The Academy of American Poets has designated April as National Poetry Month.
This April marks the 20th anniversary of National Poetry Month, which was inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996. Over the years, National Poetry Month has become the largest literary celebration in the world with schools, publishers, libraries, booksellers, and poets celebrating poetry’s vital place in our culture.
In that spirit, we will post a poetry-writing prompt each day in April, many created for us by poets who read at Lit Youngstown events in 2015. We thank them, and our intern Adrianna for helping us to gather them in.
Our first prompt is from Nin Andrews, who read for us on her birthday in May.
Write a mimetic poem. In other words, find a poet you admire and imitate his or her work in your own poem. You might use some of the same imagery, the same rhythms, the same voice, or the same ideas or style. Let yourself be influenced as much as you possibly can. Let yourself be swept up by another poets’ world.
For Examples of Nin’s Work visit Plume Poetry.
Write a poem about someone you miss. Write in that person’s voice, as if he or she were talking to you.
Write a memory poem that includes snow. You might follow this poem by William Matthews, who presents each remembered detail as if it were processing down Main St., a parade of memory.
Here comes the powdered milk I drank
as a child, and the money it saved.
Here come the papers I delivered,
the spotted dog in heat that followed me home
and the dogs that followed her.
Today’s prompt is from Philip Metres, who read from his book Sand Opera in November.
Write an elegy (no more than one page), focusing your elegy by imagery, rather than on feelings about the loss (show, don’t tell). In other words, use imagery that brings that person (or thing or moment) to life.
See if you can sustain a sentence that is describing some activity by that person, or with that person, in the poem over the course of five lines, to create a sense of focus and intensity. The worst thing to try to do in an elegy is to write that person’s whole life story.Try to focus on a single, small, unlikely moment, which comes to be a microcosm. (In other words, “a universe in a grain of sand, eternity in an hour…”—Blake).
Bad elegies tend to be too generalizing, too idealizing, too sentimental. Be real, don’t sanctify the person. A good elegy demonstrates humanity, not sanctity.
Beware: Don’t oversolemnize. Remember that at most good funerals, laughter intermingles with tears. Humor is also a good strategy, as long as it yields at some point to the meaning of loss. Otherwise, it risks being trite. If you want to be angry, be angry—that’s one of the ways we grieve.
Speaking of trite, don’t write about the loss of a cell phone! Dead pet poems are difficult. Actually, even dead grandma poems are hard.
Use at least two metaphors or similes, please use a left-flush margin (i.e. no centering) and standard font.
Employ assonance at least twice.
Letter to Petersburg
window to the wistful you kept me
up at nights your light tethered
me to beds unmateable untranslateable
your schoolchildren threw snowballs
over the mass grave at Pokrovsky
apparition of Gandlevsky shaking
shaking Gogol & Dostoyevsky
daymares the neural galleries & sculleries
I lose & lore you unowned & owed
your cold mouth your winter eyes I wanted
to erase my face in your face ascending as I
descended the escalator sans guile & lyre
turning so I could see what I would
lose forever saffron insides of apartments
you bled your gold & gilded the gray outside
where my words herd not the you of you
an old song harped on a strand of sand
where torn plastic tarps like sails
ghost ship of a building skeleton
flagellate the stone, shred themselves a history
of inward windows O windward gate
locked & jawed I’ve gotten no closer to you
than to my death! here, at the river of never
I want to burn posthumously like a word
to say farewell & beg forgiveness
in one breath & cede you to you
return whatever I’ve taken
this sudden blood on my tongue
if only to lift the holy psalter of you
& kneel before the soiled altar of you
& open my broken throat
Molly Toth, Nin Andrews, Philip Metres & Shiloh Hawkins read a poem in four voices
Today’s prompt is from one of Lit Youngstown’s co-directors, Karen Schubert.
Sometimes it’s good to lift an idea from another source, to write something outside of the poet’s experience. Grab a nearby book, open it to a random page, and collect five nouns and three verbs. Include all of them in your poem. Avoid adverbs and adjectives. Fill your poem with simple, declarative sentences.
My bookmark is in Patti Smith’s Just Kids. On page 98 are the nouns Paris, envelope, umber, stuff and angle; three verbs are to gather, to slip and to suit.
Every morning on NPR, someone is making an acceptance speech! What a great prompt for a poem.
Write a parody of an acceptance speech, as Ohio poet Lynn Powell done here in her poem “Acceptance Speech.”
