“I have always grown up in a world where there were things one did not understand, because there were languages that were not completely accessible,” said Meena Alexander in an interview with Ruth Maxey for the Kenyon Review in 2005. “It just gives you a particular sense of being in a world where you can be comfortable even though linguistically the world is not really knowable.” Write a poem that touches upon something unknown or that you may have misunderstood in the past. With the help of a dictionary or online research, try incorporating words from a language you are unfamiliar with to add to the ambiguity.
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.
The Oxford English Dictionary has announced the 2018 word of the year: “toxic.” Originating in the mid-seventeenth century from the medieval Latin toxicus, signifying “poisoned” or “imbued with poison,” the word has taken on new associations and collocates in the years since—workplace, masculinity, relationship, and Britney Spears, to name a few. This week, read through the list of definitions and origins for this timely term and write an ode incorporating as many of the variations as you can.
The headless chicken monster: the stuff of nightmares or a real scientific oddity? It’s actually the nickname for a deep-sea swimming cucumber recently captured on camera for the first time in the Southern Ocean between Australia and Antarctica, and caught on film only once before in the Gulf of Mexico. Write a poem inspired by this reddish-pink finned creature, taking inspiration from its scientific name Enypniastes eximia, and its other nicknames, such as the headless chicken fish, the Spanish dancer, and the swimming sea cucumber. Take a look at photos and videos to see this unusual creature’s bulbous, transparent body and webbed, veil-like appendages and tentacles moving across the ocean floor.
Struggling to stay motivated? Researchers at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business recently found that people having trouble achieving their goals benefit from the very act of giving advice to others. This week, try offering some advice to someone in a poem. Write a list of suggestions for handling a challenge, perhaps something you know very little about to add some levity. It can be specific, like what to do when your car breaks down on the side of the highway during a thunderstorm, or something more general like how to resolve an argument. Using an idea from your list, write a humorous poem addressed to someone who may or may not appreciate your guidance.
Constructions workers renovating a building in a Valdosta, Georgia last week discovered approximately one thousand teeth buried in a wall on the second floor. Historical researchers attribute the discovery, and the teeth found in walls in two other cities in Georgia, to the spaces having been occupied by dentists in the early 1900s. Write a poem inspired by the imagery, secrets, and possibilities evoked by these bizarre findings. How do the buildings and architecture that surround us hold and reveal local history? Have there been situations in your life when a buried past became uncovered in mysterious or revelatory ways?
“I always feel that I’ve seen a thing after I’ve described it….when I’ve written a thorough physical description of something, then I feel like I’ve seen it and I’ll remember it,” says Barbara Kingsolver in “A Talk in the Woods,” her conversation with Richard Powers in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Choose an object that you have never really given much thought to, but that you see frequently in your home or on your commute, perhaps a houseplant or a mailbox or a street sign. Spend some time intensely observing it, and then jot down a thorough physical description. Afterwards, write a poem about the object. How did your perception of it change, in your mind’s eye, after going through the exercise of articulating it in language?
“My process of growing up and becoming has been figuring out that a lot of what I’ve been told is wrong,” says Morgan Parker in an interview with Joshua Wolf Shenk at the Believer on the subject of facts and truth and the literary imagination. “If you have a blank canvas, it’s about the kind of audacity to tell stories for yourself. Poetry is storytelling, in this particular way.” Think of something that you were told when you were growing up that has turned out to be wrong in one way or another. Write a twofold poem that first works to question what you’ve been told, and then moves on to tell a new truth.
“It’s my lunch hour, so I go / for a walk among the hum-colored / cabs,” writes Frank O’Hara in his poem “A Step Away From Them.” So often, we miss out on the potential for inspiration from our daily routines, passing muses on morning commutes, lunch breaks, or evening strolls. This week, read O’Hara’s poem and then go out into your neighborhood with no set destination, carrying a notepad with you. Observe and write down everything and everyone you see: invent background narratives, involve your senses, and record sounds and overheard phrases. At home, write a poem that starts with the time of day (“It’s eight in the morning,” or “It’s my lunch hour,” or “It’s midnight”) and take the reader through the streets with you.
The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering has been convening in Elko, Nevada for over thirty years to highlight the “cowboy way” of life, with activities such as poetry and yodeling and sing-alongs, musical performances, dancing, and recounting tall tales and folklore. Many poems and songs that are performed describe the everyday work of ranchers, herders, and rodeo cowboys, and the wide, open spaces of the rural West landscape. Taking a cue from these themes of cowboy verse, write a poem that celebrates the simple pleasures of a work day, focusing on something mundane that brings joy, perhaps finding a way to incorporate the natural environment. Listen to a cowboy song for additional inspiration.
