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.
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 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?
“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.