The radio’s replaying last night’s winners
and the gratitude of the glamorous,
everyone thanking everybody for making everything
so possible, until I want to shush
the faucet, dry my hands, join in right here
at the cluttered podium of the sink, and thank
my mother for teaching me the true meaning of okra,
my children for putting back the growl in hunger,
my husband, primo uomo of dinner, for not
begrudging me this starring role—
without all of them, I know this soup
would not be here tonight.
Read the rest of Lynn’s poem here.
Today’s prompt is from Valley poet Bill Koch.
Here’s a prompt: Watching the Home & Garden Channel and whether or not that’s a sign of despair:
Anita and I watch House Hunters on HGTV. We play a drinking game where we have to take a slug every time we hear the word “nice.” We may go several minutes dry, but when they enter the kitchen it turns into, “That’s a nice backsplash. Look at these nice new appliances. This is a nice light fixture. These counter tops are nice…” until we can barely see straight. Sometimes because we’re lazy and old we switch to non-alcoholic beverages. One time we disagreed on the rules and Anita was afraid we’d drink ourselves into a coma when a couple was looking at homes in Nice, France.
Bill Koch reads at the JCC
Prompt: That’s not what really happened.
Write a poem in which you change the ending of a book or movie.
Write a prose poem in which you create an unusual museum. In this prose poem published in Jenny Magazine, “At the Event Museum,” each room in the museum is about a place where something so memorable has taken place, we sometimes use the place name to mean the thing that happened there. For example, when we say Kent State, we may mean the university, or we may mean the historic shootings.
At the Event Museum
by Karen Schubert
You may be surprised to know that these are real places, our tour guide said. You can find them on the map at the end of the tour. She handed us our radiation suits. Half of us went into Chernobyl, the other half into Hiroshima. We walked from the Before room to the After room, where our Geiger Counters clicked and wheedled. My mask was hard to see through, and it took me a while to realize there were no more people. The ambulances had left. I wanted to warn the dogs. It felt so real. The guide had never heard of Three Mile Island.
Read the rest of the poem here.
What is in your museum?
Today’s prompt was sent to us by Doug Fowler.
Write a poem that embodies two ideas:
“The best lack all conviction” – Yeats
“You can never hold back spring” – Tom Waits
It’s all too frenzied
in a slow vibration of reciprocals—too fast
to do what’s needed, to
step back, walk away
and say the hell with it all.
But look at this:
You could write the average
over time, a separation of
and I do know my calligraphy
An oil lamp and a candle
—the only glow I want for a late shower
In darkness, a warm rain
drizzles our skins, close
and through the curtain’s
weave the binary flames
come to us
Doug Fowler reads at Suzie’s
Write a food poem! Pack in the details: the circumstances of eating the food (around the holiday table? on a styrofoam plate in a windowless office meeting room? standing over the sink with your coat on?), the smells, textures, tastes. Add metaphors in which you make your food something it cannot be: cannoli as wings, pet mushrooms, your siblings the soup sisters. Have fun.
Write a poem centered on a word that can be both a verb and a noun. For example, “run,” which can mean to run with legs, a run on a bank, a run in a stocking, or the amount of time a play is produced. Write the poem in first person. For example,
I ran out the door singing
da-do-run-run. I ran into
an old friend who had just run
a 5k. Sweat had run down into
his shirt pocket. I can’t get
my shower to run, he said.
Wait, I said, aren’t you running
for mayor? Just then a dog ran
by. Yeah, he said, wiping his brow
with a moist sleeve. I’m trying
to do something about these dogs.
They have the run of the place.
After you write the poem, you might go back and replace some of the repetition with more interesting words, keep it fresh. Good luck, and we hope you don’t run out of ideas. 😉
Today’s prompt is from Dianne Borsenik. Dianne will be a May First Wed. featured reader, along with John Burroughs and Matthew Minicucci. You may have a purple Lit Youngstown bag printed with Dianne’s poem “Disco.”
My prompt is to write a poem inspired by a phrase someone has written, said, or sung. The phrase can be taken from popular culture or from classical texts. Use it as the epigraph under the title of the poem.
This poem is an example. It was published by Great Lakes Review, 2015.
“The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.”
Telescope or microscope,
it doesn’t matter. The view is the same.
Starcluster colonies, stitched together
in a distant galaxy or under the slide,
begging questions. Being kindling.
Telescope or microscope,
either way we’re looking at ourselves.
Starduster colonies stitched together
on this tiny cell of a long stellar arm,
defiant, mystical. Kindled.
Dianne Borsenik’s ekphrastic poem “Disco” was printed on totes for the YSU Summer Festival of the Arts
Dianne Borsenik won the ekphrasis contest (poems inspired by art) and her poem was printed on thousands of bags that circled the Summer Festival of the Arts in 2015.
