Last week, in a surprising decision, Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Dylan is the first musician to win the award and in its citation the Swedish Academy, which administers the prize, credited Dylan with “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Whether you agree with the decision or not, examine some of Dylan’s lyrics. Then, write a poem that begins with a line you find compelling.
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.
Taking inspiration from the “Dear President” feature in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, in which fifty American poets and writers were asked to write several sentences addressing the next president, write a short poem of address that starts with the words, “Dear President.” Touch upon one or two of the most important issues to you about contemporary society and/or government. Share any advice, wisdom, wishes, or requests.
The first Nobel Prize winner of 2016, announced in the Physiology or Medicine category this week, was awarded to Japanese scientist Yoshinori Ohsumi. Ohsumi is a cell biologist who won the prize for his studies of autophagy, Greek for “self eating,” a process in which the cells in our body break down or destroy, and then recycle, certain component parts. Write a poem inspired by the workings of the human body at a cellular level. You may find ideas by looking at different vocabulary and terminology, or drawing connections between cellular functions and processes to situations in your emotional life and interpersonal relationships.
Hollywood has a long tradition of remaking films and television shows from decades gone by, including recent or forthcoming reboots of The Magnificent Seven, Die Hard, Full House, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Point Break, MacGyver, Twin Peaks, Splash, and Mary Poppins. Write a remake of a poem written between the 1960s and 1980s. Select two major elements to retain from the original poem such as setting, narrative voice, overarching formal structure, or emotional progression, and then give it a fresh, new spin by altering other aspects of the poem.
Pine, oak, cedar, birch, aspen, fir, maple. Joshua, jacaranda, palm. There are thousands of species of trees in the world; some are found in many regions and some in only one place. There are trees that grow fruits and nuts; there are desert trees and tropical trees. Robert Frost, H. D., Denise Levertov, Federico García Lorca, William Shakespeare, and many others have all written poems about trees. Spend some time studying a specific tree in your neighborhood, paying close attention to its shapes and sounds, its colors, smells, and textures. Perhaps make a sketch of it, or research it online or at the library. Then write a series of short poems about this one tree, trying to approach each poem from a different angle—exploring rhythm and sound, for instance, or your personal memories and associations.
There have been several notable recent occurrences of museumgoers from all over the world breaking or damaging artwork. In a video widely shared on the internet last year, a boy tripped in a museum in Taiwan, and in bracing his fall, accidentally smashed a hole through a seventeenth-century Italian oil painting valued at over one million dollars. Using this image or concept of the physical defacement of art, write a poem that experiments with the idea of broken surfaces with the use of fragments or erasure. What are some ways of inserting literal or figurative holes into the body of a poem?
While at Omi International Arts Center in Ghent, New York, artists Alex Schweder and Ward Shelley built a house that spins and tilts in accordance with the wind, and the shifting weight of its inhabitants. Then they resided in the structure for five days; and will spend another several days living there this fall. Write a poem inspired by the image or idea of living in a structure that is constantly spinning, and which tilts up or down as you walk through it. What kind of vocabulary or pacing might mimic or reflect the sensation of spinning? How can you play with emotional weight or levity to create shifting feelings throughout your poem?
British music critic, librettist, and author Paul Griffiths’s novel Let Me Tell You (Reality Street, 2008) is told from the point of view of Ophelia, the character from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Using an Oulipo type of constraint, the novel uses only the 483 words spoken by Ophelia in the original play. Choose one of Shakespeare’s plays, and make a list of words spoken by one character in a pivotal scene, or part of a scene. Write a poem inspired by this list of words, allowing your creative impulses to dictate whether you use only words from the list, or include a few additional words of your own.
Have you ever stepped onto foreign soil—whether it be another town, state, or country—and immediately felt like you were in a different galaxy? Or conversely, have you traveled to a seemingly faraway place only to find that it felt surprisingly just like home? Write two short poems about places you have visited or passed through, and explore your expectations and feelings of familiarity or strangeness in each one. For inspiration, read about Baarle, a small European village situated partially in Belgium and partially in the Netherlands, with its international borders actually cutting through the middle of shops, living rooms, and backyards.
Instead of using GPS coordinates or traditional street numbers and names, a postal mail service in Mongolia will begin using a new address location system, created by a British tech start-up, in which the world map is divided into trillions of nine-square-meter patches and assigned a unique three-word code. Find the code for your own address at the What3Words website or create your own code. Then write a poem inspired by the combination of these three random words and how they connect to your concept of home.
Cargo shorts, which rose to popularity in the 1990s, have recently sparked heated opinions and reignited the debate of whether the fashion item should exist. Is there a particular style or article of clothing you have grown so attached to over the years that you refuse to part with regardless of new trends or the disapproval of loved ones? Write a poem inspired by the comforts of dressing in a familiar way. Include reminiscences about well-worn and long-cherished items from your wardrobe, and the people and events associated with them.
Heat dome, corn sweat, thundersnow. Meteorologists and weather reports often coin new words and phrases for the purposes of both explaining and entertaining. Learn some new weather-related terminology, or create your own phrases that explain existing and made-up weather phenomena. Select one of these terms as the title of a poem, and allow it to guide your imagination as you write your lines. Do you end up with a poem that is somehow connected to meteorology, or does the title lead you toward a completely different direction?
Did this past winter seem to drag on interminably, while spring was over in the blink of an eye, and the summer months keep zipping on by? Sometimes days, weeks, and months feel like they pass at varying speeds, depending on factors such as the weather, travel obligations, school or work schedules, and personal tastes and moods. Write a poem that explores two or more distinctly paced periods of time that occurred in the past year or so. Manipulate the sound and rhythm of your language—as well as the expository or emotional content of your lines—to reflect the drag or rush of each period.
