Saturday, February 22, 2014

Prompt #178 – Capture Your Kinfolk by Guest Prompter Gail Gerwin

This week’s prompt comes from guest blogger, Gail Fishman Gerwin—
get ready to call up your kinfolk!

From Gail:

My late aunt Helen Stern Mann, who met challenges with courage, humor, and high dives, began all her letters to us with Dear Kinfolk,. This greeting provided the title for my poetry collection, which deals with kin by blood, kin by marriage, kin by experience. So many of our memories call on these kin: perhaps feuding aunts, spouses (current, former, or fantasy), loving parents and grandparents, siblings, children, grandchildren, cousins, and even the animal kinfolk we love(d). This week, in a spirit of honoring our family members, I invite you to think about your kinfolk and to write poems about them. Here’s one of mine from Dear Kinfolk,:

Smothered with Love

Foam or feather, says my daughter
when I forget
where I left my keys,
where my glasses hide,
what happened yesterday.

Foam or feather, she says, lets
me choose the pillow she’ll use
to smother me if I forget who she is.

The pillow engulfs my head,
I struggle, then give in to the white
void, my arms at rest, parentheses
against my sides, my legs slack,
toes point out second position.

I climb over the hedge that separates
the old real from the new real, see
my mother, father, aunts, uncles,
grandparents, friends.

They beckon, they know I didn’t
forget their lives, I recorded them.
Look—they are poems.

(Prologue, Dear Kinfolk, ChayaCairn Press, 2012)

Poetry calls on many of us to remember, to honor people who touch(ed) our lives, events that linger in our hearts, places we cannot erase. In the following poem from her collection “No Longer Mine” from This Sharpening (Tupelo Press, 2006), Ellen Doré Watson, who heads the Poetry Center at Smith College, honors her mother whose indelible mark she can’t relinquish:

How many years will my mother go on passing/the anniversary of her subtraction, the day the first/piece of her slipped off into wet grass or got left/in the parking lot like a scarf lost and the end of winter/and not missed until the next? Why mourn the day/my daughter takes possession of her body — mother,/daughter, no longer mine as if they ever were? Who/flipped the switch from wishing to remember to trying/to forget? It’s all recorded, each scintilla, memory dozing/until some rasp or whiff heralds its return and leads us/back without our knowing. Brain whorls are funny/that way, forever rearranging us — daughter opening/because she says so, mother a watercolor fading to plain/paper, not because of not remembering but because/her mouth no longer makes words; she lives beneath/her eyelids because she can no longer name the world.

In "My Grandmother's Bed," Edward Hirsch takes us on a trip that calls on our senses to share his beloved grandmother’s apartment and his childhood nights within. In "A Dog Has Died," Pablo Neruda’s matter-of-fact voice belies the tragedy of a pet’s loss. He takes us on a voyage that questions one’s own existence and place in the world.

This week, think about your kinfolk and write a poem that calls on your memories. Maybe there’s an old photo in your own archives that will prompt you. A wedding, a drive for a holiday visit, a conversation long overdue, people you cannot identify. Share your kinfolk.


1. Give your kinfolk voice. Write a poem from a kin’s point of view.
2. Write from your childhood point of view or write as an adult looking back.
3. Take readers to your kin’s home: the furniture, the meals, chatter among visitors, dust under the sofa.
4. Adopt a relative you admired or disdained: your friend’s mother, father, sibling.
5. Write a poem that lets readers know how you feel about the subject without spelling out these feelings.
6. Write a poem that places your kinfolk in history; use images that define that period.


1. Tap your memory for your kin’s qualities; note those you want to feature.
2. Use interesting enjambments (See Watson poem).
3. Take a look at your poem sideways. Is there an interesting line pattern?
4. Try a prose poem.
5. Don’t forget imagery.
6. Use stanza breaks to show time lapses.
7. Let your thoughts flow; let stanzas run into each other.
8. Try a poem with short lines, no more than four words each.
9. Try repetition at the end of each stanza.
10. Have fun as you bring kin to life in your words.
11. Reveal. Revise. Elaborate. Cut. Revise again.



Sincerest thanks to Gail for sharing with us this week!

You Can Order a Copy of Gail’s Book by Visiting

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Prompt #177 – The Loss of Things

In life, some things stay with us and some things are lost. People, of course, enter and leave our lives in the same way that beloved pets do. Loss through death is an experience that none of us can avoid. It’s been rightly said that loss is a part of life, but while many losses leave us in sadness, there are losses that are just part of life’s natural process, not all that difficult to accept and often for the best.

There are two major psychological responses by individuals when adjusting to loss: (1) the use of coping mechanisms, and (2) emotional reactions. There is, however, a third component in the “psychology” of loss that deals with “cutting” and “coming to terms with” our losses (however large or small those losses may be).

