In an interview with Paisley Rekdal curated by Victoria Chang for Tupelo Quarterly, the poet discusses how she always writes in pursuit of a form. “Once I have an idea (really, more of a feeling than a subject), I’m always trying to find a way to shape the material of that feeling,” says Rekdal. As an example, Rekdal talks about her poem “Philomela,” from her book Nightingale (Copper Canyon Press, 2019), and how identifying what dissatisfied her about the poem allowed her to find a form for it. This week, find an unfinished poem that you’ve been dissatisfied with and try to express why in a brief sentence. Next, write a new poem that directly addresses this dissatisfaction. Does this exercise help you discover new forms?
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.
Bhanu Kapil’s “Notes Toward a Race Riot Scene” from her collection Ban en Banlieue (Nightboat Books, 2015) portrays—through a flurry of fragments, brief descriptions, anaphora, flashbacks, and flash-forwards—a moment in the speaker’s life before a race riot breaks out in London in 1979. Kapil captures the unease forming in the air before the riot breaks out with the second line: “It’s about a girl walking home from school at the exact moment that her neighbor laces up his Doc Martens, tight.” Write a brief essay that depicts the surrounding atmosphere before a significant event breaks out. How can descriptions of the landscape offer context for the event?
Ocean Vuong’s debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (Penguin Press, 2019), begins as a letter: “Dear Ma, I am writing to reach you—even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are.” The letter unearths the family history of the narrator, from Vietnam to their lives in Connecticut as immigrants, capturing the deep love between a single mother and her son while asking questions that explore race, class, and masculinity. The novel is gripping from the first sentence with the inherent intimacy of the epistolary form bridging the distance between the speaker and the reader. Write a story in the form of a letter that speaks to a cherished guardian figure. Why is the letter the perfect form for what your protagonist wants to say?
Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, who died on March 21 at the age of seventy-five, was known for his intermingling of, as he once put it in an interview, the “historic world with the cosmic world that is static, or rather moves in a totally different rhythm.” The title of his poem “Mysticism for Beginners,” translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh, is taken from a book cover the speaker notices and then uses as an opportunity to describe his surroundings with a mystical sense of praise: “Suddenly I understood that the swallows / patrolling the streets of Montepulciano / with their shrill whistles” and “the white herons standing…like nuns in fields of rice” are only “mysticism for beginners, / the elementary course, prelude / to a test that’s been / postponed.” Write a poem “for beginners” about a concept that is explored through concrete, physical descriptions. Take a note from Zagajewski’s poem and start by writing down a list of images.
“Writing for me is no different than playing basketball, it’s my body moving among and pushing up against and being moved by other bodies of language and the energy of language,” says Natalie Diaz in an interview with Brandon Stosuy in the Creative Independent, in which she talks about the physicality of writing and how her experience as a professional athlete and her Mojave culture affect how she writes. “I don’t only feel with my body, I think with it. Even text is a physical space for me.” This week, write a short essay describing what your writing process feels like. How does articulating the way you write help focus your process?
“My name is Arturo and the first time I saw an airport was in 1968. It was November or December, maybe the end of October,” writes Roberto Bolaño in Cowboy Graves: Three Novellas (Penguin Press, 2021), translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer, an excerpt of which was published on Literary Hub. This pivotal scene finds the young narrator in an airport before he and his family are called forth by a voice over a loudspeaker and later escorted by two Interpol agents to somewhere unknown. The story then divagates as Arturo launches into memories of his mother, airports, poetry, and his horse Ruckus. Write a story set at a pivotal moment in your character’s life that begins in an airport. Will your protagonist make the flight, or decide otherwise?
Springtime, the season between the barrenness of winter and the exuberant heat of summer for those in the northern hemisphere, has always been a source of inspiration for poets as it signals new life and change. From T. S. Eliot’s famous first line in “The Waste Land” (“April is the cruellest month”), to contemporary poems such as “Instructions on Not Giving Up” by Ada Limón, “Lilacs” by Amy Lowell, and “Crisscross” by Arthur Sze, spring can bring to mind themes of rebirth and transformation. This week, write a poem inspired by spring. Challenge yourself by writing about how springtime is personally significant to you.
“We lived in the imperative,” writes Donika Kelly at the start of her poem “Ars Empathica” from her collection The Renunciations, forthcoming in May from Graywolf Press. The collection maps resilience in the face of childhood trauma and a failing marriage, charting memories through myth-like poems that call back to the book’s epigraph by Anne Carson: “To live past the end of your myth is a perilous thing.” Poems such as “Portrait of My Father as a Winged Boar,” “Self-Portrait in Labyrinth,” and a selection involving the figure of “the oracle” mix the intensity of real life with the self-mythologizing one must do in order to survive. Write an essay that explores what it means to “live past the end of your myth” by recounting what occurred after a personal catastrophe. How does one’s sense of self begin to shift in the wake of a new life?
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the title of Donika Kelly’s forthcoming collection is The Imperatives.
