New York City. “The meanings make a map that sometimes connect you to a lonely serviceman in Japan, or to the journey over the Trail of Tears, from what is now known as Alabama to Indian Territory, or Oklahoma.” Inspired by Harjo’s words, write a poem that traces the genealogy of your poetry. Try starting with a list or a family tree to uncover the storytellers who have inspired you.
In Derrick Austin’s poem “Jesus Year,” he creates a portrait of his life on the occasion of his thirty-third birthday. Instead of leaning toward the more familiar images of birthday cakes or candles, Austin begins by describing his immediate surroundings: “My clogged sink coughs up foul water. / My skeletal philodendron,” he writes. The poem then offers more about his life; family members, a cerulean sweater worn through a winter without work, memories of the last time he smoked a cigarette. Taking inspiration from Austin, write a poem that paints a portrait of your life. Try to color the poem with unexpected images to offer a complete picture.
In Ross Gay’s poem “To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian,” neighbors gather around “the canopy / of a fig its / arms pulling the / September sun to it” and relish in the riches of the tree’s bounty, an uncommon occurrence for a typical city street corner. Gay writes, “soon there were / eight or nine / people gathered beneath / the tree looking into / it like a / constellation pointing / do you see it.” This week, inspired by autumn as the season of the harvest, write a poem in which you describe a joyful scene centered around a fruit-bearing plant or tree. How does this experience serve as an escape from the worries of your daily life?
In her poem “The Quiet,” which appears in a recent issue of the London Review of Books, Jorie Graham disrupts traditional expectations of a poem by aligning the text to the right of the page. Graham creates an atmosphere of tension by describing a metaphysical storm, and later in the poem, a literal one. She writes: “as wind comes up and we feel our soul turn frantic / in us, craning this way and that, yes the soul can twist, can winch itself into knots, / why not, there is light but no warmth.” This week, write a poem that creates visual tension by aligning the text to the right. Is there a storm in your life that could serve as inspiration?
In this week’s installment of our Craft Capsule series, Gregory Orr writes about the use of sounds and sound patterns in poems to produce a textural sonic experience. The essay begins by discussing four lines from Theodore Roethke’s poem “Root Cellar,” which Orr uses to exemplify how sound can “create a dense composition that is the sonic equivalent of intense odors and textures.” This week write a poem that illustrates through sound the smells, noises, and tactile experiences of a place from your childhood. Follow Orr’s advice to find what brings you pleasure in the music of words and use it in your poem.
“Start with loss. Lose everything. Then lose it all again,” writes John Murillo in his poem “Variations on a Theme by Elizabeth Bishop,” which appears in his collection Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry (Four Way Books, 2020), in which he directly quotes from and expands upon Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art.” Using his own perspective, Murillo explores the theme of loss and uses intimate life details to make each event feel distinct, sometimes measuring one against the other as Bishop does in her poem. He writes: “Measure a father’s coffin against a cousin’s / crashing T-cells. Kiss your sister through prison glass.” This week, write a poem that directly responds to a favorite poem of yours. Try writing a variation of a line or directly quoting from the poem to get started.
“Up late scrolling / for distraction, love, hope, / I discovered skew dice. // In the promotional video / you see only a mathematician’s hands, / like the hands of god,” writes Catherine Barnett in “2020,” a poem published in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series. As a way of illustrating the loneliness felt during the early days of the pandemic, the poem focuses on the central image of skew dice, a set of irregularly shaped dice that are mirror images of each other. Write a poem that revolves around one central object. Try to be detailed about its uses and origins. Let the poem guide what the image of this object represents for you.
In a world run by technology, now more than ever, it can be rewarding to unplug, go outside, and look to the natural scenery around you. In Louise Glück’s poem “Sunrise,” the narrator reflects on the still, beautiful landscape in the hills and the ways in which nature is always there, persisting, even through life’s ups and downs. “And if you missed a day, there was always the next, / and if you missed a year, it didn’t matter, / the hills weren’t going anywhere, / the thyme and rosemary kept coming back, / the sun kept rising, the bushes kept bearing fruit,” writes Glück. Write a poem inspired by the beauty and perpetuity of the natural world that surrounds you. Think about the simplicity of a blade of grass or a flower petal, and how every detail is a life of its own.
In Jenny Xie’s poem “Memory Soldier,” which appears in her second collection, The Rupture Tense (Graywolf Press, 2022), the poet chronicles the life of Li Zhensheng, a photojournalist who documented the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. In the eight-page poem, Xie weaves back and forth from biographical information to spare descriptions of Zhensheng’s stark photographs, creating a rich reading experience that honors the life and work of the unflinching artist. “Li’s camera can capture distance in a face,” writes Xie. “It can materialize a person’s doubt, so transparent is his lens.” Write a poem in sections that considers the life and impact of an artist you admire. Whether through an essayistic prose form or lineated stanzas, how does the technique of accruing language inform your understanding of the chosen subject?