In the introduction to an issue of Ploughshares edited by the late poet Jean Valentine, who died in December, she says: “My dreams were very important to me right in the beginning. I had a teacher in college who said ‘You could write from your dreams’ and that was like being given a bag full of gold.” Inspired by Valentine and her award-winning first collection, Dream Barker, write a poem that begins with an image from one of your dreams. Allow the internal logic of dreams to guide your lines.
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.
“Young walruses, we must all adapt!” begins Matthew Olzmann’s “Commencement Speech, Delivered to a Herd of Walrus Calves,” published in Four Way Review. In the poem, as the title reveals, a speaker offers advice to a herd of walruses on courage, evolution, and survival: “You need to train yourself to do what they won’t expect.” Write a poem in the form of a speech addressed to a group of animals or objects that offers advice and encouragement for challenges only the subject could encounter. Try to use the title, as Olzmann does, to set the scene and the tone for the poem.
“Mars Being Red” by the late poet Marvin Bell lyrically explores the color red as a state of being, likening it to a list of images that both physically resemble the color and provide memories, such as that of youth. In this compact, twelve-line poem, Bell begins what seems to be a portrait of the planet Mars and then delves into a series of digressions that find resolve in a meditation on the possibility of change: “You will not be this quick-to-redden / forever. You will be green again, again and again.” Inspired by Bell, write a poem that serves as a portrait of a color. Use physical descriptions to begin and then personal memories to develop a transformation in this study of hue.
“When we name things simply, with words preceding their meaning, a cosmic narration takes place. Does the discovery of origins remove the dust?” writes painter and poet Etel Adnan in Shifting the Silence (Nightboat Books, 2020). “It reminds me of a childhood of emptiness which seems to have taken me near the beginning of space and time.” Following her thoughts as they “drip, not unlike the faucet,” Adnan demonstrates the power in trusting clear language, without ornament, and in doing so she offers a testament to poetry as a space built by the self for illumination and inwardness. Spend some time in a space where you can observe nature and take note of your surroundings. With Adnan’s words in mind, write a poem that considers what you see without concentrating on its meaning, when you “remove the dust.” How does this exercise strip the poem’s voice to its essential parts?
“Everybody’s got a song / they’ve gotta sing. / So they say. So they / think,” begins Rita Dove’s poem “The Spring Cricket’s Discourse on Critics,” published in the Believer this month. The deftly enjambed poem uses the perspective of a cricket and its ability to use its legs to chirp, known as stridulation, to discuss an artist’s defense against critics believing “they can / just… crank out the golden / tunes.” Use the perspective of an insect or an animal whose abilities come naturally to examine an aspect of being a poet. Try enjambment in your poem to emphasize particular words.
Humans may no longer have the nictitating membranes, tails, and vomeronasal organs possessed by birds, monkeys, or reptiles, but we do still have vestiges of them, whittled down to nonfunctioning parts of the body: the folds at the inside corners of the eyes, tailbones, and the tiny sac in the nasal cavity above the roof of the mouth. What use, then, can one imagine for nictitating membranes that no longer draw laterally across the eye, tails that no longer help maintain balance, or Jacobson’s organs that no longer detect moisture-borne odor particles? Write a poem that considers the beauty of a body part with no clear-cut function. How might the specificities of the body be appreciated in different ways given our contemporary circumstances? What is the value in imagining new functions for old forms?
Hannah Sullivan’s T. S. Eliot Prize-winning collection, Three Poems (Faber & Faber, 2018), begins with “You, Very Young in New York,” in which she recounts experiences living in New York with details akin to the intimacy found in some of Frank O’Hara’s poems: “Rosy used to say that New York was a fairground. ‘You will know when it’s time, when the fair is over.’” In a poem that sprawls across twenty-three pages, Sullivan covers a wide range of registers and tones, ranging from the high lyric, philosophical musings on youth, to the comical and familiar recounting on what cocktail or dessert is in fashion. Write a poem divided into three sections that captures the quick-paced and unceremonious experiences of youth. Try to include specific scenes to avoid using grand gestures or falling into nostalgia.
“Cats suffer from dementia too. Did you know that?” begins Margaret Atwood’s poem “Ghost Cat” from Dearly (Ecco Press, 2020), her first collection of poetry in over a decade. The poem centers on a cat with dementia who wanders the house at night nibbling on bits of food: “from a tomato here, a ripe peach there, / a crumpet, a softening pear. / Is this what I’m supposed to eat?” Cats have been at the center of literature for centuries, ranging from Christopher Smart’s eighteenth-century poem “Jubilate Agno,” which begins “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry,” to Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita and Haruki Murakami’s novel Kafka on the Shore. Write a poem inspired by a cat. As an added challenge, try writing from the perspective of a cat, instead of from a human watching one.
