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?
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.
“From narrow provinces / of fish and bread and tea, / home of the long tides / where the bay leaves the sea,” writes Elizabeth Bishop in her iconic poem “The Moose,” in which she writes about a bus ride through Nova Scotia, describing in detail both the natural landscape and the conversations happening inside the bus. The poem takes its title from the final scene, in which the bus stops in front of a moose in the middle of the road. Write a poem that takes place entirely within the stretch of a single journey. Be it by plane, bus, or car, how can you use the finite sense of a journey to your poem’s advantage?
In Lee Young-ju’s “A Girl and the Moon” from her collection Cold Candies (Black Ocean, 2021), translated from the Korean by Jae Kim, image and story are woven together into a spellbinding prose poem that maintains its steady rhythm through the consistent use of commas. “Mid-night, swinging upside down on a pull-up bar, the girl says, Mother, this bone growing on my back, white in the night, protruding out of my skin, long and endlessly this bone,” writes Young-ju. This week, write a poem that uses commas as its only punctuation. Does this formal constraint challenge your syntax and word choice?
“We moved / into the next song without / stopping, two chests heaving / above a seven-league / stride,” writes Rita Dove in “American Smooth,” the title poem of her 2004 poetry collection, capturing the thoughts of a dancer and their partner as they achieve “flight, / that swift and serene / magnificence.” This week, inspired by Dove, write a poem that catalogues getting lost in the joy of dancing. Whether alone or with a partner, describe the moments between taking the first step and the music ending. Play with varied syntax and the senses to communicate the experience of the body.
“She is the speed of darkness— / witness her mystery, not her gown,” writes Christopher Gilbert in “Muriel Rukeyser as Energy” from his poetry collection Across the Mutual Landscape (Graywolf Press, 1984). The poem serves as a kind of ode to the influential poet Muriel Rukeyser, whose five-decade literary career is characterized by her involvement in political activism and mentorship. Through the anaphora of “she” and use of surreal imagery, Gilbert creates a mythological portrait that reaches beyond biography and reflects both Rukeyser’s influence and poetic character. Write a poem about a writer whose influence on you is significant. What imagery and syntax will you employ to properly reflect the character and impact of their work?
In John Keene’s poem “Phone Book,” from his poetry collection Punks: New and Selected Poems (Song Cave, 2021) and published on Literary Hub, the speaker flips alphabetically through a Rolodex remembering the lives of each person listed: “Yamil bending / ear to lips to read the laments, with care, tells me that Zachary, the Rolodex / Z, now gone, no longer fears those dark days. In any light, trust, the dead can see.” Mixing rhythm and narrative, Keene seamlessly threads together the names of contacts with their respective stories, never losing the threads of their often fleeting lives. This week, make a list of names from A-Z of people from your past and then weave them together in a loose abecedarian poem that tells their stories.
“i am running into a new year / and the old years blow back / like a wind,” writes Lucille Clifton in her poem “i am running into a new year,” which is included in The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010 edited by Kevin Young and Michael S. Glaser (BOA Editions, 2015). In this popular poem, Clifton writes about encountering her past as she moves into the future: “it will be hard to let go / of what i said to myself / about myself / when i was sixteen and / twenty-six and thirty-six.” Write a poem about the feeling you get when entering a new year. What are you taking with you, and what are you leaving behind? For further inspiration, read this Washington Post article by Stephanie Burt about the tradition of greeting a new year with poetry.
“You are a hundred wild centuries // And fifteen, bringing with you / In every breath and in every step // Everyone who has come before you,” writes Alberto Ríos in his poem “A House Called Tomorrow,” in which he challenges readers to consider their place in building a better world. In the poem, fitting for the new year, Ríos writes about the weight of the past, then sounds a hopeful note: “Look back only for as long as you must, / Then go forward into the history you will make.” Write a poem about your relationship to the past—your connection to the “wild centuries” of history as well as your own personal past, from early childhood to recent years marked by the private and public transformations of time. Try to include your own revelations along with the inspiration that propels you forward into a new tomorrow.
“I once thought I was / my own geometry, / my own geocentric planet,” writes Paul Tran in their poem “Copernicus,” one in a series of poems titled after inventors and scientific concepts. In many of the poems, the theory or invention is used as a metaphor for a given speaker’s emotional struggle, such as in “Hypothesis,” in which Tran writes: “I could survive knowing / that not everything has a reason” and in the first lines of “Galileo”: “I thought I could stop / time by taking apart / the clock.” This week, write a poem named after an inventor or theory. How can you personalize a scientific subject and cast it through a lyrical light?
