W.S. Merwin—Poetry and Prompts

In honor of W.S. Merwin, I’d like to share a few of his poems and let his brilliance inspire more poetry. If any of these prompts do resonate with you, please acknowledge his influence by using “After W.S. Merwin” or a similar method.

For the first prompt, use the title “For the Anniversary of My Death” as a ghostline. Ask yourself what will remain after you go? How do you now pass that unnamed day? Where are you or what activity are you in the middle of when that faint breath of mortality sighs along the back of your neck? 


For the second prompt, let’s use Chen Chen’s favorite poem, and one that brings an ache to my throat. I am amazed at the power of these three lines. Your prompt is to describe the color of absence in three lines. Do not mention the word “absence” anywhere but in your title. 


For the third prompt, think what words “will be buried with us”? What words do you carry with you, hear in the dark well of your sleep, and wait to rise and bear witness in your heavy bones, trapped within your rib cage until all and everything are freed to the sky? 


I find this photo of him by Jill Greenberg particularly lovely.  


Photo: Jill Greenberg/Courtesy of Copper Canyon Press  (found in NPR’s article “Poet W.S. Merwin, Who Was Inspired by Conservation, Dies at 91”) 

Dressed to Kill or Fly or Both—Prompts for the Lovely and We All Are Lovely, Damn it

For the next prompts, I want to use Tresha Haefner’s fabulous poem  “Swan Wedding” published in Cultural Weekly (Click the link for Tresha’s other poem and for other wonderful poets). I loved this hearing this poem read at Tresha’s feature and reading it on the page. The imagery is incredible.


First prompt: how would you dress to kill, to die, to escape. What outfit that you’ve worn or dream of wearing is the one that you would be married, seduced, sirened, and buried in? Is it a three-piece suit,  a sequined prom dress, the little black dress, or white wedding gown. Or if it is flannel pajamas, a hoodie, jeans and a geeky t-shirt, that is cool too. Describe this outfit but make the fabric a bed of roses and bloodstained thorns, a silky blouse house fire of a low neckline, a caution sign jacket, a starry sky filled with the unreachable heavens of distant gods, a murder of crows miniskirt with fishnet stockings that hooked a thousand leaping salmon.

For a second prompt, make a poem using the following words found in “Swan Wedding”: “satin,” “glaze,” “obsidian,” “shimmer,” “scythes,” “vodka,” “clouds,” “silver,” and “smash.”

For a third prompt, read Stacy Gnall’s “Self-Portrait as Thousandfurs” and notice the similarities and differences. In what outfit do you make your escape. What sacrifice do wear against your skin? Or what animal, bird, or insect would you trade your own skin for? 

Photo by Noel Nichols on  Unsplash  website.  

Photo by Noel Nichols on Unsplash website.  

Forest Door—Ekphrastic prompt

Here is another ekphrastic prompt: use the photo to create a poem. Remember to not simply describe the photograph though. Ask yourself who or what built the doorway and for whom. And why? Is the doorway an entrance to the forest or an entrance for the forest?

A doorway made of twigs, some floating, seems a structure designed by birds. Can a doorway be a nest, or vice versa? What does it mean to leave home and what is home? 

Doors provide an opening through a wall or other boundary. What are the unseen walls here? A doorway should have a door that closes and perhaps even locks. What does a doorway without the door mean? What is its purpose?  

Here are two poems that might provide inspiration: “Bon Courage” by Amy Guerstler, “Prospective Immigrants Please Note” by Adrienne Rich, and “Doorway” by Jack Myers. 

Good luck writing!


Post-Valentine’s Day—The Prompt That Won’t Get Carded

Margaret Atwood’s “Variation on the Word Sleep” is a poem that still brings an ache to my throat, especially when I remember the seemingly hopeless yearning I felt for my (now) husband. I think of it  when I lie next to him at night and listen to his rhythmic breathing, letting the sound of his presence rock me to too-often elusive sleep. I imagine that at my passing my soul alighting upon his outstretched finger and resting for one moment in his cupped hand before fluttering off to my preferred oblivion, and I wish for one moment to see the world made orderly by his rational eyes. My skies, the only place I am gifted with wings, are the blue that watch me.

Wll, that has probably embarrassed him enough for now...on to the prompts!

Prompt 1: Describe another activity that you want to watch a potential lover perform? Would you like to watch a lover drink the first cup in the morning? To be the aroma inhaled, the relief in the first swallow, the trail of warmth sliding along tongue and down the throat to the center of abdomen, to be carried there in a cold morning, the frenetic firing of neurons wiping away sleep’s film, to embody the addiction and daily comfort and habit, to be reached for and cupped every blessed morning, even the darkest ones. If you do use this prompt, particularly if you use similar wording to the original or use a variation on the title (pun intended), don’t forget to credit Atwood. 


