Writing Prompts & Exercises

The Time Is Now

The Time Is Now offers three new and original writing prompts each week to help you stay committed to your writing practice throughout the year. We also curate a list of essential books on writing—both the newly published and the classics—that we recommend for guidance and inspiration. Whether you’re struggling with writer’s block, looking for a fresh topic, or just starting to write, our archive of writing prompts has what you need. Need a starter pack? Check out our Writing Prompts for Beginners.

Tuesdays: Poetry prompts
Wednesdays: Fiction prompts
Thursdays: Creative nonfiction prompts

Get immediate access to more than 2,000 writing prompts with the tool below:

7.9.24

In the 2023 film Past Lives, writer and director Celine Song explores the concept of inyeon through the main character Nora, a Korean American woman who navigates her relationships with two loves, her husband and her childhood best friend. “There is a word in Korean—inyeon. It means providence or fate. But it’s specifically about relationships between people,” says Nora to her husband when first meeting him. “It’s an inyeon if two strangers even walk by each other on the street and their clothes accidentally brush. Because it means there must have been something between them in their past lives. If two people get married, they say it’s because there have been 8,000 layers of inyeon over 8,000 lifetimes.” Write a poem that contemplates a connection of this type, a fated or destined encounter with another person, whether brief or long-lasting. What might you have meant to each other in a past life?

7.2.24

Zillow Gone Wild is a popular Instagram account, and new HGTV reality TV show, that highlights particularly strange, curious, extreme, or otherwise unusual homes listed on the real estate website Zillow. Even for those who are not actively looking to buy or sell a home, the descriptions and photographs on these listings can serve as an inspiring portal, sparking a curiosity about how others express themselves through their homes, and how one’s own life could be different in a new environment with an idiosyncratic character of its own. Browse through some wild real estate listings online and write a persona poem from the point of view of an imagined inhabitant of the home of your choice. Consider what kind of assumptions or preconceived notions you might be bringing to the persona, and how you can upend expectations.

6.25.24

“In the end, I suppose, defeat is inevitable, / the closing of something once delicately propped / open,” writes Dawn Lundy Martin in her poem “From Which the Thing Is Made,” which appears in her collection Instructions for the Lovers, out today from Nightboat. With each line of the poem, Martin dives deeper into the connection between the narrator and their mother, and how her absence is still felt in the body of the narrator. “Even I can’t let go, can’t sift her being (that part / of her that’s her) from my hands,” writes Martin. This week, start a poem with Martin’s first line: “In the end, I suppose, defeat is inevitable…” What memories and imagery come to mind when you think of defeat or of something closing?

6.18.24

“We tend to treat odor in general as a sort of taboo,” writes Scott Sayare in a New York Times Magazine article about a woman who discovered she could smell Parkinson’s disease, in some cases over a dozen years before medical diagnosis. “Modern doctors are trained to diagnose by inspection, palpation, percussion and auscultation; ‘inhalation’ is not on the list, and social norms would discourage it if it were.” This week, focus your attention on your sense of smell as you go about your days, perhaps even ignoring social norms as you inhale all the odors around you. Then, write a poem that focuses solely, or primarily, on smell—perhaps juxtaposing scents that are in your everyday life now and those from a more distant past.

6.11.24

“The sun had just gone out / and I was walking three miles to get home. / I wanted to die. / I couldn’t think of words and I had no future / and I was coming down hard on everything.” In Linda Gregg’s poem “New York Address,” which appears in her retrospective collection, All of It Singing: New and Selected Poems (Graywolf Press, 2008), the speaker recounts bleak existential angst. Despite the pain and darkness, there are glimmers of light. In the second half of the poem, questions are stubbornly answered with snappy, tidy pacing: “Yes I hate dark. No I love light. Yes I won’t speak. / No I will write.” Write a poem that goes all in on angst, channeling a time that felt overwhelmingly uncertain and full of trepidation. How can you experiment with sound and diction to gently steer the dramatic toward the life-affirming?

6.4.24

“All too often, on a ‘poetry scene,’ people prioritise ‘subject matter,’” says John Burnside in a 2023 interview about his writing process by Jesse Nathan published on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. “I am sure that, as I am working, environmental concerns insinuate their way into the content of a poem organically, as other concerns will—but I would never start from there.” Inspired by the late Scottish poet, who died at the age of sixty-nine on May 29, write a poem that springs not from a predetermined topic or subject matter, but instead allows you to “trust in the sounds, the rhythms that come out of the day-to-day, the sheer immediacy and truth of the quotidian…and the images that lead, sometimes via fairly roundabout paths, to metaphor.” Later, as you reread and revise, what do you discover is the subject of your poem? What might have organically insinuated itself into your poem?

5.28.24

“I told a friend about a spill at the grocery store, which—the words ‘conveyor belt’ vanishing midsentence—took place on a ‘supermarket treadmill,’” writes Madeleine Schwartz in a recent essay published by New York Times Magazine about her experience of negotiating with and toggling between the French and English languages after moving from New York to Paris. In the piece, Schwartz notes that as she became more comfortable with living and thinking in French, she noticed a blurring of her linguistic capabilities, including a muddling of her articulative abilities in English. Think about a time or situation when words have failed you, or you’ve drawn a blank as to the mot juste. Write a poem that traces or enacts a loss of language, perhaps using invented words, phrases, and spellings or experimenting with font sizes, line breaks, and spacing.

5.21.24

If you could spend a night at any museum, which would you choose, and why? The French publisher Editions Stock has a series of books that begins with this premise—each author selects a museum, arrangements are made for an overnight stay, and a book is written about the experience. In Jakuta Alikavazovic’s Like a Sky Inside, translated from the French by Daniel Levin Becker, she spends a night at the Louvre in Paris, where childhood memories of visits with her father are vividly recalled. “From March 7 to 8, 2020, I spent the night in the Louvre, alone. Alone and at the same time anything but,” writes Alikavazovic. Write a poem that imagines a night at a museum of your choosing, anywhere in the world. What memories will you excavate from this imagined, solitary experience?

