Monday, May 21, 2012

The Joy of Prompting

Tonight was my Barnes and Noble reading, once again with a small but appreciative audience.  Thanks to Barney, Tammy, BJ, Kendall and Christinia, and two other folks I didn't know who just came to listen.
I prepared an essay on writing prompts that I shared with the group before I read my poetry, most of which was inspired by the April daily writing prompts.  So I thought this blog might be as good a place as any to share my essay with the rest of the world:

As poets and  writers, we all have had times when the muse seems to be on vacation, and even though we feel a need or desire to write, ideas seem to be in short supply.  One of the best ways to get the creative juices flowing is with "writing prompts" - ideas from others to inspire you to write.

There are a number of books on writing, and poetry writing in particular, that not only offer good general advice on improving your product, but also several suggestions for writing exercises.  Here are some of my favorites:

Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg
The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises From Poets Who Teach, by Robin Behn and Chase Twitchell
The Poet's Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry, by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux
The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within, by Stephen Fry
The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets, by Ted Kooser

All of the above books are available through   I should mention another book of note:
Challenges for the Delusional: Peter Murphy's Prompts and the Poems They Inspired (Jane Street Press, 2012):  This anthology features some of the best poems written during Peter Murphy's famous Winter Poetry And Prose Getaway, held at the Jersey shore every January for the last 18 years.  The book includes many of the "infamous and eccentric" prompts offered by organizer Murphy, so you can try your hand at some of them yourself.  Even better, if you ever get the chance to attend this conference (held every year on Martin Luther King Day weekend), it is well worth it.  The book isn't on, but it can be found at, or visit for information on the book and Murphy's sponsored conferences and seminars.

In addition, there are a number of websites out there that offer writing prompts on a regular basis.  One that I've been following for years is the "Poetic Asides" blog, run on the Writer's Digest website by poet and editor Robert Lee Brewer.  He offers a weekly  poetry prompt every Wednesday, and followers post their poems that resulted from the prompt.  In April and November he offers daily prompts, and he has contests and other challenges throughout the year.  A group of us blog members actually put together an anthology of our poems written from these challenges, called Prompted: An International Collection of Poems (Published by RLYB, 2011). It's available on

Every April for the last five years, I have been following the "Poem-a-Day Challenge" at Poetic Asides, and by the end of the month I have at least thirty poems, some of which are actually worthy of shopping for publication. This year I tried something different: I combined the prompts from that blog with those from Maureen Thorson's "NaPoWriMo" blog, which is active only during April, and I used both prompts each day to write at least one poem.  The results were intriguing and often surprising: for instance, one day I had to write a lullaby about food; another I had to write a sonnet with a "doomsday" theme.

As I said previously, writing workshops are one of the best ways to be spurred by ideas to create good poetry.  I was very fortunate to have worked with poet Jane Hirshfield at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival in January 2011.  Jane offered this detailed prompt, which she called our "poetry palette", on the first day of the workshop, and we used it as a basis for several writing exercises (or "experiments", as she called them) throughout the week.  I got some pretty good poems out of this workshop, and one of them, a sonnet called "Two Writers", was published last year in Writer's Digest.  Here is the prompt (as best as I could reconstruct it from my workshop notes):

Make a list of words or phrases, about three to five each, but no more than seven, in the following categories:

colors (some of which can be "made up")
descriptive sounds
sensation of touch
places, general or specific

In addition, include one each of the following:

something "worn" or "worn out"
a scientific fact
something lost
a word you like

Now, using your lists as a "word bank" (or "palette"), try to use at least one item from each list in a poem.  Write the following:

1.  A poem that incorporates loss in some way. Try to include the scientific fact.
2.  A poem using the "worn out" thing as the entrance point of the poem.
3.  A poem that begins with an imperative or command, or makes a request.
4.  A poem that contains an explicit speech act (such as a conversation) and mentions a body part.
5.  Two poems - one short and one longer - that use the "favorite word", or another favorite word if you prefer.

1 comment:

Mad Kane said...

I enjoyed your interesting essay. Thanks! And congrats on your B and N appearance.

And congratulations once again on your Honorable Mention in last week's Limerick-Off: Limerick of the Week 63