Prompt 2: What items would you give a lover to protect them (or he/her) in a dream? An invisibility cloak to hide them from the monsters, an eagle’s wings to fly high above pain, a key to unlock the guilt-manacles chaffing their wrists? 

Prompt 3: Where does your lover’s dream-self travel? Where is their “worst fear”? Describe the land/environment. How will you help them return to the waking? Will you offer gate or boat or bridge or door or galloping horse or tunnel or elevator? And how will you follow them there? If it helps, you can use the line “towards your worst fear” as ghost line. The rest of the poem can your desired lover’s journey or your own. Again be sure to give credit.


Dana Point, CA

Ekphrastic, Pic from the Button Factor—Three Prompts

The past two weeks have not been productive ones. I neglected to post even a Valentine’s prompt. This coming week will, I hope, be better. 

For the prompt, use the following picture from an abandoned button factory. What can make you of the image of the buttons spilling in a downward spiral? Where are the threads to anchor the buttons, the needles? Where have all the hands that created the buttons gone? What shirts are now undone, unable to close and shield the body from view? What is spilling open now? What effect does time have on even what binds things together? Why is someone standing at the top ledge of a staircase lined with a thousand ways to slip? When do you do the same? Sometimes it feels as if I am about to slip whenever I open my mouth. 

If you are having difficulty getting started, read “ San Sepolcro” by Jorie Graham, ”Shirt” by Robert Pinsky, “White Buttons” by Mary Ruefle and “Night Falls Like a Button” by Chen Chen. Notice how wide ranging the themes and styles are. 


(btw, I could not find the origin of the picture to give credit). 

“Put this in my toaster”—the Domestic Bliss Prompt

Yes, Valentine’s Day is coming up, and, yes, it is a holiday that is dreaded, mocked, celebrated and ignored sometimes all by the same person at different stages in life. Nonetheless, let’s add some romance to the February rain (and, sorry, everyone else, snow). Let’s skip the first message/text and the first date and just leap in to a marriage in all of its domestic erotica.

 For the first prompt, take the first line from Luisa Muradyan’s “Marriage” as a fill-in-the-blank exercise and choose another verb to complete the infinitive phrase: “Marriage is a lifelong commitment to” ________. From that line, extend the metaphor throughout the poem as Muradyan did. 


Btw, Ilya Kaminsky is a great poet to follow on Twitter for posted poems and interesting discussions, and I absolutely love this poem.  The full poem is below:


For the second prompt, use the line “There is honesty/in the oatmeal but not the Greek yogurt” as a ghostline just because that line made me laugh. Here is where overblown claims (innuendo intended) about pomegranates, cranberries, acai, etc. can come in handy.   

For a third prompt, create a list poem listing all the places where love poems are. The title could even be or some variation of the line “There are love poems everywhere.” Again, give credit to Muradyan for the inspiration.

For a fourth prompt, write a poem using the following words: “ritual,” “forbidden,” “ashamed,” “calling,” “wash,” “honesty,” “ancient,” and “aisle” but again change the religious context. What other subject matter could these apply to.  

For a fifth prompt, use a quote and apply it within the poem. I love how Muradyan follows the quote with what each partner does repeatedly (and therefore are).  Perhaps write a poem using the quote “Life must be understood backward. But it must be lived forward” by Søren Kierkegaard and write a narrative poem in flashback. 

For a final prompt, turn a routine domestic task—such as grocery shopping as Muradyan did—into foreplay and afterglow. Put all the dirt into cleaning house, make a striptease of laundry, turn your oven on for baking.  


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! 

Self-Reflection and Self-Replicating Prompts

How do you visualize your “self”—is it a body part, an onscreen character you watch during a every uncomfortable scene in a rom com, a color, the smell of a rusty swing set and cut grass, the TV screen your eyes make of the world and framed by your hair? Perhaps the latter is only my projection of self lost in the world around me. Is your self the one you recognize in photographs, in the mirror, in the weight of your body as you wake in the morning?

Create a metaphor of your self and follow it as it moves about the world. Do you empathize with your self—perhaps want to pick it up and cuddle it like a stray kitten? Or are you embarrassed by it? Is your self the pair of underwear you only wear when all others are in the laundry hamper? Or do you glorify in your self? Is it a jewel sparkling beneath your skin, a peacock giving a hundred side glances to all newcomers to the scene, a stallion outracing all your competitors whether they know they should be running or not? 

This prompt was inspired by a poem shared on Twitter by the amazing poet Emilia Phillips (author of Landscape of Sex and Violence). I wanted to give credit to Emilia Phillips for sharing the poem especially since I found her notations interesting.


And here is the entire poem. 


For a second prompt, use the line but fill in the ending: “i thought that i was a ____” to begin the poem and to end it. Think of the two lines as mirroring each other. What do they reflect? Be sure to credit Justin Phillip Reed (“After Justin Phillip Reed” after your poem’s title”).

