Saturday, May 25, 2013

Prompt #147 – Transformations

It’s funny how ideas for prompts and poems happen ...

Here in my part of New Jersey, the 17-year cicadas have begun to emerge and seem to be everywhere. There are literally thousands of them in my neighborhood alone, in various stages of changing from hard-shelled nymphs to winged adults. Once out of the earth, they climb to a rough surface where they struggle out of their shells (a process called molting). White at first, they darken within an hour. The adults move to trees and shrubs where they mate and lay eggs, completing a very short life cycle of just a few weeks. Admittedly, they’re not the most attractive insects but they are completely harmless, and their emergence every seventeen years is really amazing. Watching and photographing the transformations going on all around me led me to think about the process of transformation and how a transformation can be a revelation. 

So … this week, let’s try writing transformation poems, that is, poems in which something becomes something else. One example might be the moment that something or someone you thought was unattractive or plain was suddenly beautiful—a kind of “ugly duckling to swan” idea. Or, a time when something you thought was awful turned out to be great. You might even explore the “poem possibilities” of someone whose personality underwent a transformation.

Things To Think About:

Have you ever seen a transformation of something in nature (caterpillar to butterfly, hatchling to fully feathered bird)? How would you describe it?

How have you been transformed (by an experience, a belief, another person)? What are the particulars of that transformation?

Have you ever experienced an emotional transformation (sorrow to joy, distrust to trust, alienation to belonging)?

Have you ever seen something physically changed (trees cut down to make a log cabin)?

Have you experienced a transformation in a relationship (discord to happiness, marriage to divorce)?

Has there been a time when your anger or resentment was transformed? How and why? 

What have you learned from a particular transformation?

What does the word metamorphosis mean to you? How about trying a poem based on Ovid's Metamorphoses?

How about writing a poem from the point of view of something in the process of transformation (tadpole to frog, nymph to dragonfly, embryo to baby)?


Just as transformations can be startling, so should your poems. A poem should astonish its readers, either with an amazing story, with a unique view of something, or with insights that challenge (or change) the reader’s thinking.

Your poem should contain at least one image or idea that takes the reader’s breath away.
Work on a sense of immediacy (even when you write in the past tense).

Stay away from the passive voice, and be wary of words that end in “ing.”

Be specific—avoid abstractions and generalizations. Imagery is key. Write about things, not ideas. William Carlos Williams wrote: “No ideas but in things.” Tell it “like it is” in specifics, not through philosophical musings on the “meaning of it all.

Work on a dismount that elicits a “wow.”


What Floats is Called a Swan 

            By Renée Ashley

Amidst what's left where the shadows catch
At what feels like the shadow end of a life,
At what seems rubble and wreckage, what
Looks to be a dashing hopelessness raising
Its inelegant head, think this: What rises can be
Saved, what is saved just might turn beautiful.

Reprinted by permission of the author. From Basic Heart (Texas Review Press, 2009). Copyright © 2009 by Renée Ashley. 

Other Examples: 

And ... if you're interested in learning a little more about cicadas ... enjoy!


Saturday, May 18, 2013

Prompt #146 – Portrait Poem

I paint myself because I am often alone and I am the subject I know best.
– Frida Kahlo

When I first saw DaVinci’s Mona Lisa in the Louvre many years ago, I understood why it’s probably the most famous portrait in the world. Another famous portrait with which many are familiar is Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, which inspired the 2003 film of the same title. There are, of course, countless portraits in museums and galleries—faces that look back at us and make us wonder about their painted subjects. This week, the goal is to write a poem in which you create a “word portrait” of yourself (the person you know best, as Frida Kahlo notes in the quote above). Importantly, you will need to be descriptive, but the extra challenge is to be judicious in your use of adjectives and details.

1. One way to begin is to generate a list of words that describe or tell something about you. In generating this list, think about your personality, interests, relationships, memories, loves, dislikes, and desires.
2. Now, imagine looking into a mirror that reveals more than your physical image. What do you see? Add what you see to your list.
3. Next, choose three items from your list and begin writing about them. You’ll need to find connectors and complements for these items, and you’ll need to think hard about yourself in terms of how the items from your list impact or reflect you as a whole.
4. Begin writing (a free write first may be helpful). Review what you’ve written and work the best of it into your poem.
5. Think in terms of metaphors. What extended metaphor might you use to “word paint” your portrait?
6. Alternatively, create a word portrait of someone you know. Follow the same general process, and be sure you select someone you know well. A third possibility (if the first two don’t work for you) would be to write a poem about a famous portrait (in writing a poem based on a painting, you’ll be doing an ekphrastic poem—see prompt #79, September 19, 2011).


