Poetry forms

The Prose Poem—Prompt Inspired by Danielle Mitchell

What is a poem—the answers given often contradict the prose poem. What is a poem without stanzas echoes what is a poem without meter and rhyme. Perhaps what I appreciate most about the prose poem is that it requires a poet to think about what defines his/her/their own poetry and consciously choose those elements in this hybrid form.

For the first prompt, write a prose poem using imagery and themes from the tale of the minotaur in the labyrinth from Greek mythology. Here is a link to the myth if you need a refresher. Notice imagery/repetition the poet uses: “labyrinth,” “spiraling steps,” “thread,” “string,” “maze,” and “stairwell.” Who or what else could be a labyrinth? Are you the minotaur or Theseus?


For the second prompt, use the italicized line “If you get lost, just go deeper in” as a ghostline. Where do you go? Or your narrator? Are they one and the same? Or do you choose to keep the second person? After you have written your first draft, consider switching (from second person to first or third to second, for example). What changes?

For the third prompt, consider the differences between this poem and the poet’s other two poems published in the same issue of Connotation Press. How do these three prose poems differ? What themes/images does the form lend itself to? Write a poem using ten words compiled from two or all three of the poems.

For a fourth prompt, write a poem mapping the three landscapes described in the poems: forest and maze, muddy field and pond, and swamp.

And as always be sure to credit the poet for the inspiration, be careful to maintain your own voice in any poems you plan to submit and of course buy the book (check out her site)!


Failed Ekphrastic Poem—Prompts to Try, Break, and Rebuild

Failure happens. I tried to respond to an ekphrastic prompt for a contest and repeatedly looked at the drawing, but nothing came. I finally did write something (two days before the deadline) but didn’t like it. Even failed attempts teach though, and after a friend helped me, I ended up with a better poem and ideas for how to edit it further.

Here is the drawing ”The Davenport” by poet and writer Steve Davenport: 


And here is the editor’s hint:  


For your first prompt, use the drawing and the editor’s hint to create a poem. Please share! I would love to read your resulting poem! 

Here was my original poem, which I find choppy and unconnected and contradictory to the interweaving inherent in the subject matter: 


Here is the suggested revisions from the generous Adrian Ernesto Cepeda: 


For a second prompt, take one of your existing poems (or perhaps the poem you inspired by the DavenTree) and break up the lines to avoid end stopping, or perhaps cut them at the punctuation. Play around. Start with your very last line and see what happens. I have a poem that a friend recommended that I try that exact exercise with. (Full disclosure: still on my to-do list, although I started it). 

While I like the poem much better (THANK YOU, ADRIAN!!!), I think the subject matter may be better suited to a form—particularly the pantoum. I want the weaving and repetition of the poem’s lines to replicate DNA’s function in life. 

For a third possible prompt, take an existing poem and pilfer its lines/phrases/images/words for pantoum. Here is the pantoum form in case you need a reminder and a link to a helpful site if you wish more information on this form or others: 


Good luck! Good writing...and breaking and editing! 

Discussion—Inspiration, Voice, Attribution, and Honesty

Centos and erasures are two of my favorite forms, and I use epigraphs and ghost lines. Yes, they draw upon others’ materials for both text and inspiration, but they give credit and what is created is (and should be) something unique. After a recent incident of serial plagiarism—which seems to be outright theft from several poets—and cultural/personal appropriation, these forms and poems that clearly draw inspiration off of other writers seem tainted. 

I believe there is a place for these forms and for conversations among poems and between poets within works, BUT attribution is required. I don’t ever condone or promote plagiarism. Yes, poets imitate poets they admire. I have been to readings in which younger poets’ cadences and imagery were clearly influenced by a poetry idol within their community. Much of this imitation is unconscious and an indication of admiration and learning, but the poets were clearly writing their own poems.

Developing one’s voice can be a long process—I am still developing mine, but the centos that I have created do seem to have what I consider my voice. I am very careful to note the origin of each line. If you do create a cento or use a line for an epigraph or consciously structure a poem after another, give credit and ensure your poem is not just a copy. If in doubt, ask someone to look over it. If the poem seems nothing more than a replica or an echo of the other poet, put the poem aside. Come back to it when you have a clearer sense of your own voice. Be good to the community and to yourself. 

I welcome hearing your viewpoints on these forms. Best wishes and good luck writing! 


