In the introduction to The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem: From Baudelaire to Anne Carson (Penguin Classics, 2018), editor Jeremy Noel-Tod asks, “How do you define a prose poem?” Literary critic Michael Rifaterre once characterized the prose poem as a “genre with an oxymoron for a name,” while Noel-Tod simply defines it as “a poem without line breaks.” This week, try writing a prose poem. As Noel-Tod says in the book, “Our habitual expectation when we see a passage of prose is that it will explain, not sing.” How can you make your prose poem sing more than traditional verse might? For inspiration, read exemplary poems from this anthology, such as “Borges and I” by Jorge Luis Borges, “The Colonel” by Carolyn Forché, and “Deer Dancer” by Joy Harjo.
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.
“You must accept the door is never shut. / You’re always free to leave at any time, / though the hostage will remain, no matter what,” writes Erin Belieu in “Instructions for the Hostage,” from her fifth poetry collection, Come-Hither Honeycomb, published in February by Copper Canyon Press. In this villanelle—a strict poetic form wherein the first and third lines of the poem are repeated throughout—the terms of the metaphorical hostage scenario underpinning the poem are recontextualized, their meaning deepened as the reader learns that the speaker is both captor and hostage. In this way, the hostage scenario could be applied to any number of situations in which one is complicit in a kind of self-entrapment. Think of a time when you stood in your own way of progress, then write a poem in which you offer instructions to show that the door was never shut.
In an essay published on Literary Hub, Urvi Kumbhat writes about the use of the mango in diasporic literature, asserting that it “rests uneasily between symbol and sumptuous fruit.” Kumbhat begins by exploring her memories of eating mango in Calcutta, and how “in the global South Asian cultural and literary lexicon, the fruit is a metonym for the home country,” but also discusses why she has avoided using the fruit in her writing for fear of “self-exoticization and unoriginality.” What serves as a metonym for the place you call home? Write a poem about your chosen symbol that embraces, as well as complicates, what it represents.
In Mary Ruefle’s poem “Snow” from her book The Most of It (Wave Books, 2007), she starts with a simple sentiment: “Every time it starts to snow, I would like to have sex.” From that line, the reader is welcomed into a series of meditations on sex, devotion, birds, and love. The poem takes the form of a column with several enjambed lines as if the prose text were confined into a narrow space the way one may feel while stuck inside on a snow day. Write a poem in a conversational manner that describes how you are affected by certain types of weather. What is the first thing that comes to mind when you look out the window?
Published by BuzzFeed News, Natalie Scenters-Zapico’s “Buen Esqueleto” reimagines the popular poem “Good Bones” by Maggie Smith through the perspective of an immigrant mother. Using the original structure of the poem—and replacing “my children” in the original with “mis hijas”—an urgent narrative is imposed as Scenters-Zapico writes, “It’s not my job to sell / them the world, but to keep them safe / in case I get deported.” This week, choose a poem you love and write your own version of it, following the original structure and adding a new perspective.
“A title has the capacity to do an immense amount of heavy lifting,” writes torrin a. greathouse in the January/February 2021 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. “It is what calls a reader into the work; it can construct an entire world before they enter it and is the first frame of reference for it once they have left it.” This week, choose an abandoned draft of a poem and revise it by changing its title. How is the tension raised by creating a new way for the reader to enter the poem? How has the poem stopped being stagnant and lifted off?
“One day Juan Felipe Herrera said to me, ‘Abandon the left margin.’ It was a new liberation to my practice and process,” says Anthony Cody in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine about his debut collection, Borderland Apocrypha (Omnidawn, 2020). Consider breaking away from the traditional mold of a poem and write one that feels free from expectations. Try using center-alignment or footnotes, or redacting a text the way Cody does in his poem “In the Redaction of the Fake 45th.”
In the introduction to an issue of Ploughshares edited by the late poet Jean Valentine, who died in December, she says: “My dreams were very important to me right in the beginning. I had a teacher in college who said ‘You could write from your dreams’ and that was like being given a bag full of gold.” Inspired by Valentine and her award-winning first collection, Dream Barker, write a poem that begins with an image from one of your dreams. Allow the internal logic of dreams to guide your lines.
