5 Poetry Prompts to Help You Start Telling Your Stories
I don't know how it goes in your life, but in my life Inspiration and Time To Write don't always get off at the same station. Do you frequently find yourself all out of ideas the minute you settle down to write—even though you had been looking forward to it all day? Exhaustion and performance anxiety can turn my mind into a blank at the most inconvenient times, making writing feel doubly-daunting if not totally impossible. For times like that, I've found poetry prompts to be an invaluable component in my writer's toolkit, and I'd like to share a few of my personal favorites with you.
And as you get started, don't forget: your writing doesn't need to be perfect in the beginning. It just needs to BE. When you sit down with a pen, your only job is to call something into existence, to keep from giving up before you've begun, to write something, by golly—good, bad, or average. There will be plenty of time later on for marking up, scratching out, and getting your Revision on.
1. let a loved poem lead
This one always comes first for me, because I really believe good writing flows from extensive and pleasurable reading. So what's the assignment here? Find a poem you love and figure out what makes it tick. What emotion or thoughts did it stir up in you? Was there a point in the poem at which you knew you were “hooked”? Can you pinpoint the element(s) that were most attractive to you? For example: was it the sound of the poem, the rhythm/cadence, that drew you in? What it a specific poetic form? (i.e. a sonnet, villanelle, blank verse, etc.) Was it imagery that felt personal to you and gave you a sense of connection to the writer? Did the poem evoke a memory or a sensory experience? After you’ve identified the poetic element that made the poem work for you, write a poem of your own that incorporates this element in your own way to tell one of your own stories.
While I have whole shelves full of loved slim poetry volumes, when the going gets tough, I tend to find myself gravitating towards a few specific collections that have proven over time to speak to me whatever the weather of my soul. One of these is W.S. Merwin's 1988 The Rain in the Trees. It was my humongous love for this book that gave me the courage to first begin experimenting with poetic forms that didn't include punctuation. (The first poem I—very nervously—wrote in this format was "Kukla Kebap," first published in Sheila-Na-Gig Online, and I'll never forget how the writing of it both thrilled and frightened me with its strangeness.)
If you're looking for other sources of poetry to help activate your creative faculties, Garrison Keillor's two anthologies Good Poems and Good Poems For Hard Times are certainly classics. It's also a good idea to pick a poet whose work you tend to especially like and immerse yourself in a whole volume of their work until you become thoroughly familiar with the forms of artistry that are unique to them. Some collections that have had a big impact on my own poetic consciousness are: 100 Selected Poems by e.e. cummings, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Major Works, The Collected Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay, and The Collected Poems of G.K. Chesterton (I think this man's politics can be problematic and woefully colonial, but his rhythm and rhyme is undeniably right on the money, and his effect on my writing really ought to be acknowledged.)
2. write an ekphrastic poem
Take a few minutes to learn about the time-honored poetic form of ekphrasis: poetry rooted in an observation of a piece of visual artwork or photography. Some of the most famous ekphrastic poems in the English language have been inspired by Pieter Bruegel the Elder's painting "Landscape With The Fall of Icarus" (shown here). You can read William Carlos Williams' take here, and W.H. Auden's take—which includes references to other Bruegel paintings as well—here. These are both poems I admire a great deal, and each time I read them I am, without fail, inspired anew by the wide possibilities of a blank page carried into an art gallery. (The ekphrastic poem I was assigned to write in my first poetry workshop class found a home in a little online publication called The Ekphrastic Review, and their website is a fun place to find examples of ekphrastic poetry by other contemporary poets.) Once you feel you have a handle on what ekphrastic poetry is all about, pick a painting that speaks to you, and write your own ekphrastic poem about it.
3. write a found poem
Try as you might, flail about as you will in that dark hole of meaning-making, sometimes words just don't seem to want to come to you, and this happens to me too. Happily, I've come up with a reliable method for pulling myself out of the ditch, and it rarely fails me. That magic rope? Found poems.
What's great about found poems is that all the words are already there. Yep! That's because found poems are composed entirely of existing texts that are curated and refashioned by poets so as to carry new meanings or tell stories that may be bigger than their original authors intended. Still not sure what a found poem looks like? An example I particularly enjoy is Naomi Shihab Nye's "One Boy Told Me," from her book Fuel (one of my all-time favorite collections and a wonderful, wonderful place to start if you're looking for intimate, accessible poetry that sings with a simple beauty). From start to finish, the whole poem is nothing more than a collection of kid quotes she compiled over the years from the mouth of her young son. Another gem in this genre is Aimee Nezhukumatathil's hilarious and incisive "One-Star Reviews of the Great Wall of China," which shows up in the Bennington Review and can also be found in her splendid 2018 collection Oceanic. Product feedback, travel reviews, classic literature, marketing emails, church bulletins, DMs from spammy strangers, and social media posts can all make for some riveting found poetry, and, if nothing else, give you a great opportunity to play around with how punctuation, spacing, and line breaks can affect the meaning and impact of a piece of text.
4. go back to childhood
Taking a trip back to childhood can be a useful—if potentially overwhelming—starting-place on the hunt for a poem. (And yep, that's an old photo of Yours Truly, smack dab in the middle of mine). I've done some of my best writing in this way, and I think part of what makes this method so helpful is that it requires us to incorporate specificity into a form of writing that can quickly become nebulous and ungrounded. Since we tend to associate poetry with big truths, questions, and concepts, it's all too easy to cram ours with long words and dramatic adjectives. But even Big Ideas are most effectively conveyed through Small Stories firmly rooted in time and place and concrete imagery.
