Saturday, October 30, 2010

Poetry Prompt #29 – Took from a Book

This week’s prompt is an exercise in “found inspiration” that borrows incentive from reading materials that you have at home. Take any book from your shelf (or any magazine that you’ve saved), and open it randomly. Read whatever you find on that page. As you read, create a list of 10-12 words and/or phrases from the text. After you’ve created your list, think about the words and phrases you’ve chosen. Consider:

1. Are there any possible relationships among the words?  Do they suggest a tone or mood?
2. Do any jog your memory to a specific time, place, or person? 
3. Does a particular word or phrase speak to your muse? 
4. Do any of the words suggest a “tale” that you might want to tell in a poem? 
5. Is there a hint of the fantastic in the words you’ve chosen, something that you might work into a surreal-style poem? (Read some surrealist poems by André Breton, Paul Éluard, and Charles Simic.) 

Now try to write a poem in which you use some of the words and phrases from your list. Remember that you don’t have to use all the words you selected (although you certainly may if you wish). Another approach to this prompt is to choose words and phrases from a poem or story by a writer whose work you admire. For example, here are some interesting words from “The Harvest Bow” by Seamus Heaney: harvest, silence, trust, throwaway, the unsaid, golden loops, evening, blue smoke, burnished, passage, warm. 

Keep in mind that your poem may use a few words “borrowed” from another source, but the content should be uniquely your own.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Poetry Prompt #28 – Masks

With Halloween just around the corner, this week seems a great time to write about masks. Anyone who has dressed up for Halloween knows how transforming masks can be, how they provide a sense of escape, and how they offer a freeing quality that allows you to be someone other than yourself or, perhaps, who you really are. 

In literature, the persona poem derives from a Greek word that means “mask” and is a poem in which the poet figuratively dons a mask and writes from the fictional “I” of another viewpoint. This prompt, however, goes in a different direction. For our poetic purposes this week, let’s consider the metaphorical masks we wear and why we wear them. (Remember: masks may be anything that disguises or conceals – physical disguises, facial expressions, attitudes, and behaviors).

Most people wear “comfort masks” at times as protection from judgments, to guard their real feelings from others, to gain social or business positions, and to generally feel safe (i.e., people in emotional pain may mask their distress with smiles, and unhappy children may wear the masks of class clowns or bullies). What masks have you worn?


What metaphorical mask do you wear most often? What does it hide? Write a poem about this.
What “comfort mask” do you wear to guard your real feelings from others? Can you write about a time when you wore a “mask” for emotional protection? 
How are you like the Phantom of the Opera? What emotional scars do you hide behind a figurative “Phantom” mask? Write a poem about this.
Write a poem about a time, place, social gathering or other situation in which you would have liked to wear an actual mask.

Write a poem about a memorable Halloween (read Catherine Doty’s “Living Room” from her book Momentum: Click Here and Scroll Down)
Write a poem about the best or scariest Halloween mask you’ve ever had or seen (your own or someone else’s).

A few examples for you to enjoy:

Happy Halloween!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Poetry Prompt #27 – I Wish I May, I Wish I Might

When we were children, wishes were part of our immediate reality, and believing that our wishes would come true was easy: “star light, star bright, first star I see tonight; I wish I may, I wish I might have the wish I wish tonight.” Things change as we grow up, but we always have wishes, and that’s what this prompt is about.

Here are some “wish poem” ideas:

1. A poem based on a wish for more time with someone (recall the words in Jim Croce’s song: “If I could make days last forever / If words could make wishes come true / I'd save every day like a treasure and then, / Again, I would spend them with you.”).

2. A poem based on a wish to see or spend time with someone you lost touch with years ago.

3. A poem based on a wish to see/talk to someone no longer living.

4. A poem based on a wish you had as a child.

5. A poem based on a wish to be a child again.

6. A poem based on a wish that was realized and lost.

7. A poem based on a wish you know will never come true.

8. A poem based on the old caveat: “Be careful what you wish for….”

As an adjunct to this prompt, you might try incorporating anaphora. Anaphora is a kind of parallelism that happens when single words or whole phrases are repeated at the beginning of lines. Shakespeare was fond of anaphora and used it often (in “Sonnet No.66,” he began ten lines with the word “and”). Anaphora can give a sense of litany to a poem and can create a driving rhythm that intensifies a poem’s emotion. In this prompt, perhaps you can use anaphora to intensify the meaning and implications of your wish.

