To encourage a writing practice, I’ll post occasional prompts to this page. Happy scribbling!
LULLABY: I am currently reading Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic, which is a book-length poem, a play in two acts, and also a poetry collection, which interrogates our (human) complicity in violence and war. I loved The New Yorker’s multimedia poetry feature on this project last month (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/02/18/deaf-republic ), and the book is equally arresting. Among the many gorgeous moments are two poems, each titled “Lullaby,” one in each act:
snow and branches protect you
and neighbors’ hands all
child of my Aprils
little earth of
my white hair
keeps your sleep lit
. . .
I look at you, Anushka,
to the late
This is a battle
of our weapons!
. . .
I love how these poems provide us such a direct lyric address, so tender, layered with more than one intimacy—such as, in the second, speaker-to-listener, speaker-to-listener but sharing speaker’s address to caterpillars (!), which is a metaphor for address to “Senators” but really “soldiers” but really caterpillars!!!—and Sapphic in their imagination and urgency and candor. Says Ilya Kaminsky, : “I don’t write in a language in which I have ever heard lullabies as a child. My English is the world I make as I go. It is already a private language, an imaginary language. Already a wreckage. My job is to find, among those wreckages, what is beautiful, what might have lasting value (however mistaken I might be about that value) what is worth learning by heart, repeating, becoming a spell. That is the goal.” Good God, Ilya. So beautiful.
Okay, poets: write in a language in which you didn’t hear lullabies as a child. Write lullabies in your private, imaginary language, something worth repeating as a spell against whatever the larger terror was that lay just beyond your sleep. Write more than one—write at least two or three, imagining them as part of a larger project (maybe they are, like a manuscript-in-process). But don’t call them lullabies. Call them something you come up with yourself. It’s your language, after all.
W.S. MERWIN: We all know Merwin died on the same day that terrorists murdered 50 people praying in New Zealand mosques. Merwin was asleep when he died; I hope he didn’t know of the shootings. I don’t want to parallel the events but I can’t help it. When things happen at the same time, they are related (I still think of the death of Leonard Cohen as parallel to Trump’s election—again, I can’t help it—and also of a rhododendron, blooming the next day, in Port Townsend, WA. It was November, and the flower was violently out of season). Merwin wrote this strange relatedness in his poem “Separation,” a tercet:
Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.
I feel this poem on a blood level, how the absence of the “you” becomes the thread of the speaker, who becomes a needle. The “separation” is made manifest, more than metaphor, in the off-the-page actions of the speaker. “Everything I do,” the speaker says, “is stitched with its color.” The speaker is never the subject taking action in the poem; he/she/they remain passive—as the vehicle for absence, which is the subject of the first clause; as part of the noun clause “Everything I do” which then passively “is stitched.” This is how one carries on in grief: as an agent without agency. “Your absence” has a “color” we imagine—in my mind, it is red as blood, or wine, or the neon of a flame. That color that means gone.
Try to write something Merwin-worthy, something stitched with the color of his absence, or maybe with the color of his presence. It parallels something. Include that something.
EKPHRASIS: This image, Yates Thompson 13 f.155v, 14th century:
REVISION/NEW POEM CREATION EXERCISE: Take a pile of poems; go to the thirteenth line in the thirteenth poem. Take the last six words of that line, plus the first six nouns in the same poem, and use them in a new poem which also contains a type of tree, the name of your birth month, and a bird in an unlikely scenario. Put your poem in couplets.
“TIMSHEL”: In her poem “Timshel” (the last thing God says to Cain before the murder of Abel/ simple future tense of timshol: “you will rule”), Laura Fargas begins “You have certain rights. You may/ strum a zither. You may return to the key/ that plinks a little flat over and over,/ and call the piano turner back.” The poem continues in this pattern of parallelisms offering permissions, and I find these permissions delightful, even if foreboding in their promise of mortal power, especially given our current political moment. I’ve been thinking daily about what rights I have and don’t have, what permissions I have and don’t have, what power I might scrape together to find joy and wonder and to create joy and wonder for others. Write a poem full of permissions . . . for someone. Use parallelism. Use the second person. Don’t use the word Timshel; instead, find something Trump said to someone and make that the title. Write your poem in tercets, with lines of no more than eleven syllables.
