“Renga for Obama” is an ongoing project edited by Major Jackson and published by the Harvard Review in which each linked segment is written by a pair of poets, creating a chain of verse meditating on Barack Obama’s presidency. Renga, a traditional Japanese collaborative form, consists of alternating three- and two-line stanzas: a haiku (5-7-5 syllables) followed by a couplet, each line of which consists of seven syllables, that responds to the haiku. This pattern can be repeated up to a few dozen or even hundreds of lines. Choose a current theme that you are interested in probing further with words and imagery—it could be political, aesthetic, domestic, environmental, or pop culture–related. Spend some time discussing, sharing reflections, and expressing gratitude or feelings about the topic with a friend, family member, or colleague. Write a renga together, and pass it on to others with an invitation to contribute to the chain, thereby initiating a continuing exploration.
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.
“’It wasn’t a rhyme time,’” said Gwendolyn Brooks in 1968, as quoted in Major Jackson’s essay “Anatomy of a Pulitzer Prize Letter” in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Brooks was speaking about her decision to move away from the sonnet and other traditional verse forms in favor of allying more closely to the black community and politically conscious poetry. Do you consider the contemporary moment a “rhyme time”? Why or why not? How might you transform the style and/or meter of your poetry to reflect your own evolving creative interests, priorities, and influences? Write a poem that marks some sort of departure from your typical work, in spirit and purpose.
“May my dead be patient with the way my memories fade. / My apologies to time for all the world I overlook each second. / My apologies to past loves for thinking that the latest is the first.” Taking inspiration from Wislawa Szymborska’s “Under One Small Star,” write a poem that plays with apology or an apologetic tone. What may you have taken for granted in the past? To whom might you offer your apologies, and for what are you sorry? What are you grateful for now?
“I was young when you came to me. / Each thing rings its turn…” begins Meena Alexander’s poem “Muse.” Write a poem of direct address to a muse—any specific object, memory, person, moment, or idea that invokes wonder and reflection. Read the rest of Alexander’s poem for inspiration derived from sensory pleasures, multiple languages, and the associations between words and images.
While a crocodile’s ankles might be something you’ve never thought much about, a recent discovery of fossils shows that an early relative of dinosaurs had “crocodylian-like ankle morphology”—or crocodile ankles—an important factor in placing the carnivore within the evolutionary timeline. Write a poem inspired by an unusual phrase or terminology for an animal’s (or human’s) physicality, such as purlicue, perhaps finding humor or playfulness in its sound, sense, and associated imagery.
Poetry and science combined to join forces at this year’s March for Science in Washington, D.C. Jane Hirshfield organized writing workshops and readings, and science poems by writers like Tracy K. Smith and Gary Snyder were displayed on banners. Many poets are using social media to respond quickly and powerfully to events occurring in the tumult of the political climate. Browse through newspapers or online for fresh science news—such as scientists attempting to capture the first image of a black hole—and write an urgent poem in response. What sort of emotional or philosophical significance can you draw between this scientific news and your feelings about current affairs?
Can girls be robots? How do you make water? What does extinct mean? Children have a curiosity for the world that can often inspire them to ask difficult questions like these from filmmaker Kelly O’Brien’s five-year-old daughter Willow. In the spirit of childish inquisitiveness, write a poem entirely of questions. How might you use a child’s persona to explore your own concerns and wonder for the world?
Last month, Crayola announced the retirement of one of their yellow crayon colors, Dandelion, which will soon be replaced by a blue crayon. Since Binney & Smith first began producing Crayola crayons in 1903, many colors have been cycled in and out. Some colors have remained the same shade but changed names over the years, such as Peach, which was previously named Flesh Tint, Flesh, and Pink Beige. Read more about the history of Crayola crayon colors, and write a poem inspired by some of the names you find most evocative, perhaps finding thematic potential in how the types of names have evolved over the years.