Write a poem in two parts.
Part one is about a plant: a tree, a cooking herb, a flower, a fruit or vegetable. Maybe you helped pick and freeze corn and lima beans for holiday succotash. Maybe you fancied yourself a child gardener and scored a few gladiolas to grow. Maybe you had a pear tree. Use a lot of description, and focus on the plant, itself.
Part two brings in another person. How do you connect that person with that plant? Maybe you and your brother climbed the white pine, or your child was born when the lilacs were blooming, or you pulled weeds in your grandfather’s garden until a toad appeared (maybe the other person in your poem is really a toad).
Ekphrasis! Write a poem inspired by a painting now on exhibit at the Thomases Family Gallery at the Jewish Community Center.
Today’s prompt is Allison Davis, who read at the Summer Festival of the Arts, 2015. Allison will be reading with Rochelle Hurt at the Soap Gallery on Sun. April 24 at 2:00.
Write a poem about a historical figure or event from a generation before your own. In the poem, depict the scene when you learned about this figure or event—describe where you were, who passed on the information and how, etc. Fill the scene with vivid, atmospheric details—what do the characters in the poem see, hear, and taste? How do they communicate? For example, in my sample poem, I include song lyrics, wall decorations, and food. My characters communicate via movement. The final poem should be about how we pass knowledge from one generation to another as much as it is about the figure or event.
* This Poem first appeared in Connotation Press
Boom Boom Mancini was a lightweight champ:
held the title ’82 to ’84. 71 stitches looped
his eye, attrition was his expertise:
was bloodier than the men he beat
by the time he left the ring.
He grew up in the steel boom,
his boxing stance was orthodox.
My generation learns his name
because the local gyro place
has a life-size Boom Boom poster on the wall.
Before we have a chance to ask
our fathers’ fists snap to their cheeks,
their eyes slant down like birds of prey
and singing “Hurry home early, hurry on home,”
they jab until we have the heart to jab them back.
Allison Davis reads at the Summer Festival of the Arts
Television and radio often provide the soundtracks for our lives.
Prompt: read this poem by Faith Shearin. Write a poem that uses the details of t.v. or radio as background for an event or circumstance.
The Dog Watched Television
The summer of my mother’s illness,
a season so hot and dry it might
have erupted in flames, we discovered
the dog liked television. She barked
if we left her alone in the dim silence
of the bedroom but was cheerful
if we provided a documentary
about whales. More…
Write a poem to your younger self.
- 4 close-up details
- 3 things you admire in that younger you
- 3 things you are concerned about
Be specific. Avoid cliche. Give examples.
Today’s prompt is from Youngstown poet Terry Murcko.
This is one I stole from Richard Jackson called “Five Easy Pieces.” My students had a lot of success with it over many years, and I attach an example of one that I got by doing the assignment with them. The exercise attempts to tell a whole story in a quick scene. There are two preparation steps. First, remember a person you know well OR invent a person. Second, imagine a place where you find that person. Then you are ready for the five pieces:
- Describe the person’s hands.
- Describe something he or she is doing with the hands.
- Use a metaphor to say something about some exotic place.
- Mention what you would want to ask this person in the context of 2 and 3 above.
- The person looks up or toward you, notices you there, gives an answer that suggests he or she only gets part of what you asked.
I got Jackson’s prompt (and a number of other good ones) from The Practice of Poetry, edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twitchell, Harper Collins, NY, 1992. “Bert’s Radio” appeared in Ohio Teachers Write in 2004.
His slender, delicate, olive fruit fingers,
A woman’s, a flautist’s, a card player’s fingers
Dial up the radio field, shuffle back,
Head tilted, lifted up into the angle
Of listening, stuck in that same kitchen chair
His stiff back’s folded into fifteen years.
The kitchen lamp’s cold light regards the scars,
The strata of cataracts encrusting his eyes,
Cracked, clouded earths, lit by a dimming sun.
He listens for voices, the voice of Lebanon,
Voice of the Tribe, voice of Rush Limbaugh,
The white static dust settling on and in between
His telephones waiting, perched on the table,
Stone birds that once flew in a great bookie’s hands.
I want to come straight out and ask if he’s ready
For life with her channel nowhere on the dial,
Her clatter, her cooking nowhere in the kitchen,
The living spring air breezing in through the screen
Of the patio door from nobody’s garden.
He senses somehow that I watch his hands.
They rest on the tabletop next to the phones.
He turns his milky eyes where I might be, says
“She’ll beat this thing, then I’ll take care of her.
