101 Days of Prompts
The following prompts for writers come from my undergraduate and graduate courses at American University, students to whom I feel a debt of gratitude for rising to these challenges in ways unforeseen by their teacher.
Think of someone in a profession you understand fairly well, someone who did the unlikely, outside of the range of expectations. Write a poem you title “Thank You” and explain to that person the importance of their unlikely act. The first word of your poem should be “When.”
Write a poem that tells two stories, but do not seek to explain too much the connection between the two. After telling one, perhaps an apocryphal story, tell another, a personal story. Each of the two stories should have two leaps of thought in them, and the poem should be no longer than 18 lines long and either one paragraph or one stanza.
Describe the great distance between two people or two places, or some fact of the physical world that seems impossible (for example, at the subatomic level, things are made of mostly empty space). Using short sentences and breaking the lines where the natural breath falls, your poem should be 21 lines, one stanza long.
In a persona poem spoken from the point of view of an anonymous witness to a catastrophe, describe a photograph of a place or time before the catastrophe happened.
A poem that witnesses a family member at a moment of surrender. Three stanzas of four lines each; each stanza should describe a point in the process of surrender.
Choose a still of a film that you’ve watched many times and name your poem after the action within that still. Then, try to describe / capture the emotional turbulence that so haunts you about this moment.
The poet Steve Castro has a poem about a Blue Whale who has died on a beach, being transported in intense summer heat when it explodes. It’s called “Blue Whale Phenomenon,” and it’s based on a true story. Use repetition in a one stanza poem to describe with great detail an instantaneous event beyond anyone’s control that happened in the year of your birth.
For the title, use the headline of a news article you couldn’t stop thinking about, and only mention the subject of the article in the first few lines before breaking away and branching your attention outward toward something you see out the window or in the room.
Mary Oliver says that every poem must have a “spiritual purpose,” a “genuine body” and an “honest energy.” Really, that’s six things. It must have a point; the point must be spiritual (however you define it); it must have a body/form; the form must be connected to the subject matter somehow; it has to move energetically like a dance; and, last of all, it has to be “honest,” it has to “feel true.” How do we manage to get all of that into one poem? Use that criteria for all of your poems, but for this one just focus on honesty. Write a poem about a detail or a fact you misremembered, then trace it back to its actual, truthful version.
Long lines tend to be “loud” and move quickly, where short, enjammbed lines tend to be whispers and move slowly. Stanzas slow the poem even more. In a poem that is not only one stanza, but also one sentence, try to make (real: meaningful) contact with a subject that has no language, addressing it as a “you.” Then, when you’ve drafted the poem, and only then, turn all the “you” references into the third person.
Write about a treasured object—museum piece or one from family lore—and in describing it, freely jump around from its various owners or the stories that surround us, to “turn” our attention to some vital part of the story at the end of the poem.
Write about a place with a troubled history—and with mood music, in the composition of the poem, the way you break the lines or the rhythms you achieve—tell the story of a triumph of compassion.
Write about an event—some moment in music history (the Koln concert of Keith Jarrett, the block party that invented rap, the last concert of Mozart) while bringing in the political history around the music itself; but focus your poem on the sound, and find a form, as best you can, that embodies its spirit and rhythm.
Write a letter to someone who has passed, telling them the location you’re writing from, why it brought them to mind, and also revealing to them something new, something the dead person does not know about your speaker—by relaying to them a story of some kind.
Find a poem you admire and write your own prompt based upon it: look at the formal structures but also the mechanics of its argument (if there is one). Call your poem “Instructions.”
Write a poem that begins in complaint but then gives up its complaint, based on something it’s observing in nature.
A poem explaining a scientific principle to a child, and which elucidates why these facts have bearing on the relationship between the speaker and the child.
Write a dramatic monologue in which a speaker is speaking to a specific other about an object they are both looking at. The poem should be exactly 25 lines and one stanza.
With long, staggered lines, and with the leaps in logic and reason. Speak to someone to whom you are in debt; apologize or express gratitude. But never tell us what the debt is. Just describe, with this language, imagery, and music, how it feels.
Describe a dream in present tense, a wild journey of some sort, but do not reveal to us it is a dream.
Describe the strangest animal you can think of, but do so as if you’re telling us of a mythological being. In the poem the animal must “do” something, whether it is hunting or being hunted. But something has to happen.
