Much like Rudyard Kipling’s tales about animals and their origins, Just So Stories, scientists have many hypotheses to explain the mystery of why zebras have stripes including that they function as interspecies identifying marks, detract flies, or confuse predators. For ten summers, biologist Tim Caro conducted trial-and-error experiments to test these hypotheses, going so far as to walk around dressed in a custom-made black-and-white striped pajama suit and count flies that landed on himself. Write a poem inspired by Caro’s perseverance that explores the human desire to solve mysteries and explain unknown origins. How can you use diction, sound, and imagery to create an atmosphere of curiosity, frustration, or discovery?
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.
As the landscape and terrain of planet Earth shifts and transforms over time due to impact caused by natural and human forces, some ancient trees, bodies of water, cliffs, and stone formations have disappeared. Taking inspiration from National Geographic’s photo slideshow of natural wonders that are in the process of vanishing or have already vanished, think of a specific situation or physical item in your own life that one day will cease to exist. Write an ode to this ephemeral subject, exploring the idea of transience as part of an inevitable progression.
“If I’m transformed by language, I am often / crouched in footnote or blazing in title. / Where in the body do I begin.” Many of the poems in Layli Long Soldier’s debut collection, Whereas (Graywolf Press, 2017), explore historical relations between Native Americans and the U.S. government through a lens focusing on linguistics and different forms of official language. Write a poem using found language from official documents or reference materials, such as legal decrees, applications, surveys, dictionary definitions, history textbooks, or identification cards, to explore personal feelings about nationality, identity, or family history. What makes the language and grammar in these texts powerful? Taking inspiration from Long Soldier’s poems, incorporate formatting and styling that contribute to the emotional intentions of your poem, such as strikethrough, border boxes, white spaces, sideways orientation of words and lines, italics, quotation marks, punctuation, and parentheses.
In a series of poems titled “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin,” Terrance Hayes seemingly addresses an abstraction: How can one have both a past and future assassin? Would this assassin be a person, or would it be a system, a history, a feeling? Hayes embraces the ambiguity, and writes his poems as if he were speaking to an individual: “I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison, / Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.” Is there a force in your own life that is asking to be addressed? Try writing your own sonnet that confronts this force—however abstract—and speaks to it as if it were a person.
“I did not yet consider myself a poet, but I could not forget the sensual power of her words,” writes Tina Carlson, in “5 Over 50” in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, about the experience of watching Lucille Clifton read her poem “homage to my hips” in the 1980s. Browse through other poems about the body, from Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric” to Jane Hirshfield’s “A Hand,” and write a poem that focuses on the human body, perhaps incorporating themes of celebration, awe, history, intimacy, or health. How might you play with diction and repetition, line breaks, and rhythm and sounds to reflect the sensual power of the body?
Every summer in the village of Santa Marta de Ribarteme in Spain, participants of an annual festival enact a death ritual by climbing into coffins that are then paraded by pallbearers through music-filled streets. The festival falls on the feast day of Saint Martha, and is seen as a way for devotees to express gratitude and celebrate the triumph of life and health, after having narrowly escaped death in the previous year. Write a poem that explores a time when you have felt particularly sensitive to mortality, perhaps because of a personal or loved one’s brush with serious illness or death. Instead of steering clear of the conventional words, images, symbols, and objects that are associated with death, focus on highlighting them. How might a direct confrontation of the proximity between vitality and mortality create new perspective?
“The mellow autumn came, and with it came / The promised party, to enjoy its sweets. / The corn is cut, the manor full of game; / The pointer ranges, and the sportsman beats / In russet jacket:—lynx-like is his aim; / Full grows his bag, and wonderful his feats. / Ah, nut-brown partridges! Ah, brilliant pheasants!” writes Lord Byron in his epic poem “Don Juan.” The poem, which satirizes the legendary Don Juan and portrays him as a character easily seduced by women, is told in seventeen cantos and this section describes a party at an English countryside estate. Use Byron’s line about a mellow autumn as the first line of your poem. Continue on from there and write about a festive autumnal gathering, perhaps using Byron’s mentions of outdoor recreation and landscape, animals and nature, a country or rural setting, or the ottava rima rhyme scheme for further inspiration.
Those inclined toward superstitious beliefs may be relieved that last Friday marked the second and last Friday the thirteenth of this year. Whether you are a believer or not, a study by behavioral scientist Jane Risen reveals that superstitions can affect both believers and nonbelievers. Though it may not be considered rational, the feeling of being cursed can be relieved if some sort of ritual is performed, like throwing salt over one’s shoulder or knocking on wood. Write a poem that begins with the presentation of a mysterious or inexplicable anxiety. Then in the latter half of the poem, present a ritual to reverse the effects, perhaps in the form of a physical ritual, lucky objects, or an incantation. Does the act of creating or poeticizing a ritual to lessen worries of a bad outcome have a soothing effect of its own?
