Tips & Encouragement for Writing Poetry

by Laura Kasischke

These prompts are meant to give poets inspiration, which is something poets often find hardest to find. Your poems, however, can and should go wherever the inspiration takes you. I’ve offered directions, and ‘rules’—but poems don’t have to follow directions and rules. Once they get started, they often break all their own rules. So, if these prompts lead you in directions that stray far from the prompts, that’s completely acceptable, and likely that’s for the best. However, for the ‘quick draft’ part of the process, I’d urge you, especially if this is a new way of writing for you, to give the directions and rules a try. You’ll be surprised by what your subconscious delivers, unexpectedly, while you’re keeping the rest of your brain busy following some directions and rules. 

The poems you share will likely not be ‘done’; instead they’ll be waiting for you to return to them after April is over. We aren’t judging these! You should feel completely free to take risks and to post your poetry prompt efforts whether you feel they’re done, or if you feel they’re not quite even started. The fun part here will be seeing what you can do, as an individual, with material given to a group. We’re all starting from the same place, but we’ll each write in very different voices and styles and bring to these challenges our own experiences and sensibilities.

Thank you for accepting this challenge! We’ll have a community here, and much to read and ponder. Your ‘failed’ attempts will be as interesting to us as your successes. 

On style: these poems will begin as freewrites, if you choose to follow this rule. You can post your freewrites if you don’t have time to ‘finish’ a poem. That you’re willing to join others and to take this challenge is already a step in the direction of real poetry writing!

Your prompt work might give you something to work on all day, if you have time. If you don’t have time (and some prompts may be less inspiring for you than others), you only need about half an hour. 5 minutes to read the prompts + 10 minutes to freewrite + 5 minutes to look at what you’ve generated and to post it. But if you have more time, and you feel inspired, use that! (HERE I WAS THINKING OF SAYING THAT WE COULD HAVE A PLACE TO POST POEMS THAT HAVE BEEN REVISED AFTER PROMPTS HAVE BEEN POSTED, BUT NOT SURE IF WE CAN MAKE A PLACE FOR THAT?) 

Here are two things you might apply to all the prompts, which I won’t repeat with each prompt, and these are suggestions, not rules. You’re in charge of your poems! But, I suggest:

    begin by freewriting, even if that’s not your usual process. Freewrite with a pen and a piece of paper or on the electronic device you like best. Set a timer or look at a clock, and keep your pen moving or your fingers typing for no less than ten minutes. (You can write longer, but try not to write less than 10 minutes. Even if you feel you’ve run out of anything to write, you don’t know what you might surprise yourself with if you keep pushing. 

    Try to write in as much sensory detail as possible—this is because it gets much harder to succumb to the feeling that one has nothing to say if one is avoiding abstractions (fear, hope, joy, pain) and instead makes it a goal to stick with the senses. You can certainly veer into abstractions (don’t deny yourself a ‘bliss’ if a bliss is what you need), but when you can, go back to the physical world, and find something blissful in it to describe: one could write for hours on a lemon and some bird feathers and a breeze—so much to taste and feel and see and hear and touch and smell.

    Don’t edit yourself as you write. You can and will want to revise at some point, but while you’re drafting, you shouldn’t think about it until your timer tells you it’s time to do that. 

    Try to tackle the prompt even if you think it’s not going to work out for you. You won’t know what you missed if you don’t give it a try. This is just ten minutes of your life, but in those ten minutes you may write at least a few possible lines of poetry that would never be written if you don’t write! These prompts privilege the process of writing over the product. These prompts suggest that you don’t know what you’re going to write until you’re writing it. 

    This is a suggestion not a rule: if the clock is still running but you’re running out of writing, you can always turn to the world. The weather. Your socks. Are your fingers cold? Is there music playing somewhere? Describe it! Describe your jacket or your friend’s hair. You don’t have to stay in the present, either. Your brain is full of the past. Ever own a pair of slippers when you were a kid? Describe those slippers! Where are they? Describe where they are whether you know where they are or not! Who might be wearing them now if you don’t still have them? Or, what’s it like for those lonely slippers in a landfill now?

JUST WRITE! You don’t need to write in lines, but you can. Or you can write on the back of an envelope with no punctuation, and you can punctuate and break lines later. Or not! JUST WRITE. IF YOU WRITE, THERE IS NO WRONG!

At some point you’ll ask yourself: how do I take this and make it into a poem. Well, that’s where you come in. You use your style, your sensibility, your own form, your personal poetic taste, your voice (or your ideal voice) to do that. That’s not easy, but the point of these prompts is that it’s harder to get started writing, for most poets, than it is to shape something that’s been written into a poem. We’re just getting the poems’ raw ingredients down now. There’s a million ways to cook them. And you’ll either see, immediately, how you can do that, or you can mull it over for as long as you want—years if necessary. So, worry about that after the freewrite, or after April. We’re gathering the raw ingredients for poems with these prompts. 

