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 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 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?
“Often discussions of persona poetry focus on its potential for cultivating empathy, inhabiting another’s perspective, but I have always felt that, inevitably, one circles back upon oneself,” writes Jennifer S. Cheng in Literary Hub about her second collection, Moon: Letters, Maps, Poems (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2018). “Persona poetry is often compared to wearing a mask, but to me it is like speaking into a shell.” In her book, Cheng writes a series of persona poems in the voice of Chang’E, the woman who floats up to the moon in Chinese folktales. Think of a mythical figure or other fictionalized character who resonates with you, and write a short series of poems that explores this person’s inner self. Allow your own voice to intermingle and draw you toward imagining where your identities might overlap.
“Take notes regularly. This will sharpen both your powers of observation and your expressive ability,” writes Lydia Davis in “Thirty Recommendations for Good Writing Habits” in Essays One (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019). This week jot down several lists of different types of observations, such as your feelings, the weather, and your own reactions to the mundane behavior of others as you go about your day. Pay special attention to the facial expressions and small habits or routine movements of people you notice on your commute or while running errands. Write a poem inspired by one or two of these small observations.
“I received a sign in my dream that you would vanish from me,” Naja Marie Aidt writes in When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back (Coffee House Press, 2019). “But images and signs cannot be interpreted before they’re played out in concrete events. You only understand them in retrospect.” In her memoir, translated from the Danish by Denise Newman, Aidt explores the dreams she had about her son, which in hindsight seem portentous of his accidental death in 2015. Think about dreams you’ve had in the past that still linger, or search through old writing to dig up images that are repeated. Write a poem that attempts to find meaning or a connection within these visual artifacts. How can you interpret their significance now?
At JSTOR Daily, a recent story reports on the crowdsourced online slang dictionary Urban Dictionary from a linguistic perspective, noting its inclusion of both niche joke word usage and its usefulness as an archive of social meanings for words such as “like” and “eh.” This week write a poem that incorporates some of your favorite slang or informal vernacular phrases. You might decide to allow this diction to pull your poem towards one tonal direction, or to offset its informality with more conventional elements of meter.
Is there something in the way you move? A study published last month in the Journal of Applied Physiology presented findings that people have unique movement patterns like fingerprints, ways of walking specific to each individual due to distinct muscular contractions. This week observe the idiosyncratic motions of someone close to you, whose gait you can detect from afar or out of the corner of your eye. Write a poem that attempts to capture this person’s particular way of moving. Utilize sound, rhythm, and spacing in your lines to depict these recognizable footsteps.
Last month poetry scholars from Keele University opened up a “Poetry Pharmacy” in a Victorian shop in a small town in England. Visitors can participate in poetry classes, specialist day retreats, and consultations and prescriptions for poetry, which all focus on providing mental health support for the local community and emphasize the therapeutic benefits of poetry. “We believe that poetry can do so much to match or alter a mood, to assist in so many ways with good mental health,” says Deborah Alma, the pharmacy’s designated “Emergency Poet.” This week write a poem with an intentional mood in mind, one that is designed to match a bright or pensive mood, or combat and soothe a conflicted one.
Several years ago, New York Public Library staff discovered a box filled with file cards of written questions submitted to librarians from the 1940s to 1980s, many of which have been collected in the book Peculiar Questions and Practical Answers: A Little Book of Whimsy and Wisdom From the Files of the New York Public Library (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2019). Questions include: “What does it mean when you’re being chased by an elephant?” and “Can you give me the name of a book that dramatizes bedbugs?” and “What time does a bluebird sing?” Write a poem inspired by one of these curiously strange questions. Does your poem provide a practical answer, or avoid one altogether leading instead to more imaginative questions?
What is documentary poetry? In “Where Poetry Meets Journalism” in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, documentary poetry, also known as docupoetry, is described as “socially engaged poetry that often uses nonliterary texts—news reports, legal documents, and transcribed oral histories.” Select a piece of journalism that particularly catches your eye or imagination, and then search for nonliterary texts around the same topic or theme. Write a docupoem that chronicles a story or experience by combining these found texts with your own observations and language.
A recent study published in Open Science reveals that the songs of male humpback whales are informed by the exchanges they have with each other during their travels. In this way their vocalizations denote their migratory route. Throughout the day, jot down bits and pieces of conversation you’ve either partaken in or overheard, song lyrics you have in your head, and any phrases or words that strike you. Use these bits of language to compose a poem that will then become your travel song, a way of detailing the encounters you’ve had throughout your daily voyage. Where have you been and what have you heard?
Last year a British ultramarathoner competing in northwest Canada donated his frostbitten amputated toes to a Yukon hotel bar. Renowned for serving the Sourtoe Cocktail, a shot of whiskey with a mummified human toe dropped inside (the toe is not swallowed, but must touch the drinker’s lips in order to join the club and receive a certificate), the bar depends on donated digits. Write a poem inspired by emotional and visceral responses to this unusual cocktail and ritual. Explore the possible themes of human connection, extreme adventure, sacrifice and generosity, and horror with humor.