Starting a new year often means an attempt at challenging resolutions or constraints, but in poetry, constraint can seem natural and even fun. For example, in Oulipo, formulas and frameworks (some more complicated than others) are applied to the lines and words of a poem. Try this exercise in constraint: Write a poem in which all of the words contain a vowel of your choice. For inspiration, read “Ballad in A” by Cathy Park Hong.
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.
“I began writing poetry as an act of survival,” writes Safiya Sinclair in “Shadows of Words: Our Twelfth Annual Look at Debut Poets” in the January/February 2017 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Think about how you might look at your own writing as an act of survival: What are the most troublesome issues and sources of conflict in your everyday life, whether small and tangible or large and amorphous? How might the practice of putting pen to paper and giving words to emotions be integral to your encounter with these obstacles? Write a poem that helps you think through and voice your troubles.
The cento, whose name is derived from a Latin term meaning “patchwork,” is a form of fragmented poetry originating in the third century consisting of lines taken from poems written by other poets. Contemporary centos often offer a humorous juxtaposition of contrasting images, ideas, and tones. Read centos written by John Ashbery and Simone Muench, and then try writing your own, sampling verses from diverse time periods, styles, and subject matter, and citing your sources at the end.
“I’m Nobody! Who are you? / Are you – Nobody – too?” wrote Emily Dickinson in one of her most popular poems, published in 1891. Have you ever jotted down a memo to nobody in particular? Ever sent out to sea a message in a bottle? Left a note on a wall or a park bench to someone, anyone, who might happen upon it? All these types of missives have in common a sense of mystery surrounding the identity of the recipient, and an uncertainty about the intended recipient ever receiving the communication. Write a series of short poems addressed to an unknown person. How does removing the certainty of an addressee place more emphasis on other external factors, like geography and physical distance, and your own current preoccupations and state of mind? As you engage in a conversation with Nobody, what insights are revealed?
“In the red room there is a sky which is painted over in red / but is not red and was, once, the sky. / This is how I live. / A red table in a red room filled with air.” Using these lines from Rachel Zucker’s “Letter [Persephone to Demeter]” as inspiration, write a poem where everything in the environment is red, as though the speaker is looking through red glass. How might color affect the way the speaker feels about an object, animal, or person? How might it affect tone?
The Hong Kong film 2046, written and directed by Wong Kar-wai, predominantly follows the main character Chow, a writer, over the course of several years, escapades, and love affairs, often dipping into scenes of him dining out on Christmas Eve each year. Jot down specific moments or memories from the same holiday over the years that you hold especially resonant and seem to connect a narrative. Then, write a series of poems capturing these events and experiences. How does the holiday itself lend a certain expected or consistent atmosphere even if the events that occurred or people present were completely different?
In Iceland, to write poetry is considered “part of being an Icelander,” according to Icelandic literature professor Sveinn Yngvi Egilsson, and not a “specialist activity” but one that includes a variety of practitioners such as horse breeders, scientists, and politicians. Write a few ferskeytt poems, a popular Icelandic four-line verse form with alternating rhyme. Spend just ten minutes or so on each one, implementing the poem as a casual and functional way to inject some humor or wit into dealing with everyday duties, workday blues, or the oncoming winter.
The landay is a form of folk poetry from Afghanistan consisting of a single couplet—nine syllables in the first line, and thirteen in the second line—that is generally written anonymously and often recited or sung by women. As poet and journalist Eliza Griswold writes, “It must take on one of five subjects: meena, love; jang, war; watan, homeland; biltoon, separation; and, finally, gham, which means despair or grief.” Read more about the form and its historical and contemporary practices in Griswold’s piece in Poetry magazine. Then, write several landays of your own—biting, bawdy, or lamenting.
In an essay for the Ploughshares blog, Emily Smith discusses representations of witches in literature and how they are usually associated with fear and terror. In her exploration of Macbeth, Smith notices that, “Shakespeare’s witches are…followed by dark clouds of rain.” Write a poem using dark or gothic imagery, such as a woman being followed by dark clouds of rain. What emotions are elicited from your depiction? Is she focused on the storm clouds or does she notice them only peripherally? How might you alter your rhythm and sounds to mimic those of a thunderstorm?
In the early twentieth century, anthropologist Franz Boas published claims that the Eskimo languages had dozens or more words for snow—claims that have been pored over and analyzed, debunked and reaffirmed, and criticized and clarified in countless investigations since. Think of a natural or cultural phenomenon, such as a certain type of food, or an emotion, that you believe deserves or warrants a larger vocabulary. Write a poem that presents these new words—perhaps compound words of your own invention—along with their definitions and an exploration of why these articulations are significant to you.
In his 1821 essay “A Defence of Poetry,” Percy Bysshe Shelley writes, “Poetry is…the perfect and consummate surface and bloom of all things; it is as the odor and the color of the rose to the texture of the elements which compose it….” Make a list of words and phrases that describe the surface textures, odors, and colors that surround you as this year draws to an end, choosing the details that are most evocative of the season. You may find yourself drawing inspiration from the contrasting primary colors of holiday cheer, bright puffy parkas or dark wool coats, the shiny prints and textures of patterned gift wrap, the stark tones of snow, or the scents of fragrant conifers and baked desserts. Write a trio of poems, each focusing on one type of sensory input. Select an element—setting, narrator’s voice, repeated words, or a specific object—that stays constant through all three, tying them together.
“By existing in a cinematic space, Shakespeare can feel alive and present,” says Ross Williams, founder of the nonprofit New York Shakespeare Exchange, whose film project Maya C. Popa writes about in “The Shakespeare Sonnet Project” in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. The project aims to collect videos of each of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets performed by actors in different locations in New York City, with a future series to be filmed in locations in the rest of the country and abroad. Browse through some of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and choose one that reminds you of a place you know, or which evokes a site-specific memory. Write your own sonnet in response, bringing phrases and ideas used almost half a millennium ago into the present by incorporating cinematic imagery of a contemporary locale.
Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a Mexican holiday celebrated during the first two days of November in which family and friends commemorate the dead: gathering to tidy up tombs in the cemetery, presenting offerings on altars, eating and drinking, playing music, and telling stories. Write a poem that joyfully honors a loved one who has passed away—or that confronts death and mortality in a more general way—with a tone of both respect and celebration. How does imbuing the gravity of mortality with liveliness and vitality inspire you to think about imagery, rhythm, and diction in new ways?
Edward Gorey wrote and illustrated more than one hundred books, including several alphabet-driven works such as The Gashlycrumb Tinies (“A is for Amy who fell down the stairs”), The Glorious Nosebleed (“She wandered among the trees Aimlessly”), and The Just Dessert (“Apologize”). In the spirit of Gorey’s dark humor unexpectedly combined with a children’s alphabet primer, write a macabre poem similarly derived from the first ten letters of the alphabet, or any ten letters of your choosing.
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.
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.