In an interview in the Rumpus, Melissa Broder speaks with Greg Mania about how the writing process for her latest novel, Milk Fed (Scribner, 2021), hasn’t changed since her first book. Broder describes how she dictates the first draft into her phone and doesn’t “stop or proofread or think about it or change anything until the whole mass of clay has been thrown down.” This week, inspired by Broder’s writing process to “encourage your own messiness,” dictate the first draft of a story without stopping to make any changes, even misspellings. How will this freedom of a first draft encourage new ways of writing and break apart your process?
“In this city / each door I cross / in search of your room / grows darker / than the sky,” writes Aldo Amparán in “Aubade at the City of Change,” published in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series. In The Essential Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch, an aubade is defined as a poem or song for the dawn expressing the regret of parting lovers at daybreak that dates back to Europe at the end of the twelfth century. In Amparán’s poem, he uses the form to meditate on the mourning of a loved one and conjures images of light to illustrate how loss can leave one feeling “suspended in time” even as the world continues to shift and change. This week, write an aubade. Use the dawn as an image to illustrate the theme of change in the poem.
“I most remember reading Chelsea Girls in the dark, in bars around San Francisco in the nineties—beneath the staircase in the backroom at Dalva, in a booth at Blondie's or the Uptown,” writes Michelle Tea in her Los Angeles Review of Books essay on reading the 1994 autobiographical novel by Eileen Myles, which influenced her as a writer, as well as a generation of queer writers. “What it was like to be female with that permeable body, to be a lesbian, to be working class or flat broke, to be a poet, a drunk,” writes Tea. “This is Chelsea Girls.” This week, write an essay about a book that was a formative influence on you as a writer. What was it about this book that helped you see yourself?
John LeCarré’s novel A Perfect Spy begins by introducing the protagonist Magnus Pym and tracking his movements across “a south Devon coastal town” on his way to a Victorian boardinghouse, where he is addressed by an old woman who says, “Why Mr. Canterbury, it’s you.” In this deft use of dialogue, LeCarré illustrates the essence of the classic writing technique “show, don’t tell,” revealing that Pym has visited the boardinghouse before and is traveling under a pseudonym. Write a story in which a protagonist’s identity is hidden, and only revealed through subtle clues in dialogue and physical gestures.
Rick Barot’s poem “The Wooden Overcoat,” published in the April 2012 issue of Poetry, begins: “It turns out there’s a difference between a detail / and an image.” Barot develops this train of thought and proceeds to engage in differentiating between the two, positing that a dandelion on the sidewalk is “mere detail,” but “the dandelion inked on a friend’s bicep / is an image because it moves when her body does.” Write a poem that sets up an argument in the first sentence and then proceed to test it through rhetorical devices and concrete imagery. How can you use a poem to prove a thesis?
“Safe to say none of the other Muslim kids on the eastside of Columbus got MTV or BET in their cribs & we do at my crib sometimes like after Pops got a promotion or after Grandma moved in,” writes Hanif Abdurraqib in the long, energetic first sentence of his new book, A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance (Random House, 2021), which is featured in Page One in the March/April 2021 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. The book weaves together pieces that praise Black performance in America from Josephine Baker in mid-century Paris to the more intimate space of a living room in Columbus, Ohio. This week, inspired by Abdurraqib’s sharp reflections on culture, choose a moment in entertainment that has stuck in your mind and write an essay that praises and traces your connection to its legacy.
“Short short stories hold the obvious charge of compressing narrative in a rather extreme way, but what I initially loved about writing the form was the possibility to attend to reverberation,” writes Peter Kispert in a recent installment of Craft Capsules. “I noticed how a detail could echo out more apparent, and controlled, than in the longer works of fiction I had been drafting.” Kispert dives into his experience reading Amy Hempel’s “Going,” a three-page story from her collection Reasons to Live (Knopf, 1985), and how the unconventional narrative blew “the world wide open in the best way.” Write a short short story of up to three pages that compresses a narrative through controlled, powerful details.
In the introduction to The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem: From Baudelaire to Anne Carson (Penguin Classics, 2018), editor Jeremy Noel-Tod asks, “How do you define a prose poem?” Literary critic Michael Rifaterre once characterized the prose poem as a “genre with an oxymoron for a name,” while Noel-Tod simply defines it as “a poem without line breaks.” This week, try writing a prose poem. As Noel-Tod says in the book, “Our habitual expectation when we see a passage of prose is that it will explain, not sing.” How can you make your prose poem sing more than traditional verse might? For inspiration, read exemplary poems from this anthology, such as “Borges and I” by Jorge Luis Borges, “The Colonel” by Carolyn Forché, and “Deer Dancer” by Joy Harjo.