Circles to Conversations—The Contrapuntal prompt

The previous post used Venn diagrams as a writing prompt. The Venn diagram sample poem “Employee Relations 4.0” is one way to think of a contrapuntal in which the two circles each are separate poems that also function as a combined poem. The contrapuntal form (inspired by music) usually consists of two columns that each can stand alone as a poem but in which the two columns can be read horizontally line by line to compose ultimately a third poem. Often a line will be centered that is shared by each of the columns and of course by the overall poem. Think of the shared area of the “Employee Relations 4.0” as that centered line.

I learned about using Venn diagrams as part of a writing process from Danielle Mitchell and likewise the contrapuntal form from her. And I am grateful for her book recommendation of Tyehimba Jess’s Leadbelly. Tyehimba Jess is a master of the contrapuntal form. Read these poems published on the PEN site. Here is Ann Rasmussen’s interview with him about his use of the form in that book and his subsequent award-winning Olio in the journal Frontier Poetry. Check out a few of his poems from Olio published by Wave Books. 

For another example of a contrapuntal poem, check out Tarfia Faizullah’s “Aubade  Ending with the Death of a Mosquito” and her discussion of it. And Jamaal May’s “I Do Have a Seam” is another of my all-time favorites.



New Year’s Resolutions—To-Do’s and Did-Not’s

Most of us contemplate the new year with a to-do list of promises: exercise more, read more, write more, worry less, binge Netflix less, etc., most of which we will break within the first weeks. I am not here to judge you—honest. I am too busy stressing about my own ever-growing list of expectations and likely failures. If hope springs eternal, my clock springs must be rusty and bent.

On that optimistic note...write a poem about what you didn’t get done this past year. Rather than pushing against that mudslide of regret, use its momentum and put your obsessive analyzing of past mistakes to good use. For inspiration and commiseration, read Richard Hoffman’s “December 31st” personifying his undone to-do items. 

Another possible prompt using Hoffman’s poem: describe the calendar’s artwork or specifically January’s to create an ekphrastic poem (a poem that describes a piece of artwork or a scene). We will dive further into ekphrastic poetry in a later post. For now, you can jump to the Poetry Foundation’s definition of the ekphrastic form and its recommended sample, the famous “Ode to a Grecian Urn” by Keats.

Or if you would like your own 17th century still life with skull, refer to the painting Vanitas Still Life by François van Daellen (c. 1650)


 Click “painting” for a link to its free downloadable image at NGA Images from the National Gallery of Art. Check out other images too.

IKEA Instructions for a Pantoum

Yes, I have covered the pantoum form before, but sometimes step-by-step instructions are necessary or at least helpful in writing a new form. The awesome Rachel McKibbens provides such instructions on her blog. Please jump to Writing Exercise #89 on her blog.


There is absolutely no reason for this photo other than I like it. 

Rachel provides an amazing sample poem on her blog, but if you want to read the poem I created using her prompt, check it out here. It was posted on the blog of Denise Wueve, editor of the temporarily closed Wherewithal, which I truly hope will return soon.

Erasure: Cutting Down to a Poem

Erasure (along with its cousin “blackout poetry”) is the technique of omitting parts of an existing text (whether poem, article, reprint of a speech, a novel or an excerpt) to create a poem. With blackout poetry, the text is left as is with the omitted words, phrases and sentences marked out. Part of its appeal is its dramatic presentation. Erasure typically reorganizes the remaining text perhaps into stanzas.

Some poets take full poetic license in erasure by changing the wording or the forms of words and even combining letters to create words not found in the original as long as the words/letters remain in the original sequence. I admit I truly enjoyed cutting the text of Mike Huckabee’s speech to have him seemingly admit to a torrid desire for a shirtless Vladimir Putin.

While my erasure of Huckabee’s speech was merely silly, erasure is a great technique to use for political snark and for knifepoint observations. A recent article in Fast Company noted the form’s skill in delivering harsh truth. The poet Isobel O’Hare recently applied erasure to the recent statements from celebrities accused of sexual harassment and posted these blackout poems to Instagram. For more examples, check out her website.

Full disclosure, I first came upon Isobel O’Hare’s poems on the Poetry Foundation's Harriet blog, and the next day my stepson sent me a link to her poetry. 

I first tried erasure at Poetry Lab, the inspiring generative workshop run by Danielle Mitchell. This prompt is hers. She gave everyone this block of text from Virginia Wolf’s The Voyage Out and required that we cut it down to just twenty words.