THANK YOU FOR JOINING THE POETRY BLAST COMMUNITY.

 

Guidelines:

  • To ensure your poem is posted to our website, please submit by noon the following day. (For example, poems using the April 5 prompt should be submitted by noon on April 6.)
  • Submit a poem for as many prompts as you would like.
  • If you would like your poem credited, please be sure your name appears on the poem itself (not just the file name).
  • We are not able to post poems that are not based on a prompt.

Take one of your poems that you’ve not fully appreciated and devote as much time as you have today to show it how great it can be—someday, if not today. Tidy it up. Cut out the unnecessary stuff and add to it what’s missing. Shape it. Read it out loud to yourself to see if the right words are in the right order. Call it a Real Poem, even if deep down you think it’s not a real poem. Feel astonished with yourself for writing poems, and for having been so brave and so creative and so willing to take risks. Thank yourself, as I thank you, for sharing this time, and yourself, with us. Rest afterward, for a week or so, and then give the same honor to all of your freewrites. Come back to them and be surprised at all the things you’ve written that you didn’t know you could write. Linger as long as you like over your freewrites. Eventually you’ll recognize in them the poem they’ve prepared you to write. Then rip them to pieces or dip them in liquid gold. You’ve got this. You don’t need prompts now. Now you need to call yourself a poet and write poems. 

Please write a prompt for us! We’ll love your prompt! We’ll do your prompt after we are out of prompts, when our month of poetry together has concluded. Now, do your prompt!

The stranger is back. This time the stranger has brought you a burlap bag. All the summers of your life are in it. Open it. Dump the contents on the ground. Describe. This can be some sandals or this can be a school bus or this can be the Pacific Ocean. (It’s a magical burlap bag.) Before you begin your ten-minute freewrite, take about 30 seconds to jot down at least 6 things (or up to 10 if you like) that you’ll be surprised to see again, from all the summers of your life, in that bag. Feel free to be negative if you like. My bag would have, for instance, a housefire in it. And some crutches. But also a bunch of popsicles.

Consider a time when you were mistaken. You misjudged someone, or you wore someone else’s coat home from a gathering. Now, imagine a photograph of your mistake. This isn’t the person you misjudged or the coat you wore instead of your own. This is a photograph that was never taken which would have captured the moment you realized your mistake had it been taken. Write a ten-minute description of this photograph that’s never been taken. You aren’t in the photograph, but at least seven ‘things’ are in it. There could be a car, or a tree, or a bottle, or an earring. Quick! Look around you, or just brainstorm. Write down the seven things that you will  have to describe, in as much sensory detail as possible, that you will find in this non-existent photograph taken at the moment you realized your mistake.

Today you invent a beverage from the same abstraction. Is it carbonated? Is it served hot? Is it bitter or sweet, intoxicating or sour? Now—keep going. Does it come in a can? What’s its favorite song? Has it ever been in love with another beverage? What happens to it when you drink it? What happens to YOU when you drink it?

Ask an expert for advice. Think of a question you’ve never asked, but you have wanted to ask. (Mine: How long until a peanut butter sandwich will be poisonous if you eat it? (A day? A week? A year?) Or make up a question: How do I tell my parents that I’m in love with an evil clown? Now, become the expert. Answer the question in as much sensory detail as possible. Give the poet who’s asked for your expertise far more information than was requested. Describe everything that could be sensory (in as much detail as possible) in that question (clown nose—that red rubbery bulb—the smell of it, the sound it makes when you pinch it—and mold spores spreading across that piece of old bread the sandwich was made with a year ago). Let your freewrite wander into territory beyond the question. Trust your expert to tell you more than you wanted to know, which will be what your actually wanted to know, which will tell you why you chose to ask that question.

