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.

12.7.21

“The name means ‘odd.’ / The name means ‘queer.’ / It can denote an ‘odd fish,’” writes Mark Wunderlich in his poem “Wunderlich.” The poem serves as an exploration of the poet’s last name, interlacing a historical overview of his family’s ancestry with suggestive definitions that compound and contradict. “The name means ‘electric organ maestro.’ / The name means ‘famous botanical illustrator.’” This week write a poem inspired by your last name. Allow yourself to get carried away with fact and fable, letting your imagination spin a new history for your family name.

11.30.21

“It is December and we must be brave,” writes Natalie Diaz in “Manhattan is a Lenape Word,” a poem from her Pulitzer Prize–winning collection, Postcolonial Love Poem (Graywolf Press, 2020). Diaz sets the scene by describing the sounds and colors of New York City: “The ambulance’s rose of light / blooming against the window.” Then she moves from the exterior to the interior: “I’m the only Native American / on the 8th floor of this hotel or any...” Inspired by Diaz, and the onset of winter, write a poem that starts with the line: “It is December and we must be brave.” Let this first line carry you into sensuous descriptions about the world outside, as well as inside.

11.23.21

“The Greeks / had it wrong: / catastrophe // is not a downturn, / not a fall / from grace,” writes Monica Youn in her poem “Portrait of a Hanged Woman” from her third collection, Blackacre (Graywolf Press, 2016). The poem begins with a reference to the etymology of the word “catastrophe,” which comes from two Greek words meaning “down” and “turning.” Youn uses this starting point to depict the emotional turmoil behind a time when one’s life unravels. This week, write a poem that begins by breaking down the etymological root of a word. Is there a contrast between what the word means to you and its origins? For further inspiration, watch a video of Youn reading this poem in a conversation with Robert Pinsky.

11.16.21

Lebanese American writer and artist Etel Adnan died at the age of ninety-six this past Sunday on November 14 in Paris. One of the most celebrated and accomplished Arab American authors of her era, Adnan leaves behind decades of writing that interrogates war and the effects it has in displacing communities, as well as visual art inspired by landscapes in nature, which she called her “inner landscapes.” This week, inspired by Adnan’s bright and lucid landscape paintings, write an ekphrastic poem reflecting on one of her works. What natural landscapes did you grow up around, and how can you fuse them into the poem?

11.9.21

“Above my desk, whirring and self-important / (Though not much larger than a hummingbird), / In finely woven robes, school of Van Eyck / Hovers an evidently angelic visitor,” writes James Merrill in his poem “Angel.” The speaker in the poem is visited by an angel whose presence stirs up questions about the passive act of writing: “How can you sit there with your notebook? / What do you think you are doing?” This week, write a poem in which the speaker is visited by a watchful, otherworldly presence. Try, like Merrill, to be descriptive about the setting in order to set the mood.

11.2.21

“I love the I, / frail between its flitches, its hard ground / and hard sky, it soars between them / like the soul that rushes, back and forth, / between the mother and father.” In this line from her iconic poem “Take the I Out,” Sharon Olds describes both the physical shape of the letter and how it represents the self. This week write an ode to a letter of the alphabet. Whether it be the letter I, or a different one, how far can you go in describing this letter and locating the many ways it holds place in your life?

10.26.21

“Enough of osseous and chickadee and sunflower / and snowshoes, maple and seeds,” writes Ada Limón in her poem “The End of Poetry.” “Enough sorrow, enough of the air and its ease, / I am asking you to touch me.” In this timely poem, Limón uses the repetition of “enough of” to list actions, objects, and experiences that might be considered poetic in order to emphasize what the speaker is willing to do away with for a moment of physical connection. Write a poem that articulates “the end of poetry” for you. What images and phrases would you consider poetic, and what would you want in return if you were to give it all away?

10.19.21

“Monastic firs, marginal, / conical, in brooding snoods / a finical sun unpacks, clerical // in scarlet fringe of Interstate scrub,” writes Lisa Russ Spaar in her hypnotic poem “Driving,” published in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series. In the poem, Spaar shifts from the speaker’s present to the past, in a kind of daydream: “Sick days // in autumn, child on cot-raft, / chaste bedroom chary / with red smell of measles.” Write a poem that describes the feeling of driving long distances. Challenge yourself to begin with descriptions of the road and progress into the realm of memory and meditation. (If you don’t drive, do the same exercise with walking.)

