“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 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.
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?
“Truth can be lazy because it becomes satisfied with itself, and it is often so tethered to time and space that to demand one truth can often invisibilize another’s truth,” says Natalie Diaz in “Energy,” an interview by Jacqueline Woodson in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. “When and where does truth begin, and whose truth is it?” Think of an issue in your life that you feel conflicted over, an idea or state of being that you have long held to be true, whose solidity you have begun to question. Write a poem that attempts to demand more from this perceived truth, exploring how it entered your belief system. To whom is it tethered?
In the Cut, seventy-eight new emotions are introduced, inspired by a theory that emotions are not just objective, biologically measurable states but are constructed interpretations of sensations affected by our cultures, expectations, and language. Writers, including Greg Jackson, Sara Nović, and Bryan Washington, name and describe new emotions like jealoushy: “The feeling of being jealous of someone while also having a crush on them,” and heartbreak adrenaline: “The strange feats of strength that can be accomplished after a devastating breakup.” Write a poem that revolves around a newly named emotion of your own invention, perhaps involving love, lust, or heartbreak. How does giving new language to a feeling expand your perspective?
Marshes, rivers, forest, mountains, butterfly wings, fungi, fruits, flowers, birds, leaves, foxes, bears, wolves, and whales. The Biodiversity Heritage Library, billed as the “world’s largest open access digital library,” is a free archive of over fifty-seven million pages of sketches, illustrations, diagrams, studies, and research of life on Earth from the fifteenth century to the present. Browse through their Flickr gallery and choose a group of images that you find particularly intriguing, striking, curious, or beautiful. Write a poem that considers the life forms and ecosystems depicted in the illustrations and how they affect your imagination today.
“Most time-keeping traditions track the movement of the sun, moon and stars. Others consider seasonal events,” writes Steph Yin in the New York Times in an article about the lunar new year and other time-keeping traditions and cycles found in cultures around the world. “Each calendar reveals something about how the people who created it relate to the world around them while also preserving rich cultural identities and memories.” Write a poem about the passing of time that uses a metric personal to you. Perhaps a tree growing in your yard or an iconic neighborhood establishment that has changed over the years. What does it say about how you relate to the world?
Stonehenge, the Pantheon, a seventeenth-century tea pavilion, salons, and reading rooms. For T Magazine’s “The 25 Rooms That Influence the Way We Design,” a six-person jury of design and interior professionals put together a list of spaces that have changed the way we live and the way we see. Write a series of short poems about memorable rooms you have been inside of at different points in your life. Perhaps you know the space well or encountered it briefly. What kind of vocabulary or rhythm can you use to evoke each room’s atmosphere as recalled from memory? Have they changed your life?
“The light / that points / the way // in the fog. / The light / in the fog // that thickens / and reveals / the fog’s // cold breath. / The fog / as well.” Jeffrey Thomson’s poem “What is Poetry? Part 2,” selected by Naomi Shihab Nye for the New York Times, locates possibilities for poetry everywhere, from all angles, in all subjects. Think of an image from your memory and write a poem that finds resonance as you dig deeper into the details. What happens when you explore an unexpected perspective of this memory? What new facets can you uncover?
“Comics are a staccato medium, with evidently small elements adding up to bigger ones,” says cartoonist Jason Adam Katzenstein in “Graphic Narrative Workshops” by Elena Goukassian in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. “Comics panels feel like stanzas in a poem.” Find a favorite short comic strip and write a poem comprised of one stanza per panel. Study the comic to gather a sense of the theme and pacing, working backwards from the images to write a piece that reflects a bigger whole created out of smaller, distilled moments.
“I had a dream, which was not all a dream. / The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars / Did wander darkling in the eternal space, / Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth / Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air,” wrote Lord Byron in “Darkness,” a poem composed in the summer of 1816, when unusually frigid temperatures, ominous thunderstorms, and incessant rains forced Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary Shelley to hole up inside a Swiss villa. While there they initiated the famous ghost story contest that launched Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein and inspired Byron and Percy Shelley to create work filled with foreboding elements of the natural environment. Write a poem inspired by extreme weather phenomena, perhaps invoking elements of an environment in crisis and apocalyptic climate change. How can you manipulate imagery, syntax, and meter to make meteorological conditions fearsome and lyrical, to make something natural seem supernatural?
Honey Boy, a semiautobiographical film written by and starring Shia LaBeouf, offers an honest and complex portrait of his childhood and relationship with his father. LaBeouf plays a version of his father in this drama, delving into the character’s particular psychology, speech, and mannerisms. Write a persona poem where you take on the identity of a family member. Step inside this person’s skin and consider what thoughts occupy their mind, what tone and vernacular they might possess on the page. As an additional step, try including pieces of dialogue you can recall having with this person.
In the New York Times Anatomy of a Scene video series, a director talks through one scene of their film and speaks to all the behind-the-camera action, planning, and unexpected occurrences that allowed for this sequence to take shape. Write a voice-driven poem where you narrate a scene from any film that moves you emotionally and creatively. Perhaps this scene is connected to a memory or experience of your own, or you notice something subtle in an actor’s performance. What is brimming beneath the surface of this visual? What can you share about this moment in the film that another viewer may not catch?