“Young walruses, we must all adapt!” begins Matthew Olzmann’s “Commencement Speech, Delivered to a Herd of Walrus Calves,” published in Four Way Review. In the poem, as the title reveals, a speaker offers advice to a herd of walruses on courage, evolution, and survival: “You need to train yourself to do what they won’t expect.” Write a poem in the form of a speech addressed to a group of animals or objects that offers advice and encouragement for challenges only the subject could encounter. Try to use the title, as Olzmann does, to set the scene and the tone for the poem.
“Mars Being Red” by the late poet Marvin Bell lyrically explores the color red as a state of being, likening it to a list of images that both physically resemble the color and provide memories, such as that of youth. In this compact, twelve-line poem, Bell begins what seems to be a portrait of the planet Mars and then delves into a series of digressions that find resolve in a meditation on the possibility of change: “You will not be this quick-to-redden / forever. You will be green again, again and again.” Inspired by Bell, write a poem that serves as a portrait of a color. Use physical descriptions to begin and then personal memories to develop a transformation in this study of hue.
“When we name things simply, with words preceding their meaning, a cosmic narration takes place. Does the discovery of origins remove the dust?” writes painter and poet Etel Adnan in Shifting the Silence (Nightboat Books, 2020). “It reminds me of a childhood of emptiness which seems to have taken me near the beginning of space and time.” Following her thoughts as they “drip, not unlike the faucet,” Adnan demonstrates the power in trusting clear language, without ornament, and in doing so she offers a testament to poetry as a space built by the self for illumination and inwardness. Spend some time in a space where you can observe nature and take note of your surroundings. With Adnan’s words in mind, write a poem that considers what you see without concentrating on its meaning, when you “remove the dust.” How does this exercise strip the poem’s voice to its essential parts?
“Everybody’s got a song / they’ve gotta sing. / So they say. So they / think,” begins Rita Dove’s poem “The Spring Cricket’s Discourse on Critics,” published in the Believer this month. The deftly enjambed poem uses the perspective of a cricket and its ability to use its legs to chirp, known as stridulation, to discuss an artist’s defense against critics believing “they can / just… crank out the golden / tunes.” Use the perspective of an insect or an animal whose abilities come naturally to examine an aspect of being a poet. Try enjambment in your poem to emphasize particular words.
Humans may no longer have the nictitating membranes, tails, and vomeronasal organs possessed by birds, monkeys, or reptiles, but we do still have vestiges of them, whittled down to nonfunctioning parts of the body: the folds at the inside corners of the eyes, tailbones, and the tiny sac in the nasal cavity above the roof of the mouth. What use, then, can one imagine for nictitating membranes that no longer draw laterally across the eye, tails that no longer help maintain balance, or Jacobson’s organs that no longer detect moisture-borne odor particles? Write a poem that considers the beauty of a body part with no clear-cut function. How might the specificities of the body be appreciated in different ways given our contemporary circumstances? What is the value in imagining new functions for old forms?
Hannah Sullivan’s T. S. Eliot Prize-winning collection, Three Poems (Faber & Faber, 2018), begins with “You, Very Young in New York,” in which she recounts experiences living in New York with details akin to the intimacy found in some of Frank O’Hara’s poems: “Rosy used to say that New York was a fairground. ‘You will know when it’s time, when the fair is over.’” In a poem that sprawls across twenty-three pages, Sullivan covers a wide range of registers and tones, ranging from the high lyric, philosophical musings on youth, to the comical and familiar recounting on what cocktail or dessert is in fashion. Write a poem divided into three sections that captures the quick-paced and unceremonious experiences of youth. Try to include specific scenes to avoid using grand gestures or falling into nostalgia.
