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.
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.
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?
The 2022 National Senior Games, the largest multi-sport event in the world for men and women fifty years old and over, took place this month in Florida where over eleven thousand athletes registered to compete. In an article for the New York Times, Talya Minsberg interviewed runners who offer their advice on how to keep going. Roy Englert, the oldest competitor at ninety-nine years old, says to “keep moving, keep moving, keep moving, and have a little luck.” Ninety-three-year-old Lillian Atchley says, “I guess you just have to have the love to race, the determination to just do it.” This week write a poem using running as a metaphor. What images and words of inspiration come up for you?
Teachers play a vital role in the lives of children, making a lasting impression and providing memories carried into adulthood. It makes sense then that there are many poems written about teaching and lessons learned, such as “Why Latin Should Still Be Taught in School” by Christopher Bursk, “The Floral Apron” by Marilyn Chin, and “M. Degas Teaches Art & Science at Durfee Intermediate School, Detroit 1942” by Philip Levine. Write a poem about a beloved teacher of yours. Whether from a favorite class in school, a sports team, or your community, what was unique about this teacher? How has this mentor impacted your life decades later?
Last week scientists unveiled the first image of Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy, the culmination of a decades-long astronomical quest. Located 27,000 light-years away, it is relatively small and constantly changing from minute to minute, appearing as a glowing donut-shaped ring in images. Consider this historic scientific achievement and write a poem inspired by the mysteries of black holes. For an idea on how to create a metaphor out of celestial phenomenon, read the poem “After Reading That the Milky Way Is Devouring the Galaxy of Sagittarius” by Erin Belieu.
In Ada Limón’s poem “The Raincoat,” published in her collection The Carrying (Milkweed Editions, 2018), the speaker reflects on the experience of comfort and protection parents can offer through simple gestures like taking off a raincoat in a storm to wrap around their child or making time to drive and accompany them to doctor’s appointments. Write a poem about a time a parental figure of yours made a loving sacrifice. Think of a memory that makes you feel the way Limón does at the end of her poem: “My god, / I thought, my whole life I’ve been under her / raincoat thinking it was somehow a marvel / that I never got wet.”
In a recent installment of Ten Questions, poet Dana Levin recalls the earliest memory associated with her new book, Now Do You Know Where You Are (Copper Canyon Press, 2022): “Pacing around my sublet in Saint Louis, Fall 2015, saying out loud the words ‘No,’ ‘Yes,’ and ‘Stop’ over and over: to feel how they felt in my mouth, my throat, my chest.” Included in Levin’s collection are three poems—“No,” “Maybe,” and “Into the Next Eden”—that seek to answer the question posed by the book’s title. This week, consider a question to ask yourself and write three poems with different responses. Do your answers surprise you?
“I am five, / Wading out into deep / Sunny grass,” writes Yusef Komunyakaa in his poem “Venus’s-Flytraps.” The young speaker in this poem delivers a collage-like monologue that lays out the various characters, images, and places from his life along with a sense of wonder and danger carefully balanced in striking lines, creating a tapestry that portrays a very real and complex childhood. “I know things / I don’t supposed to know. / I could start walking / & never stop. / These yellow flowers / Go on forever,” writes Komunyakaa. Write a poem from the perspective of a curious child, which, like Komunyakaa’s poem, illustrates even the most devastating things with a sense of wonder.
“After killing your god, hotbox the gun smoke,” writes Kemi Alabi in “How to Fornicate,” the opening poem of their debut collection, Against Heaven, winner of the 2021 Academy of American Poets First Book Award, published by Graywolf Press in April. Alabi’s poem enumerates a set of instructions that lyrically lay out the relationship the speaker has with sex and sexuality, using imperatives to speak directly to the reader. These intimate instructions transform throughout the poem, ranging from clear actions to more unexpected uses of nouns that have been repurposed as verbs: “Choir everything. Tenor the roses. / Alto the mulch. Mezzo the flies.” Write a poem in which each sentence begins with an imperative. Try, as Alabi does in the poem, to use a range of words and lexicons to challenge traditional instructional language.
In a profile of Tracy K. Smith by Renée H. Shea, published in the March/April 2015 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet discusses the “shifting subjectivities” she discovered while writing her memoir, Ordinary Light (Knopf, 2015), in which she includes stories from her childhood. “Tracy the citizen was allowed to engage with these private stories, just as Tracy the mother was allowed in at times,” says Smith. Consider two identities that you hold, then write a poem from one of these perspectives. What is left out, and what is let in?
