Get out of town. Take a drive, a train, or a bus. It doesn’t matter how. It doesn’t have to be far. Just get away. Once you’re there, buy a postcard, address it to yourself, and write a poem on it. Fill up the whole card. Don’t edit yourself too much, just let it roll, then drop it in the mail. When it finally arrives back home, transcribe it onto a notebook and see if you can build from it. It may already be well on its way to a finished product, or it may only have one or two lines worth keeping. Regardless, stepping away from what’s familiar and writing a poem to your future self can help guide you to new images and thoughts that the daily writing life may not inspire.
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.
Beginning next week, a collection of Marilyn Monroe’s personal possessions—including handwritten notes and receipts, an address book, lipstick and cigarettes—will be displayed on a worldwide tour before being put on auction. Choose one of Monroe’s items and write a poem imagining the story behind her connection to the item. You might even want to try writing from the point of view of the inanimate object.
A recent study by Paul Thibodeau, a professor of psychology at Oberlin College, examines the phenomenon of “word aversion”—the extremely visceral distaste that some people have in response to certain words, such as “moist,” “luggage,” and “phlegm.” Write down a list of five words that you find particularly repulsive, words that might not otherwise have any definitively negative connotations. Use these words in a poem and explore how word choice can propel you toward certain subject matter. Do you find yourself pulled to other repellant images and memories, or pushed to offset those words with more pleasing evocations?
For a period of eighteen months in the late 1970s, an unexpected pairing of communities took place: the building that housed the San Francisco Club for the Deaf, a social club for the deaf community, became the venue for notable punk rock shows and album recordings. In an article about a Deaf Club event in T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Opal Gordon, a deaf performer, said, “Music is strong, [deaf people] can feel the vibrations. Punk is perfect because it’s loud, it’s heavy, it’s in your face.” Write a poem in which you imagine experiencing a musical performance—whether punk, classical, country, or jazz—that you can see and feel, but not hear. Think about the ways in which music can transcend sound, focusing on the visual or literal attitude of the performance.
In During (Copper Canyon Press, 2016), the new collection by National Book Award finalist James Richardson, there are, in addition to many wonderful poems, dozens and dozens of aphorisms (a poetic specialty of his), including gems like, “Maybe what interests me in the mirror is not myself but that person who looks so interested in me.” Try your hand at writing a handful of aphorisms, focusing on the way they use brevity and clarity to find their way into an idea. For inspiration, read more of Richardson’s aphorisms, and some from his favorite aphorist Antonio Porchia.
Technological and scientific advances have recently enabled surgeons to implant a chip into a human brain that, through a computer, can send signals to the body allowing a person living with paralysis to regain movement. Write a poem reflecting on your own observations about autonomy, the role of technology, and the physical mechanisms of the body. Think of unique ways to describe the inner workings of our minds, muscles, and limbs.
In preparation for next week’s Poem in Your Pocket Day, find a short poem that you are especially drawn to and carry it with you, taking time to reread and reflect upon it. If you need help finding one, try the Academy of American Poets or Poets House websites. At the end of the week, write your own poem that in some way responds to your chosen poem. Next Thursday, on Poem in Your Pocket Day, add your original poem to your pocket and share it with others.
Matthew Zapruder, poetry editor for the New York Times Magazine, says of Eileen Myles’s poem “Summer”: “Its drifting, elusive movement defines and also conjures the feeling of experiencing summer itself.” This week, make a short list of adjectives and phrases that signify to you the feeling of experiencing summer. Then write a poem that mimics the motions, rhythms, or sensations of the season. Be sure to include personal impressions or events that make your observations unique.
A recent issue of the New Yorker includes poet Timothy Donnelly’s wild ode to one of his favorite guilty pleasures, “Diet Mountain Dew.” The poem barrels along, exploring all the qualities of the less-than-quality beverage, including its radiant green, prominent logo, and commercial history. Write an ode to one of your own culinary guilty pleasures that engages directly with its unsavory elements, such as its ingredients, appearance, and origin. Use your imagination to transform these details into avenues for lyrical observations.
This week, select a random year from the last five to ten years, and by combing through your memory, old notes, e-mails, and calendars, jot down a list of events in your life from that year. What were some of your reactions and emotions that accompanied those situations? Write a poem that encapsulates the ups and downs of that single year. Be sure to explore how the intervening years between then and now may have provided you with a wiser, refreshed perspective on past occurrences, and offers a reflective conclusion to your poem.
In the story of Pandora’s box in Greek mythology, Pandora, the first human woman created by the gods, opens the lid of a container, thereby allowing all of the evils stored inside to escape out into the world. In contemporary colloquial usage, to “open a Pandora’s box” refers to an action that seems small or harmless but ultimately proves to have disastrous consequences. Write a poem that starts with a seemingly innocent action, which then unexpectedly unleashes a dramatic chain of events. For inspiration, listen to Ada Limón’s poem “The Last Move.”
Visual artists who have been productive over long stretches of time often develop certain periods of work with shared characteristics, such as similar color palettes. For example, Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse both had dark periods, Pablo Picasso had his blue and rose periods, and Victor Vasarely had a black-and-white period. As we begin to think about the year's transition from winter to spring, bringing along with it seasonal changes in light and sound, consider embarking on a new period of your own work. Write a series of short poems inspired by your observations of the different colors, moods, and scenery around you that signal the forthcoming spring season. To begin a green period, for example, what might be your key points of inspiration, in terms of imagery and vocabulary?
