A Dearth of Optimism—Prompts Inspired by Marie Howe

So the last couple of weeks have not been productive ones, but I hope to return to regular postings and even make up for the previous lack (and to expect to do so…in spite of today’s blog title).

These next prompts are inspired by Marie Howe and by my own preference for rather depressing poems. This poem caught me in the throat—how I prefer the landing and subsequent damage and suffering to the fall itself.

For the next prompt, make Hell a kind of sanctuary for yourself. What initial comfort do you find there? The company? The lack of it? Does even the flat comfort of despair burn away?

Or write about Hell as truly a place of torment, but after the surprise has faded. Put in all the boiling lakes, demon pitchforks and punishments, but include a sense of boredom, perhaps even a kind of comfort in the routine disembowelment. After the 10,000th lash, does the sting fade? Does regret?


For the next prompt, use the line “I thought it was the worst, thought nothing worse could come” as a ghostline. Remember to erase the line after you have finished writing the poem and credit Howe for her inspiration.

For the last prompt, take the poem and choose the antonym for each noun and, if possible, as many of the verbs too. What happens in the poem? This is an exercise only. Make sure you are not paraphrasing the original too closely if you plan to submit it for publication.


Prompts Inspired by Heather Derr-Smith

I am reading Tongue Screw by Heather Derr-Smith and awed by the sharp-edged power of her images. I first discovered her poetry on Twitter and deeply admire her work. She has two other collections The Bride Minaret, 2008, and Thrust, 2017.

For the first prompt, use the last line from her poem “Wilson’s Promenade, Sarajevo, and Leonard Cohen” as a ghost line: “Our hearts all galloping resurrection hooves.” Here is the link for the full poem. I particularly love the image “a blur of Lazarus bandages unraveling[.]”

For the second prompt, redraw the map of the world onto a body, a living one or a carcass as the poet does onto the “sutures of a dead wolf’s skull” in the poem “Tracking” pasted below.

What changes when we shift the continent of Europe onto a field mouse, Antarctica onto a fallen leaf, the Southern Hemisphere on a child’s upraised palm. What shrinks into insignificance? What is magnified? If you wish to think more of perspective and how inaccurate the Mercator map is, look at the site thetruesize.com.


For a third prompt, ask yourself what would you find of yourself within the infinite. An endless vortex of regret, similar to Jupiter’s eye? A somersaulting childlike wonder? The tide’s endless grasping and pushing?


This Wednesday, September 4th, at the Ugly Mug—Poetry Reading and Fundraiser for RAICES!

Poets HanaLena Fennel and Ra Avis will offer their powerful voices and unique insights to support the critical work of RAICES this Wednesday for the Two Idiots Peddling Poetry reading series at the Ugly Mug. Proceeds from the purchase of their poetry books as well as poetry collections donated by Moon Tide Press and artwork by local artists will be donated to RAICES.

The reading starts at 8:00. Open mic signup begins at 7:45. The Ugly Mug is located at 261 N. Glassell St in Orange. Parking is available on nearby side streets and parking lots. The $3 cover charge reimburses the venue for the reading.

Below is the press release for the poetry feature and open mic event. Click here for event and author links.

HanaLena Fennel (left) and Ra Avis (right)

HanaLena Fennel (left) and Ra Avis (right)

Camouflage—A Poetry Prompt for Hiding

Some creatures camouflage themselves in the brilliant colors of predators—snakes and insects particularly. Others disguise themselves as a bad meal, as the viceroy butterfly does in mimicking the monarch. Still others appear as leaves or flowers or petals.

In high school and in marriage, I tried to fade into the walls, into night, into the blank stares ringing me. I chose the bland, the muted, the innocuous. If nonthreatening and easily forgotten were a color, I wore it and stained my skin with it.