So. How do you write a poem about your childhood—that huge, vulnerable stretch of years when joys were so enormous and sorrows were the end of the world? Here's a list of memory-joggers to help you unearth some of the potential poems that might be buried in your own past. Work through these on a sheet of paper or computer document until you arrive at a story you find yourself burning to tell. Then start there! Remember to keep your story tangible and grounded by incorporating as many of the five senses as you can (touch, taste, sight, sound, and smell).
- Think about a place that was magical to you as a child. Where was it located? What emotions did you have when you were there? What sounds and smells do you associate with it? What happened to it?
- Think about a childhood best friend. What was your most special memory with them? Do you have any painful memories with them? If you didn't have a best friend, what did that mean for you as a child? What were your relationships with your siblings, cousins, or neighbor kids like?
- Think about an exciting trip you took as a child. Where did you go? Who did you go with? What did you expect from the trip? Were your expectations met?
- Think about something you experienced as a child that filled you with wonder. It could be something you saw at a science museum or your first view of the ocean. It could be watching the birth of a farm animal or seeing your first shooting star. Whatever it was, what made it so captivating? How would you feel about it if you saw it again today?
- Think about something that frightened you as a child. How did it make you feel on a physiological level? Looking back on your fear as an adult, was the thing that scared you a genuine danger to your life or well-being? Did you ever come face-to-face with your fear? Did it ever go away?
- Think about your family's financial situation during your childhood? Were your parents/caregivers wealthy, poor, or somewhere in between? When did you first begin to have awareness about your family's class standing and to realize how it made your experiences different from that of other children? Was there a specific situation that sparked this understanding? How did you feel about it?
- Think about a childhood incident when you felt mortified or deeply embarrassed. What happened? Is your story funny in hindsight, or is it still painful?
- Think about a person who made you feel inadequate as a child. It might be a relative, teacher, babysitter, parent, or another child. What did they say or do? What vulnerable part of your self-concept did their words or actions touch? Was the incident an accident? How do you feel about it in hindsight?
- Think about a time when you began to realize adults didn't have it all together. What sparked the realization? How did you feel about it?
- Think about your childhood relationship with faith/religion. Did your family attend religious services? How did you feel about them? Were there any defining moments when you chose either to welcome or to shut out Doubt? Did you believe in God? If so, how did you imagine the Divine? How do you think your childhood experiences in or outside of a religious community shaped the way you see and experience the world today?
Writing poems about childhood memories and incidents has been a cathartic process for me. The poems that come out of this exercise can be funny (like the poem I once wrote about an American babysitter who came to visit us in Turkey, roused all the jealousy in my thirteen-year-old body, and prompted me to be Very Petty). They can also be grim and sad, giving us a place to work through memories or incidents that feel too terrible to talk about in plain language (like the poem I wrote about childhood encounters with misogyny in the Turkish coastal city where I grew up). One of my favorite poems about childhood memories is Edna St. Vincent Millay's unbearably haunting "Childhood Is The Kingdom Where Nobody Dies"—a poem that deftly bridges the gap between the speaker's memories and present reality. On a happier note, Aimee Nezhukumatathil's book Lucky Fish is full of vividly-rendered accounts of her own colorful childhood, and it's one of the most fun poetry collections I know of.
5. give the headlines a go
So how do you get started? I like to open up several different current news sources (these can be webpages or hard-copy newspapers) and start scanning for headlines that interest me with either their implications or musicality. When something sparks my interest, I'll take some time to explore the story and jot down thoughts and ideas about it. What's great about this method is that using headlines as poetry prompts is an extremely open-ended exercise. You might find that the poem you start writing as a direct response to a certain headline ends up taking you in a completely different direction and you chuck the headline part of it altogether. And that's okay. The point of prompts is to get you started, not to hold you captive.
A few things to remember: riffing off the headlines does NOT have to be the same as writing a "political poem." Poems that get their start in the news can end up being purely personal poems about your own private life and intimate relationships, having next to nothing to do with politics. For example, my poem "Three Things You Need To Get Through a Plague" (first published in Sweet Tree Review) is a love poem inspired by a beautiful sentence I pulled from a piece written by a journalist who certainly didn't share my politics. Poetry is big, expansive even. It's much, much bigger than politics.
That being said, you can, of course, write political poems about the headlines. I do it quite often with my Tiny Poems, and I find it can be a good way to get me back on the horse when holding out hope for the planet starts to feel like a fool's errand. But I think it's important to remember that political poems can quickly disintegrate into jingoism and cheap sloganeering if they aren't rooted in the telling of concrete stories and don't leave something for the reader to figure out with their own imagination. When writing a poem about politically-charged issues, less is more is a very sound motto. Don't tell you reader what to think or how to feel. Let your story do the heavy-lifting.
And of course, a poem that responds to current events needn't confine itself to the present. When I wrote "Astronauts in Denmark," (first published in Beloit Poetry Journal) I knew I wanted to respond to a New York Times headline about NASA cancelling the first all-female spacewalk because they didn't have enough spacesuits to fit the women in question. But I spent more than half the poem writing about Laertes and Ophelia from Hamlet, and in the end it was those characters who did the most to help me say what I wanted to say.
There are a thousand thousand ways to get started with the business of being a poet, and as I keep saying again and again, the main thing is to start. Starting can be scary when failing feels like a waste, but let me encourage you with this: if you sit down and spend an hour writing a poem and it's a bad poem and you don't like it, it's not as though you've wasted an hour of your life. You tried some things that didn't work. (Why do you think they didn't work? Make some notes!) You allowed yourself to ruminate over a subject that was important to you. You (hopefully!) read some poems by other poets that made you feel something or think about something (Why were those poems successful? Make some notes!). And finally, you have written a not-very-good poem that's ready to be tucked into a drawer and pulled out again tomorrow or next week to be reworked and revised. And good news: when you're ready to start revising, I have a helpful revision checklist coming up soon!