Saturday, September 7, 2013

Prompt #162 – Snapping Out of Your Rut (a.k.a. The Rut Buster) by Guest Prompter Renée Ashley


As poets, we’ve all experienced the routines that become ruts in our writing—we become stuck in a bog of repeated subjects, themes, and styles; we write in the same tired voices; and we need the occasional jolt of something new to get us unstuck. (I think that’s true for bloggers too!)

Accordingly, I thought it might be fun for you to work with a prompt by another poet from time to time, so here’s our first guest prompt from my dear friend and distinguished poet Renée Ashley.

Renée lives in northern New Jersey with her husband (Jack) and two dogs (Mona and Steve). She teaches in Fairleigh Dickinson University’s MFA in Creative Writing and MA in Creative Writing and Literature for Educators programs and is the author of five poetry collections (Salt (Brittingham Prize in Poetry, Univ. of Wisconsin Press), The Various Reasons of Light, The Revisionist’s Dream, Basic Heart  (X. J. Kennedy Poetry Prize, Texas Review Press), and Because I Am the Shore I Want to Be the Sea (Subito Press Poetry Prize). She is also the author of two chapbooks (The Museum of Lost Wings  and The Verbs of Desiring), as well as a novel (Someplace Like This). A portion of her poem “First Book of the Moon” is etched in marble in Penn Station Terminal in Manhattan, part of a permanent installation by the artist Larry Kirkland. Currently poetry editor for The Literary Review, she has received fellowships in both poetry and prose from New Jersey State Council on the Arts and a fellowship in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts. Read more at her website:

And now, this week’s prompt from Renée—a great challenge—one that will make you focus and really think about what you’re writing. Have fun with it!

Thanks for sharing with us, Renée!


This is an exercise I use to snap writers out of their ruts. I have my students do it until they make it work. It takes a kind of concentration that subject prompts don't guarantee—a conscious effort to break up the surface of a poem, yet keep it grounded, while putting forth a more ambitious language-body than many writers are given to. It reminds the brain that there are other ways to work than the ones you fall into without resistance, ways to enlarge our possibilities for discovery while we're writing. And when this becomes too easy, there are lots of great grammatical ways to crank up the stakes! It's a sort of eye-opener for many. This is it:

Write a 10-line poem

— that uses NO abstract nouns
— that has at least one concrete noun in each line
— that does not have a narrative (a story line)
— and that has at least 3 sentence fragments


Here’s an example by Hank Kalet from a workshop with Renée in which she used this prompt. Thanks, Hank, for permission to use your poem. 

Original draft, based on the prompt:


Flash of yellow and blue
hotter than the July afternoon.
Red Oldsmobile burns,
roadside Belt Parkway,
its flames scrape the sky,
razor-like, pitching smoke
up and across the inlet.
No clouds, just soot.
And the terrible smell
Of burning rubber

Final draft:


With a flash of yellow and blue,
hotter than July's afternoon,
the red Oldsmobile burns on the roadside.
Its flames scrape the sky; it pitches smoke
up and across the inlet. No clouds, just
soot. And the terrible smell
of burning.


An abstract noun refers to states, events, concepts, feelings, qualities, etc., that have no physical existence. Abstract nouns convey things we can’t experience though our senses—we can’t see, hear, touch, smell, or taste them; abstract nouns don’t exist as material objects and refer to intangible things. Examples of abstract nouns include: love, anger, hate, peace, loyalty, pride, courage, honesty, deceit, compassion, bravery, patriotism, friendship, truth, justice, faith, freedom, serenity, and joy.

A concrete noun is noun that refers to a physical object. Time is an abstract noun because it has no physical existence, but watches and clocks are concrete nouns because they exist materially.  Concrete nouns refer to things that we can experience through our five senses—we can see, hear, touch, smell, or taste them. Examples of concrete nouns include: flowers, rain, pizza, fish, perfume, air, thunder, and lightning.

