Scientists have discovered new evidence that perception of odors can have extremely significant variations from person to person. According to a recent study published in the science journal PNAS, depending on different genetic codes, one person might find the scent of a compound in men’s sweat intensely disgusting, while someone else might find it similar to the scent of vanilla, or might not be able to smell it at all. Write a poem that begins with a scent that you find intense. Then consider the idiosyncrasies of sensory perceptions: Can these experiences be both personal and universal?
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.
Although late spring and early summer are typically associated with the bloom of brightly colored flowers and warming sunshine, “June Gloom” is a very real phenomenon on the southern California coast. May and June constitute the cloudiest months of the year in SoCal, with particularly cool, overcast, and drizzly days marking a gloomy turn not only in the sky, but also in the hearts of regional sunseekers. Does “unseasonable” weather strike you as irritatingly misaligned or unexpectedly refreshing? Write a series of four poems—one for each season—that plays with paradoxical imagery such as a spring snowstorm or an autumn heat wave. Does the unseasonable weather cause unseasonable emotions? How might this be expressed in the manipulation of rhythm, diction, line breaks, punctuation, and spacing in your poems?
Several years ago, journalist Geoffrey Gagnon observed that there were bowhead whales—who are among the world’s longest-living mammals with life spans of over two hundred years—still alive in the Arctic that were born long before Moby-Dick was written in 1851. This week, write a poem that imagines being in the presence of a creature that has been alive for over two centuries. What might this being have seen or experienced that you would ask about? What historical events pertinent to you have occurred over its lifetime? How does perspective shift over such a long period of time?
“‘When you finish the book, you close the pages and let your mind wander to the first thing you remember—the most vivid moment, a feeling, a character, a phrase, or even something in your own life experience that resonated and has been resurfaced by the story,’” says Ben Please in “The Bookshop Band” by Dana Isokawa in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. The duo, comprised of Please and Beth Porter, composes and performs literary-themed music by a wide range of authors, oftentimes inspired by just one book. Try this exercise while composing a new poem: Select a book you read recently and let your mind’s wandering—and lingering on a word, phrase, or feeling—lead you to the starting point of a poem.
In the Paris Review’s advice column Poetry Rx, Sarah Kay recommends the poem “On This the 100th Anniversary of the Sinking of the Titanic, We Reconsider the Buoyancy of the Human Heart” by Laura Lamb Brown-Lavoie to her heartbroken correspondent. “My heart has an iceberg with its name on it, I told / Titanic, so I need your advice. Tell me, did you see the / iceberg coming?” the poem’s narrator asks the sunken ship. Write a poem this week that addresses and personifies a historical object or place, drawing parallels with the speaker’s present-day problems and plea for wisdom. What advice can this relic offer your speaker?
The first-ever picture of a black hole was revealed last week, an image from the Messier 87 galaxy taken by eight radio observatories on six mountains and four continents in 2017. Spend some time looking at the picture online, including a wider, zoomed-out view. The New York Times calls it a “doughnut of doom,” while Vice Motherboard says it looks like a SpaghettiO. What emotions does the image bring to the surface for you? Write a poem that captures the wondrous significance of the image, perhaps imbuing your verse with humor, terror, and a mixture of scientific vocabulary and figurative language.
“I remember what it did to me. I got up and I began to wave my hands above my head, alone in the dark,” writes Moeko Fujii in the New Yorker about watching the final scene of Claire Denis’s 1999 movie Beau Travail, in which the protagonist bursts into dance while alone at a nightclub—a captivating glimpse of a private exuberance rising momentarily to the surface. Think of a memorable scene from a favorite movie that has a character joyfully engaged in a physical activity—dancing, running, singing, cooking—that has made you feel something resonant, and perhaps inspired you to move your own body. Write a poem about this connection and the impact it had on you.
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.
“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.