I was inspired by Joan Fleming and Shari Kocher to assemble this list of ideas / prompts / starting points for poems.
I would love to post some on Poetry Shelf – send me your poem (and prompt) by Wednesday May 27th and I will post a few on Thursday May 28th.
One of my favourite poetry prompts is a version of the cut-up poem exercise, which I first encountered on Bill Manhire’s MA in Creative Writing in 1997. Take a poem or draft poem that is boring and make it into a new poem using the words of the original. You can do this by either printing it out, physically cutting it up, and gluing the chosen words onto a piece of paper, or cutting and pasting it on your computer, using my very favourite short-cuts, ctrl+X (copy) and ctrl +V (paste). Happy cutting and pasting!
This exercise is a variation on an exercise called ‘The Props Assist the House’ by James McKean.
Choose a line or a rhythmical phrase from a poem that you like.
Call it the ‘baseline’, the place where the writing starts, where it rests, and where it finishes.
Next read the base line and write whatever comes to mind, avoiding anything that stops the flow of words. Let the lines come as rapidly as possible. Don’t read back. Whenever you pause or feel unsure what to write, repeat the base line again to help ‘ground’ you in the words. Follow the base line to wherever it takes you.
When you have done that, then take the base line out altogether, and see what is left.
Make a poem from what you have on the page, once the base line is gone. The may be there, in its entirety, already. Or you may want to tweak and rearrange it.
Watch Emily Berry read “Some Fears” from her excellent collection Dear Boy, and either use it as a model for listing some of your own fears, or as a jumping-off point for a poem about Some Loves, Some Delights or Some Regrets.
from The Practice of Poetry which I found generative: Write a poem about your mother’s kitchen. There should be something green in the poem, and something dead. You are not in this poem, but a female relation — aunt, sister, or friend — must walk into the kitchen at one point in the poem.
Write a description of a dream, in any form you choose, in response to the following line: ‘I was the bat that bit the pangolin that changed the world’.
Write an erotic poem about your relationship to one of Aotearoa’s national treasures from the perspective of a second national treasure watching you voyeuristically….. Then send that poem to firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Robert Frost writes about stopping on a ride through snowy woods, to watch the snow, but never says where exactly the rider will be heading, when the ride resumes. In Richard Wilbur’s “The Ride,” the horse has become a horse in a dream, from which the poet wakes up, worrying about the horse left behind, no longer being dreamed about. Where would you ride a dream horse to? What might stop you on the way?
2. Address something you can do nothing about – the weather, time, death, the morning, the pandemic – as if it were a younger sibling making trouble. Rail against reality!
3. If you were to imagine yourself as a work of art (a sculpture, a painting, a stage set) how might you describe yourself?
Ash Davida Jane
I’ve been thinking a lot about this, from Heather Christle’s The Crying Book:
Writing a poem is not so very different from digging a hole. It is work. You try to learn what you can from other holes and the people who dug before you. The difficulty comes from people who do not dig or spend time in holes thinking that the holes ought not to be so wet, or dark, or full of worms. “Why is your hole not lined with light?” Sir, it is a hole.
So, my prompt is to write a poem that embraces the digging—let it be as dark and damp and wormy as it wants to be. Or, try and write a poem that is lined with light. Or just read this again and sit with it and see what happens.
This poem starter is called novaya poezia, a new poetry.
In the 1920’s there might have been an extraordinary assembly…. Akhmatova, Bulgarkov, Mayakovsky, Mandelstam – the sort of writers who not long ago couldn’t have dined at the same table without fear of arrest – all there. Yes, over the years they have championed their differing styles, but at the meeting they forged novaya poezia, a new poetry. For them a new poetry was universal, did not hesitate or kowtow and had the human spirit as its subject and the future as its muse.
That was their new poetry. What is yours?
The idea of this meeting (which might or might not have happened) is from A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.
The Longing Prompt
‘One egg is better than two because of all the longing it leaves.’
– Eileen Myles
‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’
– William Shakespeare
Write a poem that is a list of ‘x is better than y’, and tell us why. Include some food, an item of furniture, and a person.
Write an “Our Neighbourhood” poem – invented or true – which makes it clear, but never explicitly, that in fact you hate your neighbourhood.
Variation on Michael Theune exercise
Write about a small but important part of your anatomy.What does it mean that your notion of Self depends on such small things, you never even knew about until you looked it up. Mix up the tonal registers to include a line of colloquial speech.
With some paper and a pen, take a walk somewhere familiar. Instead of looking at stuff or smelling the dandelions, concentrate on the sounds you can hear. Particularly the unusual sounds, or the sounds with no obvious origin. Stop walking and try to describe what you heard. Rearrange and rewrite until your familiar place is no longer so familiar. Thanks to Hinemoana Baker for this one.
Write a poem about something lurking in the back of your mind. When you examine the back of your mind, you’ll find a memory there that hooks at you like a burr on your sleeve, or that you can feel like a taste in your mouth. Write about that.
Write a poem called ‘The Lockbox’. The poem should take the form of a dream or anecdote in which you have lost or forgotten something. If it’s a dream, the poem shouldn’t tell us so. (Note: if you detect in the title an invitation to write about the lockdown, you’re not entirely wrong – but if that’s the occasion for your poem, try just to glance at it out of the corner of your eye, and let your imagination do most of the work, rather than prepopulating the poem with reality.)
The tree I fell in love with during Covid-19.
Write about a memory from before the lockdown but have it take place after the lockdown. Does the displacement of time change how you think or feel about that memory?