by Elya Braden, Assistant Editor
While many of us have been to enough poetry workshops over the years to assemble a notebook or, in my case, several notebooks of poetry prompts, one trick I’ve especially enjoyed from one of my favorite writing teachers, Tresha Faye Haefner, creator of The Poetry Salon, is that of creating your own poetry prompts.
I’ve participated in many workshops where the only prompt is a particular poem or maybe a few poems for inspiration. That can be effective, especially if the poem is a juicy one. But to create these prompts, you go one step further: after reading through the poem, you create 2-3 “pre-writing list prompts” to use in combination with the poem.
For example, if the poem names several colors, one of your pre-writing list prompts could be: “List 5 colors you would never wear” or “List 5 colors you would see if you walked around your block.” Or, if the poem talks about something the narrator remembers, one of your pre-writing list prompts could be: “Write a sentence or two about 5 childhood memories, being as specific as possible.”
The addition of the pre-writing lists, I’ve found, can help get me out of my usual word choices and out of my usual ways of seeing the world. These prompts are fun to exchange with friends because creating your pre-writing lists before you’ve read the poem can lead to surprises when you combine the poem with the pre-writing lists.
For example, if my pre-writing list of 5 colors I would never wear includes: chartreuse, orange, mustard yellow, mauve, and taupe, but the poem prompt is about the sea, it’s going to require a real stretch for me to use some of my colors in my poem if I write about the sea. Or maybe, instead of the sea, my choice of colors will have me writing about a desert sunset, something I don’t usually think or write about. Either way, I’m now writing something more unusual and probably more interesting than I would have without the pre-writing list prompts in combination with the poem prompt.
Here are a couple of examples of poetry prompts I’ve created using this method. You can use these prompts to write your own poems or use them as examples to create your own prompts.
- Think of a coveted object and list 10 adjectives to describe it.
- Write a sentence or two about 5 people, places or things you saw on your way to (school, class, or work) today. Use specific details.
Read the poem “What Do Women Want?” by Kim Addonizio.
What Do Women Want? Kim Addonizio I want a red dress. I want it flimsy and cheap, I want it too tight, I want to wear it until someone tears it off me. I want it sleeveless and backless, this dress, so no one has to guess what’s underneath. I want to walk down the street past Thrifty’s and the hardware store with all those keys glittering in the window, past Mr. and Mrs. Wong selling day-old donuts in their café, past the Guerra brothers slinging pigs from the truck and onto the dolly, hoisting the slick snouts over their shoulders. I want to walk like I’m the only woman on earth and I can have my pick. I want that red dress bad. I want it to confirm your worst fears about me, to show you how little I care about you or anything except what I want. When I find it, I’ll pull that garment from its hanger like I’m choosing a body to carry me into this world, through the birth-cries and the love-cries too, and I’ll wear it like bones, like skin, it’ll be the goddamned dress they bury me in.
Prompt: Write a poem about something you covet, how you will feel when you have that object, what you will do with it, and how you will show it to the world around you. Include at least 5 of the adjectives from your first pre-writing list and at least 3 of the people, places or things from your second list.
- Make a list of 5 major historical or religious events.
- Make a list of 5 characters from fiction.
- Make a list of 5 things that you are angry or fearful about, including a few things about the world, society or politics, something outside of your control.
Read the poem, “I Am Waiting” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (preferably out loud), then listen to a favorite instrumental jazz song (I recommend “Impressions” by John Coltrane). The music can help you find the rhythm of your poem.
I Am Waiting Lawrence Ferlinghetti I am waiting for my case to come up and I am waiting for a rebirth of wonder and I am waiting for someone to really discover America and wail and I am waiting for the discovery of a new symbolic western frontier and I am waiting for the American Eagle to really spread its wings and straighten up and fly right and I am waiting for the Age of Anxiety to drop dead and I am waiting for the war to be fought which will make the world safe for anarchy and I am waiting for the final withering away of all governments and I am perpetually awaiting a rebirth of wonder I am waiting for the Second Coming and I am waiting for a religious revival to sweep through the state of Arizona and I am waiting for the Grapes of Wrath to be stored and I am waiting for them to prove that God is really American and I am waiting to see God on television piped’ onto church altars if only they can find the right channel to tune in on and I am waiting for the Last Supper to be served again with a strange new appetizer and I am perpetually awaiting a rebirth of wonder I am waiting for my number to be called and I am waiting for the Salvation Army to take over and I am waiting for the meek to be blessed and inherit the earth without taxes and I am waiting for forests and animals to reclaim the earth as theirs and I am waiting for a way to be devised to destroy all nationalisms without killing anybody and I am waiting for linnets and planets to fall like rain and I am waiting for lovers and weepers to lie down together again in a new rebirth of wonder I am waiting for the Great Divide to ‘be crossed and I am anxiously waiting for the secret of eternal life to be discovered by an obscure general practitioner and I am waiting for the storms of life to be over and I am waiting to set sail for happiness and I am waiting for a reconstructed Mayflower to reach America with its picture story and tv rights sold in advance to the natives and I am waiting for the lost music to sound again in the Lost Continent in a new rebirth of wonder I am waiting for the day that maketh all things clear and I am awaiting retribution for what America did to Tom Sawyer and I am waiting for the American Boy to take off Beauty’s clothes and get on top of her and I am waiting for Alice in Wonderland to retransmit to me her total dream of innocence and I am waiting for Childe Roland to come to the final darkest tower and I am waiting for Aphrodite to grow live arms at a final disarmament conference in a new rebirth of wonder I am waiting to get some intimations of immortality by recollecting my early childhood and I am waiting for the green mornings to come again youth’s dumb green fields come back again and I am waiting for some strains of unpremeditated art to shake my typewriter and I am waiting to write the great indelible poem and I am waiting for the last long careless rapture and I am perpetually waiting for the fleeing lovers on the Grecian Urn to catch each other up at last and embrace and I am waiting perpetually and forever a renaissance of wonder
Prompt: Write a poem about what you are waiting for. Include at least 2 of the items from each of your pre-writing lists.