Read James Richardson’s aphorisms or “ten-second essays." Pick one that resonates with you, and use the aphorism as an epigraph or starting off point for a poem.
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 June 2012, Matthew and Michael Dickman released Fifty American Plays (Poems) (Copper Canyon Press), a book of poem-plays about the fifty American states. Choose a state (or region or country outside of the United States) that you feel a deep connection to and write a poem about it. Give the reader a sense of the landscape and mood you associate with the place. As an additional challenge, try to convey a sense of the location without ever naming it in the poem.
In her essay “The Art of Finding” originally published in American Poet in 2006, Linda Gregg advises poets to be more attuned to the physical world and to find concrete images that possess a special vibrancy. Gregg writes about how she asks her students to keep “a journal in which they must write, very briefly, six things they have seen each day—not beautiful or remarkable things, just things.” Try this exercise for one week, and at the end of the week, use two images from your journal in a poem.
Write a poem that begins with a description of a photograph you have in your possession. Delve into the memories evoked by the photograph, or reveal what personal significance the photograph has for you. For inspiration, read Natasha Trethewey’s “History Lesson.”
In a 2008 Paris Review interview with Kay Ryan, she explains her neologism “recombinant rhyme”—a craft technique of stashing “rhymes at the wrong ends of lines and in the middle.” According to Ryan, “snipping up pieces of sound and redistributing them throughout a poem” allows her to “get the poem to go a little bit luminescent.” Take a poem of yours that could use more musicality, and revise it to include recombinant rhyme.
Choose one of your poems that needs revision. Give it to five friends and ask each of them to create an audio version of it by reading it into your telephone answering machine or recording themselves reading it and sending you the audio file. Listen to the five audio versions for places where the rhythm or musical qualities of the poem fall away or sound flat. Use these readings to revise the poem.
Poet Wayne Miller once compared reading a poem in translation to “watching a film with the sound turned down.” Find two or more English translations of a poem originally written in a foreign language with which you’re not familiar. Compare the translations, and try to “re-translate” the original poem based on the various English translations you’ve read.
Write a poem in which you give the reader directions about how to assemble an object or an emotional experience. Think of the various sensory stimuli your directions provide and experiment with the order of the lines. For inspiration, read Matthea Harvey’s poem “Setting the Table.”
An ekphrasis is a poem about, describing, or inspired by, a piece of art. Rather than writing a poem based on a piece of art, try writing a poem inspired by an existing ekphrasis.
Revisit a poem of yours that is longer than one page. Try rewriting the poem by condensing it to ten lines or fewer. Cut and rearrange lines from the original poem, or write a completely new one that gives fresh attention to an evocative image or line from the original.
Make a list of commonly used phrases or idioms (e.g. “don't let the cat out of the bag,” “beat a dead horse,” “no strings attached”). Choose one or two and examine them closely, particularly their literal meaning. Write a poem in which at least one line attempts to reveal the strangeness of a commonly used idiom. Read Dora Malech’s “Love Poem” for inspiration.
A cento, Latin for "patchwork," is a poem composed entirely of fragments and lines taken from other poems and/or written sources. Try creating your own patchwork poem by incorporating lines from various poems in a poetry anthology. For inspiration, read David Lehman's cento in the New York Times.
While writing poetry in a particular form can feel restrictive, it also forces you to make decisions, use words, and write lines that you might not otherwise. Look over your poetry for common features such as the number of lines and stanzas. Based on what you find, create a form—a set number of lines, a set number of stressed syllables per line, and perhaps a relationship among lines, such as having certain lines rhyme or repeat. Write five poems using this form.
Choose a well-known person from history or from the news. Write a persona poem from this person's voice and perspective. For an example, read the poet Ai's "The Good Shepherd: Atlanta, 1981," from her collection Sin (Norton, 1986), written from the perspective of convicted murderer Wayne Williams, or watch a video of Ai reading the poem.
Imagine today that the universe is trying to send you a message. Try to see everything through this imagined perspective. Take note of the day's incidentals that are working to convey this message to you: the guy walking toward you on the street wearing your brother's favorite color, the petals of the same color blowing in the wind, a sign you notice with a saying that strikes you, how the quality of light conjures a past event. Write a poem using these collected images and impressions that reveals the message.
Look through your poem drafts, notes, and writing fragments. Choose one line that you like and refine it until it feels as complete and polished as one line out of context can be. Use that line as a refrain in a new poem. When you've completed a decent draft, try writing an additional draft of the poem without the line, using it instead as the title.
In honor of National Poetry Month, commit to memorizing one poem a week during April. Allow the experience of inhabiting each poem in this way feed your own poetry.
Open a dictionary, an encyclopedia, or a book from your bookshelves to any page; choose a word, and write it down. Repeat this nine times. Write a poem with ten couplets (they need not rhyme) using one of the words from your list in each couplet, without using the first person.
Visit a museum or an art gallery. While looking at the art, transcribe fragments from the written descriptions and/or titles that accompany each work. Create a poem out of the fragments you've transcribed.
Write a lyric poem titled "Ode to the Girl in the Red Shoes." Read the Poetry Foundation's definition of the ode, for more information.
During the next week collect images, photographs, small objects, lines of poetry that you've written, passages from other writers' work, snippets of conversations you overhear. Throughout the week put these things in a shoe box or something similar. At the end of the week, sit down and lay out each thing around you. Use the things you've collected as the ingredients for a poem.
Channel a person you've lost in your life. Find a photograph or reflect on a mental image of a friend or relative who is no longer part of your everyday life (because of death, estrangement, physical distance) and reenter the moment of that image, examining the clothing, the facial expression, the nuances of the scene in which the subject is situated. Then go deeper, into the scents, the temperature of the air, the physical and emotional sensations related to this particular scene from a past life. Now write down any words evoked by this reflection, whether they form a narrative or are entirely associative, whether they come from the point of view of an observer or the person herself. Use this material you've created to write a poem (you might try writing it in the form of a letter to your loved one, or from her to you).
Write a poem that is in the form of a letter to a person from your past, a person from history, or a place. As you revise the poem, examine the poem's structure, looking for patterns. How many syllables are most of the lines? How many lines make up each unit (or stanza). Once you get a sense of the dominant structure, revise the poem asserting that structure consistently.
Poet Stanley Kunitz often advised his students to end a poem on an image without explaining it. Write a new poem or revise an old one, ending it with an evocative image left unexplained.
Record the advertising slogans and advertising copy that you encounter throughout the day. Pick one slogan/catchphrase or a brief selection of advertising copy and incorporate it into a poem, without mentioning the object or service being marketed.