Poem Prompts From the Vault

To follow up on our last blog post discussing the dreaded writer’s block, I offer five poems alongside prompts to get you going! I have rated the prompts according to the ever-accessible trail hiking difficulty rating system. Enjoy.

1. Based on Elizabeth Bishop’s The Fish: Zoom in. Zoom in. Zoom in. In this exercise choose an object (slippery or not), or a memory (admirable or not), or a place (liquid or solid or not), and offer every detail, then the details of those details. Start with two list poems, one describing your chosen subject, and another describing your own actions (I thought, I looked, I admired, I saw, I stared, I let) involving the subject. Maybe give the details a motive? Or a themed description? Embrace activity and action. The real meat of this exercise is revision. Bishop was a relentless revisionist. Get a solid start down, then revisit this poem once or twice a month. I’d challenge you to work on it steadily for a half a year. Do not waste a single word or moment. Remain open to its evolution.



2. Based on Robert Bly’s The Night Abraham Called to the Stars: Wanna get technical? Let’s write a poem loosely based on the Islamic ghazal form (what Bly is doing in this poem). Another great example is Patricia Smith’s Hip-Hop Ghazal. Traditionally the form deals with romance and loss, and like Hip-Hop Ghazal, is written in couplets with an intricate rhyme pattern. Bly adapts the form, expanding the stanzas and omitting the rhyming. Each stanza creates its own landscape, standing alone but working together. Bly writes in eighteen lines and never implies a theme to the poem, forcing the reader to work for their takeaway. I would suggest using elements from both of these examples. Write an eighteen-line poem in unrhymed tercets with each stanza ending with the same final word. Explore an idea but never overtly assign it a motive. Each tercet should contain its own vision.

DIFFICULTY: MODERATE-HARD (Trail beyond here is steeper, but very scenic.)


3. Based on Sasha West’s collection Failure and I Bury the Body: West writes an entire collection where she takes a road trip through the southwest desert with Failure and the Corpse, an uninvited guest/body who shows up. The collection catalogs their attempts to rid themselves of the Corpse as well as their general adventures. The poems are apocalyptic, raw, and visceral as all get out: linking passion, mankind’s artifacts, and extinction. The book is a collection of enormous undertaking, incredibly layered and compelling. Read poems from the collection here, an interview with Sasha here, and a review of the book here. This prompt just barely introduces this collection, and so this exercise is simple in its request—FIRST, write a poem where a regret trails your destination vacation. SECOND, from the perspective of the regret, write a list of beatitudes, King James example here.



4. Based on Yrsa-Daley Ward’s poem Scent: Write a confessional narrative poem about a lover, past or present, and an element of them that you cannot forget. Relate it back to yourself. Model it after an elegy. Be vulnerable and honest. Address your own insecurities, identity and illusions. Begin by write a three-to-four line poem about the element you have chosen, then expand that into a longer poem. ALTERNATIVE OPTION: write a series of short poems on the element. If you chose the latter, I encourage you to write at least one short poem about yourself in regards to the element. More of Ward’s poignant brief poems here. Check out her instagram @yrsadaleyward, where she shares her own work regularly.



5. Based on your own mother (or father): Write a poem about your mom: her food, her communication, her relationship with your father or a sibling, her understanding of you or your understanding of her, her getting older, her losing herself, compare her to an animal or the nazi regime, address her through an epistolary poem, caution her through invective, the options are endless!



Adele Elise Williams is a first year poet at Virginia Tech. She is the poetry editor for the minnesota review.


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