What if instead I had camouflaged myself with beauty? Since I could not make my own loveliness in such bleakness, what If had adorned myself with borrowed beauty? The caterpillar pictured below—the camouflaged looper— attaches the petals and stems it eats for food to hide itself as leaf or blossom—simultaneously becoming what it eats and what beauty surrounds it. I doubt attaching Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and strawberries would have granted me anything other than flies and mockery, but I could have pasted others’ brilliance onto my tongue and painted my face to resemble another’s.

Using the example of the camouflaged looper caterpillar, write a poem of you camouflaging yourself with the beauty around you. What do you choose to attach to yourself? Why? What are you hiding from? Who or what does see you?

If you need some sample poems to provide some direction, read “Camouflage” by Henry Carlyle, “Camouflaging the Chimera” by Yosef Komunyakaa, and “To a Wren on Calvary” by Larry Levis. Please share the poems you have found on camouflage.

And, as always, if one of these poets provided inspiration, give credit. Good luck!


Conscious Coupl[et]ing and Starting from the Ending—Editing Prompts

I will be honest here: I suck at editing. I certainly try, but often my tinkering just clogs the lines and makes even the strong statements hazier or—worse— annoyingly pretentious. As a result, I rarely offer editing advice of my own, although I may share others’ words of wisdom along with my own mistakes. So no advice, but here are two exercises to try on a poem you aren’t happy with.

For the first prompt, choose an old poem—maybe one that you’ve worked on before—and rewrite it in couplets. I was told that couplets were very popular a few years ago and that the couplets themes did not form complete images; instead hte lines ran on without regard. Try rewriting the poem in this way. How does that structural change affect the lines themselves? Does this slipping into the next couplet create a sense of falling?

If the poem does not work in couplets, ask yourself why. Do the couplets obscure the imagery, disrupt the sound, misalign the necessary pauses? Look where the couplet fails and regroup the lines accordingly. Better now? If not, did the exercise itself help you analyze your decision-making process? That alone can be helpful.

For the second prompt, take the last line of one of your poems you dislike and move it to the first line. Use it as the jumping off point.

Did you go in a new direction? Or did you simply get where you wanted to faster? Is the poem stronger? Does it avoid the “tying the bow” ending, minimize unnecessary exposition, or just screw it all to pieces?

Please let me know if you find these exercises helpful! Good luck!!!


Doorways, and Other Openings and Closings—Prompts

Doorways are like conflicting points in a political debate on Twitter: two opposing perspectives that can never meet. So much relies upon where we stand on (a) matter, where we have been, and where we hope/fear to go. For this next prompt, I want you to think of doors and doorways. What do they hide or show and what do they harm/protect. Who stands behind a door? Who is coming in or leaving? Who is left inside or outside, and where do you belong?

For inspiration, read “Lullaby (with Exit Sign)” by Hadara Bar-Nadav, “Overnight” by John Yau, “Sharks in the River” by Ada Limón, and “Speaking Tree” by Joy Harjo.

Best of luck!


Animus, Schadenfreude, and Rancor: Giving Birth to All My Little Bitter Joys—Prompts

I want to thank Jan Stinchcomb for messaging me this poem. It is incredible.

For the first prompt, use the last line of Dayna Patterson’s “Self-Portrait as Titania with Newborn Animus”: “All my words call for bandages” as a ghostline. Go from there. Ignite.


I find the imagery in this poem breathtaking. Only on a second reading, did I notice all of the sound devices—alliteration, consonance and assonance as well as the careful attention given to rhythm. So many examples of sound repetition: “womb of worry,” “faith has fled,” “fathers’ fallow,” “What are we but the leavings.” So lovely.

For the second prompt, write a poem in couplets and include this repetition in at least one of the two lines and consciously slow down phrases and lines for greater effect. The phrase “vernix of red flame” felt heavy in my mouth as did the hyphenating of phrases—their slowness mimicking the birth in the poem. I am not a sound poet and often miss these devices, although I am trying to improve both my performance and my awareness of sound and rhythm for the reader. If you prioritize sound or at least balance it with imagery more than I, please offer suggestions in the comments. I would love to hear them.

For the third prompt, take one of the questions in the poem and write a response poem answering that question.