“Ugly Poetry”: A friend of mine asked me to give a talk on ugly poetry for his class. I have had to struggle with a lot to figure out what I think this means). I’ve decided “ugly poetry” is written art that empathetically, or with nuance or negative capability, approaches the ugliest things we can think of –things like extinction, anxiety, sexual assault, shaming children for who they are, mud fields thick with beef cattle, terror attacks, videos of starving polar bears . . .etc. . . and I have seen poets write about these things with humor and hope and also despair, but in such beautiful ways. For example, here is an erasure of the Art of the Deal, https://pankmagazine.com/piece/erasure-poem-created-from-donald-j-trumps-the-art-of-the-deal/, & here is Kathyrn Smith’s “Poem for Trending Tragedy:” https://www.cleavermagazine.com/poem-for-trending-tragedy-by-kathryn-smith/ . . . Write a poem that faces an ugly thing head on.
September 2017–a smattering of catch-up prompts for your fall writing:
- R.I.P. John Ashbery: Take a line from one of his poems and make it your title, or a line in your poem, and then write an elegy called “Elegy with a Line from Ashbery,” or something similar. Or, write something in the vein of Frank O’Hara’s “To John Ashbery:”
2. THE ECLIPSE. You know what to do. And make it in tercets, with nine beats per line. Include at least two eclipse images, another person’s name, your own name, a specific food, and a geographic feature.
3. Another Apology: I know I’ve given this prompt before—the apology poem—but my favorite poem in Kaveh Akbar’s collection Portrait of the Alcoholic is “An Apology,” which you can read on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/kavehakbar/status/776758473707118592. Write an apology to an authority figure, like a diety or a parent.
4. “reportage:” Last spring, my students read & discussed Quan Barry’s Water Puppets, and were quite taken with Barry’s use of journalistic impulses. In “reportage,” which you can read here: http://www.poemoftheweek.org/quan_barry_id568.html, Barry achieves a momentum & a hurried feeling without punctuation—the lines propel us forward through time like a fast film, and both fulfill and complicate “the journalist’s mission,” which, it seems, is impossible, just as the poet’s mission is impossible. Write a poem that seeks to “report” something impossible from far away—geographically, temporally, physically, emotionally, etc—through a similar sort of style, seeking to connect with its reader so it can transport us into the experience of witnessing.
5. collections/persona: consider a collection of something—birds, unloved animals, superheroes, tea cups, insects, etc.—and write in and around this subject, using persona, avoiding your own life as much as possible.
“I WOKE UP AND IT WAS POLITICAL”. . . everything is political; for many people, what was formerly minutiae is now emergency. I’ve been digging on this poem by Jameson Fitzpatrick, in this regard: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/detail/91685
Write another poem about what it means to “be political,” to “be woke,” to be whatever you are.
“MOTHER POEMS”: Jane Wong’s PhD dissertation website, “The Poetics of Haunting,” offers a glimpse into her poetic lineage: http://poeticsofhaunting.com/
In a reading & talk she gave recently in Spokane, Jane interspersed personal history with her critical work. Among other interesting tidbits, Jane confessed to ongoing reverence for her mother. In her collection, Overpour, Jane takes on the voice of her mother, Jin Ai, in a series of persona poems strung through the manuscript—each has a title that indicates the mother’s age at the time the poem takes place: “Twenty-four,” “Thirty,” “Twenty-nine,” “Forty-three,” “Twenty-five.” You can read Jane Wong talking about the process of Twenty-four,” about demystifying the maternal figure, etc.: http://www.poetrysociety.org/psa/poetry/crossroads/own_words/Jane_Wong/
Try writing one or more poems in the voice of your mother, tapping into her personal narrative and image bank to do so. You might even take some time to interview her and weave in actual lines from her speech.
“My Private Property”: “It is sad, is it not, that no one today displays any interest in the art of shrunken heads,” begins Mary Ruefle’s “My Private Property.” The essay, part ethnography, part personal memoir, part psychological/ contemporary social commentary, winds into the history of the art of head-shrinking, punctuated with statements such as “To be eaten by worms is charmless and inevitable. But for your head to be nibbled at by a mouse, for your head to become a bit of moldy cheese on a plate–that was something that spoke volumes about reversals of power, about foolishness and vanity” and questions such as “Am I vain to think of my head as a book? Am I not transcribing the book of my head as I write?” The narrator admits that she would like to have, as her own “private property,” a dozen human heads, belonging to people she has loved. Ruefle claims to have seen her first shrunken head in a museum, when she was sixteen–and so the interest begins in formative personal experience, which I think allows for the emotional leaps, as well as the final lines. The essay concludes by direct address to these heads: “Oh my pantheon of shrunken heads, struck like new-laid eggs in a carton, comfort me when my rivers are high, comfort me when my waters are gone, for I can almost hear you breathing.” I find this essay delightfully disturbing. Begin an essay like this–by lamenting the loss of an ancient practice, perhaps one with which you hold a personal connection.