A narrative is a story line; narrative poetry typically tells a story.

A sentence fragment is not a complete sentence, it can’t stand alone in the sense that a sentence can. In poetry, fragments often “behave” like sentences, but they don’t express complete thoughts.


  1. Adele, I think you must have been posting this as I was looking for your new prompt. What a great idea.

    I have a couple of Renee's books (suggested by you via the blog some time ago), and I'm definitely going to order a few more. (By the way, I found them at eBay UK.)

    1. Thanks, Jamie! Glad you like the idea and that you're enjoying Renee's books. There's a new one coming from Subito Press in October.

  2. Great idea to invite guest prompters, and Renee is fantastic. Can't wait for the new book!

    1. I thought occasional guest prompters would be interesting and fun for the blog readers. Glad you like the idea. You may be able to pre-order the book on Amazon—check it out.

  3. Renee's prompt reminded me of LA STRADA. I don't know why. Perhaps the inclusion of unfinished sentences... This was a film featuring the life of a traveling street entertainer played by Anthony Quinn. It blended with my early memories in the streets of Athens where traveling entertainers would play their Calliopes, or pull their dancing bears on a chain. I recall some of them being physically handicapped. I remember feeling sad about their lonely difficult lives.

    Inspired by Federico Felini’s film of the same title

    He cranked his Calliope with
    the right hand, kept the
    bad one in his pocket.

    Earlier days, his traveling show
    — a dancing bear
    for kids in the street.

    And then passed the hat.
    At night, he fed the bear.
    Counted the day’s money.

    The entertainer always arrived, but no...

    By Basil Rouskas

    1. Brilliant, Basil! Thank you so much for sharing! I'm always amazed and awed at the way certain "triggers" can inspire a poem. (I saw LA Strada many years ago—your poem brought it back.)

    2. Hello Basil! I love your poem. Thank you for sharing it.

      It's always lovely to read your comments/poems here, especially during poetry month. But you should post more often!

    3. Nice work, Basil. I agree with Jamie that we should hear more from you.

  4. Fantastic that you were able to add Hank Kalet's two versions of a poem inspired by this prompt. They really give us an idea of the process and a great example of how the transition from first draft to final version happens.

    Thanks, Hank K. for sharing with us.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Jana.

      Yes, I'm grateful to Hank Kalet for letting me post both versions of his poem!

  5. Replies
    1. Ditto! Very nice, Hank.

      And the same to you, Basil for your poem/comment!

  6. Máire Ó Cathail (Ireland)September 10, 2013 at 9:20 AM

    Lovely idea, and this is a very nice exercise!

    Máire Ó Cathail (Ireland)

    1. It's always so nice to hear from you, Maire! I hope your summer travels were fruitful and that you're back home in Ireland. Thanks for your comment.

  7. You are welcome to all who mentioned me in comments and thanks so much to Renee, first, for kicking my poetic butt into shape and challenging me with this prompt, and to Adele for posting my meager efforts.

    I address some of the issues this prompt raises -- at least to me -- on my own blog (Channel Surfing --, but here is a quotation that sums up my thinking:

    "The exercise has the effect of shaking the poet out of his or her comfort zone -- I know that's what it did for me -- and placing craft issues front and center. The problem that a lot of young poets have is that they think all poetry is just feelings, that if you write honestly and openly you will produce a good poem (older poets like me run into other problems, like the rut). They need to be shown that mastering their craft is key to writing good poems."

    This exercise does this amazingly well.

    1. Thanks so much, Hank! And thanks again for letting me post both versions of your poem.

      The quote you cite really does sum it up perfectly.

      Thanks for the sharing!

      Blog readers: be sure to visit Hank's blog!

    2. the hum hum humming
      squawking Jays and sweet songbirds
      buzzing honey truck

    3. Nice, Risa — your brief, to-the-point, style! Thanks for sharing!