“[Nashville] is hot chicken on sopping white bread with green pickle / chips—sour to balance prismatic, flame-colored spice / for white people,” writes Tiana Clark in her poem “Nashville,” published in the New Yorker in 2017. The poem interlaces personal experience and anecdotes with a historical overview of the Southern city’s development. “I-40 bisected the black community / like a tourniquet of concrete. There were no highway exits. / 120 businesses closed,” writes Clark. Write a poem about a city you’ve lived in. How does your time there intersect with the history of the town? Use research to find significant events that take your poem to a deeper place beyond your own life.
From the Czech word litost—a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery—to the German word schadenfreude—the pleasure derived from the misfortune of others—to the French word dépaysement—the restlessness that comes with being away from your country of origin—untranslatable words have continued to be a source of inspiration for writers across languages. Each word reflects the culture from which it comes as well as illustrates the inability for language to fully capture the human experience. Write a poem using an untranslatable word as a jumping-off point. For inspiration, read Barbara Hamby’s poem “Toska” included in her book On the Street of Divine Love: New and Selected Poems (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014).
“They say a poet / can never write a purely happy poem about a dog / greeting the sun and what it has done to rain,” writes Analicia Sotelo in her poem “Grace Among the Ferns” published in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series. “I don’t know about that.” The poem is inspired by Sotelo’s dog Grace, who nuzzles her body through ferns on a sunny day, and how she seems to effortlessly enjoy the pleasures of springtime. Inspired by Sotelo’s poem, challenge yourself to write a joyful poem. Will your poem include a beloved pet?
“I don’t know about you, but for me, the last two years have put a strain on language,” says Ada Limón in an episode of The Slowdown, a podcast hosted by the poet featuring a curated poem. “For me, and maybe for many of us, the way we say I love you, is just by showing up. By being there, sometimes quietly, wordlessly, but there, in person, nonetheless,” she says while introducing the featured poem “Don’t Say Love Just Signal” by Tyree Daye. This week, write a poem about the ways love can be expressed physically, without words. When words aren’t enough, how does the body say more?
“Poets are supposed to avoid clichés—bits of language so hackneyed as to seem drained of meaning—but I’m fascinated by what hyper-familiar turns of phrase can reveal and conceal,” writes Hannah Aizenman about her poem “As a Father of Daughters,” published in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series. The poem uses the phrase in the title as a jumping-off point for a seemingly associative list that hinges on the levity of rhyme and continues to reveal more about the original phrase. “As a failure of rathers / As a faithful support / As we gather together / As a fear of disorder,” writes Aizenman. Write a poem inspired by a common phrase or idiom that challenges its meaning. What will be revealed or concealed?
As many turn to gardening in warmer temperatures, so come the unwanted but sturdy weeds, popping up regardless of how often they’re removed. Louise Glück’s poem “Witchgrass” explores this perspective from an anthropomorphized incarnation of witchgrass, a common summer annual weed of field crops and small fruit. The result is a testament to the sheer force of nature, as well as a critique of humanity’s obsession with weeding out the seemingly unnecessary: “I don’t need your praise / to survive. I was here first, / before you were here, before / you ever planted a garden.” Write a poem from the perspective of a pesky, unwanted plant or animal. What strength can you find in the underdog?
“My materialist mind, I can’t / shake it,” writes Solmaz Sharif in her poem “Now What” from her second collection, Customs, forthcoming in March by Graywolf Press. The speaker of the poem sits in a hotel in Ohio eating takeout and meditating on the origins of the meal, tracing connections back into history and the people whose hands made this food possible: “Within a perfect / little tub of garlic / butter // a relief of workers, of sickles / fields of soy.” Write a poem that meditates on the origins of a favorite condiment, seasoning, or meal. Try to establish a time and place in the poem by beginning in the present, then leap into the anecdotal or historical stories that come to you.
As with this past weekend’s Super Bowl, singing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the national anthem of the United States, before the start of sports events is a time-honored tradition. Poet Ada Limón has made that eventful moment the center of her poem “A New National Anthem,” which is included in her collection The Carrying (Milkweed Editions, 2018). “The truth is, I’ve never cared for the National / Anthem. If you think about it, it’s not a good / song,” writes Limón. “And what of the stanzas / we never sing, the third that mentions ‘no refuge / could save the hireling and the slave’? Perhaps, / the truth is, every song of this country / has an unsung third stanza.” Write a poem inspired by a country’s national anthem. What are your feelings about it? Is it a good song?