Here’s a strange question that might get some ideas flowing: Where do spiders and stars overlap? Jumping spiders, whose eyes have tubelike structures akin to Galileo’s telescope, have retinas that can swivel so the arachnids are able to look in different directions without moving their heads. Despite being only a few millimeters long, the spiders have eyes that are capable of discerning the moon, according to calculations by scientists. Use the notion of moon-gazing spiders as a launchpad for a poem that draws together two unlikely objects—a celestial body and an earthly body. You might also find inspiration in John Donne’s “The Flea” or Marilyn Nelson’s “Crows,” which incongruously pair the examination of metaphysical subject matter with a mundane physical creature.
“Now, you are a haze, your body turned to watercolor…. You were always more than metal; you were the dream of the thousands of scientists who built you,” muses science writer Shannon Stirone in her National Geographic essay “Dear Cassini: Why the Saturn Spacecraft Brings Me to Tears.” The essay is a farewell letter to NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which ended its decades of exploration last year with a deliberate plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere. Taking inspiration from the emotional lyricism of Stirone’s sentiments, write a poem to an object of global importance that is now long gone, starting with the phrase “You were always more than….”
Earlier this month a fire blazed through the National Museum of Brazil, endangering and destroying a significant portion of the collection of over twenty million artifacts carefully accumulated since the museum’s founding in 1818. One of the museum’s curators reported that the entire entomology and arachnology collections, most of the mollusk collection, and around seven hundred Egyptian artifacts were destroyed. Browse through some of the photos of the museum’s collections, and choosing one object, write a poem that considers the loss of this irreplaceable artifact. You might decide to research more into its history, or simply let your imagination lead the way.
“This place in which I dream the new body — whole & abiding — // I am reaching for the boy now as warden to both the living / & the afterliving…” Khaty Xiong’s poem “On Visiting the Franklin Park Conservatory & Botanical Gardens” is the basis for an interactive installation currently on view at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago. Visitors can write poems and messages exploring grief on paper cutouts of plants and animals which are then displayed in the gallery. Draw or cut out a paper template in the form of something from nature, and write a poem within its frame addressing or dedicated to a lost loved one. Does your poem, and the emotions contained within it, take shape in different ways according to the shape of your paper?
Gardens, forests, hills, fields, wild pink flowers, a farmhouse, a writer’s shed, birds. There is much inspiration to be found at Edna St. Vincent Millay’s former home in Austerlitz, New York, which is open to the public. Visitors can even peek into Millay’s wardrobe to see her shoes, hats, purses, makeup, dresses, and hunting jacket. In “Saving Millay’s Home” by Adrienne Raphel in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, she writes about Millay’s house and other writers’ homes in the region including the Emily Dickinson Museum, Edith Wharton’s estate, the Mark Twain House, Herman Melville’s home, and several of Robert Frost’s homes. Browse through writers’ homes in our Literary Places database for one of your favorites, or simply one whose photographs capture your imagination. Write a poem that draws on images you find, the writer’s work and milieu, and themes of home, geography, and legacy.
In “Why Songs of the Summer Sound the Same,” a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, Sahil Chinoy and Jessia Ma break down summer hit songs from years past into several key shared elements: danceability, energy, loudness, valence (cheerfulness), and acousticness (use of acoustic instruments). This week, write a poem about your summer that incorporates some of these hit song elements. Can you induce danceability in verse form? How might you play around with typography, punctuation, spacing, or diction to create a sense of loudness or acousticness?
Toxins, acid baths, trigger-haired cages, bursting spores, complex plumbing systems, thorny irritants, and the ability to eat sunlight. Behind their placid green exteriors, plants lead a hidden life full of elaborate processes. Browse through this National Geographic slideshow of microscopic views of different plants and write a poem inspired by the up close images of cells, stems, and pollen. Do the photos propel you toward otherworldly thoughts, or do they remind you of particularly human tendencies?
How many times have you tossed away a used tea bag without a second thought? In an interview series for New York Times Magazine, author Emily Spivack asks artist Laure Prouvost about the use of tea in her work, and specifically about a tea bag she’s kept for fifteen years once used by her grandmother. “I like that you can look at something that seems like nothing, like a very, very boring object, but it’s got so much history,” Prouvost says. Choose an everyday object that seems unexceptional, perhaps something ordinarily discarded, and write a poem that delves into a deeper history that adds complexity or magical importance. How does taking an in-depth look give more value to an object?