There is a word that wants you to write about it. The word’s exact definition (or multiple possible definitions) are mysterious or confusing or unknown to you, even if you think you know what this word means. The word in search of you is on this list of words below, and as soon as you see it you will know which word it is: you will know it and it will know you. Choose it and stick with it. The word itself won’t matter. Since this is our 22nd prompt, repeat this word out loud to yourself 22 times. By the end of that, it will mean nothing to you. It will be a word no one ever used until it found you. Now write (for ten minutes) a definition of this word that has nothing to do with its actual meaning. Instead, look around you. Chagrin is a plastic water bottle. Describe the plastic water bottle. It’s also a cat’s scratching post (I’m looking around me). Now, describe whatever your eye lands on (whether you’re in your own place or outside or wherever you are) and put it in your definition of this word. If you get stuck, just go deeper into one of the things. (My water bottle is ¾ full, and there’s a little crown of air bubbles sparkling around the ¾ mark. Just like chagrin.) If you get to a revising stage, you could format this like an actual dictionary definition. You can look at dictionary—a real one or on the internet—to find this format if you don’t already have that in your head! (I’d need to look again, personally.)

grayscale           golem           chagrin               halcyon

zephyr                waveform    blandishment    arabesque

cipher                 chromatic    rheumy

grimoire             ligature         idolatry               olive

Think of some cliché, any cliché, that attempts to teach some life lesson: the grass is always greener on the other side; stop and smell the roses; don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. (Feel free to use one of those if you don’t know a lot of clichés!) Now, forget the cliché. You are living, in the sensory world, the sense of that cliché at the level of physical, not the emotional or psychological, experience of it. You’re stopping, smelling, roses. You’re looking across a fence into greener grass. You’re peering into the mouth of a horse. In your freewrite, learn from this experience the opposite of the cliché. That grass is purple. The horse has a switchblade between its teeth. The roses are plastic. You got this by now. ☺

Recall your last birthday. If you don’t know your astrological sign, make one up. Now, write a horoscope for the future from that birthday until this day. Horoscopes usually predict a future while also offering advice. The horoscope you write for yourself should be mostly filled with sensory detail. Instead of “the next three months will be full of surprises” (although you can write that two if you like) you might think about the time between now and your last birthday. The weather. The couch. The song. The blanket. You didn’t know, on your last birthday, what the future would hold, but now you do. The smell of bleach in a public restroom. What else will you see, hear, taste, smell, and touch between then and now?

Choose a distinct period of your life—a time of your life with a beginning, middle, and end: 6th grade, or the year you worked at that restaurant, or that break-up, or the summer after your senior year in high school. Choose it, and then stick with it. Now, describe it for ten minutes, in as much sensory detail as possible, using only your recollections of what clothes you wore then. If you can’t remember, make it up. Sneakers? Same pair of jeans every day? You may add accessories! Glasses! Hat! You may add make-up or deodorant or hair gel if you like—although that’s not clothes ☺. Describe what you went out into the world wearing during that period. Think of that as the costume, the armor, the exterior that was attached to you during that time. If you get stuck, make it up. Be sure, however, to describe in great detail one thing in particular—really zooming in on it. The heel of a shoe. A belt buckle. The zipper on that jacket. Try, in your description, to capture the emotional essence of that time period as you recall it. The bottom of a shoe can be devastating, or it can be the happiest week of someone’s life. What you find yourself describing will tell you what that period of your life was all about. Find out.

Borrow a news headline or internet story headline. If you’ve seen a headline you recall grabbing your attention, use that. (Personally, I’ve never forgotten FLYING HUMANOID WITH WINGS CAUGHT ON FILM OVER ARIZONA.) If you haven’t, spend not more than five minutes finding one on the internet. In less than 30 seconds I just now found on BuzzFeed 16 EYE-OPENING SECRETS FROM PEOPLE WHO WORKED AT THE DISNEY PARKS: perfect. Now, freewrite for ten minutes on all that would never be written get into the story itself by asking yourself questions that would never be asked or answered by that story. Start with any question: where is the humanoid’s grandmother? what color is her hair? is it windy? does the humanoid wear a hat? (describe that hat!) Or: what if one of the Disney Park secrets is about a piglet? (describe that piglet), has Mickey Mouse ever fallen in love with a bird? (describe that bird, and that love) If you have time you can write down your questions before you start to write. If you don’t have time, let your freewrite suggest your questions.  Your goal is to describe (in sensory detail) things would seem extraneous to the story being told below the headline, which will therefore be the real story. 

April is the cruelest month, according to T.S. Eliot. So, what is February? What’s July? Choose a month, and borrow from T.S. Eliot to write for ten minutes on why August is the _______-est month, or December is the __________-est month. Describe the month using only the details that defend your judgment of that month. Put: 1) at least one vegetable in the free write 2) at least one rodent 3) at least one child in your freewrite. The rest of the details are up to you. Let your memories from that month, as experienced throughout your life, suggest those details.

Before you begin your freewrite, very quickly draw a three-panel cartoon. It doesn’t matter if you can’t draw. Just have 3 panels, with at least one human being (this can be a stick figure) and one speech bubble in each panel. Now, consider your cartoon as a very long story you must describe in as much sensory detail as possible, in ten minutes. What’s happening here? To whom? Fill in the details. Before you begin to write, decide if your story is a tragedy or a comedy, and then fill in the details with your freewrite accordingly.