In his years as a teacher, John Ashbery used Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” for a translation exercise in which students sounded out the German words and wrote down English words resembling those sounds, such as interpreting “sich hält und glänzt” as “sick halt and glance.” The exercise relied less on meaning and subject and more on sound and rhythm, despite the final product sounding silly. Pick a poem in a language unfamiliar to you and phonetically translate the poem into English. What surprising combination of words come together? Once the translation is finished, try to find a sense of logic in the words to produce an original poem.
Self-portraits are often associated with visual artists, but poets have also experimented with this art form. In Gregory Pardlo’s “Written by Himself” he writes, “I was born in minutes in a roadside kitchen a skillet / whispering my name.” Pardlo uses the anaphora, “I was born,” throughout the poem to include the lives that made his life possible. In “Self-Portrait,” Adam Zagajewski employs declarative statements, “I like deep sleep, when I cease to exist,” to invite the reader to learn more about his life. Inspired by these two poems, write a self-portrait poem that seeks to tell the story of how you came to be. Try starting with a list of the things you like and love as a way to enter the poem.
In “Racial Markers and Being Marked” by Will Harris, a Craft Capsule essay published in September, he writes about racial markers in poetry and walking the fine line between rendering your own experience and risking fetishization. Harris presents Monica Youn’s poem “Study of Two Figures (Pasiphaë/Sado)” and discusses how she frames an argument about race through two mythical figures. Youn writes about her own experience as a poet while examining what it feels like to include her “Asianness” in the poem: “Revealing a racial marker in a poem is like revealing a gun in a story or like revealing a nipple in a dance.” Choose a myth you identify with and write a poem in which a part of you is revealed through the story or characters of the tale.
In Airea D. Matthews’s “etymology,” she writes to explore the meaning of her name and its pronunciation. Published by the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day in 2019, Matthews explains the origin for the poem and how she would use a nickname during open mics to make it easier for hosts to pronounce her name: “I realize now it was one of the many ways I’d learned to make myself smaller in space, less pronounced.” What is the personal history of your name? How has it been encountered in different spaces? Write a poem that seeks to trace the etymology and personal history of your name.
In Ten Meter Tower, a short film by Maximilien Van Aertryck and Axel Danielson featured in the New York Times, participants climb a ladder to a ten-meter-high diving board at a public pool, calculating their risks and fears before they decide to jump into the water or head back down to safety. The tight shot of the diving board, the self-motivating monologues, and the slow-motion recordings of the jumps are captivating. “Our objective in making this film was something of a psychology experiment: We sought to capture people facing a difficult situation, to make a portrait of humans in doubt,” say the filmmakers. Write a poem that imagines what thoughts and feelings would run through your head (and body) before and after a leap from the board into the water.
“I can’t afford to think like Whitman / that whomever I shall meet on the road I shall love / and whoever beholds me shall love me,” writes Tyree Daye in “Field Notes on Leaving,” the first poem in Cardinal, out today from Copper Canyon Press. The collection includes blurred photos of Daye’s family and childhood and an epigraph from the Green Book, the mid-1900s guidebook that provided Black Americans with advice on safe places to eat and sleep as they traveled in the United States. Write a short series of poems that acts as a kind of family album, providing a record of journeying within a community through adolescence and adulthood. In each poem allow yourself to explore themes of home and travel, in both literal and figurative ways, including interactions with local people or other travelers, signposts or navigational tools, baggage brought along, and the things or places left behind.
In Natasha Trethewey’s “Repentance,” included in her retrospective poetry collection Monument (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018), she describes the term pentimento as: “the word for a painter’s change of heart revision / on canvas.” Trethewey uses this painting practice as a metaphor for contending with the memory of a quarrel with her father: “a moment so / far back there’s still time to take the glass from your hand / or mine.” What memory would you want to revise or repent, as if you could paint over it? Inspired by painting, write a poem that uses detailed imagery to imagine the possibility of a new past.
In Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “Anodyne,” he writes an ode to his body and its survival, and catalogues the parts of his body that make it his own with lines such as: “I love my crooked feet / shaped by vanity & work” and “The white moons / on my fingernails.” As the poem progresses, the images transform and expand to mythological proportions: “this spleen floating / like a compass needle inside / nighttime, always divining / West Africa’s dusty horizon.” Write an ode to your body that starts with the crooked parts and continues by going past the physical into the mythological.