5.14.24

“I love these raw moist dawns with / a thousand birds you hear but can’t / quite see in the mist. / My old alien body is a foreigner / struggling to get into another country. / The loon call makes me shiver. / Back at the cabin I see a book / and am not quite sure what that is.” In these eight lines that comprise Jim Harrison’s poem “Another Country,” which appears in his final collection, Dead Man’s Float (Copper Canyon Press, 2016), the late poet moves between observations about a natural outdoor setting and the speaker’s own bodily presence, arriving in the final two lines at a sentiment that expresses a feeling of defamiliarization at the seemingly mundane sight of a book. This week write a poem that explores the concept of being so absorbed in one environment or circumstance that to behold a different scene is like traveling to a strange and unknown realm.

5.7.24

“The day the last friend / dies / we sit alone. / A visitor / from outer space / tries hard / to summon us. / Someone says / EAT DEATH. / I fish around for answers / but the questions / still won’t come,” writes Jerome Rothenberg, who passed away in April, in his poem “The Last Friend.” Included in his collection of one hundred poems, A Book of Witness: Spells & Gris-Gris (New Directions, 2022), the poem presents a list of statements and observations, many of which refer to death or dying in some personal way, though the connections are enigmatic and the logical progression is oblique. Try your hand at writing a poem that mentions its subject directly, but which also deliberately obfuscates or remains ambiguous in its intentions. How might using the “I” as a witness include the reader into your point of view?

4.30.24

In the anthology Another Room to Live In: 15 Contemporary Arab Poets (Litmus Press, 2024) edited by Omar Berrada and Sarah Riggs, multinational and multilingual poet-translators challenge foundational narratives and rework mythologies through poetic expression. Yasmine Seale’s poem “Conventional Wisdom (Arabic Saying Translated Twenty Ways)” is composed of translations of an ancient aphorism expressing the inextricable place of poetry within Arab cultural heritage. Each line presents a variation on the truism: “Poetry is the record of the Arabs / The art of poetry is Arabs, collected / Good poetry is a list of Arabs / To speak in verse is to remain in Arab memory / To surpass another poet is the Arab odyssey.” Write a poem inspired by this idea of translating a proverb or maxim—either from another language or from English into English. How might you creatively interpolate different “translations” of the saying by incorporating connotations and riffing on free associations and personal experiences?

4.23.24

In Sharon Olds’s poem “May 1968,” the speaker recounts the memory of spending the night with other protesting students, who lay down their bodies on a New York City street at a university’s campus gates in order to obstruct the mounted police force that had been called in. While “spine-down on the cobbles,” she observes the city and surrounding scenery—the soaring buildings and the police and horses’ bodies—as she gazes upward, thinking about the state of her pregnant body. Write a poem this week from the vantage point of lying face-up, “from dirt level.” What circumstances bring you into this position? How does this upward point of view transform what you see, and how you feel about your own body?

4.16.24

“Where is the homeland / to lay a cradle for the dead / Where is the other shore / for poetry to step across the end point / Where is the peace / that lets the days distribute blue sky...” In Sidetracks, forthcoming in May from New Directions, the Chinese poet Bei Dao begins his book-length poem with a list of twenty-five enigmatic questions that dance around mythological, philosophical, and existential subjects. In Jeffrey Yang’s translation, the speaker’s questions lack the end punctuation of the original text, with question marks omitted. Through these unanswered questions, the poet conjures loss and nostalgia. Loosely following this structure, write a prologue to a poem that poses a series of questions gesturing toward your most pressing uncertainties. While Bei Dao’s lines are mysterious and mystical, allow your poem the tone and allusions that feel instinctive to you.

4.9.24

“Though you have known someone for more than forty years, though you have worked with them and lived with them, you do not know everything. I do not know everything—but a few things, which I will tell,” writes Mary Oliver about her partner Molly Malone Cook in her book Our World (Beacon Press, 2009), which celebrates their life and home together in Cape Cod through Oliver’s essays and Cook’s photography. Write a poem about someone you have known for a long time, but who is no longer in your life. Begin first by forming two lists: one list for the things you knew about this person and a second list of what you did not know. Select several items from each list and compose a poem that paints a portrait through the lens of your relationship. What are the things that were shared, imparted, revealed, and hidden?

4.2.24

In the ancient parable of the blind men and the elephant, a visually impaired group has gathered around an unfamiliar creature to them, each encountering by touch a different part of the animal. Although there are different interpretations of the parable, a poem by nineteenth-century poet John Godfrey Saxe describes how the first of the six men falls upon the elephant and exclaims that the animal is nothing but a wall, the second feels the tusk and disagrees saying the animal is like a spear, the third approaches the squirming trunk and calls the animal snakelike, and another feels the ear and states that the animal is like a fan. The story points at the limits of subjective truths and what is lost by only seeing one side of something. Write a poem that explores a single item, image, or action through a prism of different potential truths. Experiment with expressing contradictions and coexisting truths.

3.26.24

“I read Call It in the Air, / Ed’s book about his painter sister & her death / at 44, like Billie Holiday, & I start to consider / 44. No. Not the death, just the conch of it, / how it whorls & opens, limelights / —44 limelights a woman,” writes Shamala Gallagher in her poem “‘The New York Times’ Says Aloe Is a Hoax,” published in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series. The lines in the poem shift from lightness to darkness, and the image of recursion and spiraling reappear as the speaker allows her mind to wander freely after a long day. Write a poem that experiments with a recurring shape that you’ve observed. Consider the connotations or associations with this shape, whether it be a number, ray of light, or plant. How might a simple form inspire you to think about the shape of time in your life?

3.19.24

Anne Carson’s 2017 poem “Saturday Night as an Adult,” which had a viral moment on X last summer, is structured as a short block of text recounting observations and thoughts around a dinner date with two couples. “We really want them to like us. We want it to go well. We overdress. They are narrow people, art people, offhand, linens,” writes Carson. “We eat intently, as if eating were conversation.” While the existential despair may seem tragicomic, Carson conveys an honest vulnerability that touches upon disappointment at the potential smallness of life. Write a poem that builds upon your observations of a mundane social encounter in order to capture larger concerns on your mind, perhaps using sharp, terse statements as Carson does in her poem. Is there humor to be found in these minute details?

