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! 

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.

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

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