In a 2013 interview for the National Book Foundation, poet Lucie Brock-Broido, who passed away earlier this month, spoke of a leather-bound journal she kept with lists of names and titles. “Sometimes, I just place a title at the top of the undisturbed, blank page and that name becomes something like a piece of sand that happened into the delicate flesh of an oyster, blank itself and closed off from the world…. The result, eventually, is a pearl.” Spend several days jotting down phrases and combinations of words you come across, either out in the world or from your imagination, that seem particularly imagistic, evocative, or disquieting. Select one to use as a poem title, and then let a poem build intuitively, layer by layer, around the “disturbance.”
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.
“Poetry isn’t a cure, and it isn’t a miracle…. But there are words, phrases, whole poems that—in the grimmest, loneliest, most shattered moments of my life—have offered me a lozenge of light,” writes Anndee Hochman in “The Poem Chooses You” in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, about the national recitation competition Poetry Out Loud. Think of a poem that resonates with you emotionally, perhaps browsing through the Poetry Out Loud online database for ideas. Then, use your favorite words or phrases from the chosen poem as inspiration for your own poem filled with light and solace.
While scientists might describe the motion of snakes as rectilinear motion, Emily Dickinson’s poem “A narrow Fellow in the Grass” refers to the snake as “a Whip Lash / Unbraiding in the Sun.” This week, read scientific descriptions, or browse through video clips, of your favorite animal’s movements. Then, write a poem that employs unusual word choice, unexpected imagery, or mimics in some way the physical motion of an animal. Perhaps the manipulation of rhythm, sound, spacing, or repetition will help highlight the movement you capture in your poem.
In her book Madame X (Canarium Books, 2012), Darcie Dennigan uses ellipses throughout her poems, which drastically alter their shape and texture. This week, try writing your own poem that employs ellipses. Do you find yourself writing in a different rhythm or omitting more words with this tool? There is something mysterious and suggestive about ellipses, as if a truth is being hinted at but not fully revealed. Perhaps this quality has a place in your poem.
Many cultures have expressions to describe the phenomenon of sunshowers. In Japan, a sunshower is said to mean that foxes are getting married; in Iran, that a wolf is giving birth; and in the United States, that the devil is beating his wife. In her poem “Sunshower,” Natalie Shapero uses this American expression as a refrain and twists it in a way that critiques both the saying and the culture it represents. Using Shapero’s poem as a model, try taking one of the many cultural expressions for a sunshower and use it as a refrain for a poem. Begin with the words: “Some people say…”
In one of the most famous cat poems published, “Jubilate Agno, Fragment B, [For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry],” eighteenth century English poet Christopher Smart uses anaphora (each sentence in the poem begins with the word, “for”) to thoroughly meditate upon his cat, Jeoffry. More recently, the poet Chen Chen borrowed this form for his own poem “For I Will Consider My Boyfriend Jeffrey.” This week, try joining the tradition by writing a poem with the same form that begins with the words: “For I will consider.” Use the form to explore the behaviors and characteristics of a beloved person or pet in your life.
Ted Berrigan, a prominent figure in the second generation of the New York School of Poets, is best known for his book The Sonnets (Lorenz and Ellen Gude, 1964). Berrigan’s sonnets were assembled using collage techniques. For instance, many of the lines are found text from outside sources, and many of the individual lines are recycled throughout the book; two of the sonnets even use the exact same fourteen lines, presented in different orders. This week, try writing your own Berrigan-style sonnet (free verse or rhyming, as you please). Create a bank of individual lines—these could be original lines that you write, found text, or some combination—and then assemble these lines into a sonnet. Allow the poem to be nonlinear, if that is what the process calls for, and travel down unexpected trains of thought.
Swiss photographer Steeve Iuncker has photographed Yakutsk, Siberia (coldest city in the world); Tokyo, Japan (most populous city in the world); and Ahwaz, Iran (most polluted city in the world) for a photo series project focusing on different record-holding locations. Write a poem about a record-holding city, using a real or humorously obscure record of your invention. You might find inspiration in a city you’ve lived in, loved, have never been to, or that only exists in your imagination. How are the geography, culture, and inhabitants affected by the extreme conditions? What kind of behavior and interaction unique to this place will you explore?
Celebrities are often used as subjects in contemporary poetry, from movie stars to athletes, to singers and reality TV stars. In his poem “Marilyn Monroe,” Frank Bidart considers Monroe through a symbolic, almost metaphysical lens. In her poem “Beyoncé in Third Person,” Morgan Parker presents Beyoncé as a point of contrast for reflecting upon her own life. This week, try zeroing in on a celebrity that fascinates you. Start with a few notes on why this celebrity is iconic and build upon these points for your own poem.
