In “Selected Poems: Looking Back on a Lifetime of Writing” in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Donald Hall writes, "A grumpy stranger asked me, 'What do you write about anyway?' I blurted out, 'Love, death, and New Hampshire.'" What would you blurt out if you were asked the same question? Write a poem that draws upon your top three thematic obsessions, whether you instinctively reach for these topics each time you start writing, or enjoy revisiting this material in your work. What fresh insights might the juxtaposition of these three subjects in a single poem bring to light?
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.
In recent years, NASA scientists have found a steadily increasing amount of evidence that liquid water once existed on Mars. These discoveries could lead to scientists’ quest to confirm that the planet has hosted life. Write a poem in which you explore the mysterious possibilities of the red planet, extraterrestrial life, the galaxies and constellations, or the notion of human colonies on other planets. Focus on examining the emotions that emerge when you contemplate the vast unknowns of outer space.
“Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself,” said author Mohsin Hamid in a 2012 interview. Think about a stranger with whom you recently crossed paths. It could be the person who bagged your groceries, stood in front of you in line at the post office, or simply walked by you on the street. What type of situation can you imagine this stranger experiencing? Which emotions or feelings would you project onto this stranger? Write a poem about this imagined event from the stranger's perspective. Concentrate on digging deeply into your own private observations and personal history to capture what sensations might be echoed in another person’s experience.
In “To Autumn,” John Keats personifies the season through descriptions of landscape and life in agrarian England. Write an ode that personifies a modern vision of autumn. Use characteristics of contemporary life: perhaps a new school year, a harvest we no longer see, football and its violence, costumes and horror, or our obsession with pumpkin spice. Explore what these aspects reveal about our present-day relationship to nature and the seasons. Does the idyllic character of Keats’s poem endure?
Richard Wilbur says about inspiration, "A poem comes looking for me rather than I hunting after it." Quickly make a list of the first five things that pop into your head, "looking" for you. It may be a striking image, a phrase, or a memory of someone from your past that has resurfaced unexpectedly. Use one of the items on your list as a source of inspiration and write a poem examining why this subject occupies your mind. As you write, continue to hunt for some clarity.
As kids, the prospect of getting new school supplies always seemed to brighten back-to-school woes. This week, imagine what you would pack in a backpack to prepare yourself for the school of life. Make a list of five "supplies" that you can picture yourself using every day—they can be practical tools, made-up magic potions, or even intangible thoughts or mantras. Write a poem in which you describe the supplies with concrete details, exploring how having each one easily accessible at all times would vastly improve your prospects.
Choose a memorable character from a movie—someone from an old Western or a James Bond film, for example—and write a poem inspired by this on-screen persona. What are the most striking aspects of her style or demeanor? Focus on connecting specific details, like a certain way of walking or talking or dressing, to her emotional state to create a lyrical portrayal of this larger-than-life character.
Do your poems tend to be loud or quiet? Try your hand at switching up your writing's volume. Write a poem that's noisy and full of hard consonants and cacophonous sounds, or write a calmer poem that whispers with a softer rhythm and smoother pacing. Perhaps you can transform your piece by altering capitalization or punctuation, or by italicizing. When you increase or decrease the levels in your poem, are the types of images or emotions that come to mind drastically different?
In the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Dean Young talks about his earliest recollection of writing a poem as a child and the realization that, "you could make up reality with language.... You could write the words blue cow, for example, and there'd be a blue cow." Make a list of five vivid but nonsensical phrases describing things that don't exist in reality. Then, choosing one of the phrases to use as a first line, write a poem that is unrestrained by fact or conventional logic. Rather than focusing on consistency or reason, allow your imagination to quickly zigzag from one surprising image, sound, or emotion to the next.
Epic poems, like Homer's Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid, chronicle the tales of heroes set against the backdrop of historical events. They are often lengthy, and typically include narratives featuring superhuman feats, wild adventures, and stylized language. While we usually equate epic poetry with ancient times, the form has also been used by modern poets. From Lord Byron's comic use of the epic form in Don Juan, to Ezra Pound's The Cantos and Alice Notley's The Descent of Alette, this form has been used throughout the ages. Try your hand at writing the beginning of an epic poem. Choose a hero and a quest, and then set sail on a lyric journey. Write in dactylic hexameter, as Homer did, or use your own meter. After all, it's your adventure!
This week, encourage someone close to you to collaborate on writing a poem. Together, choose a subject—it can be a shared experience, a mutual friend or loved one, or a place familiar to you both—and then separately, write a short poem on the chosen subject from the first-person perspective. Finally, work together on the editing process, combining the two poems by interweaving lines and stanzas, and formulating a collective rhythm. For inspiration, read "Two Fathers" by Lois Baer Barr and Ellen Birkett Morris.
If you found yourself stranded on a desert island, what would you most want to have with you? Make a list of ten things—anything from books, music, and photos, to people, pets, or food—and then write a poem with the items in your order of importance. Include the reasons why you can’t live without each item. Are there specific memories attached to certain items that persuaded you to choose them?