In “Killing My Sister’s Fish” by Sharon Olds, which appears in her 1996 poetry collection, The Wellspring, she writes of a child pouring ammonia into the bowl of her sister’s pet goldfish and ruminates on the action “as if something set in motion / long before I had been conceived / had been accomplished.” Reflect on a time when you did something wrong, or even sinister, as a child and list the physical details of the event. Write a poem that narrates this memory as truthfully as possible and consider why the event remains so vivid in your mind.
Over thirty years after the release of the classic sci-fi comedy film Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, this fall marks the release of Bill & Ted Face the Music, the third installment of the series following the two title characters, played by Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter, slacker metalhead musicians from California tasked with traveling through time to save the world. Elsewhere in Reeves’s filmography there is more time traveling, including the mind-bending 2006 film The Lake House, in which an architect is engaged in an epistolary romance with a doctor who inhabits the same lake house, but two years apart. Write a series of short poems inspired by the concept of time travel. If you could go back or move forward in time, who would you see and what would you change?
The abecedarian is a poetic form in which the first letter of each line or stanza follows sequentially through the English alphabet. Poets such as Natalie Diaz, Carolyn Forché, and Harryette Mullen have used the form to tackle the historical subjugation of a people and the inadequacy of language when faced with great disaster. The controlled form builds a visual structure that calls attention to the poem’s subject matter. Write an abecedarian poem that reflects on the English language and your place in it. Read Natalie Diaz’s “Abecedarian Requiring Further Examination of Anglikan Seraphym Subjugation of a Wild Indian Rezervation” for inspiration.
In an interview with Yahdon Israel for the LIT video series, Whiting Award–winning poet Safiya Sinclair describes poetry as the “language of an impolite body.” Sinclair considers “wildness” and “madness” while writing and engages with the task of decolonizing the English language as a Jamaican writer. Consider your own relationship with the English language and write a poem that presents any complications or disturbances as an impolite body. Play with word choice or form to go against the grain of learned rules. For guidance, read Sinclair’s poem “In Childhood, Certain Skies Refined My Seeing” from her collection, Cannibal (University of Nebraska Press, 2016).
In Roland Barthes’s 1981 book Camera Lucida, he introduces the concept of a photograph’s punctum, which can be defined as the sensory, intensely subjective effect of a photograph on the viewer, or as he puts it: “that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” Barthes contrasts the punctum with the studium, which is the more general approach to a photograph informed by historical and cultural experiences. Choose a personal photograph and meditate on the specific conditions, feelings, and circumstances behind it. What do you feel and know from looking at it? Then, identify the precise detail in the photograph you are drawn to—what is it exactly? Using your senses, write a poem that centers and delves into the punctum, the precise detail. What does a detail reveal about the whole?
Alt-rock, barista, codependent, designated driver, e-mail, frisée, G-spot, home theater, multitasker, spoiler alert, wordie. What do all these words have in common? They are all listed with a “first known use” year of 1982 according to Merriam-Webster’s online Time Traveler tool, which allows users to see what words first appeared in written or printed use in each year from the Old English to 2020. Choose a year that has particular resonance to you, perhaps one that marks a turning point or significant event in your life, and browse through the words that are listed as first recorded that year. Write a poem about a memorable event and incorporate some of these words. How does this language transform the tone or thematic direction of your poem?
Are trees immortal? Earlier this year, research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported on findings that the biological behavior of gingko trees over six hundred years old was similar to those that were only around twenty years old, prompting the idea that perhaps these trees were immortal. Last month, a new paper published in response in Trends in Plant Science argues that while some trees may indeed live for hundreds or even thousands of years, eventually they are likely to die, and our studies are simply limited by the (relatively) short lifespans of the human beings conducting the studies. Write a pair of poems, one exploring immortality and one exploring mortality. Where do you find yourself turning for allusions or references—nature, civilization, interpersonal relationships?
In “Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness,” published in the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog, poet and novelist John Keene reflects on language as “a medium, a field, a tool, a site of being and expression and communication.” Through his translation work, Keene engages with writing that is often overlooked, such as poetry “by women writers, by LGBTQ writers, and by writers of African descent,” in order to publish the work for more readers. Choose a poet whose work you admire and translate one of their poems into another language or form. Perhaps you attempt a translation from one language to another or try “translating” a sonnet into a pantoum. What would you like to express through this exchange of language?
What can you tell from a kelp’s DNA? In a paper published earlier this month in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, scientists reported findings that the genes of bull kelp found in New Zealand bear different genetic markers because of an earthquake that occurred eight hundred years ago, a reminder of how nature has the power to recover from a disruption. Write a poem that revolves around a specific idiosyncrasy or personality trait, and imagine its connection to an ancient ecological disaster. You might take inspiration from the undulating forms of seaweed waving underwater as you braid in themes of history, continuation, inheritance, and the twinning of destruction with renewal.