Saturday, September 30, 2017

Prompt #293 – Pick a Picture

Have you ever looked at the Mona Lisa, or at any other painted portrait of someone you know nothing about, and wondered what the person was like at the time the image was created? We all see images differently. When we look at a photograph or a painting, we see something literal. The ways in which we interpret a photo or painting depends on a wide range of variables as we engage our individual experiences, perceptions, differences, ages, and cultural backgrounds and bring them into the interpretive mix. This week’s prompt will begin with a picture (painting or photo) that you will choose to write about.


1. Look through a newspaper, look at photos online, or select a painting (contemporary or time honored, there are many from which to choose online) of a person—someone unfamiliar to you. It’s important that the picture or portrait not be of a well-known person—in other words, choose a picture of someone you know nothing about. There should be only one person in the photo (like the photo above).

2. Either free write about the picture or make a list of words that describe the person in the picture.

3. Next, make a list of things that the picture suggests to you. When you look at the picture, what do you see? What does the person’s expression imply (the eyes, smile, frown, etc.)? What emotions do the picture bring to mind? Physical features will get you started, but then begin think about what the person’s story might be.

4. Does the person in the picture make you think of a particular emotion, an issue, a social injustice, a tragedy, or perhaps a happy ending?

5. Write a word “portrait” about the person in the painting or picture. You may even try writing in the first person, as if the person in the picture is speaking. (You might want to try a humorous approach.)


1. Try to write in the active, not the passive, voice. To do that, it can be helpful to remove “ing” endings and to write in the present tense (this will also create a greater sense of immediacy).

2. Be on the lookout for prepositional phrases that you might remove (articles & conjunctions too).

3. The great author Mark Twain once wrote, “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when close together. They give strength when they are wide apart.” This is especially true in poetry. So ... as you work on a poem, think about adjectives and which ones your poem can live without. (Often the concept is already in the noun, and you don’t need a lot of adjectives to convey your meaning.)

4. Avoid clichés (and, while you’re at it, stay away from abstractions and sentimentality).

5. Show, don’t tell—through striking imagery, a strong emotional center, and an integrated whole of language, form and meaning.


Saturday, September 16, 2017

Prompt #292 – "From Here to There" by Guest Prompter Penny Harter

As you know, I like to offer you prompts and poetry-related posts written by poets other than me.  Back on August 2, 2014, poet Penny Harter wrote a guest prompt that dealt with haibun and the spiral image. I’m very happy to post, with my sincerest thanks, another prompt, "From Here to There," that Penny recently wrote for us.
Earlier, at Adele’s invitation, I sent her the following paragraph for her blog about the various ways we poets end our poems. I’d like to expand on that with some suggestions and sample poems:

"How I end a poem is not usually a conscious decision. However, I do know that I want my poems to take a turn toward (or at) the end, similar to the turn in a good haiku. At the heart of haiku is the juxtaposition of two images or ideas across a kind of "spark gap". And these images connect in a way that both startles and seems inevitable. When I look back at poems I wrote some years ago—or even at occasional recent work—I find myself saying, "Well, I like the imagery, or the sound, rhythm, theme, etc., but if I reach the poem's end and it hasn't gone anywhere, hasn't taken me from here to there (wherever here and there are), it doesn't satisfy me." For me, writing a nice representational poem doesn't feel like enough anymore."

As poets, we know that all things are connected, one way or another. But sometimes those “connections” within our poem are like quantum leaps—the path of our writing suddenly taking an unexpected turn. For this to happen, we have to be open to where the words may be leading us.

Speaking of connections reminds me of a time in my life when I didn’t know what I was going to do about a difficult relationship. I wasn’t even writing about it; perhaps, I was afraid to do so. After a poetry reading when I told a poet friend about my dilemma, she asked me, “Where is your life in your writing? Your poems will know what you are going to do before you do!” And the shock of her question gave me permission to begin writing about it. Once that door was open, I wrote so many that the poems became a book—and discovered my solution in the process.

Just as what we write often reveals to us aspects of ourselves we didn’t know were surfacing, so, too, the turn in a poem can reveal to us an aspect of our poem it didn’t know it had. We won’t know where it’s going until it gets there.  


Here’s one of mine that leaps toward the end:

When I Taught Her to Tie Her Shoes

A revelation, this student
already in high school who didn’t know
how to tie her shoes.

I took her into the book-room, knowing
what I needed to teach was perhaps more
important than Shakespeare or grammar,

guided her hands through the looping,
the pulling of the ends. After several
tries, she got it, walked out of there

empowered. How many things are like
that—skills never mastered in childhood,
simple tasks ignored, let go for years?

In the Zen tradition, When the student is ready,
the teacher appears. Perhaps that is why this
morning, my head bald from chemotherapy,

my feet somewhat farther away than they
used to be as I bend to my own shoes, that
student returns to teach me the meaning

of life: not to peel my potato, though that,
too, counts, but to simply tie my shoes and
walk out of myself into this sunny winter day.

Copyright © 2016, Hospital Drive,

This poem was triggered by my reminiscing about years of teaching high school English. I suddenly remembered the surprise (and irony) of the sophomore girl whose shoelaces were dragging, and how when I suggested she tie her shoes before she tripped, she said she didn’t know how.

I started writing about that, and suddenly, my being in the midst of a course of chemotherapy after a cancer diagnosis, which I hadn’t wanted to write about...yet...thrust itself into the poem.  I named it right then and there with, “Perhaps that is why...” , and the connection fell into place. In the process, I found myself affirming that I was going to "walk out of myself" into a sunny day" (versus a dark night of despair).