3.12.24

For one year, fans of Flaco the Eurasian eagle-owl enjoyed watching him fly freely around New York City and become, for many city dwellers, a feathered symbol of liberation. Released from his cage at the Central Park Zoo by a vandal, zoo officials were initially concerned for his survival, but Flaco quickly learned to hunt prey and move about the city. His fans grew, and for them, Flaco began to represent resilience and the ability to embark on a new chapter of life, a gesture at the potential of rewilding. Sadly, Flaco died in February after apparently striking a building on the Upper West Side. This week, write a poem that incorporates a subject that signifies qualities of freedom and hope for you personally. Consider strengths and weaknesses, and address both in your poem.

3.5.24

“Because curfews of / Because strip search at the checkpoint into / Because grandmother’s undergarments splayed on / Because two men with guns on the way to / Because grandmother saves plastic Coke liters to / Because the water could without notice be,” writes Jessica Abughattas in her poem “Litany for My Father” published by Split This Rock. The poem consists of twenty-two lines, which, all but the last line, begin with the word “because” and end abruptly, as if in mid-thought. The lines build into a powerful expression of loss and a sublimated sense of intense sorrow, how powerless one can feel in grief. Write a poem that makes use of omission or erasure in this way, taking into consideration how the format might influence your subject or theme. How does this repeated absence of words achieve emotive force?

2.27.24

“I wanted to think freely, let my mind wander, follow ideas (and phrases) wherever they might go,” said the late poet Lyn Hejinian in a 2020 interview for the Wheeler Column at the University of California in Berkeley, where she was a professor and John F. Hotchkis Chair Emerita. “For a while—but not for very long—I used poetry to express my adolescent angst and longings, but very soon I recognized the banality and the limits of that. It wasn’t self-expression I was seeking but loss of self.” Inspired by Hejinian, who died at the age of eighty-two on February 24, write a poem that avoids a preconceived intention of style or thematic experience, and instead allow these elements to emerge as you let your mind wander. How might language, in the abstract as the material of your thinking, lead to a new mode of expression or representation?

2.20.24

Drawing on a wealth of botanical vocabulary, Canadian poet Sylvia Legris explores themes of nature in her new book, The Principle of Rapid Peering, forthcoming in April from New Directions. In the book, the title of which is derived from early-twentieth-century ornithologist Joseph Grinnell’s study on the behavior of birds around food, Legris categorizes birds as either “those who wait passively for food to approach them” or rapid-peering active-seekers “whose target[s] of desire [are] stationary.” She writes: “The rapid-peerer’s eyes turn / as the head changes position. // The eyes focus the beak, / the instrument of capture. // ... The head follows the feet, / quick moves, to, fro. // Feet with an intelligence of texture, / bark, branch, gravel, soil.” Browse through nature guides or encyclopedias in search of unique animal attributes, specifically looking for evocative terminology with potentially expansive interpretations. Then write a poem that both touches on the term’s original meaning and imagines a new interpretation connecting to a personal experience or memory.

2.13.24

“You have changed me already. I am a fireball / That is hurtling towards the sky to where you are,” begins Dorothea Lasky’s “Poem to an Unnameable Man” from her 2010 collection, Black Life. The poem’s speaker regales their addressee with the projected story of their intense connection, as Lasky incorporates cosmic imagery, a confessional tone, and grandiose language combined with an intimate, idiosyncratic voice. This week write a poem that traverses the galaxy and addresses someone or something you feel tethered to, as if you’re “hurtling towards” them. As you write, play around with figurative language that points to both sizable and smaller, nuanced observations.

2.6.24

“In writing the sonnets of frank, the form was a rescue raft, a lifeline, the safety net beneath the trapeze act. I liked how it equalized every event, relationship, song, or story that the individual sonnet might take on,” says poet Diane Seuss in a 2022 Publishers Weekly interview with Maya C. Popa about her Pulitzer Prize–winning collection, in which she explores with brutal frankness her personal history and themes of death, illness, addiction, and love. Inspired by Seuss, write two fourteen-line sonnets with vastly different subjects. In using a specific form to create a sort of equalizing force between topics, how do the minor victories and upsets of mundane occurrences find balance with the heavier ups and downs of your life?

1.30.24

“Like a snail with a shell of sticks //  — she loads them on her back — //   Like a camel with a hump of sticks //  — on her back, on her back — // Like a horse with a knight of sticks and a stick for a sword,” writes Valzhyna Mort in her poem “In the Woods of Language, She Collects Beautiful Sticks” published in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series. In her description of this poem, Mort explains how an inability to write another poem she was working on made her “feel homeless in language and in poetry” and that writing this poem became “a bit of homemaking” for her. Write a poem that reflects your own process when your mind wanders away from writing and you must find a way back into the home of language. Does it involve the vocabulary of domesticity, construction, or helpful creatures?

1.23.24

Do you recall cold, quiet nights with the muffled silence of snow and the whisper of the wind, or the banging clang of heating pipes and the constant drumming of a heavy rainstorm rumbling in the winter? Depending on one’s locale, the sounds of the season can present a range of tones, from the euphonic to the cacophonic, from peaceful and calming to abrasive and exasperating. Write a poem that captures the sonic spectrum of your surroundings at this time of year, perhaps experimenting with punctuation, various line lengths and spacing, and onomatopoeia to reflect all the textures of your auditory experience.

1.16.24

What’s going to be popular in 2024? Trend forecasters are busy making predictions for the fads of the near future, from what we’ll wear to what we’ll eat. The Food Network predicts the rise in popularity of white chocolate, the expansion of boba tea flavors in desserts, and sake becoming the “it” drink, while Food & Wine magazine reports on fashionable food brand-related merch, ruffle-edged Cresto di Gallo as the “pasta shape of the year,” herbal liqueurs, and sweet and sour as the reigning flavor. Write a poem about a past, current, or future food trend. Are you on board or skeptical? Have fun with food vocabulary and play around with sounds and rhythms that match your selection.

1.9.24

Every year, Project Censored, an anti-censorship and media literacy advocacy organization, releases their State of the Free Press yearbook, highlighting the past year’s most significant independent journalism. This year’s book, published in December by Seven Stories Press, emphasizes the dangers of corporate media and the shuttering of community newspapers, which leave many communities without a reliable source of local information. Do some digging online or at a local library for a news story in your city from the past year, perhaps something that didn’t make national news. Write a poem inspired by your experience of zeroing in on the value of something small, ordinary, and regionally specific.

