TED Talks have been translated into over one hundred languages, and their translators are often challenged by peculiar turns of phrase. Inspired by this predicament, TED asked translators from around the world to share their favorite idioms along with baffling literal English translations such as “the thief has a burning hat,” a Russian phrase that means, “he has an uneasy conscience that betrays itself.” This week, write a poem that incorporates one or more of these eccentric sayings and create a world in which the literal interpretation holds water. Use the five senses—sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch—to help illustrate these verbal expressions and your interpretation of them.
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.
“I’ve always been interested in a bigger form, one that doesn’t just rest quietly on the page,” Anne Waldman said in a 2017 Wire interview in which she talked about mixing forms and incorporating song and chant into her work. “Rather than reading quietly, I feel the physical need to do something bigger.” In a New York Times review of Waldman’s most recent collection, Trickster Feminism (Penguin, 2018), Daisy Fried wrote, “The metaphor that comes to mind is of a river, its great volume washing by,” noting Waldman’s coverage of matters “ancient and contemporary, local and global.” Try writing a dynamic poem that washes by like a loud river, flowing through a wide range of topics. Don’t be afraid to mix the public with the personal, the ancient with the contemporary, the magical or spiritual with the mundane or mechanical. Imbue your lines with a playfully performative quality; read them out loud for rhythm as you compose them.
Is your telephone number secretly a portal to mystic truths? In “This Mysterious Website Generates Weird Short Stories About Phone Numbers” published in Electric Literature, Kristen O’Neal writes about a website where the ten-digit number in its URL can be modified and repeatedly refreshed for countless iterations of mysterious and inscrutably poetic sentences in the comments section. Try typing your own phone number into the URL and select one or two sentences from the resulting page that seem particularly evocative. Write a poem inspired by the strange resonance of these words to your own experiences.
“I am a love poet, or a poet in love with the world. It is just who I am…. Is it foolish to speak of little joys that occur in the middle of tragedy? It is our humanity.” In “Still Dancing” in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Garth Greenwell interviews Ilya Kaminsky who speaks about writing poetry that witnesses and explores moments of joy, love, and tenderness even in the face of horror, violence, war, and tragedy. Write a poem that confronts an issue of strife or suffering, but also recognizes and allows room for the existence of love and little joys. Consider how you might strike a balance between the two emotional experiences and how they are intertwined.
This week, write a poem that explores the overlap, transformation, or melding of two seemingly opposing or unrelated ideas or words. Loosely use a version of the diamante poem, a form often taught to young students, which takes a center-justified diamond shape and begins and ends with one-word lines. In this seven-line form, the first line of the poem starts with one subject, and the following two lines consist of modifiers describing this word. The middle of the poem has the longest line, a phrase that describes both the word in the first line as well as the word in the last line, the second subject. The next two lines shift to describe the subject that ends the poem in the last line. Play with the form and use a variety of adjectives, adverbs, and verbs to bring your two subjects together.
“Beech bark is a tender thing.” In C. D. Wright’s Casting Deep Shade (Copper Canyon Press, 2019), the late poet writes of childhood memories, climate change, art in nature, and other topics, all revolving around a single entity: the beech tree. This week choose a tree, flower, or similarly nonverbal but living being that has held some significance for you over the course of your life. Write a poem in its honor, toeing the line between verse and prose, research and memory, fact and speculation. Get to know your muse and move your reader to care for it as well. What sights and smells does it evoke from your past? How do you interpret its silence? What does it offer to you and the world?
In The Kindergarten Teacher, a remake of the 2014 Israeli film of the same name, Maggie Gyllenhaal stars as an aspiring poet and elementary school teacher who becomes obsessed with the writing of a five-year-old boy named Jimmy. To craft the young boy’s verses, Gyllenhaal and director Sara Colangelo commissioned poetry from Kaveh Akbar and Ocean Vuong. In the New York Times, Vuong spoke about his creative process, which involved cannibalizing several of his own poems “to shift the complexity from the syntax to images.” This week, rewrite one of your poems so that the voice is from a child’s perspective. Pare down your language and focus on the core images. For ideas, read more about how Vuong adapted his poem “The Bull” to fit the character of Jimmy.
“I attempt to discuss, through a conflation of creation myths, the idea of being formed by literature,” writes Paige Ackerson-Kiely on the Poetry Society of America’s website about the title poem in her second collection, My Love Is a Dead Arctic Explorer (Ahsahta Press, 2012), which began as a response to arctic explorer Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s memoirs. “One fact of my life...is that I have often been consoled by books, have found a life for myself within those pages, when that sort of life was not available to me on the outside.” Write a love poem that points to how you have been formed by your favorite books, writers, and literature. How has a particularly memorable work of literature provided you with consolation and love, and helped create an inner vitality?
