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.
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.
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.
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?