“I walked abroad, / And saw the ruddy moon lean over a hedge / Like a red-faced farmer.” In an interview with Anselm Berrigan at Literary Hub, John Yau, winner of the 2018 Jackson Poetry Prize, talks about puzzling over the personification in these lines from T. E. Hulme’s 1909 poem “Autumn.” In what way does personification affect imagery in poetry? Write a poem that uses personification in a straightforward yet unexpected way. How does this kind of description enhance not only the perception of the object being personified, but also the idea of personhood and the narrator’s idiosyncratic perspective?
What can science tell us about love? Make your own discoveries by writing a love poem inspired by a scientific concept or phenomenon. For inspiration, consider Henri Cole’s “Gravity and Center,” Ruth Madievsky’s “Electrons,” or Sara Eliza Johnson’s “Combustion.” Name your poem after a scientific phrase you find by looking through a science textbook, website, or article. Search for material that casts unexpected light upon your love poem.
“At the etymological root of both healing and health is the idea of ‘wholeness.’ To heal, then, is to take what has been broken, separated, fragmented, injured, exiled and restore it to wholeness,” writes Jane Hirshfield in her essay “Poetry, Permeability, and Healing” in the Spring-Summer 2018 issue of American Poets. Think of something in your life that has been either physically or figuratively broken, fragmented, or made distant, and write a poem that attempts to restore its wholeness. How might you use the ideas of rejoining parts, searching for new openings, or creating connections for empathy, to write a poem that begins to make what is broken whole?
Although we often associate travel writing with essays about journeys or road-trip novels, poetry has had a long, rich history of association with travel. Many nineteenth- and twentieth-century poems explore wanderlust and faraway locales and new modes of transportation, which can be seen in the exoticism of John Masefield’s “Cargoes” and Rudyard Kipling’s “Mandalay” and the romanticization of rail travel in Thomas Hardy’s “On the Departure Platform” and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Travel.” More recent poems, such as Khaled Mattawa’s “The Road From Biloxi,” Jenny Xie’s “Rootless,” Naomi Shihab Nye’s “The Burn,” and Roger Reeves’s “Brazil,” explore themes of identity, migration, and diaspora. Write a poem based on a favorite travel memory that brings to mind a rich mixture of emotions and a connection with contemporary issues, perhaps touching on ideas of alienation and belonging, or the allure and repulsion of a certain mode of transit. Consider the binaries of travel and home, movement and stillness, the foreign and the familiar. Where have you been and, perhaps more important, where are you going?
Do digital assistants like Siri and Alexa really understand what you’re saying? Last month, a Portland, Oregon couple’s Amazon Alexa device misinterpreted a series of sentences it overheard as instructions to record a private conversation and send it to an unsuspecting person in their contact list. Write a poem that centers on a misheard conversation between two people. Experiment with different homonyms or homophones, or other ways the sounds of different words or phrases can be misheard. How might the misinterpretation of words create unexpectedly fresh ideas or images?
“I wrote an American Sonnet to Wanda Coleman, and I sent it to her. We exchanged letters,” says Terrance Hayes about the inspiration and motivation for his new collection, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (Penguin, 2018), in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. This week, write a sonnet as an homage to Terrance Hayes, or another favorite poet. What types of imagery, tone, and emotional resonances are inspired as you focus on this poet’s work and life?
Real lightning or lightning lite? Hungarian scientists published a study last week in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society A examining how realistic paintings portraying lightning are compared with photographs of lightning. They found that the bolts of electricity in artistic depictions typically show far fewer branching offshoots of electricity than actual lightning. Browse through painted versions of natural landscapes you are familiar with and note the differences between the artist’s rendering and the real life phenomena and scenery. Write a poem that explores these differences and reflects on your own emotional or aesthetic responses to the painted version versus your view or memories of that place.
When you search for your name online, who else appears in the results? This week, write a poem inspired by your online doppelgänger. The poem could be a playful amalgamation of various characters, as in Mark Halliday’s poem “Google Me Soon,” or it could be an occasion for a more meditative address to an individual who shares your name, as in Jacques J. Rancourt’s poem “Hello My Name Is Also Jacques Rancourt.” How does it feel to imagine somebody else with the name you consider your own? If you can’t find someone else with your name, is that reassuring or disheartening?