“Border Triptych”: The Latinx poet Eduardo Corral has a beautiful 3-sonnet sequence called “Border Triptych:” http://www.webdelsol.com/LITARTS/CORRAL/corralpoem2.htm. In it, each sonnet takes on the voice of a different persona, but all three poems interrogate border lives and politics. Write a poem that addresses a complicated, nuanced social issue, for which multiple perspectives would need to address an issue in order for us to begin to understand it at all. Include three sections, each from a different persona. Bonus points if you can make three sonnets happen.
“There Are Birds Here”/poem of your city: In Best American Poetry 2015, Jamaal May discusses the process of his poem, claiming to be “artfully present[ing] [his] interior.” He says the poem was a response to critics latching on to the metal in his first book, HUM, about Detroit (and many more things–he says “hey, there are birds, too”). Write a poem about your city, in which you characterize and defend it via something that’s present (i.e. birds, statues, rivers, etc.). In so doing, you’ll be writing a poem of landscape/place, which is a form of political artfulness/ docupoetics.
“Alternate Names for ____”/ list poem: Danez Smith, in writing “Alternate Names for Black Boys,” creates a catalog or litany of metaphors, images, names that allow us to consider the ways black boys in America find themselves in fear, the ways their mothers live daily in the “clutched breath.” Clearly political, this poem gives us another way to approach the poem of witness: through listing. Think of a group to which you belong, some group for which you identify and therefore feel comfortable speaking on behalf of. Write a poem called “Alternate Names for [group name].”
“What You Have Heard is True”/imitation poem: Using Carolyn Forche’s “The Colonel” as inspiration, write a prose poem (a prose poem is a poem in prose style, without lineation) that begins “What you have heard is true.” Continue to imitate syntax (in other words, the sentences should follow the same grammatical structure, but use different words). So, the next sentence of Forche’s poem is “I was in his house,” and yours might be “I was on the lake.” Hers goes on “His wife carried a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went out for the night,” and yours might go “The waves ferried a boat of leaves and eyes. The mountains bent their necks, the clouds came in for the day.” You get the point. Write an imitation. You’ll probably surprise yourself with what you come up with, and best of all, you don’t need to think about rhetorical situation–it takes care of itself, to some extent. When you finish the poem, think about how it enters the social conversation–as a private poem? a poem of witness? something else? etc.
as-children-together-forche“As Children Together”/epistolary: An epistolary is a poem in the form of a letter, as Forche’s “As Children Together” is. In “As Children Together,” a speaker addresses a childhood friend. Do this in your poem–address a childhood friend with whom you are no longer in touch. At the end of the poem, as Forche’s speaker does, implore the friend to write back to you. You don’t need to imitate the syntax, just get an idea from the style.
For the week of August 1
Natalie Diaz’s poem “No More Cake Here,” like many of her poems, adds dream magic to an autobiographical situation to create perfect poem narrative hyperbole, a way for her to deal with the tragedy of her brother’s drug addiction. Most of us have our obsessions, our hauntings. Write about yours in a way that gets weird and irreverent and confessional and lovely the way Diaz does in “No More Cake Here.”
For the week of June 12
“catalog of unabashed gratitude”
We live in a world fraught with violence and horror. Yet, in his collection titled Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, poet Ross Gay manages to give a nod to the terrible tragedies of our contemporary world in a way that still allows for celebration, or he’ll turn away from a terrible situation to express an “unabashed gratitude.” Is it even possible? Here are some examples: “Ode to Sleeping in My Clothes,” “Ode to the Flute”. If Ross Gay can do it, then so can we. Write an ode.
For the week of April 23
“I Apologize.”: (I love to give this exercise to my students, as it often produces really vivid work that accesses the shadow they usually don’t show us.) Write an apology poem to someone for something you did. Using parallelism works really well here, as in Martin Espada’s “I Apologize For Giving You Poison Ivy By Smacking You In The Eye With The Crayfish At The End Of My Fishing Line,” in which he repeats “I apologize” at the beginning of each sentence (you could also say “I’m sorry for,” or access any other number of ways to repent). But the non-apology (sorry/not sorry) of W.C. Williams’ “This is Just to Say” also works, and it doesn’t use parallelism. Obviously, you can adapt this into an essay or story.