“For the first time, I agreed last year to cotranslate a book from a language I don’t speak at all…. It was an opportunity for new kinds of thinking but also new kinds of failure,” writes poet, novelist, and translator Idra Novey in her essay “Writing While Translating.” Many contemporary writers have expanded the art of translation by experimenting with form and content: Mary Jo Bang filled her translation of Dante’s Inferno (Graywolf Press, 2012) with pop culture references; David Cameron used spell-check and word-association methods for Flowers of Bad (Unbelievable Alligator/Ugly Duckling Presse, 2007), his “false translation” of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal; and Paul Legault’s The Emily Dickinson Reader (McSweeney’s Books, 2012) is a translation of Emily Dickinson’s poetry into one-line renderings, from English into a different version of English. Try your hand at translating a short series of poems from one language to another. Use your knowledge of another language, slang, dictionaries, or any unlikely source to explore the elasticity of language while considering how new kinds of failure might inspire a refreshing direction for your writing.
In his book Dear Darkness (Knopf, 2008), poet Kevin Young has a series of odes to particular foods that meditate on memories of the speaker’s father and other family members, such as “Ode to Okra.” Using Young’s poem as inspiration, write an ode to one of your favorite foods that personifies and addresses the dish as “you.” Explore the senses—flavors, smells, sounds, textures, colors—that are stirred from these memories of meals.
“There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds, the ebb and flow of the tides, the folded bud ready for the spring. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter,” wrote Rachel Carson in The Sense of Wonder in 1956. Write a poem centered around one image or sensation you associate with the spring season, using diction and rhythm to evoke the repeated refrains, patterns, and cycles of nature. Explore both the symbolic and physical beauty of your image.
A salt lake in Melbourne, Australia recently turned pink due to the growth of algae “in response to very high salt levels, high temperatures, sunlight, and lack of rainfall.” The phenomenon transformed the lake from its natural blue tone to an unusually bright flamingo color. Write a poem that begins by evoking the sensations of one color, and then—gradually or abruptly—turns a strikingly different color, perhaps even pink. How will you manipulate the mood, images, sounds, and rhythms of your language to reflect the color change?
If you read, in order, the last word of each line in Terrance Hayes’s poem “The Golden Shovel,” you will discover that they are the words of Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem “We Real Cool,” the inspiration for Hayes’s poem. Select one or more lines from a poem you admire, and write your own “Golden Shovel” poem. Use each word from the source text in its original order for the last word in each line of your new poem. When you are finished, the end-words of your poem should trace out the origin poem. Be sure to add a note crediting the poet whose line(s) you’ve used.
Artist B. A. Van Sise’s photo series Children of Grass—featured in “The Written Image” in the March/April 2017 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine—consists of portraits of American poets who have been influenced by Walt Whitman, with each photograph based on a poem. Browse through some of Van Sise’s portraits or select any other poet portrait of your choice, and taking a reverse approach to Van Sise’s project, write a poem based on the image. How does the language, tone, and rhythm in your poem relate to the composition, props, and background of the portrait?
Writing an unsentimental love poem can be one of the more difficult endeavors a poet can take on, whether the subject of that poem is a lover, a family member, or friend. Taking inspiration from the popular film 10 Things I Hate About You, a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, write an ode to the aspects of a loved one that downright irk you. How might you use a form of repetition in your poem—like an anaphora or refrain—to build tension and showcase either the unlikable or admirable aspects of this person?
“The Love Song for Shu-Sin”—written around 2000 BCE in ancient Mesopotamia—is considered the oldest love poem that exists in text form, but also functioned as a song performed during a sacred marriage ceremony for Shu-Sin, a ruler in the city of Ur. Read through Sumerologist Samuel Noah Kramer’s translation and think about the elements of the writing that tie it to its specific time and context. What feels ancient about the poem? Can you extrapolate or interpret its meanings in a way that reflect your own experiences of contemporary love? Write a love poem that meditates on love as it might have been expressed four thousand years ago versus how you see it today.