Your prompt is to do the same. Cut this text down to just twenty words:

Chapter XIV

The sun of that same day going down, dusk was saluted as usual at the hotel by an instantaneous sparkle of electric lights. The hours between dinner and bedtime were always difficult enough to kill, and the night after the dance they were further tarnished by the peevishness of dissipation. Certainly, in the opinion of Hirst and Hewet, who lay back in long arm-chairs in the middle of the hall, with their coffee-cups beside them, and their cigarettes in their hands, the evening was unusually dull, the women unusually badly dressed, the men unusually fatuous. Moreover, when the mail had been distributed half an hour ago there were no letters for either of the two young men. As every other person, practically, had received two or three plump letters from England, which they were now engaged in reading, this seemed hard, and prompted Hirst to make the caustic remark that the animals had been fed. Their silence, he said, reminded him of the silence in the lion-house when each beast holds a lump of raw meat in its paws. He went on, stimulated by this comparison, to liken some to hippopotamuses, some to canary birds, some to swine, some to parrots, and some to loathsome reptiles curled round the half-decayed bodies of sheep. The intermittent sounds—now a cough, now a horrible wheezing or throat-clearing, now a little patter of conversation—were just, he declared, what you hear if you stand in the lion-house when the bones are being mauled. But these comparisons did not rouse Hewet, who, after a careless glance round the room, fixed his eyes upon a thicket of native spears which were so ingeniously arranged as to run their points at you whichever way you approached them. He was clearly oblivious of his surroundings; whereupon Hirst, perceiving that Hewet's mind was a complete blank, fixed his attention more closely upon his fellow-creatures. He was too far from them, however, to hear what they were saying, but it pleased him to construct little theories about them from their gestures and appearance.

Here is my rough process (scribbled, crumpled and torn):

File Nov 15, 4 59 24 PM.jpeg

Even though everyone began with the same text, the final results differed dramatically among the workshop’s participants.

Here is the final version of my erasure from the text:

Virgin Wolf:
Erasure of Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out

Going down was saluted
by the kill.
Plump meat stimulated
by throat—
bones mauled
to rouse the thicket
of spears.

And here is the erasure poem created by another participant, Ben Trigg.

Erasure from The Voyage Out, Virginia Woolf

The dusk electric hours lay long in their hands.
The women of hard silence rouse spears to attention.
Little gestures.

Good luck!

Pantoum Form

I have particular affection for the pantoum form as it seems the most representative of my thought processes: circular and repetitive. Anxiety, regret and politics have much in common, I've found. Ask anyone debating or living with me.

Seriously though, the circular nature of the form offers a more associative mode of narrative. This circling makes connections that a more linear narrative would not and provides a satisfying closure.

As Edward Hirsch notes in his description of the form, "It is customary for the second and fourth lines in the last stanza of the poem to repeat the first and third lines of the initial stanza, so that the whole poem circles back to the beginning, like a snake eating its tail.” No wonder, the pantoum structure resonates with me. 

Repetition is a powerful tool for emphasis, and the pantoum is all about repetition, making it a good choice for performances.

Perhaps the most effective strategy though is to tweak the repeated lines either through tone or emphasis or connotation. The callback in comedy draws the listener in with the familiar but adds a slight twist, and the resulting surprise delivers the punch. Tweaking the lines in a pantoum likewise can provide power, push the story along and also demonstrate development, perhaps a change in the narrator’s perception. 

Hirsch states that “the pantoum is always looking back over its shoulder.” Regret and mourning are common themes, but this form can work for humor, particularly a gallows humor. 

You can read more about the pantoum form, its origin and history, excerpted from Edward Hirsch’s A Poet’s Glossary, and find examples of pantoums at poets.org.

Now about writing your own pantoum, remember that the second and fourth lines of each stanza become the first and third of the next stanza, on and on, until the final stanza in which the second and fourth lines repeat the first and third lines of the first stanza. Below is an outline to show more clearly the repeated lines for each stanza. 

Line 1:     A
Line 2:    B
Line 3:    C
Line 4:    D

Line 5:    B
Line 6:    E
Line 7:    D
Line 8:    F

Line 9:    E
Line 10:  G
Line 11:   F
Line 12:  H

Line 13:  G
Line 14:  A
Line 15:  H
Line 16:  C

I am fond of the pantoum for selfish reasons too: one of the first poems I got published was a pantoum. “God was in the Water” was included in the anthology Don't Blame the Ugly Mug and later reprinted at Cadence Collective