Saturday, January 15, 2011

Poetry Prompt #39 – Overheard Words

Have you ever stood in line at a supermarket or department store and heard bits of conversation around you? Have you ever been in a library, museum, or art gallery where fragments of hushed dialogue reached across the silence to you? "Talk" is all around us: a sentence or phrase in a stairwell, a muted voice in another room, words echoed from the far end of a hallway. Restaurants, malls, train stations, airports are all filled with words, and some of them may be used to prompt our poems this week.

1. To begin, be aware of voices around you, especially when you're in public places.

2. Jot down a few things that you hear people say. 

3. When you're ready to write, look at your notes and focus on a snippet of dialogue (sentence, phrase) that you've heard, and use it as the opening thought of a poem (an epigraph or the first line).

4. Think in terms of what the overheard words suggest to you, where they take you. Move beyond the words' literal meaning and look for the unspoken words they suggest. Don't just tell the story of where you were and what you heard. Create layers of meaning.


  1. Interesting prompt! I was in Shop Rite this morning and heard a young girl say to a young guy, "Okay, so where do we go from here?"

    Here's my first draft:

    A Matter of Expectations

    (Okay, so where do we go from here?)

    Obviously, you didn’t plan what you would say
    Or when you would say it. You just blurted it out.
    Expectations – yours.

    It could be anywhere – Hoboken, Mars – where
    we go. Or nowhere. I didn't ask. You want
    what you want.


  2. Thanks, Jamie! You're off to a great start. I really like the way you pulled the the idea of expectations from the question you overheard. Let us know where the poem goes!

  3. I very much like the way the poem turns the question around with another conversational snippet. It's the right answer to the question, which could mean what's our next stop or where's this relationship heading?

    I wrote a poem which incorporates language on a warning sign at a rest stop in the hills of Western PA- a warning about rattlesnakes in the area. Someone was a little bit panicked. But I'm on a diuretic and there's nothing else up there.


    Four rattlesnakes have been spotted by the man who lives behind the rest stop up the hill. Be careful if you're walking your pet. Let the attendant know if you see a snake.

    Handwritten signs are taped to both
    entrance doors.

    I worry about the stoop-shouldered
    attendant who sweeps around the vending
    machines and maps. He doesn't look like
    the muscular snake handlers I've seen on TV.
    The snake handler must be on the afternoon shift.

    Signs have added an extra degree of difficulty
    to urinal line. The last thing I need is to unzip my fly and have a rattlesnake lunge for my legs.

    I like to finish when I urinate. What if I hear
    the tell-tale rattle, which I've only heard on TV? What if a flushing toilet scares them?

    Do I yell out SNAKE?
    Do I get the hell out of there?
    I'd have to yell into the women's bathroom
    and get my wife. What if this place is crawling
    with snakes? What if a snake's curled up
    in the wheel well of my car?

    Eden's snake stood on its tail.
    In cartoons, it wears a beret
    and thick black frame glasses.
    It's a Greenwich Village hipster.
    It's doomed to crawl forever
    until we can learn to live
    with all the shame it's dumped
    on our doorstep.

    Gail Fishman Gerwin

    It’s the least she could have done—
    says Tony Mall Shopper number one
    to number two as they mount
    the escalator next to the fountain.
    Let’s go to Banana Republic (number one),
    the sales are on, the sweaters cheap.
    Cheaply made (number two), I bought
    one. the next day a hole in the collar,
    I hear Free People is fifty percent off
    at Bloomingdale’s and I agree
    it’s the least she could have done,

    What? I want to ask, what
    is to be considered as you
    hop off the escalator, colorful
    bags like dragonfly wings
    swish swishing against your
    corduroy jeans, head for winter
    bargains despite your disgust
    for someone out there
    who didn’t care enough
    to do the least.

  5. Thanks Bloom306 for posting another great poem! Interesting that the "overheard" words in your inspiration are on a sign. (Love your intro!)

  6. Oh, Bloom, I laughed out loud at your poem and distracted my husband from the Lawrence Welk rerun. Now there are champagne bubbles all over my office!

  7. Bloom306! You've done it again. You definitely know how to work humor into your poems. This one is a laugh and a half (your intro about being on a diuretic should always be included). Great how you worked in a serious note with the Biblical reference at the end. Thanks!

  8. Gail,

    Thanks so much for posting your poem! I love the way you leave readers wondering what was considered and what the "least" might have been.