January can be a harsh month for most parts of the world. The wind howls over the frozen ground, through bare branches and near-deserted streets, fogged windows blurred as though forming a barrier to keep the icy world at bay. On days like these, how do you kindle the fire inside of you? What keeps you going, warms your spirits, and insulates you from the creeping chill? Write a poem to serve as kindling—verses with the power to comfort and warm your heart.
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 holidays are over and the year is new. Now it’s time to take stock of what you have—what you’re starting with and what you will build from. First, read the late poet Tomaž Šalamun’s “I Have a Horse," and then write a list poem of your own. Begin each line with “I have . . . .” Write about the things that are important to you, the possessions you couldn’t live without, and the curious items you’ve acquired that you can’t bear to throw out.
"Poetry forms the quality of light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action," wrote the late poet Audre Lorde in her essay "Poetry Is Not a Luxury." "The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives." As the New Year begins, heed Lorde's message. Poetry is the means by which we build a future, not just for ourselves, but also for the world at large. Take a moment now to think big. Write down all the hopes you have for the year to come and weave them together into a poem. Keep this poem with you as a guide—read it when you feel you're drifting off course.
Year after year, we receive gifts from family members that we only see on holidays. These gifts are sometimes inappropriate. Perhaps you’re vegan and someone gives you a leather wallet, or you keep getting sugar-scented soaps and lotions and you don’t have the heart to say that you’d prefer something else. This week, pick a gift and write a poem about how you felt after receiving it. Here is your opportunity to be honest, so let it all out.
As the weather turns colder and the days grow shorter, it may be a nice time to gather some friends and write together. This week, try writing a renga, or “linked poem.” The first poet begins by writing a stanza that is three lines long and contains seventeen syllables. The next poet adds the second stanza, a couplet with seven syllables per line. The third stanza repeats the structure of the first, and the fourth mimics the second, and so on, until the poem comes to an end. To make sure the poem has a narrative arc, each poet writes his or her new stanza by referring to the stanza immediately preceding it.
This week, write a whimsical, nonsensical poem about a creature you’ve dreamt up. Try to let go of the meanings associated with the words you use every day when describing this creature. Instead, use words as springboards for weird associations, as colors in a vast mural. Let your mind run wild and hang on for the ride. For inspiration, read Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.”
Sometimes keeping a secret can seem like the most daunting task in the world. This week, write a poem to someone about a secret you’ve been wanting to tell him or her. Play with metaphor, perhaps leaving the subject open to interpretation.
In the spirit of Thanksgiving, write a poem of thanks. Make it all-encompassing, widely accessible, heartfelt, and tender. It could be a proclamation of all the things you are thankful for, or it could be for someone you want to thank. When you’re finished, make copies of your poem and leave one in a public place, where it is sure to be found. Do not sign the poem, and do not address it to anyone in particular. The poem is for whoever finds it and appreciates it.
Do you have a message for the world? Something that you wish you could scrawl on the side of a building in spray paint, or paste up on a billboard for all to see? This week, write the poem that’s itching to get out of you. Imagine what the words would look like ten feet tall and try to embody that power on the page.
The next time you catch a glimpse of your shadow, study it for a while. Observe how it moves when you move, how it looks in different kinds of light. Think about what it would feel like if one day you looked for it and it wasn’t there. Write a poem to your shadow as if it were an old friend.
In Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Rosencrantz muses, “We might as well be dead. Do you think death could possibly be a boat?” If you were to imagine death as something tangible—an object, a location, or a living thing—what would it be? Write a poem meditating on why this particular thing symbolizes loss, and the coming of an end.
Haunted houses are a classic setting for ghost stories. This week, write a poem about the house you live in as though it were haunted. Imagine what kind of spirits might live there, why they remain, and how they inhabit the space. Describe the sound of the creaky floorboard near the refrigerator, the way the windows slide shut on their own, and the weird smell near the fireplace. For inspiration, read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Haunted Houses.”
Is there a simple fact that you find amazing? Think of some tidbit of knowledge that somehow altered your perspective or filled you with a new sense of wonder. It could be something very basic that changed your daily routine, or something that sparked your interest to learn about a new topic further. For example, did you know your age actually represents the number of times you have orbited around the sun? Write a poem incorporating your fact and meditate on why it fascinates you.