“First, the knees. They meet the gravel, the street, the blunt hips of curbs,” writes Melissa Febos in the prologue of her third book, Girlhood, published by Bloomsbury in March. The numbered essay titled “Scarification” includes detailed anecdotes ranging from childhood injuries with erasers to experiences with addiction. Febos captures “how these memories draw the constellation of your history” and turns the sentiment that “it is better to choose your pain than to let it choose you” into the final words of the essay: “You choose it, and it chooses you.” Write an essay that catalogues a history of your physical injuries and how you have confronted adversity. What similarities connect the various accounts, and what arc is there, if any, to this register?
Edward Carey’s illustrated novel The Swallowed Man, published in January by Riverhead Books, takes on the celebrated fable of Pinocchio, retelling it from the perspective of the living puppet’s father Giuseppe—better known as Geppetto—beginning inside the belly of a whale. “I am writing this account, in another man’s book, by candlelight, inside the belly of a fish. I have been eaten,” he writes. Though the novel does not occur entirely within this unconventional setting, it both foreshadows and establishes the stakes for the story that is about to unfold, gripping the reader from the very first sentence. Write a story that begins in an unusual setting but slowly unfurls and tells the reader how and why the protagonist is found there. Try using a first-person perspective so the narrative impulse is filled with determination and urgency, as in Carey’s novel: “Before the last candle dies, I’ll tell my tale.”
“You must accept the door is never shut. / You’re always free to leave at any time, / though the hostage will remain, no matter what,” writes Erin Belieu in “Instructions for the Hostage,” from her fifth poetry collection, Come-Hither Honeycomb, published in February by Copper Canyon Press. In this villanelle—a strict poetic form wherein the first and third lines of the poem are repeated throughout—the terms of the metaphorical hostage scenario underpinning the poem are recontextualized, their meaning deepened as the reader learns that the speaker is both captor and hostage. In this way, the hostage scenario could be applied to any number of situations in which one is complicit in a kind of self-entrapment. Think of a time when you stood in your own way of progress, then write a poem in which you offer instructions to show that the door was never shut.
“What I have been thinking about, lately, is bewilderment as a way of entering the day as much as the work. Bewilderment as a poetics and an ethics,” writes Fanny Howe in “Bewilderment,” excerpted from a talk and published in the online journal How2 in 1999. Howe uses bewilderment as a way of understanding how the poem expresses the ineffable, claiming that it is “more than an attitude—but an actual approach, a way—to resolve the unresolvable.” Write a series of scenes in a personal essay that illustrate a time in your life when you were bewildered. How can one learn from the feeling of being perplexed or confused?
“Is this a voice that I can sustain throughout this novel? Will it continue to be, and also most importantly, can it sustain my curiosity?” asks Chang-rae Lee when discussing how he developed the characters of his latest novel, My Year Abroad (Riverhead Books, 2021), in a virtual event for the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. “You don’t want a voice that’s absolutely the same throughout.” Write a story from the perspective of one speaker that shows the character changing through their voice. Focus on how your character sees the world in order to show their evolution.
In an essay published on Literary Hub, Urvi Kumbhat writes about the use of the mango in diasporic literature, asserting that it “rests uneasily between symbol and sumptuous fruit.” Kumbhat begins by exploring her memories of eating mango in Calcutta, and how “in the global South Asian cultural and literary lexicon, the fruit is a metonym for the home country,” but also discusses why she has avoided using the fruit in her writing for fear of “self-exoticization and unoriginality.” What serves as a metonym for the place you call home? Write a poem about your chosen symbol that embraces, as well as complicates, what it represents.
“The process of writing prose can intimidate even the most seasoned poets,” writes Khadijah Queen in the latest installment of Craft Capsules. “Using the zuihitsu form provided just the open space I needed.” In the essay, Queen argues that having a form as flexible as the zuihitsu, a Japanese form of hybrid poem-essay invented by Sei Shōnagon in the eleventh century, allows for lyricism to be maintained across a longer prose piece, in which patterns of image and sound can keep a narrative going. Write an essay inspired by the zuihitsu form, beginning with a simple observation and building that image with textures of rich poetic fragments.
The Memory Police (Pantheon, 2019) by Yoko Ogawa, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder, opens poignantly with the main conceit of this dystopian novel—that commonplace objects begin to disappear. “I sometimes wonder what was disappeared first—among all the things that have vanished from the island.” From the use of the passive voice in “was disappeared” to the intimacy behind the doubt in the first person narrator’s memories, Ogawa provides tension, a setting, and tone from this first sentence. Write the first five hundred words for your own Orwellian story or novel that establishes the new rules for an alternate reality, in which things are not as they appear.
In Mary Ruefle’s poem “Snow” from her book The Most of It (Wave Books, 2007), she starts with a simple sentiment: “Every time it starts to snow, I would like to have sex.” From that line, the reader is welcomed into a series of meditations on sex, devotion, birds, and love. The poem takes the form of a column with several enjambed lines as if the prose text were confined into a narrow space the way one may feel while stuck inside on a snow day. Write a poem in a conversational manner that describes how you are affected by certain types of weather. What is the first thing that comes to mind when you look out the window?