Tell a strange and not-well-known myth; then tell the story of your birth, what you know of it, and where it was, and what was happening in the world.
Write a prose poem in which a universe is imagined in the first paragraph, then in the second paragraph there’s a change to its laws and principles.
Another prose poem: a type of esoteric animal is being described in the first paragraph, its behavior much like ours; and in the second that animal exhibits behavior that is unlike human behavior.
A poem about a family story you have found it difficult to talk about, but set within a landscape that feels like a dream.
Bring us to a place that is like the setting of a myth (Kansas, the deep forest, under the ocean) and name that setting in the title. Then, when you’ve got it in the reader’s head that there is magic here, have something unexpectedly ordinary happen.
Do a strict imitation of any poem of your choosing, but tell a story, no matter how minuscule.
Name your poem after a known, now deceased, figure. Describe the world as that figure would have seen it (German poet Jan Wagner on Evel Knievel: “Wherever it saw him, the land began to blur…”), leading up to some action or activity that the poem ends in the middle of.
A poem whose title names a place that holds an immediate, historical resonance (Gettysburg, Donner Pass, the Western Front, Robbin Island, Macchu Picchu) and tell a little story/describe the landscape without making any mention to the event.
A poem that is titled after the year of your birth (“1990”) but which makes no mention of your birth.
A poem with a very, very, very long title. It could be a headline; or the first two lines of an old poem; or it could be a title like “Looking out my Window on a Temperate Day in Winter I Think of the Clean Hallways at the Environmental Protection Agency.” Then see how having the title “take care of business” allows you to just focus on the hallways, something that happens there, tells a very brief but poignant story.
A place that is supposedly fun, but that is terrifying to you. Alternately, a place that is usually terrifying, but offered you refuge.
Write a long poem—three poems of 15 lines each--that is a map to three different interiors, and find a way to weave them together with one title.
The Pantoum: A poem that circles, orbits, returns. A pantoum uses it’s 2nd and 4th line in each stanza as repeated refrains in the 1st and 3rd lines of proceeding stanzas. Then, the last stanza uses the 1st and 3rd line of the poem as the final 2nd and 4th line, wrapping the poem in to a tight knot. Write about a circular phenomenon using this form.
The Villanelle: The villanelle is originally an Italian form that, in its original language, had a light, dancing connotation. It involves a two refrain lines that alternate as the final line of all the proceeding stanzas. In English the villanelle takes on the mood of a dirge, an unsolvable problem or a mistake that can’t be taken back, or a regret that’s revisited again and again.
Write three haiku about something very large that gets progressively larger. Then dismantle the haiku and make it all one stanza, no more than eight lines.
Write a poem with no punctuation. For an example of this technique, a poem that also uses anaphora.
Write a poem that alternates between one and two line stanzas, long lines and short lines interspersed, with a flow of memory that begins with a small object and moves toward something huge.
Write a poem with seven beats per line, describing an action, in “sprung rhythm.” Gerard Manley Hopkins dubbed the term, basically a reinvention of Anglo-saxon, highly accented verse, sometimes with three, four stresses in a row in a line of poetry. His “Windhover” is famous for it (“oh, air, pride, plume, here…”) Though Hopkins is writing a sonnet, it’s the words that shape the poem, that make its particular music central to the thing, even more central than proper usage or syntax.
Seamus Heaney’s “bog people” poems are famous for their wild use of language, alternating between the Anglo-saxon roots of Modern English and the Latinate vocabulary that arose out of the French influence. You notice that his poetry is always a conversation between the exalted Catholic voice and the plain Protestant, the field hand and the professor. Describe an ancient practice still used today, taking care to achieve that balance in vocabulary: use 5 curt Anglo-saxon words, and 5 surprise Latinate words.
Parse that particular feeling that comes of work we know but continue to return to, to rediscover. Those recognizable paintings that seem to be revisited all the time (the way Frost’s “Stopping by Woods” gets revisited, or Dickinson’s “Certain Slant of Light”) include
a. Picasso’s Guernica
b. Van Gogh’s Bedroom at Arles
c. Van Gogh’s “Postman” series, or any of his sunflower repetitions
d. Of course, anything by Leonardo
e. Georgia O’Keefe’s Ram’s Head series
f. Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” (melting clocks)
Choose one piece from the list above, and describe a rarely mentioned feature, connecting it to a personal memory.
