Saturday, January 26, 2019

Prompt #332 – Image Association by Guest Blogger Karen Lee Ramos

This week our guest prompter is the poet and poetry series host Karen Lee Ramos, shown above with her son (also a published poet), Daniel. Karen is the creator and host of POETRY at the BARN, a seasonal poetry reading series and writing program located in the historic Barn Gallery of New Jersey’s beautiful Ringwood State Park. Her poetry has appeared in various publications such as the Paterson Literary Review, Exit 13 Magazine, The Stillwater Review and the Paulinskill Poetry Project anthology Voices From Here 2.  She lives in northern New Jersey with her husband and their two children.

POETRY at the BARN is sponsored by the nonprofit Ringwood Manor Arts Association.  For more information please check out their website or contact Karen at 

From Karen  
As the host of a poetry program that takes place in a local gallery, I am lucky to be surrounded by an ever-changing array of beautiful art. I took advantage of that inspiring atmosphere to create a fun, generative exercise by combining the essence of ekphrasis (from the Greek description) with the simple practice of word association. 

According to Wikipedia, word association is the spontaneous and unreflective production of words in response to a given word.  You say sky, I say get the idea. We can borrow that concept and react to a succession of images instead of given words.  Your spontaneous responses will become the springboard for composing a poem.  I call this process image association.  Here is how it works: 

·      In a museum or gallery move from one piece of art to the next, writing down the first word or short phrase that comes to mind. Don’t censor yourself.  The key is not overthinking. Unlike typical ekphrastic poetry, you don’t want to focus on a single work of art.  Just keep moving.

·      No access to a gallery or museum?  You can use magazines, art books or websites ... any source that is image-centered. As you turn pages or scroll through photos, jot down whatever immediately occurs to you.

·      This exercise can be done in many locations and with a variety of objects. Visit a big box store, suburban mall or flea market and come up with quick associations for each piece you notice.  Try choosing items by color, shape or material.  Experiment!

Once you have a list of words, look for connections, themes or repeating ideas. What happens if you rearrange the order you wrote them in? Do new meanings emerge?  Perhaps some individual words stand out, evoke an emotion or represent something you can pursue? If nothing cohesive materializes at first, try writing a spontaneous line for each word, or pick out a few strong words and brainstorm with them. Play and see what happens.

Unlike traditional ekphrastic poetry, the resulting poem may have no connection with the visual images that originally provoked it. For instance, this poem evolved from a single word that had nothing to do with sketches of quaint winter landscapes:


the word
is undisturbed
by sharp consonants
with a soft hum
at the end
barely breathing
like grieving.

Karen Lee Ramos
Stillwater Review 2018

Image association is a simple technique that can be used again and again. It is an easy way to explore hidden corners of your imagination. I hope it inspires you!


A big

to Karen!

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Prompt #331 – In Memory of Mary Oliver

On January 17, 2019, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner Mary Oliver passed away. She was my favorite poet, one whose poems I return to again and again. My cousin Sandy Hulme gave me a copy of Mary Oliver's book Devotions for my birthday last November, and it sits with pride of place on my desk next to me as I write this. 

Although critics have been divided about her work, she has awed scores of readers with her linguistic precision and understated depth. The NY Times said that Ms. Oliver's work has an almost “homiletic quality.” I've often felt that as I read her poems, each of which is a kind of "teaching." Importantly, her poems are characterized by the simple perfection of “unadorned language” and uncompromised accessibility. Always profoundly human, she wrote with a deep sense of living in kinship with the natural world and its creatures. Ms. Oliver once described herself as “the kind of old-fashioned poet who walks the woods most days, accompanied by dog and notepad.”

The poem below is one of Ms. Oliver’s most well-known. I’d like you to read it and then to reflect on it’s meanings. Do you find anything in the poem that speaks to you personally?

Wild Geese
  By Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

In literature, wild geese have symbolized compassion, community, bravery, communication, determination, and caring, as well as an individual path in life. In her poem, “Wild Geese,” Mary Oliver tells us that one doesn’t have to worry about being good or repentant but, rather, to truly love the life you’ve been given. She recognizes that everyone will encounter difficulties in life and that sharing those hardships with others is important. 