This week, look through some photographs you’ve taken while you were on a trip, either from recent summer travels or a long-ago vacation. To what extent does the photograph encapsulate that locale and your memories of that trip with emotional accuracy? Write a poem that explores the distance between your current self and that photograph, and between an image and a feeling or memory.
Last week, a bunch of Ruby Roman grapes sold at an auction for almost eleven thousand dollars in Japan, where highly valued seasonal fruit can serve as an important status symbol. While money may not be the most obvious choice for poetic lyricism, it can reveal a lot about our society and human nature. Write a poem about a situation in which you had to make a sizable financial decision—saving or spending, dealing with a sudden gain or loss—and examine how your personal value system is intertwined with money.
The higher temperatures, longer days, and more time spent outside in the summer months propel many of us toward beach reads and dramatic blockbuster films. Oftentimes, these forms of entertainment are filled with exciting, action-packed scenes, plots that twist and turn, and sequences that keep us on the edge of our seats. Write the summer blockbuster version of a poem. Try to balance the use of easily accessible, widely appealing language and images with emotions that are both universally recognizable and unique to your personal sensibilities.
More and more cities are displaying poems on subway cars, in train stations, on buses, and even in coffee shops. In “Traveling Stanzas” in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum reports on an initiative created by the Wick Poetry Center at Kent State University to showcase poetry in public spaces throughout Northeast Ohio. Write a poem with a specific local spot in mind, such as a cafe, library, bus stop, or park bench—the poem’s content may be directly or indirectly related to your choice. If it’s permitted, post a copy of your poem at the intended location, or perhaps hand out copies or stage an impromptu reading there. For inspiration, watch Fatou M’Baye read her poem “Thank You, Tree” in a video produced by the Wick Poetry Center.
“By entering a found text as a poem, the poet doubles its context. The original meaning remains intact, but now it swings between two poles," Annie Dillard wrote in Mornings Like This: Found Poems (Harper Perennial, 1996). "The poet adds, or at any rate increases, the element of delight." Many twentieth-century writers have experimented with found poetry, whether composing entire poems that consist solely of outside texts collaged together (David Antin, Blaise Cendrars, Charles Reznikoff) or incorporating pieces of found text into poems (T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams). Using these poets as inspiration, create a found poem using materials from street signs, newspapers, product packaging, legal documents, or e-mails. Play with different rearrangements and line breaks to form a new meaning that may be an unexpected juxtaposition to the original text.
An ode is a poem that celebrates a person, an event, or object. But what if you don’t want to sing your praises for someone or something? Choose a person, event, or object with which you have a love-hate relationship, and write an anti-ode that examines the bases of your feelings of both opposition and attraction. How can you use diction and rhythm to reflect the complexity of tension between two extreme emotions for the subject of your poem? For inspiration, read Dean Young’s “Sean Penn Anti-Ode.”
Most people spend at least a few minutes a day in front of a mirror, whether while brushing teeth at the bathroom sink at night, or involved in a focused morning makeup or hairstyling routine. Spend a more intensive amount of time in front of a mirror and write a self-portrait poem as you study your own reflection. How has your face evolved over the years? Do your features seem more or less familiar the longer you look? Are there particular elements of your face that remind you of certain people or memories?
"Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them," writes Oscar Wilde in his 1891 novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Drawing upon your own experiences with parents, guardians, mother or father figures—or your personal history as a parent yourself—compile a short list of specific memories and observations divided into three categories: love, judgment, and forgiveness. Would you agree with Wilde that children's love for and judgment of parents are inevitable, but forgiveness of them may be less so? How might you see forgiveness as a more conscious component of a parent-child relationship? Write a three-part poem that explores the many nuances of a parent-child relationship as it evolves with age.
Get out of town. Take a drive, a train, or a bus. It doesn’t matter how. It doesn’t have to be far. Just get away. Once you’re there, buy a postcard, address it to yourself, and write a poem on it. Fill up the whole card. Don’t edit yourself too much, just let it roll, then drop it in the mail. When it finally arrives back home, transcribe it onto a notebook and see if you can build from it. It may already be well on its way to a finished product, or it may only have one or two lines worth keeping. Regardless, stepping away from what’s familiar and writing a poem to your future self can help guide you to new images and thoughts that the daily writing life may not inspire.
Beginning next week, a collection of Marilyn Monroe’s personal possessions—including handwritten notes and receipts, an address book, lipstick and cigarettes—will be displayed on a worldwide tour before being put on auction. Choose one of Monroe’s items and write a poem imagining the story behind her connection to the item. You might even want to try writing from the point of view of the inanimate object.
A recent study by Paul Thibodeau, a professor of psychology at Oberlin College, examines the phenomenon of “word aversion”—the extremely visceral distaste that some people have in response to certain words, such as “moist,” “luggage,” and “phlegm.” Write down a list of five words that you find particularly repulsive, words that might not otherwise have any definitively negative connotations. Use these words in a poem and explore how word choice can propel you toward certain subject matter. Do you find yourself pulled to other repellant images and memories, or pushed to offset those words with more pleasing evocations?
For a period of eighteen months in the late 1970s, an unexpected pairing of communities took place: the building that housed the San Francisco Club for the Deaf, a social club for the deaf community, became the venue for notable punk rock shows and album recordings. In an article about a Deaf Club event in T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Opal Gordon, a deaf performer, said, “Music is strong, [deaf people] can feel the vibrations. Punk is perfect because it’s loud, it’s heavy, it’s in your face.” Write a poem in which you imagine experiencing a musical performance—whether punk, classical, country, or jazz—that you can see and feel, but not hear. Think about the ways in which music can transcend sound, focusing on the visual or literal attitude of the performance.