Another possible prompt is simply to use that same line “i thought that i was a long hand” as a ghostline. Play with the idea of self as ghost (or how about the concept of ghost line itself?) What moves through your self, what does your self pass through in turn? If your self is a line, what does it intersect with, what is it parallel to? Where is it heading? Regardless of how you play with these concepts, still give credit to the poet though.

For a fourth prompt, use the following words in a poem: “angling,” “rigid,” “war-sharp,” “slashing,” “gauze,” “smudged,” “histories,” “contours,” “plexiglas,” and “wring.”

As always, please share any poems written from the prompt (however tenuously). I would love to read your poems! And once published, please send a link so that I can promote your work!


Two Beautiful Poems Make Seven Prompts and a Scene

Today, let’s look at two poems: the first, “Re: Happiness, In Pursuit Thereof” by C.D. Wright, and the second, “Transformation” by Adam Zagajewski and translated by Clare Cavanagh. Notice the similarities of the endings (credit to Bethany Hindmarsh @bthmrsh on Twitter for observing the relationship between the endings and posting “Transformation”).  


For the first prompt, use “Re: Happiness, In Pursuit Therefore” as an inspiration for your own answer to the question of where you will be found. Where is that place? The intersection of regret and ten minutes after closing? A small oasis between last Tuesday and a deadline on Friday? A copse with a small ice-clogged stream?

For this next prompt, begin by answering the one thing you crave, although you can choose to break the rule as “Transformation” does and list three. A possible alternative is to describe what you crave it but never name it. 

For this next prompt, begin by answering the one thing you crave, although you can choose to break the rule as “Transformation” does and list three. A possible alternative is to describe what you crave it but never name it. 

For the third prompt, take the first line from either poem to use as a ghost line. Remember to erase the line. If you do use the first line, perhaps as an epigraph, be sure to give credit to the poet. Even if you do erase the line, you can always use the “After [poet’s name]” below your title. 

For a fourth prompt, try to use as many of the following words in your own poem: landfall, labyrinth, mercurochrome, chamomile, glass, ivory-billed, elapsed, riddle, crimson, muteness, careless, bends, walks, walls, lightning.

For a fifth, ponder what it means to be “ivory-billed” and “Invisible/except to the most prepared observer” if debate over the ivory-billed woodpecker’s presumed extinction lives on? Then answer why the “birds grow quiet”; what snuffed their voices? Or, if you prefer, describe any negative phenomenon as in “heard the birds grow quiet”: felt numbness spread, saw vision fade, tasted hunger, etc. 

For the sixth prompt, notice all the indicators of time in the two poems: the year “2005,” “before landfall,” “at night,” “Aztec time,” “fifth and final cycle,” “digital,” “early,” “Elapsed breath,” “months,” “sunsets,” again night, “dusk” and “September.” Juxtapose these indicators. What did/will time make us? When do we begin again if we never stop ending?

For the final prompt, compare “stardust/Ancient tailings of nothing” to “September’s sweet dust gathered.” When do we become lightning? What next?


And here is a photo I took using the Paper Camera app.

More Gifts—Prompt Inspired by Rachel McKibbens

Rather than a gift of darkness, describe joyful, life-affirming gifts, the gentle ones Rachel McKibbens recommends. For sample poets or poems just for pleaseure, read “The Gift” by Li-Young Lee and read the poems “Minneapolipstick” and an “Untitled” by the inspiring Rachel McKibbens.


I can no longer remember at which beach I took this picture, but I remember the happiness of the moment.  It lingers, a warmth in my palm.


Gift—Prompts Inspired by Mary Oliver’s “The Uses of Sorrow”

I was saddened to hear of Mary Oliver’s passing. While she was sometimes dismissed in academic circles, her poetry touched so many—perhaps it was her accessibility led that to her dismissal as “serious poetry” by some. Regardless, I believe she has much to teach and to admire.

For this first prompt, please notice how much Oliver is able to say in such a short poem. Limit yourself to five lines to say what legacy you will leave others. This could be a list or one single image. 

For a second prompt, what is the poem of a dream? Write from a single dream or a compilation of dreams? How does time function in this poem, similar or opposed to the dream(s)? is there a color that tinges the entire dream/poem. Describe the color but do not name it. What feeling did the dream leave  you with upon waking? Yearning, anguish, hope, solace? What feeling do you what the poem to convey? 

For a third prompt, answer whether you kept the “box of darkness” Oliver writes of. If not, where did you leave it? Did it you pass it on? If so, to whom? If you kept it, where is box now?  What has this gift provided you? 


Below is a photo of Mary Oliver provided with an article in Slate

  Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images. 

