Alt-rock, barista, codependent, designated driver, e-mail, frisée, G-spot, home theater, multitasker, spoiler alert, wordie. What do all these words have in common? They are all listed with a “first known use” year of 1982 according to Merriam-Webster’s online Time Traveler tool, which allows users to see what words first appeared in written or printed use in each year from the Old English to 2020. Choose a year that has particular resonance to you, perhaps one that marks a turning point or significant event in your life, and browse through the words that are listed as first recorded that year. Write a poem about a memorable event and incorporate some of these words. How does this language transform the tone or thematic direction of your poem?
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.
Are trees immortal? Earlier this year, research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported on findings that the biological behavior of gingko trees over six hundred years old was similar to those that were only around twenty years old, prompting the idea that perhaps these trees were immortal. Last month, a new paper published in response in Trends in Plant Science argues that while some trees may indeed live for hundreds or even thousands of years, eventually they are likely to die, and our studies are simply limited by the (relatively) short lifespans of the human beings conducting the studies. Write a pair of poems, one exploring immortality and one exploring mortality. Where do you find yourself turning for allusions or references—nature, civilization, interpersonal relationships?
In “Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness,” published in the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog, poet and novelist John Keene reflects on language as “a medium, a field, a tool, a site of being and expression and communication.” Through his translation work, Keene engages with writing that is often overlooked, such as poetry “by women writers, by LGBTQ writers, and by writers of African descent,” in order to publish the work for more readers. Choose a poet whose work you admire and translate one of their poems into another language or form. Perhaps you attempt a translation from one language to another or try “translating” a sonnet into a pantoum. What would you like to express through this exchange of language?
What can you tell from a kelp’s DNA? In a paper published earlier this month in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, scientists reported findings that the genes of bull kelp found in New Zealand bear different genetic markers because of an earthquake that occurred eight hundred years ago, a reminder of how nature has the power to recover from a disruption. Write a poem that revolves around a specific idiosyncrasy or personality trait, and imagine its connection to an ancient ecological disaster. You might take inspiration from the undulating forms of seaweed waving underwater as you braid in themes of history, continuation, inheritance, and the twinning of destruction with renewal.
“Rituals—or the tasks we perform repeatedly, not for what they accomplish but for what they mean to us—help athletes prepare their minds for the unknowns they’ll face when they perform,” writes psychiatrist Neha Chaudhary in a New York Times article about how rituals—such as “Steph Curry’s sinking a shot from the tunnel before each basketball game” or “Serena Williams’ bouncing her tennis ball five times before her first serve”—can help instate feelings of connectedness and calmness during anxiety-inducing times. Write a poem about a ritual that’s a part of your everyday life, or perhaps one that you performed regularly during a past phase of your life. How can you play with repetition, pacing, sound and rhythm, and white space to mimic the enactment and aftereffects of a ritual?
In “The Untranslatable” published on the Paris Review website, the translators of poems featured in the magazine’s summer issue write short essays about their processes. Patricio Ferrari and Susan Margaret Brown, who translated António Osório’s poems from the Portuguese, write about choosing between words in the English language that have Latin versus Germanic origins: “Most words representing abstract ideas stem from the Latin while the majority of words exemplifying concrete ideas come from the Saxon. In a newspaper article, the choice may be irrelevant; in a poem, the choice matters.” Rewrite or draft a new version of a poem you’ve written in the past, switching out some of the Latinate words for those with Germanic roots, and vice versa. How does this change the sound, tone, and other nuances of your poem?
In response to the increasingly searing and muggy days, a recent Bustle article detailed the effects of humidity on the body. “You may feel more uncomfortable on a humid day because your body is not as easily able to evaporate the sweat on your skin, due to the moisture in the air,” says physician assistant Christina L. Belitsky, adding that “evaporation of sweat on our skin is our body’s way of naturally cooling us down in warm temperatures.” Write a poem where you discuss an aspect of how the body—internal organs, skin, or your own joints—functions in such sticky heat. What images and vocabulary enable you to perfectly encapsulate the physical effects of a sweltering summer day?
When’s the last time you took a really close look at an insect? In Aliens Among Us: Extraordinary Portraits of Ordinary Bugs (Liveright, 2020), photographer Daniel Kariko uses a scanning electron microscope and a stereo microscope to present extreme close-up photographs of insects—beetles, flies, centipedes, bees, wasps. Browse through some of Kariko’s photos, and write a poem inspired by the surprising details you discover in these portraits. Focus on reflecting texture, color, and the form and function of insect bodies into the fabric of your poem.
“If we study what we are attracted to, tease out the correspondences, follow the connections, and find the parallels, we make something new—something that speaks to a shared past and idiosyncratic present,” writes Emily LaBarge in a Bookforum review of Moyra Davey’s new essay collection, Index Cards (New Directions, 2020). Write a poem that revolves around a selection of everyday objects that you feel inexplicably drawn to, perhaps a particular pencil or spoon, a favorite mug or lamp, a preferred toothbrush or view from a window. What connections or parallels can you draw between them? How do they exist in harmony or tension with each other?