Poetry often speaks a language of loss and, while losses come in all magnitudes, let’s not think in terms of major losses this week. Instead of agonizing over a serious loss, let’s consider a leaving or a letting go that was not devastating and perhaps even for the best.  For example, we all lose things that are special to us (a family keepsake, an article of clothing that makes us recall a special time or event, a stuffed animal that remembers childhood, a piece of jewelry with special reasons for attachment, a good luck charm, a book). We all lose such things along the way. Remember: this week, we’re not writing about people or pets but, rather, about things.


1. Write a poem titled or based on, “I Had It Once, But I Don’t Need It Now.”
2. Write a poem titled, “Thanksgrieving” about a loss for which you were ultimately thankful.
3. Related to the above, take an inventory of your blessings and things for which you’re grateful and include some of them in a poem about a loss.
4. Write a poem about a loss that ended in good.
5. Write a poem about letting something go—a letting go that was for the best.
6. Write a poem about an object that you once treasured but no longer have. Why was it important? What happened to it?
7. Write a poem in which you re-find something that you lost.
8. Write a poem in which a loss unexpectedly lent itself to the good and meaningful in your life.
9. Write a poem from the perspective of a treasured object that you’ve lost.
10. Write a poem addressed to a treasured object that you’ve lost.


1. Start by making a list of words that deal with the subject of loss.
2. Choose some of the words from your list to include in your poem.
3. Think of a loss to write about—one over which you had no control or one that you chose., and remember that the loss can’t be a person or pet.
4. Think about what your poem says at the sub-meaning level through syllables, sonic impression (sound), images, and word choice.
5. Remember that a good poem should have at least two subjects: the obvious subject and the not-so-obvious. Think about your content and what you really want to say about your subject. Dig deeply. Don’t settle for what you meant to write.
6. Let the loss you choose to write about lead you into another “place.” Evoke a feeling of loss (or some sense of it) within a larger context.
7. Spend time during revision on your line and stanza lengths.
A. Is there a reason for your line lengths? For example, is your poem skinny and, if so, why? If you’ve used longer lines, how does the line length serve the poem’s meaning?
B. Try some enjambments. (Enjambment occurs when a phrase carries over a line-break without a major pause. In French, the word “enjambing” means “straddling” and, in poetry, enjambment means that one line “straddles the next.”) When you read an enjambed line, the sense of it encourages you to keep right on reading the next line, without stopping for a breather.
B. Have you used irregular (aleostrophic) stanzas and why?
C. If your poem appears as a single stanza (stichic), can you work it into a line scheme such as couplets, tercets, etc.?
D. If you typically write with a certain line or stanza length, try to get out of your comfort zone (or rut) and try something different. Be sure that line and stanza lengths fit the meaning of the poem and how you wish to express it.


“Loss” by Carl Adamshick 

“Token Loss” by Kay Ryan

“Reluctance” by Robert Frost

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Prompt #176 – All You Need Is Love

This Friday, we celebrate Valentine’s Day, and that makes me think about love poems. Mind you, love poems are among the hardest to write because the pitfalls of clichés, triteness, and sentimentality are ever present, not to mention the fact that pouring intense emotion into written language can present some interesting challenges.

These days, it seems that love poems occupy a place somewhere between hot fudge sundaes and oatmeal. Poets of the past often wrote love poems and there are hundreds for us to read, but there’s not much contemporary interest in moonbeams through willows and the “archaic” romantic meanderings of yesterdays poetic styles.

So, what does make a love poem special by today’s standards? What makes a love poem unique? What gives a love poem the power to touch readers? What makes a love poem more than personal? What makes a love poem universally meaningful? How do modern love poems affirm without sentimentality? One of the best ways to consider these questions is to read numerous examples of contemporary love poems. 


1. Write a poem to someone you love.
2. Write a poem to someone who loves you.
3. Write a poem to a beloved pet.
4. Write a love poem to an inanimate object. (You might try for humor with this one, maybe a limerick.)
5. Write a poem about unrequited love.
6. Write a poem to or about your first love.
7.  Write a poem about an unhappy romance.
8. Write a poem about platonic love.
9. Write a love poem to nature or a particular aspect of the natural world (perhaps an ode).
10. Write a poem based on this quotation from Pablo Neruda: “Let us forget with generosity those who cannot love us.”
11. Write a poem in which you examine how falling in love creates a new and surprising sense of mortality and fear of death.
13. Write a parody of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s famous “How Do I Love Thee?” (Sonnet 43).

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.


1. The sonnet form is often associated with love poems. Try writing your poem in sonnet form. Work on the form in your early drafts and don’t worry if you decide to scrap it.

2. Write a ghazal (originally an Arabic verse form dealing with loss and romantic love). To learn about ghazal form, try the following links:

3. Work your thoughts through imagery and be sure that you show and not tell about the love in your poem. Images should be crisp and original.