“Cats suffer from dementia too. Did you know that?” begins Margaret Atwood’s poem “Ghost Cat” from Dearly (Ecco Press, 2020), her first collection of poetry in over a decade. The poem centers on a cat with dementia who wanders the house at night nibbling on bits of food: “from a tomato here, a ripe peach there, / a crumpet, a softening pear. / Is this what I’m supposed to eat?” Cats have been at the center of literature for centuries, ranging from Christopher Smart’s eighteenth-century poem “Jubilate Agno,” which begins “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry,” to Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita and Haruki Murakami’s novel Kafka on the Shore. Write a poem inspired by a cat. As an added challenge, try writing from the perspective of a cat, instead of from a human watching one.
In his years as a teacher, John Ashbery used Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” for a translation exercise in which students sounded out the German words and wrote down English words resembling those sounds, such as interpreting “sich hält und glänzt” as “sick halt and glance.” The exercise relied less on meaning and subject and more on sound and rhythm, despite the final product sounding silly. Pick a poem in a language unfamiliar to you and phonetically translate the poem into English. What surprising combination of words come together? Once the translation is finished, try to find a sense of logic in the words to produce an original poem.
Self-portraits are often associated with visual artists, but poets have also experimented with this art form. In Gregory Pardlo’s “Written by Himself” he writes, “I was born in minutes in a roadside kitchen a skillet / whispering my name.” Pardlo uses the anaphora, “I was born,” throughout the poem to include the lives that made his life possible. In “Self-Portrait,” Adam Zagajewski employs declarative statements, “I like deep sleep, when I cease to exist,” to invite the reader to learn more about his life. Inspired by these two poems, write a self-portrait poem that seeks to tell the story of how you came to be. Try starting with a list of the things you like and love as a way to enter the poem.
In “Racial Markers and Being Marked” by Will Harris, a Craft Capsule essay published in September, he writes about racial markers in poetry and walking the fine line between rendering your own experience and risking fetishization. Harris presents Monica Youn’s poem “Study of Two Figures (Pasiphaë/Sado)” and discusses how she frames an argument about race through two mythical figures. Youn writes about her own experience as a poet while examining what it feels like to include her “Asianness” in the poem: “Revealing a racial marker in a poem is like revealing a gun in a story or like revealing a nipple in a dance.” Choose a myth you identify with and write a poem in which a part of you is revealed through the story or characters of the tale.
In Airea D. Matthews’s “etymology,” she writes to explore the meaning of her name and its pronunciation. Published by the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day in 2019, Matthews explains the origin for the poem and how she would use a nickname during open mics to make it easier for hosts to pronounce her name: “I realize now it was one of the many ways I’d learned to make myself smaller in space, less pronounced.” What is the personal history of your name? How has it been encountered in different spaces? Write a poem that seeks to trace the etymology and personal history of your name.
In Ten Meter Tower, a short film by Maximilien Van Aertryck and Axel Danielson featured in the New York Times, participants climb a ladder to a ten-meter-high diving board at a public pool, calculating their risks and fears before they decide to jump into the water or head back down to safety. The tight shot of the diving board, the self-motivating monologues, and the slow-motion recordings of the jumps are captivating. “Our objective in making this film was something of a psychology experiment: We sought to capture people facing a difficult situation, to make a portrait of humans in doubt,” say the filmmakers. Write a poem that imagines what thoughts and feelings would run through your head (and body) before and after a leap from the board into the water.
“I can’t afford to think like Whitman / that whomever I shall meet on the road I shall love / and whoever beholds me shall love me,” writes Tyree Daye in “Field Notes on Leaving,” the first poem in Cardinal, out today from Copper Canyon Press. The collection includes blurred photos of Daye’s family and childhood and an epigraph from the Green Book, the mid-1900s guidebook that provided Black Americans with advice on safe places to eat and sleep as they traveled in the United States. Write a short series of poems that acts as a kind of family album, providing a record of journeying within a community through adolescence and adulthood. In each poem allow yourself to explore themes of home and travel, in both literal and figurative ways, including interactions with local people or other travelers, signposts or navigational tools, baggage brought along, and the things or places left behind.
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.
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?