A classic wish poem: 

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Poetry Prompt #26 – Mini-Memoir

Legend has it that when asked to write a story in six words, Ernest Hemingway responded, “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Think about it – what do these six words suggest to you?  A while back, Smith Magazine challenged writers to tell their life stories in exactly six words, and both famous and not-so-famous writers responded. (Click Here to Read New Yorker ArticleThe idea is inarguably “gimmicky,” but the concept is interesting, and for this prompt we’re going to do something similar. Rather than using six words to tell our life stories, we’re going to use a dozen to create mini-memoir poems (snippets of personal experience). 

Here's your challenge: tell your “story” in exactly twelve words; organize your poem in a way that uses space effectively (like dance or sculpture); pay particular attention to sound (alliteration, assonance), punctuation, imagery, and mood; experiment with interesting syntax and inventive diction. Titles don’t figure in the word count, so use your titles to convey meaning. Make every word count! 

This is an exercise in compression; it’s also an exercise in learning how to use nuance in your poems and how to convey a “story” without telling the reader everything. 

Here are five examples from one of my workshop groups.


How that day
the wind:

changed –

so unprepared
for his suicide …

Whimmy, she
said. Whimmy – 
her back 
turned to me
as she left.


The wages of sin –
“Last Judgment” –
what that long 
wall means …


Just this 
before you 

I did not 
(despite what 
they said).


This, always, when 
          I remember you –
               that day’s color
                    and your eyes …

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Poetry Prompt #25 – All Creatures Great & Small

“Ultimately, animals offer poets a mirror through which to explore themselves,
an unwitting foil used to understand what it means to be human.”

October fourth of this week marks the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis has, for centuries, been associated with animals and birds, and is often depicted with them. Records tell us that St. Francis welcomed all creatures into the circle of his immediate family. Many of us welcome pets into our hearts and into our homes; and many of us are concerned about animal rights and the preservation of endangered species. In our love and concern, we learn that animals help us transcend the boundaries of species and move toward understanding the interconnectedness of all life. I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this prompt – this week our poems are about animals (wild and domestic – furred, feathered, and finned)! 

From among the countless, here are a few animal poems for you to read before writing your own:

Some Options for Your Poem:

1. Have you ever had a special pet or pets? Write a poem about a beloved pet.

2. Are you concerned about the preservation of endangered species and animal rights? Do you believe that animals are not ours to experiment on, use for entertainment, or otherwise abuse? Write a related poem.

3. Is there a particular kind of animal (wild or domestic) that you consider a favorite? Write about your favorite species or breed.

4. Have you ever tried to see things as an animal might? Animals offer us unique opportunities to see beyond the boundaries of human perspectives. Write a persona poem from the perspective of an animal.

5. Have you ever heard that people sometimes resemble their pets? Write a poem in which you compare yourself (or someone you know) to an animal. Think about common characteristics. 

6. Do animal antics make you smile? Write a humorous or whimsical animal poem. 

7. Have you ever mourned the loss of a beloved pet? Think about this quote for a few moments and then write a poem about a pet you have lost: “We who choose to surround ourselves with lives even more temporary than our own, live within a fragile circle, easily and often breached. Unable to accept its awful gaps, we still would live no other way.” (Irving Townsend) 

By way of sharing, here’s a poem I wrote in memory of Yeats, my beloved Yorkshire Terrier.

Watching (In Memory of Yeatsy, January 5, 1993 - July 6, 2008)

by Adele Kenny

The way his head slips from 
my hand as I lay him down, 
his eyes still open (though I
try to close them), the same 
warmth still in his small body. 

It is this: death, a skill learned 
by those who observe it; grief 
what we keep – and memory 
always, at least in part, about
forgetting. I cross his paws the 
way he crossed them in sleep. 

Like all deaths that summer 
remembers, I walk his home.
A patch of sun climbs the stairs 
without him; white moths, 
like snowflakes, span the sky.  

From The American Voice in Poetry: The Legacy of Whitman, Williams, and Ginsberg (Copyright © 2010 by The Poetry Center, Passaic County Community College. All rights reserved.  ISBN: 978-0-9621495-9-7).