In “The Linguistic Case for Sh*t Hitting the Fan” at JSTOR Daily, Chi Luu writes about the functions of idiomatic speech, their linguistic origins, their usage and effects, and their power to draw people together with a feeling of intimacy or community, citing examples such as “chew the fat,” “pull someone’s leg,” “kick the bucket,” “shoot the breeze,” “let the cat out of the bag,” and others. “Idioms, though seemingly mundane, are the fossilized poetry of language,” writes Luu. Write a poem that springs from one of your favorite idioms, perhaps one you use frequently or one with particularly evocative imagery. What memories, associations, or resonances arise?
“Grief is a heated iron comb: // The kerosene of grief, it doesn’t age well, it degrades: / Grief is a kind of time: // Sign your name. Become a series of signals...” For the Academy of American Poets’s Poem-a-Day, Sun Yung Shin writes that her poem “A History of Domestication” is part of a forthcoming collection exploring “how climate threat and mass extinction may affect our social relations, our sense of death and the afterlife/underworld, and how we think of violence in our species.” Write a poem that explores issues that have become important to you as you think about current forces of destruction. When you imagine the near future, how do you envision priorities shifting? What about further on down the line?
The first 858 lines of Geoffrey Chaucer’s fourteenth-century masterpiece The Canterbury Tales is the focus of a new web and mobile phone app that allows users to listen to the text read aloud in Middle English. Developed by a team at the University of Saskatchewan, General Prologue pairs a digitized version of the original manuscript with explanations and a new line-by-line modern translation by the late Monty Python actor Terry Jones, who wrote two books on Chaucer. The lively stories of the group of pilgrims traveling from London to Canterbury, which are notable for being written in the common vernacular, are told from different viewpoints and form a humorously critical portrait of social classes of the time. Write a series of poems that celebrates the everyday people in your life, perhaps drawing inspiration from Chaucer’s characters, such as the Cook, the Man of Law, the Wife of Bath, the Clerk, and the Merchant. What humor do you find in the mundane affairs of quotidian life?
“The journey runs right through the eye of desolation. The murdered albatross is a bottomless symbol: It stands for everything you greedily grabbed at, everything you squandered or spurned, every ornament of the ego, every plastic water bottle, every corrosive pleasure, every idle meanness,” writes James Parker in “The 1798 Poem That Was Made for 2020,” his essay at the Atlantic about the “Ancient Mariner” Big Read, a collective online reading of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic curated and produced by the University of Plymouth. Write a poem that revolves around a bottomless symbol—perhaps an animal, a plant, or everyday object—inspired by the ancient mariner who “is condemned to tell his tale, to recite his rhyme, over and over again.”
“My current definition of poetry...is that a poem is the artifact or the trace that is left behind and created through the poet’s movement of mind over a problem or a situation,” says Kiki Petrosino in “Between Worlds,” an interview by India Gonzalez for Poets & Writers. “When we think about these problems, language is generated, and what we are left with is a poem.” Think of a problem or issue you have been struggling with—practically or emotionally—and write a poem inspired by this idea that poetry is language left behind by work done in the mind. How do these trace words combine to form a portrayal of your concerns?
What comes to mind when you think of indoor activities versus outdoor activities? As the weeks of the coronavirus pandemic lockdown wear on, many have found it necessary to reconsider the traditional boundaries of these divisions. A recent New York Times article featured Michael Ortiz, a “financial executive and recreational endurance athlete” who has been running hundred-mile marathons inside his 960-square-foot apartment in Brooklyn, first running 13,200 laps around his living room rugs in sixty hours, and then on a treadmill. Write a pair of poems; one that focuses on an indoor activity, and one on an outdoor activity. How has your notion of those designations been transformed since the pandemic? Are there new designations you’ve created?
“It’s astonishing to me that there is so much in Memory, yet so much is left out: emotions, thoughts, sex, the relationship between poetry and light,” writes Bernadette Mayer in the introduction to her book Memory (Siglio Press, 2020), featured in the Written Image in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. The book presents a collection of photographs and text from 1971 when Mayer shot a roll of film every day for the month of July and wrote in a journal—a record of her consciousness. Taking inspiration from this project, jot down notes describing several images and observations each day this week. Then, write a poem that combines them into a single, sequential mass, a contemporaneous manifestation of your conscious mind.
“Language and the body are inextricable, if not synonymous, and often the body can express what language cannot,” writes Nicole Rudick in her Poetry Foundation essay “Mutual Need and Equal Risk” about Dodie Bellamy’s writing. Rudick offers examples of this blur of language and body communication from Bellamy’s book Cunt-Ups (Tender Buttons, 2001): “I used to have brains but now my tongue moves aback and forth along you” and “My fingers have turned into poems like a very real possibility.” Write a poem focusing on the expressions of the body—one that allows physical movements to be described by the vocabulary of intellect, linguistics, or poetics and vice versa. How can one type of language or expression step in when another seems insufficient?