Since 1886, every February 2, a strange celebrity garners national attention: Punxsutawney Phil, a groundhog with the power to predict the severity of winter weather based on his shadow. The tradition purportedly has roots in an ancient Christian holiday that involves bringing candles to church to be blessed for winter. It wasn’t until the holiday was introduced to Germany, that a small animal and his prognosticative shadow became a part of the tradition. Although there are others, the celebration at Gobbler’s Knob in Pennsylvania is arguably the most popular, and even inspired a movie. For this week’s prompt, think about an unusual ritual or belief among your family, friends, or community. Write a poem about your knowledge of its origins and how it has evolved over the years. What has been lost or gained with time?
One day doesn’t always last twenty-four hours in the universe: A day on Saturn lasts a total of ten hours, thirty-three minutes, and thirty-eight seconds, according to a recent paper published in the Astrophysical Journal. Jupiter’s day lasts approximately nine hours and fifty-five minutes, whereas it takes Venus two hundred and forty-three days to rotate around the sun. Write a poem that explores the idea of a day that lasts not twenty-four hours, but is shortened to just a fraction of that, or conversely stretches way beyond it. How might a distorted sense of time and urgency change your concept of aging? Can you convey this difference with rhythm or the format of your lines on the page?
“Someone was always, always here, / then suddenly disappeared / and stubbornly stays disappeared,” writes Wisława Szymborska in “Cat in an Empty Apartment,” translated from the Polish by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanaugh. Although we often think of inspiration in terms of an overheard fragment, a fleeting sentiment, a glimpsed object, a visit from a muse—the presence of some thing—many poets have found inspiration and emotional resonance in emptiness. “Implodes, and all the way to nothing. / To illumine, first, then fades to black. / Hole where light was. / Absent star, perforation in there,” writes Valerie Martínez in the title poem of Absence, Luminescent (Four Way Books, 1999). Diana Khoi Nguyen’s poems in Ghost Of (Omnidawn, 2018) delve into absence by presenting family photographs from which her brother had cut himself out before his death, followed by concrete verse that takes the shape of the excised silhouette or rectangular blocks of text that fill the shape of the negative space. Write a poem that takes inspiration from an absence or emptiness of a person, place, or feeling.
The Humboldt Glacier, located high in the Andes mountain range in Venezuela, is the country’s last glacier. Glaciers are disappearing around the world due to climate change, which has also been a factor in declines and extinctions of animal species elsewhere. This month saw the death of George, the last snail of the Hawaiian species Achatinella apexfulva, named after Lonesome George who died in 2012, the last of the Galápagos tortoises. Write a poem about an object that is the last of its kind to ever exist, either in reality or hypothetically. How is the disappearance of your chosen subject significant in its own way?
Works of poetry composed of tiny glass vials, a mineral collection, a board game, lunch boxes, Rolodexes, and View-Masters? In “Authors Thinking Outside the Box” in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Adrienne Raphel takes a look at Container, a small press founded by poets Jenni B. Baker and Douglas Luman, which teams with authors to publish books in nontraditional forms, oftentimes as a modified object or series of objects. Take a look around your home, a grocery store, or a hardware store for an everyday object that sparks your interest, and compose a poem that could be printed or inscribed onto the object in some way. Take in consideration how the object and your poem relate to one another.
“Whenever I find myself at a literary crossroads, I reach for my Tarot deck. In my regular life, I’m a staunch scientific materialist…but in my creative life, I’m an unqualified mystic,” writes Will Dowd in a 2017 installment of Writers Recommend. In fact, there are many writers who have found inspiration in the Tarot, including W. B. Yeats, Italo Calvino, and Charles Williams. Try your hand at choosing a card to guide you for this week’s poem. Conduct an online search for a card and allow the image to be your muse. Their names, such as Temperance, Wheel of Fortune, the Magician, and Death, may be enough to conjure up ideas.
There is a long tradition of writers waxing poetic about the moon, dating back as far as ancient Vedic texts. Recently, Louisiana Channel asked six authors to discuss the mysterious figure in the sky and why it has such a profound effect on their writing lives. There’s even a word in German, Yoko Tawada says, which literally means “addicted to the moon”: mondsüchtig (translated as lunatic). For this week’s poem, continue the tradition of lunar poetry with your own lines about the moon. If you need more inspiration, read “To the Moon” by Percy Bysshe Shelley or “The Moon and the Yew Tree” by Sylvia Plath.
The Rockettes, who have been based at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall since 1932, are a precision-dance company best known for their synchronized performances during the winter holiday season. Though their shows have evolved over the years as they’ve incorporated innovative new numbers and routines, what has remained unchanged over the years is the spectacle of their precisely-timed, high-kicking dancing. Watch video footage of the Rockettes, or synchronized skaters, swimmers, or line dancers, and write a poem inspired by these performances. How can you replicate the emotion or aesthetic of the repetition and patterns in your poem’s syntax, rhythm, or format on the page?