For the final prompt (as usual), write a poem or story using the following words: “vernix,” “fringe,” “cusp,” “scorch,” “linkage” “flesh,””rope,” “render,” “sterile,” and “wounds” but do not use either birth nor botany/farming as your subject matter.

And as always, make sure to avoid mimicking another’s voice—make the words and images your own—and acknowledge the poet for your inspiration.

Good luck!

The Form of Hope—Prompts

For the firstt prompt, take the line “All poetry is a form of hope” (midway in the poem) from Dean Young’s “Small Craft Talk Warning” to use as a ghostline. From there, create a list of items that somehow are the form for hope. Play with the idea of poetic forms. Perhaps include an image to represent morning for an aubade (a love song or poem associated with dawn). See what connections you can make between poetic forms and personal associations. Bend, blend, and reform however necessary.

I appreciate this poem’s disparate images. I have not yet found the through line but am not disturbed or disappointed that I haven’t. Instead, the poem feels like each image is a separate treasure or is akin to people watching and trying to explain the relationships seen among a group.


For the next prompt, take five concrete nouns from the poem (e.g., “hive,” “ornaments,” “ghost,” “dosage,” “space station”) and five verbs/would-be verbs (“miscalculate,” “thaw,” “forces,” “probing,” “counted”) and mix and match. See what creates friction and write in whatever form—sonnet, free verse, flash fiction, etc.— works in the moment.

As always, give credit to the poet who inspired you and be careful to write in your own voice. Good luck!


Bonus prompt: create a dialogue between the two small piles of stones and lighthouses in the distance.

‘What If’ in a Tenuous World—Prompts Inspired by Paige Lewis

I want to thank Brendan Constantine for sharing this beautiful poem by Paige Lewis (originally published in Gulf Coast).


What are your “what ifs”? As oceans rise and hillsides burn, what specific pieces of panic grip you the hardest? The minor, unavoidable crises of everyday life: traffic, rising housing prices, that email from your boss, the awkward pause in a conversation with your partner?

Or is it the disappearing insects, the loss of habitat for tigers, droughts, the dead zones in the oceans, your nephew’s future, your child’s? What series of questions slide down your throat to curl in your chest, hissing snakelike at your attempts at logic, at comfort? What disaster plans run through your mind as you try to sleep? Do you have emergency plans and extra supplies?

Make a list of what ifs. Provide answers. Or not. Show the anxiety fluttering in your lungs.


The List Poem to Out-list All Others—A Try-to-Follow-This Prompt

For prompts, I often provide a list of words to use in a poem, but then I saw this poem made up of a list, and, well, I was just floored. So the challenge for you (and me) is to create a list that is a poem, one that sucks your breath back down your throat until you aren’t sure if you are made to breathe air or water or some hybrid of envy and awe.


It is probably best to start with a category so that all of your words are cohesive and then break that category by adding other parts of speech. Although I can almost never write a poem from my own prompts, I do have a vague idea for this one. Wish me luck! And I am wishing you luck too!


Somehow I saw the figure of Buddha when I was in the Cathedral section of Blanchard Caverns, but the shape didn’t come through in the photo.

Prayer for a Kingdom—Prompts Inspired by Todd Smith

For the first prompt, read over this beautiful poem by Todd Smith published by Quarterly West (and check out other great poems in the issue). In three parts, write a prayer to allow entry in a kingdom you have sought entry—whether you gained access or not—or a praise poem for the what simply is separated into past, present and future. Define “is” in your poem. Define what longing or yearning or want or need is for you, or change the tense: what one of these was once or will be. End your poem on a beginning.


Second prompt: write a poem using the following words: “overtures,” “shadows,” “cast” “perch” “skylight,” “frequency,” and “begin.”


Third prompt: Make a list poem of your seven mistakes. Do they correspond to the seven deadly sins? If not, create a new category of sin and pray for forgiveness to an appropriate saint or deity.

