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?
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.
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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?
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?
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?”
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?
“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.
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.
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?
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?”
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.”
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.
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?
“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.”
“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.
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.
“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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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?
“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?