1.2.24

For the past fifty years, the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in New York City has hosted its annual New Year’s Day Marathon, a day of readings and performances that has grown into a twelve-hour-long event with over a hundred artists and writers given a few minutes on stage. In a Washington Post article about last year’s gathering, poet Jameson Fitzpatrick explained that she was there to “bear witness to poetry’s being alive. Reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.” Write a short poem that captures the exuberant potential of verse, one that celebrates its own form and would be exciting to read in front of an audience. Consider how diction, sound, rhythm, and subject matter might collide to create a sensation of language teeming with vitality.

12.26.23

Last month, the Journal of Great Lakes Research reported findings from a study of goldfish—the common East Asian carp often kept as pets—found in the wild, likely released into local lakes and rivers by their former owners. When removed from constricting fish bowls and flake-based diets, the fish grew to nearly a foot-and-a-half long and were able to reproduce quickly, destroying local marine ecosystems. Write a poem about something in your life that has ballooned out of proportion in an unexpected way. This might be a relationship with someone, an aspect of a job or extracurricular activity, or a household object that has transformed into an increasingly epic collection. Has the growth been slow and gradual or haphazardly speedy? At what point do you think enough is enough?

12.19.23

“Cold, moist, young phlegmy winter now doth lie / In swaddling clouts, like new-born infancy,” writes Anne Bradstreet in the opening lines of her 1650 poem “Winter.” In her seasonal poem, Bradstreet traverses from the month of December to “cold, frozen January,” and finally to “moist snowy February,” cycling through the movements of the sun, the length of day, and the sensation of warmth or chill on the body. Though we often think of winter as one portion of the year’s seasons, how do the individual months of winter feel to you? Write a poem that tracks your personal memories from multiple Decembers, Januaries, and Februaries (or Junes, Julys, and Augusts in the Southern Hemisphere), perhaps thinking of these months as smaller, concentric or overlapping circles within a larger one.

12.12.23

Love poems have a long and storied literary history. “The Love Song for Shu-Sin,” composed in ancient Mesopotamia for use in fertility rituals, is considered by some to be the oldest love poem found in text form. “Song of Songs” from the Old Testament of the Bible celebrates the romantic and sexual love between two people. In more recent times, poets have been testing the limits of the love poem. Nate Marshall’s “palindrome” imagines an estranged lover’s life rewound like a film as the subject becomes “unpregnant” and the speaker “unlearn[s]” her name. In Sharon Olds’s “The Flurry,” two parents discuss how to tell their children they’re getting a divorce. Think of a relationship in your life that resists easy categorization and write a love poem that attempts to capture this complexity. Whether the subject is the distant love of a parental figure or the one who got away, resist the easy associations that come with the emotion and dive into love’s thorny contradictions.

12.5.23

The thirteen lines of the late Molly Brodak’s self-titled poem read: “I am a good man. / The amount of fear / I am ok with / is insane. / I love many people / who don’t love me. / I don’t actually know / if that is true. / This is love. / It is a mass of ice / melting, I can’t hold / it and I have nowhere / to put it down.” Through a series of declarative, zigzagging statements, the short poem manages to touch upon a handful of intense emotions—doubt, fear, uncertainty, desperation, and helplessness—all tied together by the eponymous title. This week write a short self-titled poem. How can you bring your own deeply personal responses to questions about your life and relationships under poetic scrutiny in a way that represents your individuality?

11.28.23

How well do we know ourselves? Studies done by psychologists over the past several decades have demonstrated that people often process information about the world around them through cognitive biases. The way in which an event is remembered can then lead to biased thinking and decision-making. Positive memory biases cause one to remember events more favorably than they actually were and view their overall past with a rosy outlook, while negative memory biases often occur when recalling an emotional event. Write a poem that approaches one memory from two different cognitive biases, playing with the ways in which an event or situation might be remembered differently depending on how it was experienced. Does this multivalent approach allow you to expand your initial perceptions of what happened?

11.21.23

The American dipper is said to be North America’s only truly aquatic songbird: a small, undistinctive brownish gray bird that chirps a pretty melody nearby river rapids and dives up to twenty feet into the water, even walking underwater along the riverbed to catch tiny fish, larvae, and small insects to eat. Flying fish also straddle multiple elements, launching themselves out of water and gliding through the air to escape predators. Unexpected animal behavior can act as a reminder of our own flexibilities or potential to exceed expectations that might otherwise keep us constrained. This week write a poem about a time when you have been propelled into unexpected territory, like a fish out of water or a bird under water. Is it possible that you might feel in your element while out of your element?

11.14.23

Action films provide excitement through fight scenes, car chases, explosions, and other high-octane thrills, but emotional conflict is what keeps audiences engaged. Whether it’s the death of a puppy or the bond between a cyborg and a child, emotions fuel the action. In the classic 1997 blockbuster Con Air, Nicolas Cage plays a good-hearted ex-convict waiting for the moment he can reunite with his wife and young daughter when his transport plane descends into chaos as a planned prison break unfurls aboard. Throughout the turbulent turmoil, the protagonist goes to great lengths (at times to a comedic level) to protect and hold onto sentimental objects: a handwritten letter from his daughter and a plush stuffed bunny for her birthday. Consider how action and sentimentality can work together and experiment with inserting an opposing emotion or sensation into a poem you’ve written in the past. How might the contrast emphasize or highlight a previously submerged aspect of the poem?

11.7.23

In an essay by Fady Joudah published on Literary Hub, the first section includes his translated lines of a poem by Palestinian author Hiba Abu Nada, written ten days before she was killed in a bombing in Gaza last month: “I shelter you / from wound and woe, / and with seven verses / I shield // the taste of orange / from phosphorus, / the color of clouds / from smoke.” Write a poem that seeks to shield or shelter something you hold dear to your heart—a person, memory, or idea that has deep value to you. You might experiment with verses that maintain a consistent length, or that increase or decrease in size. How can you modulate a balance between a tone of protectiveness and one of “wound and woe?”

10.31.23

During the months of October and November, the color orange seems to be everywhere you look: the tree leaves turning burnt sienna, the honeyed glint of autumn sunlight, jack-o’-lanterns set out on stoops and stairways, pumpkin spice flavored beverages, persimmons ripening on trees, Mexican marigolds decorating Dia de los Muertos altars, the multicolored hues of calico corn, the bronze and amber of decorative gourds galore. These golden months are typically associated with a tendency toward slowing down, nostalgia, and moving inward—whether looking within oneself or spending more time indoors. Write a poem that attempts to capture the feeling of this autumnal color. How do its many hues contribute to the elegiac sensations of the season?