4. Watch out for clichés and “saccharine” expressions, and steer clear of sentimentality. It’s easy to fall into such things when writing love poems. Dare to be different, mysterious, distinctive …

5. If your subject matter is romantic love, try to create an intensity of feeling without using words like beautiful and love. Work toward a subtle sensuality without saying anything overt.

6. Try beginning your love poem with a subordinating conjunction as a way of attracting reader interest and a way of drawing readers into your poem. “Because I loved from a distance …” “Because he/she would never know …” “Because my reason for leaving was never told …”
(Remember Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death/he kindly stopped for me.”)

7. Although the feelings you write about will be personal, work on making your poem universally meaningful.


To All of You from Chaucey and Me

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Prompt #175 – What the Monkey Said to the Branch: Personification

This week, I thought it might be interesting to work with personification (the attribution of human characteristics to something nonhuman, or the representation of an abstract quality in human form). Many us of us grew up learning children’s poems or rhymes that were enjoyably filled with personification. For example,

Hey diddle, Diddle,
The cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon;
The little dog laughed
To see such sport,
And the dish ran away with the spoon.

Emotion, thoughts, gestures, and actions that human beings might experience can be applied to any non-human object when using personification. Poets use personification to help readers better understand human relationships to non-human “things” and to help underscore the ways in which non-human things may reflect human qualities.   

Personification isn’t just a device through which you “decorate” your poems. Most importantly, personification can help you convey deeper meaning and add vividness to your work by allowing the work to look at human life or the natural world through something other than human eyes. It may also be used to reveal human qualities—the good and the not-so-good—and it gives both writer and reader an opportunity to consider insights from perspectives other than the human.


1. Before writing, read the example poems carefully to get a good sense of how personification can be used.

2. Read the first example poem (“Fog” by Carl Sandburg) especially carefully. Using this poem as the “format” for your poem, try using the following to get started (remember this is based on Sandburg’s “Fog”).

Line 1   Incorporate your title and how your subject arrives or begins.
Line 2   Tell what your subject does.
Line 3   Tell how your subject does the action in line 2.
Line 4   Tell where your subject is.
Line 5   Tell how your subject leaves or ends.

After completing this, begin to work on the poem—add, change, tweak, refine. Your finished poem may not resemble Sandburg’s at all, and that’s absolutely fine!

3. Look through your files and see if you might insert a bit of personification into an already-written poem to heighten its “punch.”

4. Make a list of inanimate or non-human things and the begin writing about one of them. Use personification as the foundation for your poem.

5. Pick any animal and write about it from the perspective of the animal, giving it human abilities to think, reason, analyze, and express emotion. (If you don’t feel inspired, use the image above for inspiration. What’s the little monkey thinking? Why? Where is he or she? Where would he or she rather be?)

6. Imagine that two animals, two stones, two fire hydrants, two trees, two hyacinths (or anything you wish meet). Write a poem that details their conversation. If you like, feel free to give the title of this prompt a try ("What the Monkey Said to the Branch").


1.  Be careful not to overdo the personification in your poem.

2. Create unusual and vivid images.

3. Use of strong word associations to add variation and embellishment.

4.  Avoid the pitfall of clichés—keep your personification fresh and original.

5.  You poem may, at first blush, appear to be a simple poem in which personification is used, but be sure to take your meaning beyond the obvious. Go for the “hidden” subject as well as the apparent.

6. Revise. Revise. Revise. With each revision, refine your poem to make it the best it can possibly be. It’s always a good idea to let a poem “sit” (note the personification there) for a day or two after you’ve completed what seems to be a final draft. Coming back to the poem with a fresh eye can make a huge difference in how you “see” your work.


"Fog" by Carl Sandburg

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

"Two Sunflowers Move in the Yellow Room" by Nancy Willard

"Ah, William, we're weary of weather,"
said the sunflowers, shining with dew.
"Our traveling habits have tired us.
Can you give us a room with a view?"

They arranged themselves at the window
and counted the steps of the sun,
and they both took root in the carpet
where the topaz tortoises run.

Note: this poem has often been mistakenly credited to William Blake. For additional information on the error, please visit

"The Train" by Emily Dickinson

I like to see it lap the miles,
And lick the valleys up,
And stop to feed itself at tanks;
And then, prodigious, step

Around a pile of mountains,
And, supercilious, peer
In shanties by the sides of roads;
And then a quarry pare
To fit its sides, and crawl between, Complaining all the while
In horrid, hooting stanza;
Then chase itself down hill

And neigh like Boanerges;
Then, punctual as a start its own,
Stop-docile and omnipotent-
A stable door.

From “Mirror” by Sylvia Plath

I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see, I swallow immediately.
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike
I am not cruel, only truthful –

From “Paradise Lost” by John Milton

Earth felt the wound; and Nature from her seat,
Sighing, through all her works, gave signs of woe.

From Act I, Scene II of “ Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare

When well-appareled April on the heel
Of limping winter treads.

From “Loveliest of Trees the Cherry Now” by A. E. Houseman

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.