10.12.21

“Dear Mother, I have so many questions. What city were you born in? What was your American birthday? Your Chinese birthday? What did your mother do?” writes Victoria Chang in the first letter of her nonfiction book, Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief, published in October by Milkweed Editions. In the book, Chang writes letters to family members, teachers, and writing colleagues—to silence, to the reader, to memory itself—interspersed with collages made from family documents, relics, and mementos, including a marriage license, photographs, and a visa petition, forming an immersive collection that reckons with memory and what it dredges from the past. Using Dear Memory as inspiration, write three poems in the form of letters: one addressed to a parent, another to a grandparent, and the third to an experience or emotion, such as regret or grief. Try using family photographs or keepsakes as a way of entering the poems.

10.5.21

“I come from the cracked hands of men who used / the smoldering ends of blunts to blow shotguns,” writes Reginald Dwayne Betts, recipient of a 2021 MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, in his poem “Shahid Reads His Own Palm.” Betts uses anaphora to propel the narrative forward, describing the places that have shaped and haunted him with an incantatory rhythm: “I come from ‘Swann Road’ written in a child's / slanted block letters across a playground fence.” Write a poem about your origins that repeats the words, “I come from,” throughout it. Does the repetition conjure any surprising images?

9.28.21

In her poem “Taking Out the Trash,” the late poet Kamilah Aisha Moon, who died at the age of forty-eight last week, takes a seemingly mundane task and makes the activity profound. Through detailed, sensory descriptions of routine movements such as “I shimmy the large kitchen bag from / the steel canister, careful not to spill / what’s inside,” Moon walks the reader through the meditative, deliberate actions of her morning routine, bringing attention to the role her body has in everyday actions and the presence of one’s mortality throughout the day. Write a poem about a daily chore or everyday task that brings attention to your body. Try, as Moon does in her poem, to take time describing the movements of your body.

9.21.21

A garden-path sentence is a grammatically correct sentence that can appear nonsensical because of its syntax and the way it forces the reader to discern its meaning. In essence, the reader is led down the garden path by the sentence. Examples include “The horse raced past the barn fell,” “The man who hunts ducks out on weekends,” and “The raft floated down the river sank.” Write a poem using a garden-path sentence. What grammatical trick will you use for an unexpected portrayal? Try using the title to your advantage.

9.14.21

As the days get shorter and colder in mid-September, the autumnal equinox and the official end of summer approach. Many poets find inspiration in this in-between zone when seasonal plants transition and the duties of a school year begin again. “Three Songs at the End of Summer” by Jane Kenyon, “Blackberry-Picking” by Seamus Heaney, and “Vespers” by Louise Glück are examples of poems that speak to late summer. Write a poem that celebrates this fleeting, yet evocative moment between seasons.

9.7.21

“My father was reading War and Peace when he gave me my name. / I was born near Easter, 1966, in Mississippi,” writes Natasha Trethewey in her poem “Miscegenation,” which begins with the story of her parents traveling to Ohio to marry in 1965 when interracial marriage was still illegal in Mississippi. The poem is a ghazal, a form that consists of couplets ending on the same word or phrase. Write a ghazal with your city of origin as the repeating word. Try, as Trethewey does, to weave together various subjects that speak to the time and place of your homeland.

8.31.21

In her poem “Bestiary of Bad Kisses,” Ashley M. Jones compares bad kisses in the form of a catalog of animals with three sections titled: “The Frog,” “The Anteater,” and “The Bulldog.” The bestiary is a textual compendium of beasts, both real and imaginary, dating back to the Middle Ages that has seen a resurgence in contemporary literature. From Julio Cortázar to Donika Kelly, writers have sought ways to explore the metaphorical and literal resonances of cataloging animals. Write a poem in the form of a bestiary. How can you glean inspiration from myths and real-life stories? What is the relationship between your chosen animals?

8.24.21

Rising global temperatures and natural disasters, such as the recent tropical storms and hurricanes in North America and the earthquake in Haiti, bring to mind the fragility of the environment and the effects of climate change. Over the years, poets have taken to their craft to raise awareness and humanize the climate crisis in works such as “I Don’t Know What Will Kill Us First: The Race War or What We’ve Done to the Earth” by Fatimah Asghar, “Let Them Not Say” by Jane Hirshfield, “Letter to Someone Living Fifty Years from Now” by Matthew Olzmann. Write a poem about the environment that draws the reader in emotionally, whether it is by describing a changing landscape or reflecting on the issue. For further inspiration, browse these poems engaging with the climate crisis curated by the Academy of American Poets.

8.17.21

In a preface to “After Cecilia Vicuña,” a poem from the collection Villainy, published in September by Nightboat Books, Andrea Abi-Karam includes a note on the Chilean poet and visual artist Cecilia Vicuña, who condemned General Augusto Pinochet and spoke out about how “the lies (the words, the language) of the Chilean dictatorship murdered & tortured thousands of people.” In the poem, Abi-Karam asks questions about the power of words and how to provoke change through a medium such as poetry that at times can feel devoid of consequence. “i ask questions like / … how to weaponize the poem words as weapons / give the poem teeth.” What questions would you ask yourself about the power of your own words? Write a poem that contemplates the impact you wish to make as a writer—the reasons, hesitations, desires, and conflicts that arise when you create.