Plaid flannel shirt, leather pants, polo shirt, hoodie, Levi’s 501 jeans, fanny pack, Dr. Martens, red lipstick. The exhibit “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” organized by Paola Antonelli and Michelle Millar Fisher, curators at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, explores 111 iconic clothing pieces that have transformed fashion in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, interweaving research and responses from designers and engineers on politics, cultural identity, labor, technology, aesthetics, and economics. Many contemporary poems that revolve around clothing also focus on basic and iconic items, such as Ruth Fainlight’s “Handbag,” Lynda Hull’s “Red Velvet Jacket,” Michael Longley’s “The Pattern,” “Harryette Mullen’s “Black Nikes,” and Sean O’Brien’s “Cousin Coat,” and investigate the intimacies of creation, nostalgia, transformation, and appearance. Write a poem that excavates the memories associated with one of your favorite everyday clothing items, then move on to provide a personal point of view of the item’s wider historical and functional roles.
“The happiest places incubate happiness for their people,” writes Dan Buettner in National Geographic about findings from the annual World Happiness Report that revealed that three-quarters of human happiness is driven by six factors. These include: strong economic growth, healthy life expectancy, quality social relationships, generosity, trust, and freedom to live the life that’s right for you. Write a poem that examines how your personal happiness is connected to your location and environment. How does living in your home, neighborhood, city, state, or country affect your general feelings of contentment or joy? Think of specific memories of happiness, and explore how a particular location might have contributed in direct or indirect ways to your feelings.
In 1996, David Lehman gave himself the task of writing a poem a day and continued for the next two years. The best of these resulting poems became his collection The Daily Mirror: A Journal in Poetry. In the introduction, Lehman says of his writing process: “Inspiration was not something you needed to sit and wait for. It was something that came when you invited it.” This week, instead of waiting for inspiration, try to simply reach your hand out and gather some. Write down a list of observations each day from scraps of dialogue you overhear, images you encounter, and thoughts that cross your mind. Shape your daily observations into a poem and title each one with the date until you have seven for the week.
An ekphrastic poem reflects on a work of art. “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” written by John Keats in 1819 is a well-known example of this poetic tradition. But as the nature of art changes over time, so too does the nature of ekphrastic poetry. A more recent example, “BBHMM” by Tiana Clark, engages with a music video by Rihanna. This week, choose a piece of art from the digital age that speaks to you, and try speaking back to it in the form of a poem. Your subject could be a photograph, film, or television show. Or it could be even more unexpected: a podcast, a commercial, even a tweet or a meme.
The anthology Bullets Into Bells: Poets and Citizens Respond to Gun Violence (Beacon Press, 2017), coedited by poets Brian Clements, Alexandra Teague, and Dean Rader, was published this month coinciding with the fifth anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. In “Bullets Into Bells” by Maya Popa in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, the editors discuss the impact of having each poem paired with an essay response by an activist, politician, or survivor. Taking a cue from the anthology's structure, write a poem as a personal meditation or response to a nonfiction piece or news report covering a specific event from 2017.
How long can a fruitcake last? Conservators from the Antarctic Heritage Trust in New Zealand revealed earlier this year that a well-preserved fruitcake, which likely belonged to British explorer Robert Falcon Scott, had been discovered in one of the continent’s oldest buildings. Scott’s expedition dates to 1911, making the fruitcake, which “smelled edible,” 106 years old. Write a poem from the vantage point of this fruitcake, perhaps touching upon topics such as the stereotypical longevity of the traditional dessert, frigid Antarctic isolation, or the prospect of resurfacing in civilization after missing out on over a century’s worth of events.
Much like Rudyard Kipling’s tales about animals and their origins, Just So Stories, scientists have many hypotheses to explain the mystery of why zebras have stripes including that they function as interspecies identifying marks, detract flies, or confuse predators. For ten summers, biologist Tim Caro conducted trial-and-error experiments to test these hypotheses, going so far as to walk around dressed in a custom-made black-and-white striped pajama suit and count flies that landed on himself. Write a poem inspired by Caro’s perseverance that explores the human desire to solve mysteries and explain unknown origins. How can you use diction, sound, and imagery to create an atmosphere of curiosity, frustration, or discovery?
As the landscape and terrain of planet Earth shifts and transforms over time due to impact caused by natural and human forces, some ancient trees, bodies of water, cliffs, and stone formations have disappeared. Taking inspiration from National Geographic’s photo slideshow of natural wonders that are in the process of vanishing or have already vanished, think of a specific situation or physical item in your own life that one day will cease to exist. Write an ode to this ephemeral subject, exploring the idea of transience as part of an inevitable progression.
