Saturday, September 12, 2015

Prompt # 230 – Picture This by Guest Prompter Gail Fishman Gerwin

When we visited Florida’s Sanibel Island a few years ago, the chilled morning air didn’t stop early risers from waiting for the first glimpse of sun. Lucky me: I caught a pelican mid-air against the orange sky, yet the memory the photo took me back to my youth, to a special person, to an affirmation of his life, to an inspiration for the way to live mine. As I stood in the cool sand, awed by the sight, the narrative was nowhere in my mind, yet weeks later the poem came to me along with a flood of emotion.

Pelicans at Sunrise

Just before sunrise at Sanibel,
pelicans gather, soar high above
the Gulf, then dive and soar again.

My high school friend swam in waters
like these as a young man. Awed by an
avian fisherman that could gulp whole
fish into a waiting gullet, he squinted
toward the sun, unaware that this circling
hunter would swoop down, pluck out
his eye.

He married much later than the rest of us,
chatted at class reunions about his progeny
as the youngest: ours were wed and parents,
his just starting their college days.

We never could tell which eye was taken,
they seemed alike, it would have been rude
to stare, but the incident was the icon
that defined him throughout his life.

You remember, we’d say when he was
out of range, a pelican took out his eye.
When I read about his passing a few years
ago, I recalled a sweet man, bespectacled,
who didn’t seem his age, whose generous
smiles belied his trials, who gave his eye
to a pelican and never looked back.

                                        —First Published in Exit 13

Take some time to look through your memories. Is there a photo that sparks a special event or a meaningful time or season in your life? Is there a box of sepia-tinted family photos with people you don’t recognize? Did you stop the car to photograph wild turkeys along a Greek roadside? Or drive (on the wrong side of the road) to Stonehenge? Wait! Look at these: you with a favorite childhood toy, you with arms around your best friend, you as a four-year-old with your first dog (what was his name?), you at your wedding, you at your youngest child’s wedding. Take some time to relish the feelings your chosen photo brings. Can you smell salt air in the background? Can you taste that birthday cake? Does the photo spark a memory outside the image?

Use the photo you choose to create your piece—as a narrative with stanzas, a prose poem, something formal . . . Tell the truth or make up a new truth. Inspire yourself as you bring your image to life. Use whatever implements you keep in your poetry toolbox and publish your poem with “the music in it” on this blog’s comment section—or continue to revise it. Click here for editing tips. Perhaps you will submit your poem to a journal.           

Here’s a link to another poem inspired by a 2010 photo of my granddaughter trying on my wedding dress. Note the allusions to an era of protests, to life’s challenges, to times lost, to times gained. Go to, click on Excerpts from Dear Kinfolk, and scroll down to “Wedding Dress, 1968.” Or check out the kid with the braids and her Dy-Dee doll by clicking here.

Time to dig out those photos now. Happy writing!


1. Write from a distance. Tap your memory to see if the photo evokes an emotion long gone. Tell your story.

2. Write from the photo subject’s point of view.

3. Write in the third person from the point of view of someone (not you or you as someone else) who finds the photo.

4. Pose questions to the photo’s subject(s).

5. Address the subject(s) by name(s).

6. Exaggerate. It’s your poem. If you don’t know who the subjects are, make up a story.

7. Is someone missing from the photo? Let that be your prompt.

8. Incorporate elements from another photo into the poem.

9. Allude to the photo’s era through images. The adage applies: show, don’t tell.

10. Use poetic devices, rhythm, repetition, stanza structure, etc. while simply describing the photo.

11. See how your poem looks on the page. Tighten it. Read it aloud.

12. Have fun!


Many thanks, Gail!


  1. I remember enjoying a previous prompt by Gail Gerwin and found this one to be equally inspiring. I really appreciate the visual approach to jump starting the creative process. I bought one of Gail's books (Sugar and Sand) on eBay -- wonderful work. Thank you, Gail!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Jamie! So glad you enjoyed this prompt and the visual approach to poetry.

  2. Thanks so much, Jamie, and you're welcome. Photos have led me to so many poems and I'd like to see what you write. In addition to the photos we can hold, our minds carry their own 8x10s. So glad you liked the book as well.

  3. It's hard to believe that summer has come and gone and that it's Saturday night with me working on student papers. Just taking a break now to catch up with your summer blog posts. This is definitely one I can (and will) use with my students. Thanks, Gail and Adele.

    Here's wishing everyone a happy and healthy summer's end and a fruitful autumn. A happy new school year to teachers and students, and L’shanah Tovah (happy Rosh Hashanah) to all who celebrate it.

    1. Hey, Rich! Welcome back. I hope you had a great summer.

      Thanks for your comment—so glad that you can use this one in your classroom.

  4. So glad you can use the prompt in class, Rich. Wishing you a sweet New Year and productive school year.

  5. Always something useful and interesting on this blog! Thank you Adele and Gail. How about adding a suggestion for a picture that never got taken? That could be a poem about a time that was never recorded in image but remains clear and important in memory.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Sandy! Thanks, too, for the idea of a poem based on a photo that never got taken—I love it!

    2. Fantastic idea, Sandy! Thank you. I'll add it to the list.

  6. Ekphrastic poetry and related visually-inspired poems have become very popular in recent years. As a creative writing professor, I find such things great sources of inspiration for my students. Thanks for this post!

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Carol Briggs! I'm a big fan of ekphrastic poetry myself and find that ekphrasis always works well in workshop and classroom venues.

    2. So much of my own poetry comes from visuals, Carol, either tangible or those stamped in my memory. As Sandy commented above, there are photos never taken. Yet they are there. Thank you for commenting.