10.24.23

“The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Raven,” “The Masque of the Red Death.” Each episode in filmmaker Mike Flanagan’s The Fall of the House of Usher, a new television miniseries based on Edgar Allan Poe’s eponymous story, is named after a famed poem, story title, or line penned by the master of the macabre. While Poe lived and wrote during the first half of the nineteenth century, his lyrical words continue to resound in all their gothic-horror glory in contemporary times. Browse through Poe’s works—all of which are in the public domain and freely available to read online—and write a poem inspired by his favorite themes of love, death, uncertainty, guilt, sickness, regret, revenge, and the subconscious. If you’re having trouble getting started, choose one of Poe’s famous lines as the first line of your poem.

10.17.23

In Safia Elhillo’s poem “Final Weeks, 1990,” which appears in her collection Girls That Never Die (One World, 2022), the speaker envisions the moments before her birth, exploring her origins and parents’ relationship. She writes: “My mother is almost my mother now, / darker color of the noontime sun.” In Chen Chen’s poem “Self-Portrait With & Without,” published in Narrative magazine, he paints a portrait of the speaker in relation to the characteristics of his parents. “With my / mother’s worry. Without, till recently, my father’s glasses,” he writes. For this week’s poem, consider who you are through the eyes of your parents or guardians. Write about the day of your birth, specifying the time of day and year, or try a self-portrait reflecting on inherited traits and your distinct individuality beyond family ties.

10.10.23

The poems in Dorothea Lasky’s The Shining, published by Wave Books in October, portray the physical and psychological horrors that take place in the labyrinthine Overlook Hotel, the setting of the iconic Stephen King novel and Stanley Kubrick film adaptation. Lasky guides readers into the hotel of her imagination in the opening poem, “Self-Portrait in the Hotel”: “When I checked into this / Godforsaken hellhole / They locked me in the tiny yellow room / With no belongings but my lipstick,” she writes. Throughout the book, Lasky meditates on the many horrors of simply being alive, finding inspiration in the hotel’s high ceilings, the Gold Ballroom, and the final shot of the film featuring a terrifying photograph of the protagonist, Jack Torrance, in the ballroom in 1921. Take note of Lasky’s ekphrastic practice and write a poem that places you in the setting of your favorite film. What conflicts come to mind in this newly imagined world?

10.3.23

In 1950, Alan Turing devised a test that could assess the intelligence of computers and determine if they were capable of sentient thought—an uncertainty that lingers as artificial intelligence (AI) continues to develop. Franny Choi’s poem “Turing Test,” published in the Summer 2016 issue of the Poetry Review, plays with this subject of identity and consciousness. The poem responds to objective questions posed by an AI entity, including, “How old are you?” with elaborate answers that reveal more about the speaker. “My memory goes back 26 years / 23 if you don’t count the first few / though by all accounts i was there / i ate & moved & even spoke,” writes Choi. Write a poem in which your speaker, whether AI or not, answers unassuming questions, such as, “Where did you come from?” and “Do you believe you have consciousness?”

9.26.23

Earlier this month, the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London, announced its list of winners for their astronomy photographers of the year awards. The photographs, which were published in the Guardian, show various perspectives of observing the cosmos. In the overall winning photograph created by a team of amateur astronomers, a huge plasma arc shines next to the swirling Andromeda galaxy. In the young astronomy photographer category, the Running Chicken Nebula is captured, a diffused glow of crimson, violet, and black gases shining amidst a cluster of white stars. The photographs taken from Earth show the unexpected manifestations of space seen in our sky, as one features rare cloud formations in Hungary and another captures the orbital rotation of stars forming an infinite circle in Lancashire, England. This week write a poem inspired by these photographs that meditates on your place in the universe. For inspiration, read Tracy K. Smith’s poem “My God, It’s Full of Stars.”

9.19.23

Sometimes the simplest repetition in a poem can bear enormous results. In Aracelis Girmay’s poem “You Are Who I Love,” many of the stanzas start with the word “you,” creating a tapestry of observations. “You, in the park, feeding the pigeons / You cheering for the bees // You with cats in your voice in the morning, feeding cats,” she writes. The poem begins with simple, charming observations and then the lines bloom with strangeness and urgency in both language and subject matter. “You cactus, water, sparrow, crow      You, my elder / You are who I love, / summoning the courage, making the cobbler, // getting the blood drawn, sharing the difficult news,” writes Girmay. This week visit a public space and make a list of image-driven observations of people. Use this list to create a poem that serves as a portrait of this place and its visitors.

9.12.23

In “Tenants,” the opening poem of Hannah Sullivan’s hybrid collection Was It for This (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023), the British poet contends with nursing a new baby a mile away from the Grenfell Tower in West London, a high-rise public housing building that tragically caught fire. The poem combines various viewpoints to address how local, public tragedies can affect private lives, such as accounts from firefighters, research from news reports, and descriptions of the building’s “crinkled, corrugated, lacy” façade. This week, research the local news of your city and write a poem centered around a recent headline. How does this news story affect your personal life? Does this exercise help you feel more connected to your community?

9.5.23

“Everybody looks at him playing / the machine hour after hour, / but he hardly raises his gold lashes,” writes Thom Gunn in his poem “Bally Power Play,” which appears in his collection The Passages of Joy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982). In the poem, an unnamed speaker describes the movements of a pinball player in a bar with a sense of close watchfulness and adoration. “He is / the cool source of all that hurry / and desperate activity, in control, / legs apart, braced arms apart, / seeming alive only at the ends,” writes Gunn. This week, write a poem that captures a scene in which your speaker is observing someone closely. Consider, as in Gunn’s poem, how descriptive language can create and match the rhythm of a subject’s movements. For more inspiration, read C. K. Williams’s poem “From My Window.”