For the week of April 10
“Centos means patchwork”: When I was a teenager, we didn’t have cell phones, the internet was brand new, and we didn’t spend much time on computers. We used to make collages out of magazines from the free bin at the library. There’s a poetic form that’s kind of like this–a collage form, called a “cento.” You can read about this form, and an example, at Poets.org, the Academy of American Poets. The book Wolf Centos is a collection of such poems. This week, go through your favorite texts–in any genre–and make a collage of lines that create a new text.
For the week of March 20
“Scientific American”: I love this magazine/ website so much–it’s always full of interesting, sciencey reads. This week, take cue from one of them–either do an erasure of one of these for a poem, or choose ten specific phrases or words from an article and work it into a poem, story, or essay. Or, just take a title, and, without reading the accompanying article, write a literary work. Some titles on the front page today: “The Sunny Side of Smut,” “Lions are Making a Surprising Comeback–but Only When They Are Kept Behind Fences” (you might need just the first part for this one), “Negative Emotions are Key to Well-being.”
For the week of February 14
“Choreograph a Literary Work:” Tod Marshall (new WA State Poet Laureate) recently shared a link to this video of a dance routine choreographed to (and accompanied by) Gertrude Stein’s “If I Told Him:”
Take a different avant-garde, modernist, or otherwise strange and famous poem and write its accompanying choreography (maybe approach this as how it would be choreographed, or imagine that language is choreography, or or or). Or, watch some cool choreography and then write the accompanying poem, story, or essay.
For the week of February 7
For the week of January 31
“Punctuation Imitation”: Artist Nicholas Rougeux has recently taken the punctuation of classic novels and made spiral text projects of these symbols (they remind me of hypnotist’s pendulums–check them out!). Do something like this with one of your favorite pieces of writing: take only the punctuation (erasing all the words). Now, fill in new words of your own, but keep the original punctuation. Think of the punctuation as a sort of blueprint for what you’re writing, as a new way of imitating.
For the week of January 24
“Cut it Up”: Take an essay, story, or poem that you’ve struggled with lately and put hard returns between stanzas or paragraphs (or verse stanzas). Now, print it out and cut it up, paragraph by paragraph or stanza by stanza. Now, put all these chunks in a pile, and then draw them one by one to make a new (random) order. Try reorganizing them this way in a digital file, making new transitions, cutting words, and making the new piece work. Rearrange again as necessary as you re-work the piece.
For the week of January 10
“Experiential” writing: My friend, the writer Julie Trimingham, recently published an essay called “A Bee I Do Become.” Her style here, which is part lyric, part narrative, experiential collage–works well for a person exploring something she’s tried, is trying. . . Write an experiential essay, poem, or story, based on an adventure you’ve had. Try to incorporate and give credence to a range of source-types, as Julie does. (Isn’t her essay fantastic?) Bonus points if the thing you do involves injury or potential injury.
For the week of Dec. 6
“Line Thief”: I’ve been doing this lately. Steal a line you love from a story, essay, or poem, and use that line as your title. Famous examples of this are Billy Collins’ poetry collection, Picnic, Lightning, which takes its name from Nobokov’s Lolita (this is how Humbert Humbert’s mother died); and Ray Bradbury’s story collection I Sing the Body Electric, taken from Walt Whitman. Yours can be a shorter work, though–doesn’t have to be a whole book.
For the week of Nov. 29 (yes, I missed a couple weeks–sorry!)
“Libraries & Childhood:” Spokane author Erin Pringle asks a few writers each summer to write a guest blog for her Summer Library Series, brief posts about people’s childhood relationships with libraries. In July 2015, she shared my experience. I had a great time reading everyone else’s, too (and so can you–follow the links to Erin’s blog). This week, write about your childhood experiences–or adult experiences–with libraries.
For the week of Nov. 8
“Wikipedia Erasure”: An erasure is a poem that takes an existing text & then erases words; the words that are left make a poem. Wave Books has an online tool where you can do this. Either use the Wave tool, or go this route: Poet & pie-maker Kate Lebo has some poems on Ink Node she calls Excerpts of From a Tree, a collection of erasures that use Wikipedia entries to make a lyric grocery of seasonal produce. Read a few of her poems & then choose an entry (or set of entries) on Wikipedia and write an erasure, or a series of erasures that work together.
