“The light / that points / the way // in the fog. / The light / in the fog // that thickens / and reveals / the fog’s // cold breath. / The fog / as well.” Jeffrey Thomson’s poem “What is Poetry? Part 2,” selected by Naomi Shihab Nye for the New York Times, locates possibilities for poetry everywhere, from all angles, in all subjects. Think of an image from your memory and write a poem that finds resonance as you dig deeper into the details. What happens when you explore an unexpected perspective of this memory? What new facets can you uncover?
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.
“Comics are a staccato medium, with evidently small elements adding up to bigger ones,” says cartoonist Jason Adam Katzenstein in “Graphic Narrative Workshops” by Elena Goukassian in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. “Comics panels feel like stanzas in a poem.” Find a favorite short comic strip and write a poem comprised of one stanza per panel. Study the comic to gather a sense of the theme and pacing, working backwards from the images to write a piece that reflects a bigger whole created out of smaller, distilled moments.
“I had a dream, which was not all a dream. / The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars / Did wander darkling in the eternal space, / Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth / Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air,” wrote Lord Byron in “Darkness,” a poem composed in the summer of 1816, when unusually frigid temperatures, ominous thunderstorms, and incessant rains forced Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary Shelley to hole up inside a Swiss villa. While there they initiated the famous ghost story contest that launched Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein and inspired Byron and Percy Shelley to create work filled with foreboding elements of the natural environment. Write a poem inspired by extreme weather phenomena, perhaps invoking elements of an environment in crisis and apocalyptic climate change. How can you manipulate imagery, syntax, and meter to make meteorological conditions fearsome and lyrical, to make something natural seem supernatural?
Honey Boy, a semiautobiographical film written by and starring Shia LaBeouf, offers an honest and complex portrait of his childhood and relationship with his father. LaBeouf plays a version of his father in this drama, delving into the character’s particular psychology, speech, and mannerisms. Write a persona poem where you take on the identity of a family member. Step inside this person’s skin and consider what thoughts occupy their mind, what tone and vernacular they might possess on the page. As an additional step, try including pieces of dialogue you can recall having with this person.
In the New York Times Anatomy of a Scene video series, a director talks through one scene of their film and speaks to all the behind-the-camera action, planning, and unexpected occurrences that allowed for this sequence to take shape. Write a voice-driven poem where you narrate a scene from any film that moves you emotionally and creatively. Perhaps this scene is connected to a memory or experience of your own, or you notice something subtle in an actor’s performance. What is brimming beneath the surface of this visual? What can you share about this moment in the film that another viewer may not catch?
“Often discussions of persona poetry focus on its potential for cultivating empathy, inhabiting another’s perspective, but I have always felt that, inevitably, one circles back upon oneself,” writes Jennifer S. Cheng in Literary Hub about her second collection, Moon: Letters, Maps, Poems (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2018). “Persona poetry is often compared to wearing a mask, but to me it is like speaking into a shell.” In her book, Cheng writes a series of persona poems in the voice of Chang’E, the woman who floats up to the moon in Chinese folktales. Think of a mythical figure or other fictionalized character who resonates with you, and write a short series of poems that explores this person’s inner self. Allow your own voice to intermingle and draw you toward imagining where your identities might overlap.
“Take notes regularly. This will sharpen both your powers of observation and your expressive ability,” writes Lydia Davis in “Thirty Recommendations for Good Writing Habits” in Essays One (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019). This week jot down several lists of different types of observations, such as your feelings, the weather, and your own reactions to the mundane behavior of others as you go about your day. Pay special attention to the facial expressions and small habits or routine movements of people you notice on your commute or while running errands. Write a poem inspired by one or two of these small observations.
“I received a sign in my dream that you would vanish from me,” Naja Marie Aidt writes in When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back (Coffee House Press, 2019). “But images and signs cannot be interpreted before they’re played out in concrete events. You only understand them in retrospect.” In her memoir, translated from the Danish by Denise Newman, Aidt explores the dreams she had about her son, which in hindsight seem portentous of his accidental death in 2015. Think about dreams you’ve had in the past that still linger, or search through old writing to dig up images that are repeated. Write a poem that attempts to find meaning or a connection within these visual artifacts. How can you interpret their significance now?
At JSTOR Daily, a recent story reports on the crowdsourced online slang dictionary Urban Dictionary from a linguistic perspective, noting its inclusion of both niche joke word usage and its usefulness as an archive of social meanings for words such as “like” and “eh.” This week write a poem that incorporates some of your favorite slang or informal vernacular phrases. You might decide to allow this diction to pull your poem towards one tonal direction, or to offset its informality with more conventional elements of meter.
Is there something in the way you move? A study published last month in the Journal of Applied Physiology presented findings that people have unique movement patterns like fingerprints, ways of walking specific to each individual due to distinct muscular contractions. This week observe the idiosyncratic motions of someone close to you, whose gait you can detect from afar or out of the corner of your eye. Write a poem that attempts to capture this person’s particular way of moving. Utilize sound, rhythm, and spacing in your lines to depict these recognizable footsteps.
Last month poetry scholars from Keele University opened up a “Poetry Pharmacy” in a Victorian shop in a small town in England. Visitors can participate in poetry classes, specialist day retreats, and consultations and prescriptions for poetry, which all focus on providing mental health support for the local community and emphasize the therapeutic benefits of poetry. “We believe that poetry can do so much to match or alter a mood, to assist in so many ways with good mental health,” says Deborah Alma, the pharmacy’s designated “Emergency Poet.” This week write a poem with an intentional mood in mind, one that is designed to match a bright or pensive mood, or combat and soothe a conflicted one.
Several years ago, New York Public Library staff discovered a box filled with file cards of written questions submitted to librarians from the 1940s to 1980s, many of which have been collected in the book Peculiar Questions and Practical Answers: A Little Book of Whimsy and Wisdom From the Files of the New York Public Library (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2019). Questions include: “What does it mean when you’re being chased by an elephant?” and “Can you give me the name of a book that dramatizes bedbugs?” and “What time does a bluebird sing?” Write a poem inspired by one of these curiously strange questions. Does your poem provide a practical answer, or avoid one altogether leading instead to more imaginative questions?
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.
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.