It’s your lucky day. So, what’s one of your fears? (Not your greatest fear—but something bearable, like spiders or flunking a class or waking up beside a crow or a possum.) It’s happening. Your fear is here. Write in as much sensory detail about the experience, for ten minutes, with the goal of having overcome that fear by the end of your freewrite.

Poets don’t have to be so negative! (I’ve heard this, anyway.) Now, think of the first lie you were told, OR the most recent. Retell that lie—using the time and place and liar for your sensory detail…although you could also use your own physical reaction to that joke for detail, too, and the place and time of day and the weather you either recall or imagine accompanied that lie. Freewrite for ten minutes. Lie in your freewrite about the lie if you’d like. No one will know you’re lying about a lie but you.

Where will you be in two years—be as optimistic or pessimistic as you like. Return the note written to you yesterday, to the person who wrote to you, describing the place you are in as much sensory detail as possible.

Poems submitted for April 8

Jot down the name of someone you haven’t seen or heard from in at least two years. 
Jot down the name of a place you’ve never been.
Write to yourself for ten-minutes in a note from that person from that place you’ve never been. Consider the person’s voice and personality and that person’s preoccupations and priorities while describing, as that person, the place you’ve never been. In as much sensory detail as possible.

Poems submitted for April 7

Think of a joke. Any joke. If you can’t think of a joke, google ‘joke’. Now, write a ten- minute long joke with no punchline. Use all the sensory detail you recall or found in the joke, but don’t be funny. This is not a joke.

Poems submitted for April 6

Another two-part prompt. Time accordingly. 
Where were you yesterday at 4am? Describe that place in as much sensory detail as possible.Answer this question where were you when the first astronaut took the first step on the moon? (Likely, you weren’t born yet, so that’s a more exciting than my answer: I was alive, and supposedly I watched the moon landing, but I don’t remember a single thing about it except for being bored and wanting to watch cartoons; I’m neither ashamed nor proud of this.)  It’s the same place. Now, you’re an astronaut. Use your description of where you were at 4am yesterday to describe your experience being the first astronaut taking the first step on the moon.

Poems submitted for April 5

Before you start your freewrite, read a poem (written by someone other than yourself, a poem you haven’t memorized or read so many times it’s almost memorized—and if you want to add to the excitement get on poetry.com or open any book with a poem in it that you can find and read the first poem you land on) aloud to yourself.  Now, put the poem away. Now, set your timer. Now, use your memory of the poem—its sound, its sensory details, its emotional tone, its point of view, its line length, as well as whatever you felt was emotional or physical about it that’s still echoing around in your brain, and write that poem again. (This isn’t plagerizing. This is inspiration. No poem has ever been written since the world’s first poem that didn’t take its essence from a previously existing poem. If you find your freewrite is too close to the poem your read, revise it when you revise it: you could make it the opposite of that poem by turning a love poem into a hate poem, or a poem about childhood into a poem about old age, or a poem about spring into a poem about winter. If it’s still too close for comfort, dedicate your poem to the poet whose poem inspired yours.)

WHERE AM I?

Consider the space / place / room / wherever you slept in last night. (If you didn’t sleep last night, or didn’t sleep indoors, consider the last night you slept indoors somewhere!) Consider where you were while you were asleep—the light, or darkness, the walls, the floor, the roof. Now, wake up. It’s the same place, but it’s not 2021 anymore. It’s 1921. What is this place now? Is it still there? If so, who’s in the space with you now? If it didn’t exist…well, something did. That spot on the map existed then. What was there? As you describe (in as much sensory detail as possible) your vision of that past that you inhabited in the future—that past that couldn’t likely imagine you…but you can imagine it (because you’re a poet!)—describe where YOU were in 1921.Describe where you were (this is imaginary, I suppose, unless you know!) in 1921. Was it a place? If so, describe it, too, in as much sensory detail as possible. If it was NO place, describe it in even more sensory detail. Then, describe in as much sensory detail as possible your last sleeping place, and yourself, and where you are, and who is in that space, in the year 2121. Use a word from this freewrite as the title of your poem.

WHAT IF?

What if you were given an apple by a stranger? What if you decided to eat it, despite the potentially poor decision that could be? What if that apple said your name when you bit into it?What else might it say? 
Begin writing this prompt by describing a stranger, approaching you with an apple. Describe the stranger. Then describe the apple. Describe the taste and smell and weight of it. Then let your freewrite lead you to the end of the prompt, and to what this stranger’s apple says to you while you’re eating it.