1. Think of a memory that has stayed with you. It need not be a "big moment". Sometimes the most simple and ordinary moments are redolent with meaning for us. On the other hand, you may recall a challenging or sorrowful memory, or a very happy one.

2. Jot down as many images and feelings associated with that memory as you can. Make sure to list both nouns and verbs, as well as short phrases. Try to avoid tried and true emotional judgmental words like "beautiful, exciting, sad, scary," etc. Be as specific as you are able, and your reader will  "get it" without being told.

3. Start free-writing your poem. It may come out in verse or prose format. That doesn't matter in the beginning.

4. At various points throughout your draft, ask yourself, "What else does this remind me of?" Or, "How does this connect with my present life?" If you can answer either or both of those, your poem can make a turn right there. A poem can make more than one turn, sometimes earlier within it as well as at the end.

5. Decide whether you want to break up lines from a prose format into verse, or leave your piece a prose poem.

6. Look at your stanzas or prose blocks and see what you can do without. I often find I delete the first verse, or even more. Sometimes the engine of a poem has to rev a bit before you find the real poem several lines or verses into it. Also see whether you might want to rearrange your stanzas or blocks of prose. Sometimes a middle or final verse can work as a powerful beginning.

7. When you think you have finished your draft ask yourself whether you have ended up somewhere different, found an unexpected destination or revelation. Assess whether your poem goes beyond merely painting a pretty word-picture, taking both you and the reader somewhere new.

8. Keep writing :)!

About Penny Harter:

Penny Harter's poetry and prose has been published widely in journals and anthologies, and her literary autobiography appears as an extended essay in Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 28, as well as in Contemporary Authors, Volume 172. Her essays and poems also appear in the writing guides Wingbeats: Exercises & Practice in Poetry, The Crafty Poet I: A Portable Workshop, and The Crafty Poet II.

Penny’s most recent books include The Resonance Around Us (Mountains and Rivers Press, 2013); One Bowl (prizewinning e-chapbook, 2011); Recycling Starlight (2010); and The Night Marsh (2008). A Dodge poet, Penny was a featured reader at the 2010 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. She has won three poetry fellowships from the New Jersey State Arts Council, as well as awards from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the Mary Carolyn Davies Award from the Poetry Society of America, the first William O. Douglas Nature Writing Award, and two fellowships from Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA).

Be sure to visit Penny online at the follow websites:

To order Penny's books:

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Prompt #291 – Poems for Summer's End

I recently listened to an old song called “So Long, Sweet Summer” by Dashboard Confessional, and realized that August came and went, and it’s already September.

There’s always a certain sadness when summer ends, but there’s also also a kind of hopefulness that heralds the celebratory comings of Halloween, Thanksgiving, Chanukah, and Christmas.

Of course, the end of any season may bring with it a mix of emotions, but the movement from August to September means that the abundant season will wind down and despite the brightness of autumn, we all know that winter is coming. For me, the reality of summer’s end has always happened at the beginning of September (even though here in the US, autumn doesn’t officially begin until September 22nd).

For this prompt, I thought it would be interesting to think about summer’s end and to write about an “end of summer” memory, things left to do before autumn arrives, one last visit to the beach, one more getaway—something still-summery for content but with a hint of autumn in the imagery.

While every season is a good time to take stock of our lives and to think about things that need to be changed and improved upon, the end of summer seems an especially appropriate time to me—a good time to think about things and to put a plan for change into action as we prepare for autumn and winter.


1. Begin by generating a list of things (words and phrases) that you associate with summer.

2. Next, make a list of summer memories (good or bad).

3. Then, select one of your memories to write about.

4. You may want to start with a free write. If you do, incorporate some of the things you noted in your first list and see how you can turn them into appropriate images for your poem.

5. After you’ve done your free write, read it and look for ideas and images that you can use in your poem.

6. Try to begin your poem with a line that invites (or lures) your readers in.
7. Keep in mind that a poem should mean more than the words it contains.

8. Think about how you can create a sense of relationship with your readers. How can you re-create your memory in a way that will enable and encourage readers to make a connection to it?

9. Give your readers something to reflect upon.

10. Point toward something bigger, more universal, than your personal experience.


1. Always be specific, avoid general terms, phrases, and statements.

2. Avoid lofty language and literary affectation. Neither big words nor literary pretensions lend themselves well to good poetry. Create a “wow factor” that lies in language that is unexpected and deceptively simple.

3. Watch out for clichéd images. Examine your poems carefully and note any phrases or lines that seem familiar or general. Think in terms of similes, metaphors, and other types of figurative language, and how you can use these to enhance your images.
4. Don’t merely “ornament” your poems with images. Good imagery isn’t a pair of Louboutin shoes or a Rolex watch. Imagery doesn’t “dress up” a poem and should be only be used to present your subject exactly as you perceive it. Imagery that’s too deliberate or self-consciously “poetical” can ruin an otherwise good poem. Don’t be clever or cutesy. Let your images evolve organically with just the right amount of tweaking.
5. Be wary of “imagery overkill.” Too many or over-written images can be tedious if not mind-numbing. When asked how many images a mid-sized poem should contain, my answer is always the same: if you look at poem you’re writing and only find five great lines, then the poem should only be five lines long; in the same way, if you look at a poem you’re working on and only find a single brilliant image, then the poem should only contain a single image.

6. Don’t conclude with a sentimental or emotional statement (both sentiment and emotion may be heartfelt but, when they’re blatantly stated, they can detract from the power of your poem).


A Boy Juggling a Soccer Ball by Christopher Merrill

End of Summer by Stanley Kunitz

Three Songs at the End of Summer by Jane Kenyon

End of Summer by James Richardson