The Bop is a form of poetic argument consisting of three stanzas, each followed by a repeated line or refrain. The first stanza is six lines and presents a problem; the second stanza is eight lines and further expands upon the problem; and the third stanza is six lines and either resolves or documents the failure of resolving the problem. Read a Bop poem by Afaa Michael Weaver, who created the form during a Cave Canem writing retreat, and then try writing your own.
Many of the food-related traditions associated with the Chinese New Year—including eating fish, sweet rice dumplings, and certain vegetables—have their origins in Mandarin-language homophonic puns. Jot down a list of food-related homonyms, such as homophonic pairings like “lettuce” and “let us” or “beets” and “beats,” or homographic words with multiple meanings like “cake” or “milk.” Create a festive poem using some of the words or phrases you come up with that celebrate the start of a new year.
Starting a new year often means an attempt at challenging resolutions or constraints, but in poetry, constraint can seem natural and even fun. For example, in Oulipo, formulas and frameworks (some more complicated than others) are applied to the lines and words of a poem. Try this exercise in constraint: Write a poem in which all of the words contain a vowel of your choice. For inspiration, read “Ballad in A” by Cathy Park Hong.
“I began writing poetry as an act of survival,” writes Safiya Sinclair in “Shadows of Words: Our Twelfth Annual Look at Debut Poets” in the January/February 2017 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Think about how you might look at your own writing as an act of survival: What are the most troublesome issues and sources of conflict in your everyday life, whether small and tangible or large and amorphous? How might the practice of putting pen to paper and giving words to emotions be integral to your encounter with these obstacles? Write a poem that helps you think through and voice your troubles.
The cento, whose name is derived from a Latin term meaning “patchwork,” is a form of fragmented poetry originating in the third century consisting of lines taken from poems written by other poets. Contemporary centos often offer a humorous juxtaposition of contrasting images, ideas, and tones. Read centos written by John Ashbery and Simone Muench, and then try writing your own, sampling verses from diverse time periods, styles, and subject matter, and citing your sources at the end.
“I’m Nobody! Who are you? / Are you – Nobody – too?” wrote Emily Dickinson in one of her most popular poems, published in 1891. Have you ever jotted down a memo to nobody in particular? Ever sent out to sea a message in a bottle? Left a note on a wall or a park bench to someone, anyone, who might happen upon it? All these types of missives have in common a sense of mystery surrounding the identity of the recipient, and an uncertainty about the intended recipient ever receiving the communication. Write a series of short poems addressed to an unknown person. How does removing the certainty of an addressee place more emphasis on other external factors, like geography and physical distance, and your own current preoccupations and state of mind? As you engage in a conversation with Nobody, what insights are revealed?
“In the red room there is a sky which is painted over in red / but is not red and was, once, the sky. / This is how I live. / A red table in a red room filled with air.” Using these lines from Rachel Zucker’s “Letter [Persephone to Demeter]” as inspiration, write a poem where everything in the environment is red, as though the speaker is looking through red glass. How might color affect the way the speaker feels about an object, animal, or person? How might it affect tone?
The Hong Kong film 2046, written and directed by Wong Kar-wai, predominantly follows the main character Chow, a writer, over the course of several years, escapades, and love affairs, often dipping into scenes of him dining out on Christmas Eve each year. Jot down specific moments or memories from the same holiday over the years that you hold especially resonant and seem to connect a narrative. Then, write a series of poems capturing these events and experiences. How does the holiday itself lend a certain expected or consistent atmosphere even if the events that occurred or people present were completely different?
In Iceland, to write poetry is considered “part of being an Icelander,” according to Icelandic literature professor Sveinn Yngvi Egilsson, and not a “specialist activity” but one that includes a variety of practitioners such as horse breeders, scientists, and politicians. Write a few ferskeytt poems, a popular Icelandic four-line verse form with alternating rhyme. Spend just ten minutes or so on each one, implementing the poem as a casual and functional way to inject some humor or wit into dealing with everyday duties, workday blues, or the oncoming winter.