“Does a voice have to be auditory to be a voice? / where in the body does hearing take place? / which are the questions that cannot be addressed in language?” Jen Hofer has said that her poem “future somatics to-do list,” which is composed as a list of questions, is “a poem that is a to-do list that is a poem.” Write a poem that consists of a series of questions, all revolving around one topic or concern. In what ways do the types of questions, and their progression, reveal both your current state of mind and your hopes for the future?
A 3-D-printed gun, a Nest thermostat, an iPhone, cargo pants and false eyelashes made in factories in South Asia, a Brexit campaign leaflet, a burkini, a knitted pink hat. In 2014, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum introduced Rapid Response Collecting, an initiative that allows the museum to collect and display objects associated with significant contemporary world events in a timely way. The National Museum of Ireland and the Jewish Museum Berlin have established similar programs, acquiring items with recent political or cultural importance, such as campaign banners and protest posters and signs. Make a list of objects or ephemera that have played a prominent role in your life in the past two or three years, including items that have figured into international news. Write a poem in response to a selection of these objects, exploring any emotional ties you have to them and their significance to larger social issues.
“I have always grown up in a world where there were things one did not understand, because there were languages that were not completely accessible,” said Meena Alexander in an interview with Ruth Maxey for the Kenyon Review in 2005. “It just gives you a particular sense of being in a world where you can be comfortable even though linguistically the world is not really knowable.” Write a poem that touches upon something unknown or that you may have misunderstood in the past. With the help of a dictionary or online research, try incorporating words from a language you are unfamiliar with to add to the ambiguity.
The Oxford English Dictionary has announced the 2018 word of the year: “toxic.” Originating in the mid-seventeenth century from the medieval Latin toxicus, signifying “poisoned” or “imbued with poison,” the word has taken on new associations and collocates in the years since—workplace, masculinity, relationship, and Britney Spears, to name a few. This week, read through the list of definitions and origins for this timely term and write an ode incorporating as many of the variations as you can.
The headless chicken monster: the stuff of nightmares or a real scientific oddity? It’s actually the nickname for a deep-sea swimming cucumber recently captured on camera for the first time in the Southern Ocean between Australia and Antarctica, and caught on film only once before in the Gulf of Mexico. Write a poem inspired by this reddish-pink finned creature, taking inspiration from its scientific name Enypniastes eximia, and its other nicknames, such as the headless chicken fish, the Spanish dancer, and the swimming sea cucumber. Take a look at photos and videos to see this unusual creature’s bulbous, transparent body and webbed, veil-like appendages and tentacles moving across the ocean floor.
Struggling to stay motivated? Researchers at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business recently found that people having trouble achieving their goals benefit from the very act of giving advice to others. This week, try offering some advice to someone in a poem. Write a list of suggestions for handling a challenge, perhaps something you know very little about to add some levity. It can be specific, like what to do when your car breaks down on the side of the highway during a thunderstorm, or something more general like how to resolve an argument. Using an idea from your list, write a humorous poem addressed to someone who may or may not appreciate your guidance.
Construction workers renovating a building in Valdosta, Georgia, last week discovered approximately one thousand teeth buried in a wall on the second floor. Historical researchers attribute the discovery, and the teeth found in walls in two other cities in Georgia, to the spaces having been occupied by dentists in the early 1900s. Write a poem inspired by the imagery, secrets, and possibilities evoked by these bizarre findings. How do the buildings and architecture that surround us hold and reveal local history? Have there been situations in your life when a buried past became uncovered in mysterious or revelatory ways?
“I always feel that I’ve seen a thing after I’ve described it….when I’ve written a thorough physical description of something, then I feel like I’ve seen it and I’ll remember it,” says Barbara Kingsolver in “A Talk in the Woods,” her conversation with Richard Powers in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Choose an object that you have never really given much thought to, but that you see frequently in your home or on your commute, perhaps a houseplant or a mailbox or a street sign. Spend some time intensely observing it, and then jot down a thorough physical description. Afterwards, write a poem about the object. How did your perception of it change, in your mind’s eye, after going through the exercise of articulating it in language?
“My process of growing up and becoming has been figuring out that a lot of what I’ve been told is wrong,” says Morgan Parker in an interview with Joshua Wolf Shenk at the Believer on the subject of facts and truth and the literary imagination. “If you have a blank canvas, it’s about the kind of audacity to tell stories for yourself. Poetry is storytelling, in this particular way.” Think of something that you were told when you were growing up that has turned out to be wrong in one way or another. Write a twofold poem that first works to question what you’ve been told, and then moves on to tell a new truth.