“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.
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. For weekly writing prompts delivered via e-mail every Friday morning, sign up for our free newsletter.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
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?
“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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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?
“When in danger the sea-cucumber divides itself in two: / one self it surrenders for devouring by the world, / with the second it makes good its escape,” writes Wisława Szymborska in “Autotomy,” which appears in her collection Map: Collected and Last Poems (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015), translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Barańczak. In the poem, Szymborska reflects on the creature’s process of autotomy, casting off a part of the body while under threat, through the lens of survival and mortality. She writes: “It splits violently into perdition and salvation, / into fine and reward, into what was and what will be.” Write a poem inspired by an animal’s unique behavior, perhaps the molting of a snake or the colorful courtship habits of a bowerbird. What does this behavior symbolize for you?
The late poet and critic John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (Viking, 1975) is considered his masterpiece, having won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the National Book Award. The long title poem is a meditation on sixteenth-century Italian artist Parmigianino’s painting of the same name. Ashbery writes: “The surface / Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases / Significantly; that is, enough to make the point / That the soul is a captive.” This week write a poem about your reflection. Whether seen through a traditional mirror, a body of water, or a distorted lens, begin with a description of what you see and follow through with an inner reflection.
In Seamus Heaney’s poem “Oysters,” which appears in his 1979 collection, Field Work, the speaker faces an internal conflict in which he relishes in the “perfect memory” of eating oysters with friends while also dealing with the anger and “glut of privilege” that allows him such refined experiences. In the final sentence, as if avoiding the lingering guilt, Heaney writes: “I ate the day / Deliberately, that its tang / Might quicken me all into verb, pure verb.” Write a poem in which a moment of pleasure is met with guilt or shame. Bring both feelings into focus, digging into the complexity of the scene.
“Scientists have picked up a radio signal ‘heartbeat’ billions of light-years away,” reads an article headline published by NPR last Thursday from a report that astronomers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology picked up radio signals that repeat in a clear periodic pattern similar to a beating heart from a galaxy billions of light-years from Earth. The discovery could help researchers determine at what speed the universe is expanding. Write a poem inspired by this headline in which you explore the metaphorical and literal ramifications of a “heartbeat” billions of light-years away.
In this week’s installment of our Craft Capsules series, Lauren Camp shares a technique she uses to salvage phrases from her poems that aren’t quite working. “Over the last few decades, I have maintained a Word document—I call it my ‘Keeps’ document,” Camp writes. “Into this file I paste my ‘darlings,’ margin to margin across the width and length of the page, smooshing them together with other beauties I couldn’t make work.” Inspired by Camp’s process, find a draft of a poem you have worked on but have yet to complete. Take a word or a line and repurpose it in a new poem. What surprising places do these words and phrases take you in your new work?
This past weekend, Independence Day was celebrated in the United States with barbecues, concerts, parades, picnics, and fireworks commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Amidst the celebration, the day has also become a reminder of what it means to uphold human rights. Write a poem reflecting on celebrating the country you grew up in and all the complicated feelings and memories that come along. For inspiration, read “Ghazal: America the Beautiful” by Alicia Ostriker, included in the archives of the Academy of American Poets’ website.
“Today we’re going to get to work on the details / of your expression. And believe it or not, / the only colors we’re going to use will be / blacker than most blacks,” writes Terrance Hayes in his poem “Bob Ross Paints Your Portrait,” published in Paris Review’s Summer 2022 issue. In the poem, Hayes writes in the voice of American painter and television host Bob Ross, whose show The Joy of Painting aired on PBS in the 1980s and 1990s, as he delivers instructions on how to paint a portrait of the poet. This week, inspired by Hayes, write a poem in the form of a self-portrait. Try using instructional language to describe yourself, allowing any emotions that arise to make their way into the poem.
Today marks this year’s Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year and the date that officially signifies the beginning of summer in the Northern Hemisphere. It has been documented that the day was observed as early as the Stone Age, and cultures around the world continue to celebrate the occasion through feasts, festivals, and music. Write a poem inspired by the longest day and shortest night of the year. For further inspiration, peruse this list of poems on the Summer Solstice from the Academy of American Poets’ website.
A still life, according to Merriam-Webster, is “a picture consisting predominantly of inanimate objects,” but in Jay Hopler’s Still Life, published in June by McSweeney’s, the term takes on new meaning. Hopler, who was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer in 2017, charges his poems with sharp observations of the body and lyrical ruminations that wander well beyond the traditional associations of a still life. In “still life w/ hands” he writes: “poor dumb lugs what loves you not the butterfly knife not the corkscrew....” In “still life w/ wet gems” he writes from a more fractured perspective: “lightnings bang their jaggeds on the cloud-glower / the cloud-glower is a broken necklace spilling its wet gems / its wet gems w/ facets cut are uncountable / uncountable the reflections of the world in those gems.” Inspired by Hopler’s Still Life, write a still-life poem of your own. Will your poem consider inanimate objects or living things, actions, emotions? Use this exercise as an opportunity to challenge a familiar perspective and consider a new viewpoint.
In this week’s installment of our Craft Capsules series, poet Trevor Ketner writes about setting specific parameters and inventing methods to guide their writing. For their first book, [WHITE] (University of Georgia Press, 2021), Ketner based a series of poems on the major arcana cards of the tarot: “Because the major arcana comprises twenty-two cards, I wrote twenty-two poems of twenty-two lines each,” says Ketner. Inspired by Ketner’s use of invented forms, choose a number significant to you and write a poem limited to that number of lines. Will having a set structure surprise you with the freedom to push your language?