Saturday, October 25, 2014

Prompt #206 – Trick or Treat

Here is the U.S., and in other countries as well, it’s long been a common practice for children to dress up in costumes on Halloween and to go from door to door saying “trick or treat.” In other words, “Give us treats or we’ll find ways to trick you. The treats typically mean candy while the tricks (usually idle) suggest mischief of some sort.

In North America, trick-or-treating has been a popular Halloween tradition since the late 1940s. The custom of going from door to door and receiving food existed early on in Great Britain and Ireland in the form of “souling,” where children and poor people sang and said prayers for the dead in return for cakes. Guising, in which children dressed in costumes went from door to door for food and coins, also predates trick or treat, and is recorded in Scotland at Halloween in 1895. Back then, masqueraders in disguise carried lanterns made from scooped out turnips and visited homes asking for cakes, fruit, and money.

Today, trick or treating remains popular in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland, Puerto Rico, and northwestern and central Mexico. In Mexico, the custom is called calaverita (Spanish for “little skull”). Instead of saying “trick or treat,” children ask “¿me da mi calaverita?” (“can you give me my little skull?”)—the asked-for calaverita is a small skull made of sugar or chocolate.

This week, let’s write about a Halloween memory, a treat or a trick that stands out for some reason.


1. Begin with a list of some of the Halloween costumes you’ve worn (as a child or as an adult).

2. Select one of those costumes from your list.

3. Make another list of details (things you remember) from the time you wore that costume.

4. What made that costume (or that Halloween) so memorable? Was there a trick or treat involved (something that you didn’t expect that was either a trick or a treat for you)?

5. Write a poem about the experience.


1. Avoid over use of details, adjectives, and adverbs.

2. Pay attention to craft.

3. Enliven the poem with effective use of language and figures of speech.

4. Re-create the experience by showing, not by telling.

5. Create a strong mood or tone.


Living Room
         by Catherine Doty

Remember the Halloween night
I was sick with migraine
left alone with you
while the others went out
and we took your nap together
after the beer
you on the couch and me
on my back on top of you
I could smell the painted flames
on my devil costume
the devil’s starchy mouth hole
damp with beer
I could see the car lights
stripe the living room ceiling
hear Halloween banging
at the door
hear your breathing
turn to sleep breathing
as I lay full-length
on that bony, crabby daddy
the man who never touched
who hardly talked           
I was happier that I had ever been
I was petting a sleeping lion
I though of turning five
the next day
I though of the cake
the paints and paper
I’d asked for
a picture I’d make you
of two red devils sleeping
of bowls of candy
safe and untouched in the dark

Reprinted by permission of the author. From Momentum, CavanKerry Press. 
Copyright © 2004 by Catherine Doty. All rights reserved. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Prompt #205– Creating Tension in a Poem

This week, in keeping with our October Halloween “theme,” let’s take a look at tension in poetry. Most of the time, we look to eliminate tension from our lives, but there are times in poetry when we want to create it!

Arguably synonymous with “suspense,” tension in poetry is a way of building and keeping interest throughout the poem. Simply creating tension in a poem doesn’t mean writing about a mysterious or haunting subject. More importantly, tension in a poem is the direct result of skillful and intentional craft. 

Tension is defined as the act or process of stretching something tight, the condition of being stretched, a tautness. How do we create that in our poems? A poem’s “tension” is a combination of poetic elements that work together within the poem. For example, repetition used well can add an element of tension as in Poe’s “The Raven” with its famous repeated line “quoth the raven nevermore.”

Here are a few other tension-creating pointers:

Writing in the first person and in the present tense enhances tention in a poem by placing the reader close to the suspense, or mystery.

Line breaks that create disjunction can generate and control tension by causing readers to pause or stop, even if only briefly, to reflect upon meaning.  Pauses can also add to a sense of foreboding, of something about to occur.

Short sentences that contain active (dynamic) verbs enhance tension in a poem.

Deliberate fragments can help create a sense of confusion and mystery—incomplete statements can serve the same effect.

Unusual imagery, restrained as well as intentional language, connotative and denotative language, rhythm and sound, subject matter, alliteration, and assonance all add to the tension in a poem.

Changes, twists, and surprising juxtapositions of images also add tension—the unexpected can unsettle readers.

Anticipation and expectation enter the mix—don’t give away your ending before you get to it.