Choose two pieces from above and write about the similarities in one stanza and the differences in another. Then, in a third stanza, talk about why this difference is meaningful to you.
Choose an artist no one has heard of, but describe her work in a way that gets across the “identifiable” quality of it, though it is mostly unknown. In the middle of the poem, write just one line that reflects back on your life or your family.
Write a syllabic poem of 16 lines, 12 syllables per line, and in the last line of the poem write only one-syllable words. The poem has to be offering directions to someplace sacred to you, spoken to a fellow traveler who has never seen or heard of that place.
Write a poem about an Icarian figure; a creature of lightness (not necessarily a bird) that is brought to fall or doomed somehow. Dedicate the poem (after you have written it) as an elegy to someone you would have liked to but never got to meet.
Think of something that has haunted you for years—a scene you observed, or a scene in a movie, or a moment in which someone revealed a side of themselves you’d rather not have witnessed. Without explaining why you were haunted by this, describe the scene by going more deeply in, each line revealing something new, or struggling further toward seeing and hearing and experiencing this scene with more clarity. Then, title the poem after an object described here, preferably one that seems to merely sit in the backdrop.
Describe an idea by attacking it from as many angles as come to your mind during composition, then focus on one of the angles for the last ¼ of the poem. See Paul Guest’s poem, “My Arms.”
Describe an object by looking at it from many sides, then focus on one facet of the object for the last ¼ of the poem.
Describe a landscape from various angles, planting an unanswerable question somewhere in the middle of your poem.
Take any article from the newspapers and find a way to ask five questions about some material the writer did not include. Then answer the questions in a block of text without including the prompts that led you to these answers, or any context from the article.
Transcribe, as best you can remember it, a brief goodbye from childhood.
One of my favorite lines of poetry is a saying line from Bruce Weigl, who writes, at the end of a poem about being attacked by a vagrant as a child, “Say it clearly and you make it beautiful no matter what.” Describe something very difficult that happened, staying true to every detail that stands in memory, even the most seemingly insignificant.
Start a poem with the words "So much depends upon" and write 24 more lines, staying focused now on one object, the things around, the space and shape it occupies, but teaching us actually nothing about it. Just show us the thing itself. Then erase the first line.
Write a concrete poem in the shape of the thing you're describing, but then, when you've finished, take it out of that form and find other lines for it. How did the poem essentially change? What aspect was made more subtle. No need to add anything to the work but do note how taking away the shape made the poem a little less preachy, a little more secretive. Title the poem after what you are describing.
Write a poem describing a scene in a photograph. Describe the obvious aspects of the photograph at the beginning and end of the poem, the less obvious features in the middle.
Write a poem from the point of view of a historical figure who died a long time ago. Through their perspective, tell a part of their story we have never heard before. Then, revert to third person.
Write a poem from the point of view of the oldest person you have ever known—say, a very old person you met when you were very young—and speak from their perspective about childhood.
Write a poem from the point of view of a mythical figure, doing much the same work that you would do for option 1: Tell a part of their story that is usually not connected with the myth.
A sonnet of 14 lines, unrhymed but with 9 to 11 syllables per line. The title is "Translation of…" Somewhere in the poem you have to say the word "translation." The poem should tell a story of some kind.
Write a prose poem of exactly 120 words about a container—big or small—and the “chaos” it holds. There should be one long sentence at the beginning of the poem and three short sentences at the end.
Write a poem of three stanzas of 6 lines each, and the last line of each stanza repeats the same words, but uses them in different orders.
In a poem with no punctuation, describe something that is in the process of being lost. Here, a sense of longing for what cannot be held is what creates space. It can be something in the environment or it can be a person’s life, or just a flower in a vase or a piece of fruit.
Write a poem with the subtlest “volta” or “turn” you can imagine, in which something extremely small and often unseen changes your perspective.
Write a poem that is all commentary, all ideas, but ends on an image with no explanation following.
Write a poem that begins with a problem with language. With words. The problem with the word “silence” is that the moment you utter it you corrupt the thing you’re trying to describe. Then go into a story of your own that tries to work out a solution to this conundrum.