It’s not quite Halloween yet, but that doesn’t stop some people from dressing up as superheroes. Have you ever worn a superhero costume or daydreamed about what kind of superhero you’d want to be? This week, write a poem about your superhero persona. Would you have a specific power? How would your actions help others? Would you work on a team with other superheroes, or would you fly solo? Have fun with this one.
In ancient Greece, the term "ekphrasis" referred to a work of art in one medium that was produced as a reaction to a piece of art created in another medium. For example, a sculpture may depict a character in a novel, or a poem may describe a well-known painting. This week, choose a work of art that you find inspiring and try to capture its essence in a poem. Make sure to consider all mediums when choosing your subject—not just paintings, but also film, music, architecture, or fashion.
This week, think of something that has happened to you recently that was stressful, traumatic, or unpleasant. Write a poem about this event as you experienced it, regardless of anyone else’s perspectives or feelings on what occurred. Then rewrite the poem from the perspective of someone else involved in the situation. This new poem may not reflect the truth, but sometimes it’s important to remind ourselves that everything has a flip side.
This week, write an ode to something you’ve never had. It could be an emotion, a relationship, or a possession. Approach it as a loss rather than an absence—use your imagination to try to know what you’ve never known. For example, if you’ve never had a pet dog, write about your ideal pet dog and what it’s like not to have her in your life.
We all have questions buzzing around in our heads. They could be questions about the future, a love interest, or what to make for dinner. We usually turn to family and friends for advice on such concerns, but what if you could ask your favorite poet? How would he or she respond? This week, pick a question that’s been on your mind. Then channel the voice of a poet of your choice who answers your question and offers much-needed advice.
In the early and mid-twentieth century, the Dadaists would compose poems by making random selections from found text. This week, let your subconscious do the work. Take a newspaper article, or other piece of text, and carefully cut out each word. Next, throw all the clippings in a bag. Then, take one word out at a time. Arrange the words on a table in the order you drew them from the bag, and copy them down. As the Dadaists say, "The resulting poem will resemble you."
This week write a poem that sets out to explain an item, idea, or process. Begin the title with "How..." or "Three Reasons Why..." or some other phrase that introduces what is about to be explained. Maybe you will pick apart a particular habit you have, or analyze a fear that seems illogical. Don't feel obliged to reach a concrete conclusion. Instead, see where the thought pattern takes you. Is this poem really about why you think bunk beds are unsafe, or does it begin to address something else?
In the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, award-winning poet Louise Glück discusses her craft: "For me it's tone—the way the mind moves as it performs its acts of meditation. That's what you're following. It guides you but it also mystifies you because you can't turn it into conscious principles or say precisely what its attributes are....You have to be surprised by what it is capable of unveiling." Focus on tone this week as you write, and see where it takes you. Don't think about facts, about what's real or true, but instead the fleeting impressions, strange daydreams, and disjointed thought patterns that bubble to the surface throughout your day. Let your mood be the filter through which your verses come to light.
This week focus on sound. Not just the background noise of your day-to-day routine, like the ticking of the clock or the drone of the air conditioner, but the sound of the words you hear people speak. Notice the word choice of the news anchors on television, the radio talk show hosts, and the people at your workplace. Deconstruct the common phrases you hear, like "Have a nice day." When you say this, consider the way your mouth moves to create the shape of the words. Notice the cadence, rhythm, and inflection of your voice. Write a poem to be read aloud—speak it first, then put it on paper.
The Academy of American Poets defines anaphora as “a type of parallelism created when successive phrases or lines begin with the same words, often resembling a litany,” and is regarded as one of the world’s oldest poetic techniques. This week, try to write a poem with each line beginning with the same phrase. Refer to William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet No. 66” or Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” for inspiration.
Is there a window in your home or workplace you often catch yourself gazing out of? This week, write down what you see. Is it a pleasant, calming view? Or does the window look out on a busy street? Watch the passersby and imagine who they are, and where they are going. Think about how it feels to have that pane of glass between you and the outside world, and what a difference it makes to be able to shelter yourself from the elements and take refuge in a place of comfort and security.
Occasionally we have those dreams we wake up from and can't seem to shake from our sleepy heads. Some people insist that if you remember your dream vividly, it's a sign that there's a message contained within that you're supposed to remember, or something you're supposed to learn from. This week, write a poem using a recent dream as inspiration. Draw from the fantastical, nonsensical images your brain conjured up, and the logic that seems to make sense only inside your dreaming mind.