As always, give credit to the poet for inspiration (using “After” is one way), but even if you do acknowledge the poet’s influence, be careful that you still aren’t simply paraphrasing another’s creation. When in doubt, have someone else read the original poem and yours especially before submitting for publication.

Best wishes! Please share your creation! I’d love to read it!

Metaphor Your Writing—Another Twitter Prompt

Bless all of these industrious writers sharing ideas and content for lazy bloggers like me… For this prompt, choose the metaphor that best embodies your writing process, writing pieces, or your brain trying to procrastinate writing. Is writing an itch that you scratch even through the scabs? Is writing the lenses through which you see the world? Is it your weighted blanket, your anchor, or your anvil? What does writing do for you? Does it lift your head above water or simply lift your chin when facing the new day? What do you get out of it? Money (ha), fame, community, understanding, closure?

Write an extended metaphor for your writing, but try not to explain what the metaphor represents.


Choose Your Weapon (or Punishment)—Rod, Anvil, Sword, Cup, Oozing Blister—Twitter Prompt on the Shape of Anger

Using the inspiration provided by the brilliant Maggie Smith and Todd Dillard, write a poem describing the shape of your anger. Is it heavy? Does it provide you protection or punishment? If it is a tool, what implement is it? How useful? Do you use it against yourself? What does it feel like on your back, in your hands, in your belly? Would you give it away if you could? Name who you would hand it to? Would they carry it on or drop it?


If you are stuck, perhaps these poems will jumpstart you: excerpts from Chase Berggrun’s R E D, “Anger” by April Bernard, and “On Anger” by Rage Hezekiah.

Blanchard Caverns, Arkansas

Blanchard Caverns, Arkansas

Bonus prompt: The veterans who helped with the caves saw a battleship within the rocks. War followed them into the center of the earth. What follows you to your core? What shapes would you find? Do you look?

Etymology and Entomology—Dictionary this poem prompt

Etymology and entomology are easy to confuse: both study origins and evolutions and the way small changes scuttle across time and sometimes disappear in the cracks. Make a list of five words that have always interested you and look each of them up in the dictionary. Dig a little and find the history of the word. Note how it has evolved and how it has resisted change and write a poem using that information. For inspiration, read “Etymological Note” by Kelly Davio. 


If that prompt doesn’t work for you and you need another, let’s do a word-list prompt. I find them helpful when I seem to be stuck writing the same poem over and over. So for the second prompt, use the following list of words from Kelly Davio’s poem in your own: “plank,” “texture,” “strengthen,” “censer,” “splitting,” “gestures,” “wedge,” and “raking”   

Let’s try a similar prompt, but using homonyms (words that sound alike but do not share meaning) and homophones (homonyms that sound alike but share neither meaning nor spelling) of some of the words in the poem: “state”/state, “bare”/“bear” (both included in the poem), “body”/bawdy, “censer”/censor, “way”/weigh, “creep”/creep, and “rites”/rights. Let’s throw in some heteronyms (words that are share spelling but neither meaning nor pronunciation): “wound”/wound and “lead”/lead. Add more if you wish: present/present, content/content, bow/bow, convert/convert, desert/desert, incense/incense, crooked/crooked, deliberate/deliberate, minute/minute, buffet/buffet, object/object, refuse/refuse, tear/tear, wind/wind. 

Good luck! 


The Road to Hell is Colored within the Lines—A Prompt for the Rebels and for the Meek

We were all told to be good, to follow the rules, to listen to the adults, to obey. But then we were born in a world in which the adults lied, cheated, and destroyed, and they wrote the rules. When did you  break your first rule? What was it? Was the rule itself good? Was breaking it worth the consequences?  For your first prompt, write about that initial rebellion. 

If you did not rebel, if you’ve spent your life doing what you “should”—what were you told—what has happened? Have you inherited a piece of Earth with your goodness, or have your good intentions been your undoing? Write about the consequences of obeying. Who did you obey? Where has the path led you? What have you lost along the way?

