In Natasha Trethewey’s “Repentance,” included in her retrospective poetry collection Monument (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018), she describes the term pentimento as: “the word for a painter’s change of heart revision / on canvas.” Trethewey uses this painting practice as a metaphor for contending with the memory of a quarrel with her father: “a moment so / far back there’s still time to take the glass from your hand / or mine.” What memory would you want to revise or repent, as if you could paint over it? Inspired by painting, write a poem that uses detailed imagery to imagine the possibility of a new past.
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.
In Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “Anodyne,” he writes an ode to his body and its survival, and catalogues the parts of his body that make it his own with lines such as: “I love my crooked feet / shaped by vanity & work” and “The white moons / on my fingernails.” As the poem progresses, the images transform and expand to mythological proportions: “this spleen floating / like a compass needle inside / nighttime, always divining / West Africa’s dusty horizon.” Write an ode to your body that starts with the crooked parts and continues by going past the physical into the mythological.
In “Killing My Sister’s Fish” by Sharon Olds, which appears in her 1996 poetry collection, The Wellspring, she writes of a child pouring ammonia into the bowl of her sister’s pet goldfish and ruminates on the action “as if something set in motion / long before I had been conceived / had been accomplished.” Reflect on a time when you did something wrong, or even sinister, as a child and list the physical details of the event. Write a poem that narrates this memory as truthfully as possible and consider why the event remains so vivid in your mind.
Over thirty years after the release of the classic sci-fi comedy film Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, this fall marks the release of Bill & Ted Face the Music, the third installment of the series following the two title characters, played by Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter, slacker metalhead musicians from California tasked with traveling through time to save the world. Elsewhere in Reeves’s filmography there is more time traveling, including the mind-bending 2006 film The Lake House, in which an architect is engaged in an epistolary romance with a doctor who inhabits the same lake house, but two years apart. Write a series of short poems inspired by the concept of time travel. If you could go back or move forward in time, who would you see and what would you change?
The abecedarian is a poetic form in which the first letter of each line or stanza follows sequentially through the English alphabet. Poets such as Natalie Diaz, Carolyn Forché, and Harryette Mullen have used the form to tackle the historical subjugation of a people and the inadequacy of language when faced with great disaster. The controlled form builds a visual structure that calls attention to the poem’s subject matter. Write an abecedarian poem that reflects on the English language and your place in it. Read Natalie Diaz’s “Abecedarian Requiring Further Examination of Anglikan Seraphym Subjugation of a Wild Indian Rezervation” for inspiration.
In an interview with Yahdon Israel for the LIT video series, Whiting Award–winning poet Safiya Sinclair describes poetry as the “language of an impolite body.” Sinclair considers “wildness” and “madness” while writing and engages with the task of decolonizing the English language as a Jamaican writer. Consider your own relationship with the English language and write a poem that presents any complications or disturbances as an impolite body. Play with word choice or form to go against the grain of learned rules. For guidance, read Sinclair’s poem “In Childhood, Certain Skies Refined My Seeing” from her collection, Cannibal (University of Nebraska Press, 2016).
In Roland Barthes’s 1981 book Camera Lucida, he introduces the concept of a photograph’s punctum, which can be defined as the sensory, intensely subjective effect of a photograph on the viewer, or as he puts it: “that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” Barthes contrasts the punctum with the studium, which is the more general approach to a photograph informed by historical and cultural experiences. Choose a personal photograph and meditate on the specific conditions, feelings, and circumstances behind it. What do you feel and know from looking at it? Then, identify the precise detail in the photograph you are drawn to—what is it exactly? Using your senses, write a poem that centers and delves into the punctum, the precise detail. What does a detail reveal about the whole?
Alt-rock, barista, codependent, designated driver, e-mail, frisée, G-spot, home theater, multitasker, spoiler alert, wordie. What do all these words have in common? They are all listed with a “first known use” year of 1982 according to Merriam-Webster’s online Time Traveler tool, which allows users to see what words first appeared in written or printed use in each year from the Old English to 2020. Choose a year that has particular resonance to you, perhaps one that marks a turning point or significant event in your life, and browse through the words that are listed as first recorded that year. Write a poem about a memorable event and incorporate some of these words. How does this language transform the tone or thematic direction of your poem?
Are trees immortal? Earlier this year, research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported on findings that the biological behavior of gingko trees over six hundred years old was similar to those that were only around twenty years old, prompting the idea that perhaps these trees were immortal. Last month, a new paper published in response in Trends in Plant Science argues that while some trees may indeed live for hundreds or even thousands of years, eventually they are likely to die, and our studies are simply limited by the (relatively) short lifespans of the human beings conducting the studies. Write a pair of poems, one exploring immortality and one exploring mortality. Where do you find yourself turning for allusions or references—nature, civilization, interpersonal relationships?