Write a poem that explores a conundrum in science, something that fascinates you. Name a philosopher or scientist who is working on this problem. Why are we conscious? For example. In philosophy, this is known as “The Hard Problem.” Present the conundrum and then tell a story in response, an observation, or some other illustration.
Write a poem that is made of negative statements (Mary Oliver: “You don’t have to be good.”) The poem continues, it is not, it is not, it is not…Then halfway through it turns toward, it is this, it is that.
A ghazal is made of couplets in which the last word of the first line of the first couplet is the rhymed word for all the following first lines. The last word of the second line of the first couplet is the repeated word. In the last couplet, you have to name yourself as though convincing yourself of something. Write a ghazal about a family story, trying, through the use of the couplets, to finally get the story right.
Write a poem of 15 lines, where there are three stanzas of 5 lines each. The stanzas should be rhymed according to the following scheme: ABaab. Let the rhymes be soft, almost unnoticeable. The poem should be about a story, once again, you (the speaker) are trying to get right.
Write a poem with lines that get incrementally longer, describing a strange feature of an insect, and use a combination of Latinate and Anglo-Saxon words to describe it. (Latinate type words: origins; decipher; release; etc. Anglo-saxon type words: clamp, clump, buzz; etc.)
Write a poem in 20-30 lines about a moment in which something collapses. It could be a building, or it could be an idea about yourself. But it should use setting, characters, conflict, and climax to set the stage for that collapse.
Write a poem in 20-30 lines about something being built. The final lines should be the final moments of construction. Here too, it can be an object or a building, or it can be a theory or even an equation (Einstein at the moment e-mc2 came to him, for example; or Darwin building his theory on the Beagle).
Write a poem in 20-30 lines about the first meeting of two important people in your life. Address the poem to those two, and choose one story among the many, many you may know about them. It could be parents, grandparents, two married friends, two business partners. Be as creative as you like.
Write four short poems (exactly 8 lines each) about four cities. Each little poem will be named after one city. In each poem, apply a different lens (above) to capture the essence of that place for you. You can simply call the poem “Four Cities” or you can find another title (say, “Exiles”) that captures the theme that arises. Each should have in common their length, but each should be different in the way that it looks at or sounds out sense.
Write many dreams into a one stanza poem of 21 lines and title the poem after one subtle word contained in line 7.
Tell the other side of a known story. Try to keep ten syllables in each line. The poem is 14 lines. So it will look and sound like a sonnet. At the end of the proto-sonnet there should be a “volta” – a turn, or a change of opinion.
Fix your gaze upon a photograph that haunts you. Recently I saw a photograph online in which a group of widows were bathing fully clothed in the Ganges. The details themselves were haunting—their faces, their wet clothing, the poses of their grief, the sunlight that seemed to burn right through the screen. This photograph lit up something in me that I have wanted to think about, look at, study more closely. By describing the scene and its minutest details you will see how the poem begins to talk to you rather than the reverse.
A fixed vocabulary can create the demands of form in a poem or a story. For example, try the following. Use all of these ten words in a paragraph of no more than 200 words:
4. Van Gogh
Imagine a photograph of a place you have never been and to which you imagine you will never visit in your lifetime. This could be a place in the past, or it could be a place on the far reaches of the earth, from Hellville, Madagascar to a solitary beach in Patagonia. Title your poem “Photograph of…” Describe your photograph as if it is exactly that, as if you and your reader are both looking at it, detail by detail. Ask one question in the poem.
Write a letter to a friend in 25 lines or less, describing something you want the friend to know about. The poem should have the following structural qualities:
1) stanzas of even length
2) the words “Letter to ---(name of your friend)” in the title
3) a sense of why you are telling your friend this
4) An observation of something you recently saw that made you think of your friend
The friend can be living or dead. The only hitch is that you have to be describing something you have seen but the friend has not. In other words, the information has to be new to them.
Write from the point of view of the oldest person you have ever known—at the age you are now. Imagine their world. Research it down to the year, month, day.
Write a poem of ten lines that leaps in its thinking to a new idea, new focus, six times.
Write “around” the subject of a small object, allowing your mind to take you wherever your imagination demands. In other words, do not tell one narrative about an object and don’t merely describe it, but look at its shape, its use, its history, its contextual meaning to your family or your own life. A poem of 20 lines, one stanza.
