Creating Your Own Poetry Prompts

Creating Poetry Prompts

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.”

Pre-writing Lists

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.

Example 1:

  1. Think of a coveted object and list 10 adjectives to describe it.
  2. 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.

Example 2:

  1. Make a list of 5 major historical or religious events.
  2. Make a list of 5 characters from fiction.
  3. 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.

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