Saturday, May 11, 2013

Prompt #145 – Letting Go

Some people believe holding on and hanging in there
are signs of great strength.
However, there are times when it takes much more strength
 to know when to let go and then do it.

— Ann Landers

In Prompt #144, we wrote about forgiveness and I mentioned the process of “letting go.” In any context, letting go is can be a painful (but sometimes necessary) part of life.  On the flip side, letting go can free us in much the same way that forgiving does. Have there been times in your life when you let something go and felt better for it?

In many ways, the past informs the present, but letting go is about much more than the past. Importantly, letting go is about freeing ourselves from fears, from impractical expectations, from uncertainties about ourselves, and it’s about affirming our value in the world.

This week, write a poem about a time that you let go.

Things to Think About before Writing:
  1. Is there a dream you’ve let go?
  2. Is there a person or group of people you’ve let go? Have you ever ended a relationship that wasn’t working? Have you ever deliberately said “good-bye” to someone or something and felt better (or worse) for having done so?
  3. Has there been a job you had to let go?
  4. Have you ever let go of any personality traits, ways of thinking, old habits?
  5. Has there ever been a hurt or an anger that you let go?
  6. Has there ever been something that you couldn’t let go?
  7. Is there something (or someone) in your life right now that you’ve thought about letting go?

Note: An alternative prompt for this week might be to look at the photo at the top and to write a "letting go poem" based on what the photo suggests to you.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Prompt #144 – Forgiveness

To err is human; to forgive, divine.
—Alexander Pope

I recently came across Whittier’s “Forgiveness,” which made me think of personal “forgiveness experiences.” We all have them: things we’ve forgiven, things we can’t forgive, hurts that haunt us, people who refuse to forgive us

Forgiveness by John Greenleaf Whittier

My heart was heavy, for its trust had been
Abused, its kindness answered with foul wrong;
So, turning gloomily from my fellow-men,
One summer Sabbath day I strolled among
The green mounds of the village burial-place;
Where, pondering how all human love and hate
Find one sad level; and how, soon or late,
Wronged and wrongdoer, each with meekened face,
And cold hands folded over a still heart,
Pass the green threshold of our common grave,
Whither all footsteps tend, whence none depart,
Awed for myself, and pitying my race,
Our common sorrow, like a mighty wave,
Swept all my pride away, and trembling I forgave!

How often in our lives have we been hurt and carried that hurt with us, unable or unwilling to let it go? Holding onto anger and resentment can cause us extreme emotional stress, and often, we suffer more than the people who have hurt us. Such feelings can damage us emotionally and spiritually, but getting past them, releasing anger, resentment, and bitterness—forgiving—can lead us to inner peace. We all need to “forgive and forget” (though forgetting is sometimes harder than forgiving); and we all need to move forward, to let the past go. This can happen when we forgive. That said, I know how challenging true forgiveness can be, but forgiving (when we’re able to manage it) can be very freeing. Writing, too, can be freeing. This week, let’s use poetry to work toward resolving some forgiveness issues.


Write a poem about someone you’ve forgiven or someone you haven’t been able to forgive.

Write a poem about something for which you need to be forgiven.

Write a poem about something for which you’ve forgiven or not forgiven yourself.

Write a poem about something you’ve forgiven but can’t forget.

Write a poem about a time in which you “let go” of something (or someone) through forgiveness.

Write a poem about someone who refuses to forgive you.


1. This prompt lends itself to a narrative poem (a poem in which you tell a story).

2. Be careful not to over-tell; don’t include too many details; watch out for overuse of adjectives; and be especially wary of overstating sentiment and emotion. Focus on the elements of your story that readers will relate to (the details may be different, but the response you want to evoke is, “Yes, I know that feeling”).

3. Remember that your poem should contain no unnecessary words, no superfluous phrases, and no explanations. Center on strong images.

4. Use sounds (alliteration, assonance, internal rhymes) to help tell your story.

5. Try writing your narrative poem in the third person and, when you’ve completed it, change to the first person. Which version is better?