This poem reminds us that life goes on despite our human frailties and weaknesses; wild geese continue to follow their paths; and each of us keeps our position in the world. Like wild geese, our place in the natural world offers itself to us.

In addition to situating and illuminating what it means to be human, Ms. Oliver reminds us to keep going on despite life’s challenges, to look within ourselves, and to seek the beauty and peace of the natural world.

Ms. Oliver draws us into the divinity of the natural world. She also invites us to consider what makes a “good life.” She offers her readers a sense that the world is “…announcing your place in the family of things,” that all is as it should be. There is order in the natural world and in human experience, no matter how lonely human experience may be at times.  Whenever I read a Mary Oliver poem, I’m reminded of Julian of Norwich who wrote, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”


1. Does anything in “Wild Geese” speak to you personally? If so, write down what and how.

2.  Think about your personal world and the natural world. Do they share anything in common? Do you ever turn to nature for comfort and peace?

3. Choose something in nature that you love, and think about why you love it (spring rain, the hush of snow falling, sparrows or cardinals, lilacs, a river, mountains, etc.).  Alternatively, you might consider a beloved pet or a favorite wild animal.

4. Free write for a while about that natural “something.”
5. In her poem “Spring,” Ms. Oliver wrote,“There is only one question; / how to love this world.” How do you love this world?

6. Now, begin a poem that matches or comes close to Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” in form:

one stanza (stichic form)
18 lines
free verse
no internal or external rhyme
7. Let your poem develop as you write it, give it its “head” and let it take you where it wants to go.


1. When you begin writing, don’t worry about technique, spelling, punctuation, or form. Just write. There’s always time for revision and refining after you’ve written your drafts. Most importantly, get your thoughts and feelings onto the paper first.

2. If you’d prefer to read and not write, a list of Mary Oliver poems follows. Enjoy!


In her poem “When Death Comes” Ms. Oliver wrote,

When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

RIP, dear Mary Oliver! You were always more than a visitor, and I'm grateful.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Prompt #330 – Holding On/Letting Go

Happy New Year, dear blog readers!

The poet Rumi wrote that life is a balance of holding on and letting go. We all have a tendency to hold onto things from the past (especially things that have hurt us). Even though holding on doesn’t necessarily help us, it’s a natural impulse to let things continue. The fact is, though, that it’s impossible to write a new chapter when we keep re-reading an old one.

With a new year beginning, this may be a good time to think about things we haven't been able to let go and to consider how we might jettison feelings and relationships that don't bring us peace.

Sooner or later, most of us experience broken relationships: a romantic break-up, a divorce, a lost love, rifts among family members, friendships that fail. In some cases, these have been painful experiences (some with negative outcomes); in others, the results were more positive. This week, let’s write about “breaking up” with someone, someone you can’t seem to “forgive and forget.” Please note that this won’t be about a loss through death; rather, your poem’s subject matter will be a deliberate break-up (either by your choice or someone else’s). Let your poem tell the story and then think about how translating feelings into written language can be healing.


1. Think about the following:

      What’s the “exit” you’ll never forget?

      What’s the “exit” you’ll never regret?

      What breakup was a good thing for you?

      A teenage breakup, an adult breakup?
      The breakup of a friendship, not a romance?

      A breakup with family members?

You might want to jot down some ideas and then begin a free write based on one of them.

2. When you get some ideas organized, go from your free write to a poem.

3. What coping strategies worked for you at the time of the “breakup?” What was "letting go" like for you? Did you really let go? Have you been holding on?

4. How do you feel about the situation now?

5. Explore the positives as well as the negatives. If you let go, are you better in any way because you did?


1. There should be a sense of intimacy in the poem as you “tell the story” of a break-up (as you reveal something personal). However, be careful not to “overtell,” and avoid writing a confessional poem.
2. You should always leave room for the reader to enter and experience the poem from his or her unique perspective.

3. Be careful not to sentimentalize, become maudlin, or overly-emotional.


“When We Two Parted” by Lord Byron

“Falling and Flying” by Jack Gilbert

“The Break Away” by Anne Sexton

“The Nails” by W. S Merwin