Write, as Sylvia Plath once did, from the point of view of a mirror. Then change your title to the name of a famous antagonist. (Imagine a poem called “Meduse” that began with mirror-talk: “I reflect whatever you are…”) It’s an amazing exercise and works for all sorts of household objects, and all sorts of characters. Adjust some of the lines to complete the turn, of course.
Write about an image from science to embody the struggle between objective observation, which turns the image into a “thing,” and a meeting of one mind. Write your poem in three parts, with each part no longer than ten lines.
Make the title an abstraction, a vague mood imposed on the poem, but the piece itself an attempt to tear away boundaries of something. In a poem that looks at a marvelously “locked away” subject, use imagery and imagination to go deeper and closer to its heart. Take at least three steps “into” this subject, whether it be news story, caged animal, or family legend.
In a poem of 12 lines, remember a recipe and the person who passed it along to you. What was the process by which this dish was made? What went into it? What did it say about its maker?
Write a poem that begins at the end of a story. Begin at the climactic finish of a profound event, and study its reverberations, which lead up to one image, one solid, concrete description which “holds” all the complexes of thought and emotion leading up to it.
In a poem of three parts, in which each part is 8 lines, focus on three dramatic moments of a longer story, whether it be yours or something from the news, or even a development in science. The idea is to “hold” the narrative in the gaps between the stanzas. Then, take away any markers of sections for the poems and allow the three stanzas to stand as they are. Is the story still there? Use an epigraph for context if necessary.
Tell a whole narrative from a known tale, but add something else to the story so we can experience it in a new way, all in the form of a sonnet with 14 lines, and loose iambic pentameter (you might just count out 10 syllables per line). Don’t worry about the rhyme this time.
Study a climactic moment in a famous story and think about all its applications and implications, but don’t mention that moment until the middle of the poem.
Write a poem that imitates not the language or material or even the form of another poem you admire, but the syntax. Apply the same grammar to your poem as you are writing it.
Writing “away from” a secret you have never told anyone. Write the secret at the top of the page, and let the whole narrative informing it be contained in the way—I mean the words you choose, the images you gather—you write about an activity. Then, of course, erase the secret at the top of the page and let it go.
There are so many poems about visitations to the afterlife. Whether they be the shades of the Homeric epics or the damned of the Inferno in Dante, or whether they be the ordinary dead of Our Town, our dead take on a dignity that rises out of their passing over into the unknown. These dead, all the dead, know more than we do about dying. They know more than Socrates did about letting go. They know more than Galileo about what’s “out there.” In this poem, you will adopt the persona of a known figure who is dead, and look back on that person’s life, a specific moment upon which a whole set of circumstances were contingent. Describe this key moment for the reader. Tell us something we don’t know about a larger situation that has become part of our everyday knowledge. But essentially, all of the characters in Dante and Homer are doing the same thing. The title should contain the name of who is speaking.
Remember a completely silent moment among a family circle (any will do), embed in the middle of your poem a question but refrain from answering it for us. The more mysterious this question is, the more it will haunt us. If something is to happen in this poem, let it be as subtle as the soft sound of turning pages.
Another dream written as if it were an agreed-upon fact. Transcribe a dream without commenting on it, without explaining its significance; your voice should never exit the terrain of the dream.
Describe a scene among ruins or in an ancient place, the feeling, as Charles Simic says, that “there was something long before there were words.” There is a feeling of eternal silence here, but instead of the family unit creating it (and the explosive tension underneath it), it is the voiceless and faceless who seem to be everywhere. Describe that place, taking one last great leap in your thinking in the last line, which is a complete sentence.
Cornered by History. In a poem of 16 lines, traverse at least 300 years of history. Title the poem after a small item, and object, or a small animal, or a minor historical figure, and then figure that person or thing into the larger sweep. See Yusef Komunyakaa’s Talking Dirty to the Gods.
Many of the poets have mastered the art of the long poem, but in markedly different ways. Think of a literary device—from encyclopedic entries to end notes to a series of bio notes—and use this as the form of your long poem. The poem should have at least three installments, each part set on a separate page.
Write twenty lines that are one sentence, with no punctuation, describing something that is in the process of being lost. It can be something in the environment, a dying elm, or it can be a person’s life, or a species. The mere acknowledgment of the process without intercession or comment is enough to offer space, offering the reader a chance participate. The first line of the poem should be “Then.”