For a third prompt, write about the rules themselves. Throw in the law of gravity, the Peter Principle, Fermi’s golden rule, and the Golden Rule. Mix and match them however you wish. Which rules are made to be broken? Which rules are made to break you? 


After the Apocalypse—A Prompt on Endings

Last post was on the end of the world, and this one is about the end of a poem. In a workshop with Brendan Constantine, either he (or one of the many poets he referenced) noted that the reader/listener views the entire poem through the lens of the last lines. The tweet below reminded me of that discussion and the importance of last lines. The entire thread btw was a treasure of last lines and fabulous poems. 


Here is the full poem:  


And here are some amazing last lines:  


So your prompt is to the last line of one of your poems—perhaps the poem you feel is your strongest or maybe the poem that never really worked, but you love its ending— and rewrite the poem using that last line as your ghostline. See what happens. Good luck! And please share if your poem is published or if you would simply like it to be the prompt’s sample poem. 


The Apocalyspe is here—with ladybugs

Recently a swarm of ladybugs was so large it was caught on weather radar. Rather than locusts, we were given ladybugs. Imagine an apocalypse when one of the portents is ladybugs. What will be next, a rain of kittens with each gently landing on its four paws and skittering around to bat at the invading daisies? What if the world ends not in fire or ice, but rainbows and glitter? What if Gabriel blows on a piccolo instead of a trumpet? If archangel Michael carries a bubble wand rather than a sword? Describe the end of days that closes with cookies and milk and a nap rather than damnation. Have fun! For inspiration, please check out Danes Smith’s beautiful “‘From ‘summer, somewhere’” and buy his book Don’t Call Us Dead.


A Prompt from Magic Realism Bot

Let’s try to reverse engineer this line from Magic Realism Bot: make a list of five cities, five flowers/plants, and five abstract nouns (self-sacrifice, complacency, ennui, justice, etc.) Look at the lists and see what sparks a metaphor. Extend the metaphor throughout the poem. For an additional constraint, limit yourself to three three-line stanzas. Good luck!


Bonus prompt: Write a poem that defines the shape of self-sacrifice without ever naming the object.  


Call and Answer—A Prompt for the Pray-er and the Prayed Upon

This line from Ilya Kaminsky reminds me of Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis—perhaps the best justification of religion—and also of Lois McMaster Bujold’s philosophical musings on the limits of God/Gods in her Chalion series.  


What question/accusation would you demand of God/Gods? What would they ask/accuse you of in return? What would each’s justification be for the evil in the world? Are the justifications the same? What would each of you do differently? And why can’t either you?


Moon Tide Press Gives a Call to Submit, to Arms, to Dinner, to Shop with Your Favorite Dead Celebrity—A Prompt Inspired by Ben Trigg

Ben Trigg’s poem “Lunch with Cleopatra” inspired the next anthology theme for Moon Tide Press. Make a list of five mundane tasks or places and make a second list of five dead celebrities. Look at both lists and see what sparks for you. 

If after choosing the person and the event, you still need help, research that person. Ben observed that all of the research he did into Cleopatra doesn’t directly show up in the poem, but, as you may notice, it does seem to provide a subtext here. The poem itself is thoroughly modern. Experiment with time and setting. See what works. 


Do remember to be respectful. While “At the Theatre with Abraham Lincoln” is attention getting, try to go beyond the initial shock value if the poem does dwell on the subject’s death. Fall in love with your subject; honor the person as if you were their best friend and you are the greatest best friend in this century or any other. Or perhaps center the poem on yourself if doing so is more appropriate. For this prompt, I wrote “Rock Collecting with Virginia Woolf” after reading her suicide note, but the subject matter is my own struggle, and I hope I have treated depression with the consideration it deserves. 

And here is a picture of Ben Trigg—the merrier co-host of the Two Idiots Peddling Poetry reading at the Ugly Mug, worst threat issuer for going over time, and the greatest best friend.  Btw, an expanded version of his book Kindness from a Dark God is forthcoming from Moon Tide Press, so buy it!