1. This week, write a narrative poem in which you create tension through the story you tell, the scene or experience you describe, or the emotion you suggest. Think “Halloween,” “scary,” and “mysterious.” Work with the following:
  • A compelling opening line
  • Subject and symbols
  • Language
  • Unusual imagery
  • Form and meter
  • Effective line breaks
  • Mood
  • Sound (alliteration, assonance, internal or external rhyme)
  • Repetition (anaphora)
  • A nod to the supernatural
  • A dismount that does more than bring the poem to obvious closure


1. If you need a jumpstart, select something from the following (you don’t need to include the line or phrase in your poem but may if you wish). Give your poem its head, and see where the starter leads you!
  • a shutter slaps the side of my house
  • a shadow in the corner behind the staircase
  • footsteps in the hallway on the other side of the door
  • mist hung between trees, between shadows
  • deep night and a sound inside the silence
  • when nothing is what it seems
  • a full moon risen on the cusp of my fear
  • nothing but darkness and the rustling of small animals
  • his/her face framed by a dark hood
  • only the sound of a clock ticking
  • a white deer standing between tombstones
  • silence and then the scream
  • something floating beneath the water’s surface

2. Write in the first person and in the present tense to create a sense of immediacy.

3. Don’t lose sight of the this week’s goal: creating tension in a poem. Keep the stakes high—show, don’t tell.

4. When creating tension (suspense), be sure to create “breathers;” that is, tensions needs to ebb and flow throughout your poem. The number of breathers you incorporate will depend upon the length of your poem and your subject’s needs. In a shorter poem, you may only need a single breather.


Saturday, October 11, 2014

Prompt #204 – "There Is Something In the Autumn"

It’s autumn here in the Northern Hemisphere, my favorite time of year, which always reminds me of the very first poem I ever memorized, “A Vagabond Song” by Bliss Carmen. At age 7 or 8, the poem appealed to my young sense of wonder—I decided that what I wanted most was to be a vagabond poet. I loved the way the lines looked and the way the words sounded. I still do and share the poem with you below.
Bliss Carman
There is something in the autumn that is native to my blood —

Touch of manner, hint of mood;

And my heart is like a rhyme,

With the yellow and the purple and the crimson keeping time.
The scarlet of the maples can shake me like a cry
Of bugles going by.
And my lonely spirit thrills

To see the frosty asters like a smoke upon the hills.

There is something in October sets the gypsy blood astir;

We must rise and follow her,

When from every hill of flame

She calls and calls each vagabond by name.
October also means Halloween! This year I plan to offer two season-appropriate prompts, starting this week with one that deals with Halloween but, more importantly with nouns and verbs in poetry.

The great poet Marianne Moore once said, “Poetry is all nouns and verbs.” Writing a memorable poem can be a matter of  strong nouns and verbs. To use some Halloween language: nouns and verbs are the skeleton of a poem. Adjectives and adverbs are the costumes—if you use too many, they hide the deeper meanings of the skeleton.


1. Choose one word from the nouns list for your subject (of course, if you have another Halloween-related noun, feel free to use it).


autumn (fall)
haunted house
Jack o’lantern



2. Free write about the word you’ve chosen for your subject.

3. After free writing for a while, go back and read what you’ve written. Is there an emerging theme or idea?

4. Using your free write material, begin writing your poem, making sure that you use a few words from the verbs list.


1. Think Halloween.

2. Be creepy if you like.

3. Avoid overuse of adjectives and adverbs.

4. Create a tone or mood that appropriate to your subject. Remember that the verbs you choose will give your poem momentum and a sense of trajectory.

5. As you develop your poem, move away from the obvious and work toward deeper meanings.


“Haunted Houses” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“Mr. Macklin’s Jack O’Lantern”  by David McCord

“Theme in Yellow” by Carl Sandburg

And … by way of sharing, here’s a Halloween prose poem from my forthcoming book, A Lightness, a Thirst, Or Nothing at All


Trick-or-treaters come to the door repeatedly—little ones early, older kids into the night until she runs out of candy and turns off the outside lights. The wall between worlds is thin (aura over aura—stars flicker and flinch). The woman buttons her coat, checks her reflection in the mirror, and stands cheek to glass (eye on her own eye, its abstract edge). She leaves the house (empty house that we all become)—shadows shaped to the trees, crows in the high branches.

(Acknowledgment: US 1 Worksheets, Volume 59, p. 51)

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Prompt #203 – "The Art of Losing"

I recently read Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” for about the thousandth time and thought that, this week, we might take a very concrete approach to something lost. We’ve all lost things from time to time, and by “lost things” I place the emphasis on “things.” This week let’s write about things that we’ve lost—actual objects, not loves, not feelings, not friendships, not people, not pets.


1. Begin by making a list of things that you’ve lost (a favorite book, a piece of jewelry, an old photograph that meant a lot to you, a family heirloom, a treasured memento of a special time).

2. Select one item from your list and begin making a new list of what that lost item meant to you. What were the conditions or circumstances that made it important to you?

3. How did you feel about losing the item?

4. Begin your poem with a statement about the object and then go on to explain how it was lost. From there, let the poem take you where it wants to go.

5. Another option you might consider is to write from the lost object’s point of view (adopt the lost object’s persona).


1. Think in terms of a narrative poem in which you tell the story of your lost item, but be sure not to over-tell. Remember that the best poems show, they don’t just tell.

2. Your obvious subject will be the lost item, but you should work toward another subject that goes beyond the simple act of losing something.

3. Use language that’s engaging and accessible.

4. Avoid clichés and sentimentality. Evoke emotion through images.

5. Try to create a “dismount” that doesn’t sum up your particular loss as much as it sums up the universal feeling of something lost.