The "dog days" of summer typically refer to the hottest days around July and August. The term originates with the ancient Romans who associated this time of year with the brightest star Sirius—also known as the Dog Star—rising and setting in sync with the sun, supposedly making the days hotter. Explore other natural occurrences that coincide with summer—fire rainbows, foxfire, midnight sun—and write a poem in tribute to the hottest days of the year.
Poet and translator George Szirtes says: "Nobody reads a poem to find out what happens in the last line. They read the poem for the experience of travelling through it." This week, choose a short poem—it can be one of your own or someone else’s—and cross out the last line. Read it again now without its last line, and imagine how the poem might take a different turn at this juncture. Write a continuation of the poem, allowing it to travel to an entirely new conclusion.
Choose a genre for a poem: science fiction, fantasy, romance, thriller, noir, or historical—perhaps the one that seems the furthest from your usual subject matter. Experiment with vocabulary typically associated with that genre. Perhaps words like “android” or “femme fatale” might offer unexpected inspiration.
This week, imagine you have been deprived of one of your senses for a year, and then suddenly regained it. What specific sensations might you have missed and be eager to experience again? Write a poem about the longing and appreciation for this sense, focusing on creating fresh and unexpected phrases and descriptions. For example, if you choose the sense of taste, how might you express the sweetness of something without using the word sweet?
Poets laureate traditionally compose and present ceremonial verse for official events and occasions, like a commemoration to the opening of a bridge or the unveiling of a monument. Write a poem dedicated to a familiar landmark as if you were introducing it to the world. You might research the actual historical significance, or invent a completely made-up history. What unexpected facts—real or imagined—would you include for future generations to learn about this particular landmark?
The tanka is a type of classical Japanese poem, most popularly known in its five-line form, with syllable counts of 5/7/5/7/7. In ancient Japanese tradition, the short poetic lines were exchanged between lovers in the morning, after spending an evening together. This week, try your hand at writing a tanka. Start with a concrete image or object you closely associate with a loved one. Then create a dramatic shift in thought or emotion to express the speaker's personal response. For inspiration, read examples of the tanka compiled by the Academy of American Poets.
"There's only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you've got to be kind." Take to heart Kurt Vonnegut's words, from his 1965 novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, or Pearls Before Swine, and spread some kindness through your poetry. Pick someone you admire and write a poem to this person about all the things you want to say to him or her, no matter how personal or embarrassing. Try to avoid focusing on physical appearance or material possessions, and instead celebrate the personality traits or the fond memories you’ve shared. Consider sharing your poem with this person, or at least say some of the lovely things you’ve written to him or her. Kind words have such power; they can lift your spirits, boost your self-esteem, and even change your life—and your poem.
This week, concentrate on the sounds of words and pick four or five words that you love to hear and pronounce. Don't worry about whether these words are complex or commonplace, just focus on the way they sound when spoken aloud. Then using one as the title, incorporate these favorite words into a poem. Create a narrative if you wish, or allow yourself to focus completely on sound as you piece together your poem. Consider the similarities between the words you've chosen, in terms of their meaning and their internal music.
Consider someone you've been thinking about recently and write a poem as a tribute to her. Perhaps she did you a much-appreciated favor, paid you an unexpected visit, or just popped into your head as you went about your daily tasks. Take some time to consider what this person means to you and why you're thankful to have her in your life. Examine the bond between the two of you, and why you are important to each other.
Sometimes seemingly unrelated notions have surprising similarities. This week, take some strips of paper and write down the names of objects, places, and people. Throw them in a hat and draw out two at random. Then write a poem attempting to connect the two things you've selected. Perhaps you pick out "fireworks" and "lavender," or "honeybees" and "B. B. King"—stretch your imagination to its limits when considering their potential relationship.
“They are everywhere—those sunflowers with the coal heart center,” Eve Alexandra muses in her poem “Botanica.” A symbol of loyalty and longevity, sunflowers are considered among the happiest of flowers, and provide energy in both nourishment and vibrancy. Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and Gustav Klimt famously represented these flowers in works of art, and they have cropped up in poems by William Blake and Allen Ginsberg. This week, incorporate sunflowers into a poem. Consider their bright yellow coloring, their sturdy stalks, and their delicious seeds.
Cervantes's short story The Glass Graduate recounts the tale of a man who was poisoned by a quince, intended to be an aphrodisiac, that brought about the delusion that his body was made of glass. This week, write a poem from the perspective of someone who believes his limbs could shatter with the slightest touch, and will not let others near him. Think about what would cause someone to think this way, and the limitations attached to this mindset.
Digital poetry is a form of electronic literature that incorporates the use of computers to display and interact with the work. Heavily influenced by concrete and visual poetry, digital poetry includes use of hypertext, computer generated animation, coding, and holograms. This week, look into some of the digital poems in the Electronic Literature Collection and brainstorm how you'd create one of your poems digitally. If you have programming skills, or know someone who does, put your plan into action and create your own piece of electronic literature!