In “Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness,” published in the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog, poet and novelist John Keene reflects on language as “a medium, a field, a tool, a site of being and expression and communication.” Through his translation work, Keene engages with writing that is often overlooked, such as poetry “by women writers, by LGBTQ writers, and by writers of African descent,” in order to publish the work for more readers. Choose a poet whose work you admire and translate one of their poems into another language or form. Perhaps you attempt a translation from one language to another or try “translating” a sonnet into a pantoum. What would you like to express through this exchange of language?
What can you tell from a kelp’s DNA? In a paper published earlier this month in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, scientists reported findings that the genes of bull kelp found in New Zealand bear different genetic markers because of an earthquake that occurred eight hundred years ago, a reminder of how nature has the power to recover from a disruption. Write a poem that revolves around a specific idiosyncrasy or personality trait, and imagine its connection to an ancient ecological disaster. You might take inspiration from the undulating forms of seaweed waving underwater as you braid in themes of history, continuation, inheritance, and the twinning of destruction with renewal.
“Rituals—or the tasks we perform repeatedly, not for what they accomplish but for what they mean to us—help athletes prepare their minds for the unknowns they’ll face when they perform,” writes psychiatrist Neha Chaudhary in a New York Times article about how rituals—such as “Steph Curry’s sinking a shot from the tunnel before each basketball game” or “Serena Williams’ bouncing her tennis ball five times before her first serve”—can help instate feelings of connectedness and calmness during anxiety-inducing times. Write a poem about a ritual that’s a part of your everyday life, or perhaps one that you performed regularly during a past phase of your life. How can you play with repetition, pacing, sound and rhythm, and white space to mimic the enactment and aftereffects of a ritual?
In “The Untranslatable” published on the Paris Review website, the translators of poems featured in the magazine’s summer issue write short essays about their processes. Patricio Ferrari and Susan Margaret Brown, who translated António Osório’s poems from the Portuguese, write about choosing between words in the English language that have Latin versus Germanic origins: “Most words representing abstract ideas stem from the Latin while the majority of words exemplifying concrete ideas come from the Saxon. In a newspaper article, the choice may be irrelevant; in a poem, the choice matters.” Rewrite or draft a new version of a poem you’ve written in the past, switching out some of the Latinate words for those with Germanic roots, and vice versa. How does this change the sound, tone, and other nuances of your poem?
In response to the increasingly searing and muggy days, a recent Bustle article detailed the effects of humidity on the body. “You may feel more uncomfortable on a humid day because your body is not as easily able to evaporate the sweat on your skin, due to the moisture in the air,” says physician assistant Christina L. Belitsky, adding that “evaporation of sweat on our skin is our body’s way of naturally cooling us down in warm temperatures.” Write a poem in which you discuss an aspect of how the body—internal organs, skin, or your own joints—functions in such sticky heat. What images and vocabulary enable you to perfectly encapsulate the physical effects of a sweltering summer day?
When’s the last time you took a really close look at an insect? In Aliens Among Us: Extraordinary Portraits of Ordinary Bugs (Liveright, 2020), photographer Daniel Kariko uses a scanning electron microscope and a stereo microscope to present extreme close-up photographs of insects—beetles, flies, centipedes, bees, wasps. Browse through some of Kariko’s photos, and write a poem inspired by the surprising details you discover in these portraits. Focus on reflecting texture, color, and the form and function of insect bodies into the fabric of your poem.
“If we study what we are attracted to, tease out the correspondences, follow the connections, and find the parallels, we make something new—something that speaks to a shared past and idiosyncratic present,” writes Emily LaBarge in a Bookforum review of Moyra Davey’s new essay collection, Index Cards (New Directions, 2020). Write a poem that revolves around a selection of everyday objects that you feel inexplicably drawn to, perhaps a particular pencil or spoon, a favorite mug or lamp, a preferred toothbrush or view from a window. What connections or parallels can you draw between them? How do they exist in harmony or tension with each other?
In “The Linguistic Case for Sh*t Hitting the Fan” at JSTOR Daily, Chi Luu writes about the functions of idiomatic speech, their linguistic origins, their usage and effects, and their power to draw people together with a feeling of intimacy or community, citing examples such as “chew the fat,” “pull someone’s leg,” “kick the bucket,” “shoot the breeze,” “let the cat out of the bag,” and others. “Idioms, though seemingly mundane, are the fossilized poetry of language,” writes Luu. Write a poem that springs from one of your favorite idioms, perhaps one you use frequently or one with particularly evocative imagery. What memories, associations, or resonances arise?
“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 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.