8.29.23

“Erasure poetry is a reconsideration of an existing text. There was something very satisfying about “reconsidering” The Ferguson Report—striking through whole sections of it, as if undoing the harm that had been done,” says Nicole Sealey in our online exclusive interview about her new book, The Ferguson Report: An Erasure, published by Knopf in August. In the interview, the poet discusses both the difficulty of “prying lyric from a lyric-less document” and how erasure provided access to the words she may not have found on her own. This week, find a seemingly lyric-less document and consider the words that lure you in. Try writing your own erasure poem, rubbing out words for your response to the text. For further inspiration, see this poem from Sealey’s new book.

8.22.23

The epithalamium, a lyric written and performed for a couple at their wedding ceremony, originated in ancient Greece with the earliest evidence of the form found in the fragments from Sappho’s seventh book in 600 BC. The form remains popular in contemporary poetry with traditional and nontraditional examples such as Jason Schneiderman’s “Stories About Love / Wedding Poem for Ada & Lucas” and poems by Alexandria Hall and Phillip B. Williams. This week, write your own version of an epithalamium. Whether it be for the future wedding of a loving couple you know or one that reflects on the institution of marriage, share your take on the ancient form.

8.15.23

“For $200: When inheritance begins // What is: in the womb / What is: decades before I announced my father dead / to me,” writes Taylor Byas in the poem “Jeopardy! (The Category Is Birthright),” which appears in her debut collection, I Done Clicked My Heels Three Times (Soft Skull Press, 2023). In this emotional poem, which follows the familiar format of the classic trivia game show referenced in the title, each stanza is framed with a dollar amount and clue in the form of an answer, followed by a list of potential responses in the form of questions. Try writing a poem that turns the format of your favorite game show into a poetic form. Whether you experiment with Wheel of Fortune, Pyramid, or Lingo, what limits of language can you reach when pushing your use of form?

8.8.23

In Natasha Trethewey’s “Flounder,” which appears in her debut collection, Domestic Work (Graywolf Press, 2000), the speaker of the poem recalls a scene from her memories as a young girl fishing with her aunt. The aunt explains how to spot a flounder, “A flounder, she said, and you can tell / ’cause one of its sides is black. // The other side is white, she said.” The poem ends with a strong image that subtly casts an emotional parallel with the speaker seeing a connection between her mixed-race identity and the flounder: “I stood there watching that fish flip-flop, / switch sides with every jump,” writes Trethewey. Inspired by Trethewey’s precise use of an extended metaphor, write a poem in which you cast a parallel between an animal in the wild and yourself. What characteristics will you draw out?

8.1.23

The house in which Nobel Prize–winning poet Tomas Tranströmer lived with his wife was located on the island of Runmarö in Sweden and built in the late nineteenth century by his maternal grandfather, a ship captain who needed a place to rest upon reaching landfall. In Tranströmer’s poem “The Blue House,” he describes the historic house’s exterior as well as its storied past. “It has stood for more than eighty summers. Its timber has been impregnated, four times with joy and three times with sorrow,” he writes. Write a poem that serves as a portrait of a place you have lived in. Consider its past tenants, the details of its exterior and interior, and its relationship to your life.

7.25.23

In his poem “Self-Portrait at Twenty,” Gregory Orr demonstrates the short, personal lyric he’s known for and captures a moment in time in his life. Rather than include details about what occurred when he was twenty, Orr presents a series of stark, detailed images that create a sense of foreboding for what the year had in store for him. The poem begins with the lines: “I stood inside myself / like a dead tree or a tower.” Then, later in the poem, he writes: “Because my tongue / spoke harshly, I said: / Make it dust.” Take inspiration from Orr’s poem and write a self-portrait poem that captures what you felt at a specific age. Try to avoid revealing narrative details and instead, use your sense of imagery to allow the reader in to your state of mind.

7.18.23

In a recent installment of our Craft Capsules series, Megan Fernandes describes a writing exercise centered around breath that she assigns to her students. “I tell my students to take out their phones and record themselves saying ‘I love you’ over and over again in a single breath, noting the time,” she writes. By counting the number of times this phrase is said in one breath, the students can calculate how long their lines are and how many stanzas their poems will contain. This week try Fernandes’s writing exercise to find the natural line length of your own breath and write a poem guided by the capacity of your lungs.

7.11.23

This week marks the birthday of the iconic Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who would have turned 119 on July 12. Known for his historical epics, political manifestos, and love poems, Neruda’s incisive and joyful odes were often dedicated to ordinary objects making them approachable yet surreal. In “Ode to My Socks,” translated from the Spanish by Robert Bly, Neruda describes his covered feet as “two fish made / of wool, / two long sharks / sea-blue.” In “Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market,” translated from the Spanish by Robert Robinson, Neruda describes a dead tuna fish as “a dark bullet / barreled / from the depths.” Inspired by Neruda’s electric, surreal images, write an ode to an ordinary object in your life. Whether it be a bookshelf, a desk, or a coat, think expansively about how to honor and describe this praiseworthy item.

7.4.23

Independence Day, colloquially known as the Fourth of July in the United States, is the annual celebration of nationhood commemorating the passage of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. For centuries, poets have offered deeply personal perspectives on what it means to celebrate their country, including Alicia Ostriker in her poem “The History of America,” in which she writes: “Murdering the buffalo, driving the laggard regiments, / The caring was a necessary myth…” and Naomi Shihab Nye in her poem “No Explosions,” in which she writes: “To enjoy / fireworks / you would have / to have lived / a different kind / of life.” This week write a poem reflecting on your relationship to nationhood. What contradictory feelings surface when you consider your citizenship? For further inspiration, check out the Poetry Foundation’s selection of poems for the Fourth of July.

6.27.23

In his fourth poetry collection, Chariot (Wave Books, 2023), Timothy Donnelly uses form to contain the expansiveness of philosophical and artistic inquiry. Each poem is confined to twenty lines and uses long, syntactically complex sentences to connect seemingly disparate things: from the Milky Way to the polluted green color of the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, New York, and the blue of periwinkles and rainclouds to the ordinariness of a Staples office supply store. Inspired by Donnelly’s use of form and connection, flip through a few books from your shelves and write down all the nouns you encounter. Then write a twenty-line poem that attempts to connect these words as seamlessly as possible using your unique perspective.