In his poem “Rain,” Houston-based poet Kevin Prufer creates a distinctive atmosphere through repetition: “Rain made red leaves stick to car windows. / Rain made the houses vague. A car / slid through rain past rows of houses.” The poem begins innocently enough, but the accumulation of the word “rain” soon brings it into a nightmarish territory. Try choosing one word and letting its repetition guide you through a poem. The poem’s logic may need to contort itself in order to make room for the repetition, but that is the point—use a formal constraint to get your creative mind moving differently.
What can be accomplished without a brain? Three graduate biology students at the California Institute of Technology published a study last month revealing that jellyfish can sleep, the first documented instance of an animal without a brain having the ability to fall asleep. Think of an activity you engage in regularly, and then leap into the realm of the fantastic by imagining how that activity would be different if it didn’t require the use of your brain. Write a poem inspired by this idea, perhaps playing with notions of ancient behaviors, instinctive movements, and primordial processes.
This month, the Merriam-Webster dictionary announced the addition of over two hundred and fifty new words and definitions, including bibimbap, froyo, hive mind, sriracha, and troll. Browse through some of the newcomers, and write two short poems that incorporate one or more of the words. Does the word or term have emotional resonances or a personal connection to you? Play with multiple meanings or your own definitions to present the words in unexpected or surprising contexts.
“Well, I only write about cute boys and snowy streets, so my poems are always in tune with each other. Seriously, though, I find myself returning to the same subjects. I try to vary my approach to these subjects,” poet Chen Chen says in an interview in the Adroit Journal. Select a poem you’ve written in the past and write a new poem that returns to the same subject from a different angle. Has your perspective become more nuanced over time? How does altering your point of view, verse form, or language provide your topic with a refreshed perspective?
“Part of the pleasure I take in being a writer and reader of poetry is this instant intimacy. By the first page, we’re practically what one would refer to as family—at this point, I’m comfortable in my nightclothes and headscarf.” In “Vagrant & Vulnerable,” Dawn Lundy Martin’s conversation with Nicole Sealey in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Sealey talks about feeling comfortable infusing her poems with a naked vulnerability and intimacy. What do you find yourself thinking about when the notion of outside criticism or judgment is not an issue? While envisioning your most comfortable clothing, an outfit you might wear at home with family, write a poem that embodies this level of immediate familiarity, delving into a tightly held or private subject perhaps only known by your closest loved ones.
“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, / Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore— / While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping…” First published almost two hundred years ago, Edgar Allan Poe’s narrative poem “The Raven” was itself partially inspired by the raven in Charles Dickens’s novel Barnaby Rudge and has gone on to spark numerous renditions, homages, and parodies. And the poem’s influence has extended far beyond literature, giving a name to an NFL team (Baltimore Ravens) and providing inspiration for a range of artists, from cartoonists (The Simpsons and Calvin and Hobbes) to musicians (Lou Reed and the Grateful Dead). Write a poem that takes its cue from an element of Poe’s verse that you are especially drawn toward. Consider its themes of loss and devotion; the extensive use of alliteration and rhyme; the “nevermore” refrain; classical, mythological, and biblical references; the question-and-answer sequencing; the symbolism of the raven; or the forebodingly dark atmosphere.
Bright blue hot springs ringed by yellow and orange. Red canyons, green auroras, cloud-white ice caves, golden sand dunes. Browse through National Geographic’s slideshow of some of the most colorful places on earth, many of them naturally occurring, and take in the sights. Then, write a poem that incorporates a variety of colors, hues, and shades found in nature. Allow the images and colors to guide your poem’s thematic direction, perhaps toward an expansive meditation of the outdoors, or toward memories or associations with people in your life.
Swamp soccer, air guitar, wife carrying, mosquito killing, and ant-nest sitting are all examples of the unusual competitive championships that have become increasingly popular in Finland in the last couple of decades. Write a poem inspired by the imagery you envision for one of these wacky sporting events, based on their name. How can you play with sound, syntax, and vocabulary to convey humor, joy, triumph, loss, and perseverance with an irreverent spirit?
“As much as we might have enjoyed reading (and writing) poetry when we were children, in school we are taught that poetry is inherently ‘difficult,’ and that by its very nature it somehow makes meaning by hiding meaning,” writes Matthew Zapruder in the New York Times essay “Understanding Poetry Is More Straightforward Than You Think.” In “To Vibrebrate: In Defense of Strangeness,” a response to Zapruder's piece on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog, Johannes Göransson counters: “Not all poems prioritize everyday language. Some poems value arguments and narrative above the experience of language. Sometimes poems have mystical meanings.... The idea that poetry—or language in general—is ever ‘straightforward’ seems impossible to my immigrant ears and eyes.” Taking inspiration from the issues being argued, choose a theme or subject and then write two versions of the poem: one that uses more literal or straightforward language, and one that approaches your subject from a more oblique or mystical angle.