Scientists announced last month that they had recorded the sound of two black holes colliding and merging a billion light-years away. The sound was described as a small, quick, birdlike chirp. Create a list of object pairs; the items can be clearly connected—like a red car and a blue car, or you and a loved one—or disparate, or conceptual. Choose an especially inspiring pair from your list and write a poem about the two objects as they head on a collision course, and the unexpected sound that’s heard when they finally merge.
If you’re having trouble starting a poem, begin at the end. Take a single collection of poems and make a list of the last two words from each poem. Then write your own poem using only these words. Be vigilant at first utilizing just the vocabulary from the list. After a couple of drafts, stray from the limited words to help bring the poem to its full realization.
Write a poem exploring a broad topic or theme—like love, death, kindness, the passage of time, or faith, for example—that uses vivid, sensory detail. Utilize language from familiar worlds such as animal behavior or everyday household objects to form connections to these larger subjects. For inspiration, listen to the late C. D. Wright read “Obscurity and Voyaging” in the latest episode of Ampersand: The Poets & Writers Podcast.
Scientists recently reported that 2015 was the hottest year on record, and yet certain areas of the North Atlantic Ocean experienced unusually low temperatures, and New York City had its second largest snowfall last month. With these historic weather events in mind, write a two-part poem with a tone shift involving hot and cold climates. Move beyond the most frequently used images and vocabulary associated with extreme temperatures, and explore fresh new ideas, sounds, and textures that achieve chilling or sweltering effects.
February 8 marks the new year on the lunar calendar this year. On the Chinese zodiac, this date marks the passage from the Year of the Sheep, a year of prosperity and promise, to the Year of the Monkey, a sign known for mischief and playfulness. Write a poem about this animal sign, looking beyond the typically cited characteristics of the monkey and exploring the lesser-known traits that might be associated with your own specific wishes or worries for 2016.
The challenge is simple: Write a poem that is a single sentence long. But don’t write just any old sentence. Instead, challenge yourself to sustain the sentence for as long as possible. Use all the tools of syntax, grammar, and poetic form to help keep it going. While these tools are already at play when writing a poem, the single-sentence constraint will force you into exciting and unexpected rhetorical solutions. For inspiration, read this article on one-sentence poems by poet Camille Dungy.
On February 2, according to popular folklore, a groundhog that emerges from its burrow and sees its shadow signifies six more weeks of winter; if it's cloudy and no shadow is present, spring will arrive early. Other animals, too, are said to exhibit weather-forecasting attributes: sneezing cats, fat rabbits, and howling wolves, for example. Write a poem based on one of these legends, perhaps experimenting with an unexpected point of view, such as having the speaker of the poem be the animal, or an onlooker who is completely unfamiliar with the myth behind it. What textures, sights, and sounds would be unique to the occurrence? Explore the emotional resonances and psychological underpinnings of superstitions and folklore.
As forms of creative expression, music and poetry share similarities in the usage of sound and rhythm to generate emotional resonance. Musicians and poets have often expressed their mutual admiration, and even collaborated with each other. Read the poem “Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?,” from Tracy K. Smith’s collection Life on Mars (Graywolf Press, 2011), with its many references to David Bowie, or watch an animation of Charles Bukowski’s “The Laughing Heart” read by Tom Waits. Then write a poem of your own inspired by the mood or themes of a favorite musician or song.
The end of the year is often accompanied by the practice of looking back at the previous twelve months and drawing up “Best of” lists: best moments, best books, best songs. As the new year kicks off, browse through some 2015 lists and jot down words, phrases, and notes about the themes in popular songs and books. Then write a poem that encapsulates the spirit of the music and literature recognized in 2015.
Think back over the past year. What does the memory of each month feel like? What is its emotional tone, vibration, form? Write a poem in twelve parts that tries to capture each month’s abstract feeling in a single line or stanza. Like Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” you can repeat the same object or setting throughout the poem, or offer a different context for each section. Challenge yourself to avoid the clichéd images that are often paired with months (i.e. the beach and July, leaves and October), and instead, try to translate the ineffable into the visual. When finished, you’ll have a calendar of metaphor.
Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich has said, “I love how humans talk...I love the lone human voice. It is my greatest love and passion.” Write a series of short poems each written in the voice of a distinct first-person speaker using casual spoken language. You might try loosely connecting the poems by having the voices in dialogue with one another, or by using recurring themes or repeated phrases. Emphasize the uniqueness of each voice with different perspectives, speech tics, slang, and tone.
This week, write a pantoum, a modern verse form adapted from traditional Malaysian folk poetry that uses repeated lines throughout a series of quatrains. How does the repetition of words influence the mood or pacing of your poem? Allow the repeated phrases to take on different meanings as the contexts shift throughout the piece. Refer to the Academy of American Poets website for details and examples of pantoums.
Muggle, Heffalump, Chortle, Chintzy. From Sir Thomas More (utopia) to Robert A. Heinlein (grok) to J. K. Rowling (quidditch), writers throughout history have created new words to describe the invented worlds in their books. Sometimes these neologisms are names of made-up places, feelings, or actions, but sometimes the meaning is more mysterious and ambiguous. Lewis Carroll's nonsense poem "Jabberwocky" appears in the sequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as part of a dream. Although it is full of nonsense words, the poem itself follows conventional syntax and structures. Invent your own word and designate it as the name of a newly imagined place or feeling. Write a poem inspired by this new word, combining vivid imagery and specific sounds and rhythms, with familiar elements, to evoke the sensations of a completely new and invented—or inverted—universe.