“I’m strong, stronger than I look. See?” Then
He creaks to his feet in his permanent stoop,
Reaches down, lifts up his breathing machine,
Hefting the heavy contraption. “See?
“I’ll hire a physical therapist
“So I can get around, do things again,
“So I can carry Joanne up the stairs.”
In the other room, on the hospital bed,
The light dusky flakes of her husk blow away
Out the patio door on a breeze he can’t hear,
Her weight barely denting the mattress.
Terry Murcko performs at Suzie’s
With another poet, write a renga, a traditional form from medieval Japan.
If this is your first renga, visit the Academy of American Poets.
Tomorrow is Earth Day. Write an Earth Day poem, a love poem, an elegy, a jumprope rhyming poem, a country song poem, a dreamscape poem, a 20-page poem with 4 words on every page, a poem that says Earth Earth Earth, like the heartbeat of something wild.
Today’s prompt is from Mari Alschuler
Word spill prompt
Select 10 random nouns and 10 random verbs. These can be from anywhere. I use a dictionary, picking pages at random, or word tickets, which are words glued on a roll of admission or raffle tickets and placed in a bag or bowl. The important thing is the words have to be random. Don’t pick nouns like woman or house, or verbs like say or go!
Once you have your words, lay out pairs, one noun with one verb, until you have 10 pairs for at least a 10 line poem (it can be any length).
Write a poem using all 20 words. You have poetic license to change verb tense or make a noun plural…
Here’s an example from my chapbook, The Nightmare of Falling Teeth (Pudding House Press, 1998):
Landscape with Stolen Oranges
The bike, nudged along by its rider,
wanders by the ridge.
A fishing rod jack-knifes the thin waves.
Remnants of icicles surrender down the rock.
whooping cranes elaborate the air.
The mountain deliberates the descent
of a green snake strangling its lunch.
An emptied knapsack sneers.
A kite trawls the water, a plundered ship.
Arya F. Jenkins, Mari Alschuler & Kelly Bancroft read at the JCC
Write a poem about war. What was the first war of your consciousness? Include a close-up scene in which you see, read or begin understand or question the concept of war.
What were the irresistible dangers of your childhood? Is there something you did or were longing to do even though your parents warned you time and again?
Today’s prompt is from Jeanne Bryner.
“Tell me what I should have done” (Also the title of the poem below)
I am sorry for the wind’s
butcher block, his deep howl
last night. Here we stand
our days borrowed like sugar,
limping along forty years
aging bones, this rolling pin
limb, twisted, broken off.
Pain? Well, we don’t know.
And doesn’t our lawn’s snow
remind you of sack flour?
Every fall counts,
and the hour to sew your
arm? Gone. I’m no sleuth,
but there was ample evidence
of struggle, aft and ahead
gray flesh spiraled. Sister,
accept the shelter of my barn
coat’s red, a warm space inches
from my heart, and I will pen
the note you can never write
for me: Inside the fire ring
I waited for spring,
a woman carried me there.
I was the eldest tree,
wed to our front yard,
the end was sweet, not hard.
Jeanne Bryner reads at Suzie’s
Write a poem with three sections: one section from the point of view of a lion, the second the lion tamer, and the third someone watching from the stands. Number the sections I, II, III. Avoid stereotype by creating surprising characters.
Write a poem that zooms in and out of focus. One moment you are looking at something right in front of you, and then there is a trigger to leap into the distance. In this poem, Kevin Prufer is masterful with the pivots. Here are the first few lines.
After You Have Vanished
The little red jewel in the bottom of your wineglass
is so lovely I cannot rinse it out,
so I go into the cool and grassy air to smoke.
Which is your warmly lit house
past which no soldiers march to take the country back?
From Adrianna Mayes:
Write a poem inspired by a social/political movement. I chose women’s rights. Some other ideas include the Civil Rights Movement, The Anti-War movement, Pro-life/Pro-choice movement or any other movement that inspires you.
There is no shame in thinking for one’s self
Though my sisters have cause to fear
For women’s thoughts and actions, however noble
Are seldom held in honor or thought dear
We’ve been bound by the corset of submission since Eden
Hardly sheltered by our houses or protected by silver rings
Those who govern us, we are meant to trust
Yet, they deplore us to be baser things
No longer satisfied with tea and trinkets
In candlelit rooms and silent halls we yearn to know
Our abandoned minds are much like nature
Wherever left unkempt, they’re sure to flourish and grow
Men with their weapons and power may prosper
But a woman with a strong mind has so much more to offer.
Adrianna Mayes, Lit Youngstown spring 2016 intern