6.20.23

“If you haven’t taken the Amtrak in Florida, you haven’t lived,” writes Megan Fernandes in her poem “Letter to a Young Poet,” which appears in her third collection, I Do Everything I’m Told, published by Tin House this week. The poem’s title borrows from Rainer Maria Rilke’s renowned collection of letters to a young poet seeking his guidance, published in 1929. Fernandes’s poem addresses a nameless “you” while simultaneously revealing details about the speaker, producing a sense of intimacy that presents two sides of a correspondence, its lines swerving associatively, as the pieces of advice turn increasingly lyrical. “It’s better to be illegible, sometimes. Then they can’t govern you,” writes Fernandes. “Sleep upward in a forest so the animal sees your gaze.” Taking inspiration from the lyrical techniques evident in this poem, write a poem of your own that offers advice to a younger version of yourself. Instead of simply giving your younger self practical advice, how can you propose a new way to see?

6.13.23

“The poem is an opportunity to turn from memoiristic transcription of information towards a kind of ultimate artifact, charged and changed by the imagination,” says Ocean Vuong about his approach to storytelling in this interview by Kadish Morris for the Guardian. Vuong offers his poem “American Legend” as an example in which the speaker drives his father to put down their dog and crashes the car, which becomes “a kind of parable for American failure.” In actuality, Vuong does not drive but uses the story to consider relationships between fathers and sons. Inspired by this concept of imaginative writing, write a poem that deliberately alters an event in your life. How can your expansion of this event make for a deeper parable?

6.6.23

In January Gill O’Neil’s poem “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” published in the Fall 2022 issue of Rattle, the poet writes about watching the late Tina Turner sing her iconic song in a music video on MTV. “And when Tina sings I’ve been taking on / a new direction directly to the camera, / defiant, her lips glazed a tumultuous red, / she takes her hand and adjusts her / honey brown bangs out of her eyes,” writes O’Neil. This “sweeping gesture” makes a lasting impression on O’Neil as she connects the song’s message to her own experiences with love, recalling the struggles in her parents’ marriage and her own. Consider the lasting impact music has had on your life and title a poem with lyrics from your favorite song. Use these words as a jumping-off point to the memories that come with it.

5.30.23

In Monica Youn’s essay “Generative Revision: Beyond the Zero-Sum Game,” published in the Spring 2023 issue of the Sewanee Review, the poet argues for a revision practice that offers “expansions, alternatives, subversions, and offspring that enrich the original work” rather than replacing or subtracting parts of a first draft. In this generative revision practice, a detail can be expanded in a different version or new poem altogether as Youn explains with two poems by C. D. Wright, “What No One Could Have Told Them” and “Detail from What No One Could Have Told Them.” Youn writes how in the latter poem Wright is “expanding the scope slightly, offering a bit more context, a glimpse of the setting.” Inspired by this technique, write a new poem that focuses on a single detail from an older poem of yours. How can you expand the scope?

5.23.23

First published in the October 1999 issue of Poetry magazine, Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Seven Deadly Sins” is a series of seven poems, each one named after the deadly sins of medieval Christian theology. Each poem is a distinct lyric portrait with its own sentiment, style, and approach to the topic. In “Sloth,” Komunyakaa writes with an open-ended musicality: “In this / Upside-down haven, you’re reincarnated / As a fallen angel trying to go home.” In “Gluttony,” the poet sets the scene concretely in the first stanza: “In a country of splendor & high / Ritual, in a fat land of zeros, / Sits a man with string & bone / For stylus, hunched over his easel.” Inspired by this series, write a poem dedicated to one of the seven deadly sins: pride, avarice, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. What approach will you take?

5.16.23

“This where all the roadside memorials are, / pink wreaths and dirty teddy bears. // This where a man walked when he wanted to fly,” writes Tyree Daye in his poem “Ode to Small Towns,” which appears in his collection Cardinal (Copper Canyon Press, 2020). Daye uses the repetition of “this where” to fold in various threads of distinct stories, making it feel as if the poem was written while driving through a series of towns and telling the tales as they surfaced. Inspired by Daye’s poem, write an ode to the small towns you’ve encountered while on the road. What kinds of stories do you picture when you pass through?

5.9.23

In the iconic poem “My Mother Would Be a Falconress,” Robert Duncan uses the metaphor of a falcon and a falconer to characterize the relationship between a son and his overbearing mother. As the falcon, the speaker of the poem is sent by his mother “as far as her will goes.” Throughout the poem, Duncan provides detailed imagery associated with falconry—such as the hood placed on birds of prey, often sewn round with bells—to give the complex metaphor a realistic weight. Think of a metaphor that captures the relationship between a mother and her child. Write a poem that uses this metaphor to characterize this relationship, whether nurturing, overbearing, or otherwise.

5.2.23

In her Pulitzer Prize–winning collection, The Wild Iris, Louise Glück gives voice to a multitude of flowers: violets, snowdrops, trillium, lamium, scilla, and more. Glück uses floral imagery and personification, as well as the relationship between garden and gardener, to explore themes of resurrection, existence, loss, and suffering. In the poem “Lamium,” she writes: “This is how you live when you have a cold heart. / As I do: in shadows, trailing over cool rock, / under the great maple trees.” This week, inspired by this season’s super blooms, write a poem in the voice of your favorite flower.

4.25.23

In “Blooming How She Must: A Profile of Camille T. Dungy,” published in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Renée H. Shea writes about how the poet “scrutinizes the tradition of the loner, the solitary individual, in nature writing and as part of the artistic life in general” in her new book, Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden (Simon & Schuster, 2023). Write a poem that reflects on your relationship to being alone. Do you find the idea of a solitary life as an artist inviting or does it feel restricting?

4.18.23

“The American experiment will end in 2030 she said / looking into the cards, / the charts, the stars, the mathematics of it,” writes Jorie Graham in “Time Frame,” a poem in her latest collection, To 2040, out today from Copper Canyon Press. The book’s title suggests both a dedication and an urgent address, casting the poems therein as reflections on the age of the Anthropocene and calls to action to protect the earth’s natural wonders. Write a poem that illustrates and reflects on your vision of the future, whether hopeful or woeful. Use the open-endedness of this prompt to fold in as many aspects of the future as possible, including your personal journey and what you foresee for the natural world.