“If I’m transformed by language, I am often / crouched in footnote or blazing in title. / Where in the body do I begin.” Many of the poems in Layli Long Soldier’s debut collection, Whereas (Graywolf Press, 2017), explore historical relations between Native Americans and the U.S. government through a lens focusing on linguistics and different forms of official language. Write a poem using found language from official documents or reference materials, such as legal decrees, applications, surveys, dictionary definitions, history textbooks, or identification cards, to explore personal feelings about nationality, identity, or family history. What makes the language and grammar in these texts powerful? Taking inspiration from Long Soldier’s poems, incorporate formatting and styling that contribute to the emotional intentions of your poem, such as strikethrough, border boxes, white spaces, sideways orientation of words and lines, italics, quotation marks, punctuation, and parentheses.
In a series of poems titled “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin,” Terrance Hayes seemingly addresses an abstraction: How can one have both a past and future assassin? Would this assassin be a person, or would it be a system, a history, a feeling? Hayes embraces the ambiguity, and writes his poems as if he were speaking to an individual: “I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison, / Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.” Is there a force in your own life that is asking to be addressed? Try writing your own sonnet that confronts this force—however abstract—and speaks to it as if it were a person.
“I did not yet consider myself a poet, but I could not forget the sensual power of her words,” writes Tina Carlson, in “5 Over 50” in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, about the experience of watching Lucille Clifton read her poem “homage to my hips” in the 1980s. Browse through other poems about the body, from Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric” to Jane Hirshfield’s “A Hand,” and write a poem that focuses on the human body, perhaps incorporating themes of celebration, awe, history, intimacy, or health. How might you play with diction and repetition, line breaks, and rhythm and sounds to reflect the sensual power of the body?
Every summer in the village of Santa Marta de Ribarteme in Spain, participants of an annual festival enact a death ritual by climbing into coffins that are then paraded by pallbearers through music-filled streets. The festival falls on the feast day of Saint Martha, and is seen as a way for devotees to express gratitude and celebrate the triumph of life and health, after having narrowly escaped death in the previous year. Write a poem that explores a time when you have felt particularly sensitive to mortality, perhaps because of a personal or loved one’s brush with serious illness or death. Instead of steering clear of the conventional words, images, symbols, and objects that are associated with death, focus on highlighting them. How might a direct confrontation of the proximity between vitality and mortality create new perspective?
“The mellow autumn came, and with it came / The promised party, to enjoy its sweets. / The corn is cut, the manor full of game; / The pointer ranges, and the sportsman beats / In russet jacket:—lynx-like is his aim; / Full grows his bag, and wonderful his feats. / Ah, nut-brown partridges! Ah, brilliant pheasants!” writes Lord Byron in his epic poem “Don Juan.” The poem, which satirizes the legendary Don Juan and portrays him as a character easily seduced by women, is told in seventeen cantos and this section describes a party at an English countryside estate. Use Byron’s line about a mellow autumn as the first line of your poem. Continue on from there and write about a festive autumnal gathering, perhaps using Byron’s mentions of outdoor recreation and landscape, animals and nature, a country or rural setting, or the ottava rima rhyme scheme for further inspiration.
Those inclined toward superstitious beliefs may be relieved that last Friday marked the second and last Friday the thirteenth of this year. Whether you are a believer or not, a study by behavioral scientist Jane Risen reveals that superstitions can affect both believers and nonbelievers. Though it may not be considered rational, the feeling of being cursed can be relieved if some sort of ritual is performed, like throwing salt over one’s shoulder or knocking on wood. Write a poem that begins with the presentation of a mysterious or inexplicable anxiety. Then in the latter half of the poem, present a ritual to reverse the effects, perhaps in the form of a physical ritual, lucky objects, or an incantation. Does the act of creating or poeticizing a ritual to lessen worries of a bad outcome have a soothing effect of its own?
In his poem “Rain,” Houston-based poet Kevin Prufer creates a distinctive atmosphere through repetition: “Rain made red leaves stick to car windows. / Rain made the houses vague. A car / slid through rain past rows of houses.” The poem begins innocently enough, but the accumulation of the word “rain” soon brings it into a nightmarish territory. Try choosing one word and letting its repetition guide you through a poem. The poem’s logic may need to contort itself in order to make room for the repetition, but that is the point—use a formal constraint to get your creative mind moving differently.
What can be accomplished without a brain? Three graduate biology students at the California Institute of Technology published a study last month revealing that jellyfish can sleep, the first documented instance of an animal without a brain having the ability to fall asleep. Think of an activity you engage in regularly, and then leap into the realm of the fantastic by imagining how that activity would be different if it didn’t require the use of your brain. Write a poem inspired by this idea, perhaps playing with notions of ancient behaviors, instinctive movements, and primordial processes.