Aracelis Girmay’s poem “Elegy,” from her second poetry collection, Kingdom Animalia (BOA Editions, 2011), begins with a question: “What to do with this knowledge that our living is not guaranteed?” The poem’s speaker finds hope in the natural world as a way of answering this existential question: “Perhaps one day you touch the young branch / of something beautiful. & it grows & grows.” Write a poem that seeks to answer what it means to be impermanent. What do you wish to leave behind?
“The name means ‘odd.’ / The name means ‘queer.’ / It can denote an ‘odd fish,’” writes Mark Wunderlich in his poem “Wunderlich.” The poem serves as an exploration of the poet’s last name, interlacing a historical overview of his family’s ancestry with suggestive definitions that compound and contradict. “The name means ‘electric organ maestro.’ / The name means ‘famous botanical illustrator.’” This week write a poem inspired by your last name. Allow yourself to get carried away with fact and fable, letting your imagination spin a new history for your family name.
“It is December and we must be brave,” writes Natalie Diaz in “Manhattan is a Lenape Word,” a poem from her Pulitzer Prize–winning collection, Postcolonial Love Poem (Graywolf Press, 2020). Diaz sets the scene by describing the sounds and colors of New York City: “The ambulance’s rose of light / blooming against the window.” Then she moves from the exterior to the interior: “I’m the only Native American / on the 8th floor of this hotel or any...” Inspired by Diaz, and the onset of winter, write a poem that starts with the line: “It is December and we must be brave.” Let this first line carry you into sensuous descriptions about the world outside, as well as inside.
“The Greeks / had it wrong: / catastrophe // is not a downturn, / not a fall / from grace,” writes Monica Youn in her poem “Portrait of a Hanged Woman” from her third collection, Blackacre (Graywolf Press, 2016). The poem begins with a reference to the etymology of the word “catastrophe,” which comes from two Greek words meaning “down” and “turning.” Youn uses this starting point to depict the emotional turmoil behind a time when one’s life unravels. This week, write a poem that begins by breaking down the etymological root of a word. Is there a contrast between what the word means to you and its origins? For further inspiration, watch a video of Youn reading this poem in a conversation with Robert Pinsky.
Lebanese American writer and artist Etel Adnan died at the age of ninety-six this past Sunday on November 14 in Paris. One of the most celebrated and accomplished Arab American authors of her era, Adnan leaves behind decades of writing that interrogates war and the effects it has in displacing communities, as well as visual art inspired by landscapes in nature, which she called her “inner landscapes.” This week, inspired by Adnan’s bright and lucid landscape paintings, write an ekphrastic poem reflecting on one of her works. What natural landscapes did you grow up around, and how can you fuse them into the poem?
“Above my desk, whirring and self-important / (Though not much larger than a hummingbird), / In finely woven robes, school of Van Eyck / Hovers an evidently angelic visitor,” writes James Merrill in his poem “Angel.” The speaker in the poem is visited by an angel whose presence stirs up questions about the passive act of writing: “How can you sit there with your notebook? / What do you think you are doing?” This week, write a poem in which the speaker is visited by a watchful, otherworldly presence. Try, like Merrill, to be descriptive about the setting in order to set the mood.
“I love the I, / frail between its flitches, its hard ground / and hard sky, it soars between them / like the soul that rushes, back and forth, / between the mother and father.” In this line from her iconic poem “Take the I Out,” Sharon Olds describes both the physical shape of the letter and how it represents the self. This week write an ode to a letter of the alphabet. Whether it be the letter I, or a different one, how far can you go in describing this letter and locating the many ways it holds place in your life?
“Enough of osseous and chickadee and sunflower / and snowshoes, maple and seeds,” writes Ada Limón in her poem “The End of Poetry.” “Enough sorrow, enough of the air and its ease, / I am asking you to touch me.” In this timely poem, Limón uses the repetition of “enough of” to list actions, objects, and experiences that might be considered poetic in order to emphasize what the speaker is willing to do away with for a moment of physical connection. Write a poem that articulates “the end of poetry” for you. What images and phrases would you consider poetic, and what would you want in return if you were to give it all away?