Earlier this year, the Dutch dance company Nederlands Dans Theater performed at New York City Center as part of their sixtieth season. Included in their program was the U.S. premiere of Walk the Demon, a 2018 piece by Marco Goecke that featured sharp, small, and abrasive movements. Drawing inspiration from this choreographic style, try writing a poem using only single-syllable words to mimic short and sharp actions. What content do you find best fits this stylistic endeavor? See what unfolds from this syllabic limitation.
“Caught in the rain today, I recall that couple kissing and holding each other infinitely close in the rain one dark evening under the nearly invisible trees,” wrote Paul Valéry in 1910, in a notebook included in The Idea of Perfection: The Poetry of Paul Valéry, translated from the French by Nathaniel Rudavsky-Brody and forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux this month. Draw inspiration from rainy scenes in poetry such as William Carlos Williams’s “Spring Storm,” Sara Teasdale’s “There Will Come Soft Rains,” and Emily Dickinson’s “Like Rain it sounded till it curved” and write a poem that captures a moment in the rain, one that seems quiet or private but also carries emotional weight. Is there something poignant, parallel, or contradictory between the subject of the poem and the themes of rebirth and renewal that are conventionally associated with springtime?
“I return to some books that have helped ground me and given me this long-seeing perspective, and from their words I made some poems,” Alli Warren writes at Literary Hub, where she created short poems from books that help her feel less alone, including W. E. B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America, Bernadette Mayer’s Utopia, and Emanuele Coccia’s The Life of Plants. “These are not my words, they are the words of their authors—I just translated them into poems, so that we can sing them and remember (poetry is a technology of memory), building up community memory, humming these fight songs.” Think of a book that you turn to for solace or wisdom in difficult times, and select lines from the book to turn into a fight song poem of your own to sing.
Can’t tell the difference between a Canada goose and a snow goose? Even if you have no experience in birdwatching, New York Times science writer James Gorman recommends watching birds during this time of isolation and social distancing. “I’m suggesting you just watch birds in the way that you might watch people in a crowd, in the days when there were crowds. I like Canada geese, because they are a lot like people. They gather and squawk, conducting unknown goose business and gossip.” Keep your eyes peeled for birds as you peer out your window or go for a solitary walk outside, browse for zoo and aquarium webcam videos online, or watch live streaming videos for a peek at other animals. Then, write a poem that captures the liveliness and camaraderie provided by these creatures.
“The carnation had possessed me,” is a sentence from Amparo Dávila’s short story “The Breakfast,” illustrated in a New York Times piece by Tamara Shopsin. Through her illustrations, Shopsin presents quotes from Dávila’s story collection The Houseguest (New Directions, 2018), translated from the Spanish by Audrey Harris and Matthew Gleeson, that imbue mundane plants with a sense of strange terror. Another sample is from the short story “The Cell”: “She was like ivy attached to a giant tree, submissive and trusting.” Select one of the lines—or jot down your own menacing plant simile or metaphor—and use it as a starting point for a poem.
In the New York Times, Elisa Gabbert writes about Alice Notley’s new book, For the Ride (Penguin Poets, 2020), which takes place in a world where most of civilization—and therefore language—has been destroyed. “Because language is broken, the verse is intentionally awkward, as though carelessly translated: ‘glyph doth include the real air? / yes, including vraiment the other air.’ Words from French and Spanish are peppered in, while others are cut off (‘lying togeth, floor of hypermarket in afterli’) or smashed together (‘playtoyswords’), creating unresolvable ambiguities.” Write a poem that uses words that are cut off, smashed together, or borrows from other languages in a way that opens up the possibilities of meaning. How do you provide guidance through the ambiguity or confusion?
At the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog, Ruby Brunton writes about Elaine Kahn’s collection Romance or The End (Soft Skull Press, 2020), whose first poem, “ROMEO & JULIET & ELAINE,” has a speaker who inserts herself into Shakespeare’s iconic love story. “There aren’t ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ in Kahn’s game of love, only flawed humans who make mistakes even when trying their best not to. The book plunders traditional love story tropes to offer a more authentic, and sometimes more cynical, counternarrative.” Write a poem in which you insert yourself into a famous relationship from literature. Do you approach your intrusion through a lens of different cultural customs, or perhaps a more open-minded approach to perspectives on love, loneliness, or sexuality?
In “‘Hostile Architecture’: How Public Spaces Keep the Public Out” in the New York Times, Winnie Hu reports on elements of urban architecture in New York City that are designed to enforce order and deter lingering, loitering, sleeping, skateboarding, and the homeless. This includes metal spikes, studs, teeth, bars, bolts, walls, and railings placed on resting surfaces like benches, ledges, and low walls in public plazas. This week, look around more closely at the architectural details you pass by and write a poem about an interesting feature or texture whose design functions in a specific way. Is it welcoming or hostile? Can you express the physical details by playing with sound, rhythm, and spacing?