8.10.21

In Paul Tran’s “Progress Report,” published on Literary Hub and featured in their forthcoming debut poetry collection, All the Flowers Kneeling (Penguin Poets, 2022), the poem catalogues the speaker’s life while filling out a form: “Photograph of the ’93 Mazda MPV he reportedly turned into an ice cream truck. / I marked Humor. / Holes where the nails had been in the wall. / I marked Self-harm.” The poem, made up of single end-stopped lines, uses a call-and-response technique to reveal new information as it progresses. Write a poem in which the speaker is filling out a form—perhaps a progress report, an immigration document, or a demographic survey. How can you use the poem’s form as a way of highlighting an important event?

8.3.21

In C. K. Williams’s poem “Marina,” published in the New Yorker in 2005, the speaker is reading essays by Marina Tsvetaeva as a bug makes its way across the table. As the poem progresses, lines from Tsvetaeva’s essays are interlaced with descriptions of the bug dragging its transparent wings behind it, and the bug becomes a metaphor for her difficult life. “‘The soul is our capacity for pain.’ // When I breathe across it, / the bug squats, quakes, finally flies. / And couldn’t she have flown again, / again have been flown?” Write a poem involving lines from a writer you admire. Try, as Williams does, to elucidate or challenge the featured lines.

7.27.21

“I will tell you all. I will conceal nothing,” writes Muriel Rukeyser in her poem “Effort at Speech Between Two People,” in which two disembodied voices confess, speak, and exchange information about their lives. In the poem, the voices are both individual and collective, and the use of caesuras serve as a visual cue for silence in a conversation. Write a poem in which two people speak without relying on the use of traditional dialogue tags. How can you focus on the sounds of the language and the potential for slippage between voices to add texture to the poem? For more inspiration, watch Carl Phillips read Rukeyser’s poem in the Poets & Writers Theater.

7.20.21

“A language is a map of our failures,” writes Adrienne Rich in “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children,” a poem that begins by reflecting on an incident involving children burning a book in a backyard. In the five-section poem, several forms and topics are discussed as the scope of the situation is widened to a global scale, then focused onto the intimacies of sexual relations, resulting in a capacious exploration of language and its failures. Write a poem that reflects upon your relationship to your first language and expands upon how communication can fail us.

7.13.21

In an article for the New Statesman, Andrew McMillan writes about discovering the poetry of Thom Gunn after his death and the impact of his writing on male desire and the male body: “While for the Romantics the sublime might have been an engagement with the vastness and wildness of a landscape, Gunn locates it in encounters with lovers or strangers, a striving towards and never quite achieving transcendence of the self.” This week, write a poem that strives for transcendence through a desirous encounter with a lover or a stranger. For inspiration, browse Gunn’s poetry published on the Poetry Foundation website.

7.6.21

The sonnet form dates back to thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Italy where it was popularized by the poet Petrarch, whose work was translated and introduced in the sixteenth century to English poets. A new type of sonnet with a different rhyme scheme was then developed and made famous through the work of William Shakespeare. Poets such as Wanda Coleman, Diane Seuss, and Terrance Hayes have given voice to the more contemporary “American” sonnet, demonstrating the flexibility of the fourteen-line form. This week, write your own sonnet—either a traditional sonnet or one inspired by a contemporary poet.

6.29.21

Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Stephen Dunn died on his eighty-second birthday on June 24. Over the weekend many fans and readers shared memories and favorite poems on social media, collectively mourning the loss of this major literary figure. One such poem of Dunn’s is “The Routine Things Around the House,” which tackles the difficult subject of grieving a mother through a memory of when he was twelve and asked his mother if he could see her breasts. “She took me into her room / without embarrassment or coyness / and I stared at them, / afraid to ask for more,” writes Dunn. “This poem / is dedicated to where / we stopped, to the incompleteness / that was sufficient.” This week, write an elegy that focuses on a memory that would be considered uncommon or surprising. See where it takes you.

6.22.21

In many countries, Father’s Day was observed this past Sunday, an occasion in which fatherhood is celebrated and reflected upon. Over the centuries, poets have explored and honored their relationships with their fathers in poems such as “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden, “Yesterday” by W. S. Merwin, and “My Father. A Tree.” by Tina Chang. This week, write a poem dedicated to a father figure in your life. Try writing it from the perspective of a child as an added challenge.

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