“Monastic firs, marginal, / conical, in brooding snoods / a finical sun unpacks, clerical // in scarlet fringe of Interstate scrub,” writes Lisa Russ Spaar in her hypnotic poem “Driving,” published in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series. In the poem, Spaar shifts from the speaker’s present to the past, in a kind of daydream: “Sick days // in autumn, child on cot-raft, / chaste bedroom chary / with red smell of measles.” Write a poem that describes the feeling of driving long distances. Challenge yourself to begin with descriptions of the road and progress into the realm of memory and meditation. (If you don’t drive, do the same exercise with walking.)
“Dear Mother, I have so many questions. What city were you born in? What was your American birthday? Your Chinese birthday? What did your mother do?” writes Victoria Chang in the first letter of her nonfiction book, Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief, published in October by Milkweed Editions. In the book, Chang writes letters to family members, teachers, and writing colleagues—to silence, to the reader, to memory itself—interspersed with collages made from family documents, relics, and mementos, including a marriage license, photographs, and a visa petition, forming an immersive collection that reckons with memory and what it dredges from the past. Using Dear Memory as inspiration, write three poems in the form of letters: one addressed to a parent, another to a grandparent, and the third to an experience or emotion, such as regret or grief. Try using family photographs or keepsakes as a way of entering the poems.
“I come from the cracked hands of men who used / the smoldering ends of blunts to blow shotguns,” writes Reginald Dwayne Betts, recipient of a 2021 MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, in his poem “Shahid Reads His Own Palm.” Betts uses anaphora to propel the narrative forward, describing the places that have shaped and haunted him with an incantatory rhythm: “I come from ‘Swann Road’ written in a child's / slanted block letters across a playground fence.” Write a poem about your origins that repeats the words, “I come from,” throughout it. Does the repetition conjure any surprising images?
In her poem “Taking Out the Trash,” the late poet Kamilah Aisha Moon, who died at the age of forty-eight last week, takes a seemingly mundane task and makes the activity profound. Through detailed, sensory descriptions of routine movements such as “I shimmy the large kitchen bag from / the steel canister, careful not to spill / what’s inside,” Moon walks the reader through the meditative, deliberate actions of her morning routine, bringing attention to the role her body has in everyday actions and the presence of one’s mortality throughout the day. Write a poem about a daily chore or everyday task that brings attention to your body. Try, as Moon does in her poem, to take time describing the movements of your body.
A garden-path sentence is a grammatically correct sentence that can appear nonsensical because of its syntax and the way it forces the reader to discern its meaning. In essence, the reader is led down the garden path by the sentence. Examples include “The horse raced past the barn fell,” “The man who hunts ducks out on weekends,” and “The raft floated down the river sank.” Write a poem using a garden-path sentence. What grammatical trick will you use for an unexpected portrayal? Try using the title to your advantage.
As the days get shorter and colder in mid-September, the autumnal equinox and the official end of summer approach. Many poets find inspiration in this in-between zone when seasonal plants transition and the duties of a school year begin again. “Three Songs at the End of Summer” by Jane Kenyon, “Blackberry-Picking” by Seamus Heaney, and “Vespers” by Louise Glück are examples of poems that speak to late summer. Write a poem that celebrates this fleeting, yet evocative moment between seasons.
“My father was reading War and Peace when he gave me my name. / I was born near Easter, 1966, in Mississippi,” writes Natasha Trethewey in her poem “Miscegenation,” which begins with the story of her parents traveling to Ohio to marry in 1965 when interracial marriage was still illegal in Mississippi. The poem is a ghazal, a form that consists of couplets ending on the same word or phrase. Write a ghazal with your city of origin as the repeating word. Try, as Trethewey does, to weave together various subjects that speak to the time and place of your homeland.
In her poem “Bestiary of Bad Kisses,” Ashley M. Jones compares bad kisses in the form of a catalog of animals with three sections titled: “The Frog,” “The Anteater,” and “The Bulldog.” The bestiary is a textual compendium of beasts, both real and imaginary, dating back to the Middle Ages that has seen a resurgence in contemporary literature. From Julio Cortázar to Donika Kelly, writers have sought ways to explore the metaphorical and literal resonances of cataloging animals. Write a poem in the form of a bestiary. How can you glean inspiration from myths and real-life stories? What is the relationship between your chosen animals?