For the week of November 1:
“Prompts and Instructions”: Write a piece that is a how-to, a list of prompts, or set of instructions. (Spokane’s new Poet Laureate, Laura Read, does this beautifully here.) Bonus points if you can figure out a way to mention the name(s) of your listener(s).
For the week of October 25
“A Poet Came to Town:” Diane Suess has a poem called “A Poet Came to Town” in which (yes, Richard Hugo, the speaker shows someone around her town, but also) the visiting poet–-real in the poem, not imagined-–greatly upends the speaker’s expectations. The poem concludes with a Raymond Carver quote. Do this: write a poem about meeting someone, include a reversal, and end the poem with a quote from a story or movie that person would like.
For the week of October 18:
“Mirror Neurons”: In his recent Writer’s Chronicle essay, “The Limits of Indeterminacy: A Defense of Less Difficult Poems,” Charles Harper Webb goes on a bit of a rampage against what he calls “Difficult Poems,” and, as promised, comes to the defense of verses that are more accessible, saying he reads “to gain vicarious experiences . . . to discover verbal riches. . . to be excited, delighted, moved.” While I would say difficult poems can also have these effects, and I’m not going to completely join his cult, I found one passage particularly resonant: “Back in the 1980s, scientists discovered neurons in the human brain that, when we witness something, fire as if the thing witnessed is happening to us. These “mirror neurons” may explain our powers of empathy, the appeal of narrative, the strength of verbal imagery, the vividness of dreams.” Go through things you’ve read until you find the most “difficult” piece. Then, re-write this piece using a different approach, as your own mirror neuron text, one that, as CHW would say, “feel[s] vivid as life.” Be sure to attribute your ideas to the original author, in an epigraph or some other way that suggests the conversation you’ve created. [Another way to do this, of course, is to re-write your own piece, thereby skipping the attribution part.]
For the week of October 11:
“Let Me Count the Waves:” Many contemporary writers find interesting territory by working in form. One example is Sandra Beasley, who even blogs about sestinas on her site, Chicks Dig Poetry. Check out one of Beasley’s sestinas, “Let Me Count the Waves,” as well as this interview with Beasley at Incredible Sestinas. Here’s another by Beasley: “Sestina Inviting My Sister to Become a Pirate.”
This week, try writing a sestina. If you’re working in prose, use the repetition of words in a different way: write a short piece comprised of seven paragraphs, repeating your six words at the ends of sentences instead of lines (or, figure out another way to repeat the words). You’d end up with six sentences in each of your first six paragraphs, then three in your last paragraph. You might want to mention the sestina form in your title. Or you might not.
If you want a set of words chosen for you, send me an email at mayajewellzeller [at] gmail [dot] com, with “Sestina Prompt from your website” as the subject, and I’ll email you a personal set of six words.
For the week of October 4:
“Not My Best Side:” Write an ekphrastic, a poem or piece of prose that takes a work of art as its subject. The art can be a sculpture, song, photograph, or painting (this last is the most common). My personal favorite ekphrastic poem is “Not My Best Side” by U.A. Fanthorpe. This piece takes the three “characters” in Uccello’s “Saint George and the Dragon” and uses them as three distinct speakers, one for each section of the poem. Other pieces I like are ” “Girl at Sewing Machine,” by Mary Leader (after the painting by Edward Hopper) and W. H. Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts.”
For the week of September 27:
“Someone else’s story (Grendel or To Kill a Mockingbird)”: Choose a fictional story you love, or one which should never be serialized, and write the sequel/ extend the story (in poem or story form). You can do this either by retelling the same plot through a different character’s perspective or by continuing the story line as it would move forward chronologically.
For the week of September 20:
“A game of fours”: Write a poem that contains four stanzas, each of which have four lines with four words in each line. Make it a direct address to someone or something. [If you’re working in prose forms, write a flash piece that has four paragraphs, each of which have four sentences. Each paragraph should also feature a different sense, so the whole piece references images in four total senses–so, one paragraph might have sight, another sound, another smell, etc.]
For the week of September 13:
“An exaltation of larks”: Go to the site Animals and English and browse around (take a look at the lists of animal group names, for example, such as “an aerie of eagles”–oh boy do I love these). As things delight you, take notes. Then try to use some of these details in a poem or prose piece. [For further reading, check out one of my favorite animal poems, “The Bear” , by the late Galway Kinnell.]