4.11.23

“I love to take an object made all but invisible by its mundanity—an egg-shaped container of pantyhose, a lawn chair turned on its side—and break it open to expose the full dimensions of the human vulnerability it carries,” writes Danielle Blau in her Craft Capsule essay “Somewhere Somebody Is Doing Something Right Now,” in which she explores how she creates characters for her poems. Write a poem that attempts to expose the full dimensions of an object and how it offers a reflection of a person, whether yourself or another character. What is the significance of this object and how does it exemplify human vulnerability?

4.4.23

“What I adore is not horses, with their modern / domestic life span of 25 years. What I adore / is a bug that lives only one day,” writes Natalie Shapero in her poem “Not Horses,” published in the November 2013 issue of Poetry magazine. Shapero redirects the reader from horses to the short lifespan of a bug within the first few lines of the poem and in doing so creates a humorous tension between the title and the body of the poem that adds character to the unique speaker. This week write a poem that moves quickly from one subject to the next. Consider how your mind shifts from one thought to another and carry that tone forward into the poem.

3.28.23

In Ada Limón’s poem “Accident Report in the Tall, Tall Weeds,” which appears in her collection Bright Dead Things (Milkweed Editions, 2015), the speaker moves through the memories of exes and accidents, including how a friend is obsessed with plane crashes: “He memorizes the wrecked metal details, / the clear cool skies cut by black scars of smoke. / Once, while driving, he told me about all the crashes: / The one in blue Kentucky, in yellow Iowa. / How people go on, and how people don’t.” Write a poem about a specific detail or unexpected obsession of a loved one. How does this trait color the memories you have with that person?

3.21.23

In Charif Shanahan’s poem “Colonialism,” which appears in his second collection, Trace Evidence, out this week from Tin House Books, the poet captures a tense and tender moment of childhood rebellion in which the young speaker runs across a bustling four-lane street in Casablanca as his mother rushes after him, spanks him, and says: “Why / Would you do that to me?” Another poem from the book depicts a child in a department store fleeing and hiding from his mother as she searches and calls out for him. The poet’s rebellious, authoritative voice electrifies scenes from childhood while exploring themes of mixed-race identity, queerness, and belonging. Can you recall a childhood memory that, in hindsight, is tied to your identity? Write a poem that captures this scene in which you see a latent part of yourself on display. Try to draw a line, as Shanahan does, connecting your past self to your present self.

3.14.23

“Fish / fowl / flood / Water lily mud / My life // in the leaves and on water,” writes Lorine Niedecker in “Paean to Place,” a long lyric poem that meditates on the region of southern Wisconsin where she was born and lived most of her life. Written in short sections, the poem goes in and out of memories and pastoral descriptions of marshlike landscapes, altogether serving as a testament to the impact a place can have on one’s poetic sensibilities. This week write a pastoral ode to the landscape you grew up in. Whether an urban sprawl or a rural town, try to use the poem’s form and idiosyncratic language to paint a portrait of your experience in this formative place.

3.7.23

Nearly two thousand years ago, the Roman poet Ovid wrote a series of letters in elegiac couplets during his exile from Rome called the Tristia. The poems capture Ovid’s final days in Rome, as well as his journey overseas to Tomis on the Romanian coast of the Black Sea, and are addressed to various figures including his wife, loyal and disloyal friends, and he even composes his epitaph. “I who lie here, sweet Ovid, poet of tender passions, / fell victim to my own sharp wit,” writes Ovid, translated by Peter Green in The Poems of Exile: Tristia and the Black Sea Letters (University of California Press, 2005). Inspired by this epic elegy, write a poem from the perspective of someone in exile. What does your speaker long for, and how does exile force them to voice unspoken concerns?

2.28.23

In “When I See Stars in the Night Sky,” Joy Priest writes an ode to the late iconic singer Whitney Houston, tethering her memory to the stars in the sky. “It’s 1988           Her head /             Thrown back against a black backdrop     She is the only thing / glowing       So distant              from us in the universe,” writes Priest. The poem then moves into the personal connection the speaker has with the singer. “I love myself / because of her,” writes Priest. Inspired by this poem, write an ode to your favorite musician placing them, as Priest does, in a specific moment in time.

2.21.23

“I don’t call it sleep anymore. / I’ll risk losing something new instead,” writes Natalie Diaz in her poem “From the Desire Field,” which appears in her Pulitzer Prize–winning collection, Postcolonial Love Poem (Graywolf Press, 2020). The poem speaks from the mind of someone unable to fall asleep who attempts to find a sense of relief through their insomnia. “Let me call my anxiety, desire, then. / Let me call it, a garden,” she writes. Emotions then begin to move away from the tension of not being able to sleep into sensuality and passion. This week write a poem that revolves around what it feels like to experience insomnia. What do you do when you can’t fall asleep?

2.14.23

Oftentimes it’s the underrated things in life that make the perfect inspiration for a poem. In “For the Poet Who Told Me Rats Aren’t Noble Enough Creatures for a Poem,” Elizabeth Acevedo rises to the title’s challenge by honoring the “inelegant, simple,” and tenacious animal that is often hunted down. In “St. Roach,” Muriel Rukeyser writes to the humble cockroach and captures the moment in which the speaker reaches out and touches one. This week write a poem inspired by an animal that might be considered vermin and reflect on why you might fear or avoid this creature.

2.7.23

If you had the chance to send a poem into space, what would you say? Last week, the Library of Congress announced a collaboration with NASA to send a poem written by U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón into space. The poem will be dedicated to NASA’s Europa Clipper mission and engraved on the spacecraft which will travel 1.8 billion miles to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa to gather detailed measurements and determine if the moon has conditions suitable for life. In honor of this momentous occasion, write a poem dedicated to a celestial body of your choice. Explore the galactic neighborhood with NASA’s interactive map of our solar system.

1.31.23

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.

1.24.23

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.

1.17.23

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?

1.10.23

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?

1.3.23

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?

12.27.22

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.

12.20.22

“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?

12.13.22

“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.

12.6.22

“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?

11.29.22

“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.

11.22.22

“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.

11.15.22

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.

11.8.22

“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.

11.1.22

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.

10.25.22

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.

10.18.22

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?

10.11.22

“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.

10.4.22

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.

9.27.22

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?

9.20.22

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?

9.13.22

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.

9.6.22

“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.

8.30.22

“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.

8.23.22

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.

8.16.22

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?

Pages