“Generally I think that when you’re talking about the music of a country, you’re talking more or less about the soundtrack of a country, the soundtrack by which people’s lives are lived,” poet Tyehimba Jess said in a recent interview with the New School’s Wynne Kontos. “What’s interesting to me is to hear about the lives of the people who have created that soundtrack.” Jess’s Pulitzer Prize–winning collection, Olio (Wave Books, 2016), covers an array of nineteenth- and twentieth-century African American musicians and performers, presenting a multiplicity of voices and histories through a collage of verse, song, and narrative. What musicians are part of the soundtrack of your life? Choose several musicians or bands integral to your soundtrack, and write poems that reflect on the lives of these musicians, combining research and imagination in a song of your own.
Watermelon, Mississippi Mud Pie, Red Velvet, Pumpkin Spice, Firework. The original Oreo with its classic pairing of chocolate cookie and white cream filling might remain unchanged, but over the years the Nabisco company has released limited edition flavors to the delight of some fans and the confusion or disapproval of others. Write a poem dedicated to a beloved snack from your childhood, exploring how it has changed or remained the same throughout the years. Consider the effect that consistency has on your life, even in the form of a favorite snack.
“I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” begins Walt Whitman’s 1855 poem “Song of Myself.” Filmmaker Jennifer Crandall’s video series Whitman, Alabama, featured in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, captures a wide range of Alabamians in different settings and locales in the state, each reciting from one of the fifty-two verses of Whitman’s iconic poem. Watch the series and choose several lines from the poem that feel particularly resonant to you, either capturing the mood of the moment or a theme you’ve been thinking about for a while. Write a poem starting with Whitman’s words, and then move on to explore how this theme ties in with your own ideas about American identity, community, and interpersonal connections.
The essay “The Art at the End of the World” is Heidi Julavits’s account of a pilgrimage to see Robert Smithson’s land art sculpture “Spiral Jetty” in the Great Salt Lake. Write a poem inspired by a land art piece that particularly draws you in. In her essay, Julavits juxtaposes the haunting otherworldliness and existential provocations of the landscape with family dynamics and mundane details of traveling with her husband and two children. Does the immensity of this land art piece in its natural surroundings propel you to think about the relative size and scope of your own concerns, goals, and relationships?
Street art, family and friends, selfies, concerts, a painting in a museum, funny signage. Many of us use our cell phones to capture photos and videos depicting everything from special occasions to the random striking visual encountered on a daily commute. Look through the photos on your cell phone and decide on a common theme, mood, or sentiment you’d like to convey in a poem. Are there photos you took by accident or ones you didn’t even know existed until browsing through? Write a poem consisting solely of descriptions of a selection of your photos. Which everyday objects, places, activities, or resonating visuals can you use to communicate a message?
“Sometimes I still put my hand tenderly on my heart / somehow or other still carried away by America,” writes Alicia Ostriker in “Ghazal: America the Beautiful.” This Fourth of July, begin a poem with the title “America the Beautiful” and let this phrase guide your piece, allowing your mind freedom to reflect on the things you find beautiful (or not so beautiful) about the nation. Read through some other Independence Day poetry by writers such as Carl Sandburg, Walt Whitman, Claude McKay, and Rachel Eliza Griffiths for further inspiration.
Writer, vocalist, and sound artist LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs mixes multiple languages and uses a variety of musical influences in the poems from her debut collection, TwERK (Belladonna, 2013). Drawing inspiration from Nevada Diggs, write a poem where you incorporate words and phrases from two or more languages or dialects that are significant to you, whether they are fictional languages like Klingon or spoken languages like Cajun French.
“Palettes of mud, pillowcases of doorknobs, bags of ice…. Softest polyester stuffing spills out from black armor. It’s a leather jacket thrown over a bubble bath. This could describe a few people I know,” writes artist and author Leanne Shapton in a New York Times Magazine essay about the clothing designed by Rei Kawakubo. Taking inspiration from Kawakubo’s peculiarly surreal fashion designs, write a poem that starts with one of Shapton’s descriptive phrases, such as “a babble of valves and blisters,” “a reptile of lint,” “gobs of cheesecloth,” “potato-like clumps stuck to a neck,” or “exploded metallic popcorn kernel.” From there, let your imagination take over using these textures and shapes to portray an unexpected subject or feeling.