Let’s Science the Shit out of this Life and this Death—Poetry Prompt

For this prompt, take statistical terms and apply them to your daily life, nature or your immediate surroundings, or a seemingly unrelated topic. Make a scientific study of the statistical probability of  having all the necessary ingredients for a recipe two weeks after a divorce, the inverse correlation between expertise and confidence in discussing a subject on Twitter, and the causal relationship between the skin color and gender of congressional member and resulting media attention—as measured in number of articles, tweets, editorial op ed’s, and TV rants by pundits—on a high school nickname or use of profanity.

Or avoid politics. Use the Overton window to explain your mother’s comfort in showing your nude baby photos to your acquaintenances or Poe’s law to justify your dating experiences. Plot your levels of anxiety and escapism. Make a bar graph of excuses to cancel social interactions. Cite your sources.

For inspiration, read “Exploded View” by Heather June Gibbons in Her Mouth as Souvenir (pasted at the bottom of this post) or in its original version entitled “Diagram.” I sincerely recommend buying her book. Amazing. Click here to buy from the publisher. It is also available at Amazon and other retailers.


And here is the poem—so fantastic. I am grateful I was able to hear her read it and other poems from her book last Wednesday. And so glad I bought Her Mouth as Souvenir!


OMG, I love the “red telephone and a black telephone”!

Event and Prompt: This Wednesday at the Ugly Mug—Dark Ink Anthology Reading! Be there and be scared (of me apparently)

Mermaids, monsters, 50-ft. women, oh, my! Join us at 8 p.m. at the Ugly Mug in Orange for your favorite creature feature and Moon Tide’s publisher Eric Morago whom I blackmail into publishing me because I keep his darkest secret in an empty Kleenex box on my bedside table. I haven’t ever seen it—it is a dark secret and avoids the light, duh—but I feed it pumpkin seeds, so I know it is still there. Buy the book and free his secret or his soul—both probably cost the same.

And now for the first prompt: write a poem or story about taking a mermaid for a lover or an enemy. For inspiration, read Jan Stinchcomb’s “The Lorelei Project.” Just remember, not all hearts beat warm. 


 (This is the mermaid I created out of rocks, seaweed, and shells a few years ago.)

And here is a picture of me looking very intense (or my attempt at frightening at the Dark Ink anthology launch:

(Photo by Alexis Rhone Fancher)

(Photo by Alexis Rhone Fancher)

And here is my mermaid poem in the anthology...but you have to buy the book to read the ending of “Mermaid: The Ending.”


Thank you, Adrian Ernesto Cepeda, for the photo and for the plug on Twitter!

The Year as Ghostline—A Prompt Inspired by Lucille Clifton

I love this poem by Lucille Clifton (along with so many other of hers), so to celebrate the end of one year and the beginning of another, use the opening line “i am running into a new year” as a ghostline. As an added constraint, include three other ages or years. Which years or your previous selves were the hardest to leave behind? Which are the hardest to run into again or the hardest you run away from? 


New Year’s Eve—Prompt for the Passing and the Surviving

For the last day of 2018—a hard year for so many as we have watched a slow falling into night—spend a moment to remember all the moments that brought you here under the blinking sky, the births and breaths and birdsong. Write a poem to honor what beauty has passed and what beauty remains. Try to use anaphora and alliteration. For inspiration, read Joy Harjo’s poem “Remember.”


Christmas Prompts—The Gift of the Internet

Last year I came up with my own prompts for the holiday; this year, just a big nope. My brain this holiday season is the blankest page in a notebook, not even lined. So here is a list of writing prompts for both poetry and fiction from Litbridge.  


And here is a bizarre short story that I loved from Greg Van Eekhout and found today on Twitter. Again, Twitter (in spite of all of my griping about Nazis, incels and bots (oh, my!) is a blessing. How could I not click on the link with that description...


The “O” Prompt—NSFW

Volcanoes, lightning strikes, and tsunamis—what natural disaster best describes your “o” moment? Or perhaps what fills your head as your body blinks its third eye at God’s coming light is a gentle rain after a long drought, a single ray of light grazing the center of a daisy, a spring bubbling in a forest, a wetlands sprouting lilies.  

Maybe rather than images, you hear a choir belting out “Joy to the World,” a clarion call, a cascade of flutes, or a single harp string thrummed. Describe the song, the words and instruments if any, the tone and the register. God loves a song of praise. Sing it out.

Or possibly all of your boxes on the to-do list of your body get checked in black marker and every item on your pull-down menu is selected. 

Choose your metaphor and ride it all the way through until you’re done and done. 

For inspiration, read these two poems by Danez Smith: “King the Color of Space, Tower of Molasses & Marrow” and “Bare.” 


Obligatory Frankenstein Poem—Sarah ChristianScher (aka Scarus ChristforSure)

Today’s prompt is meta or incestuous, whichever scares you the most. This poem (perhaps) came from one of my prompts (or rather a challenge) back in June, and now the prompt is title your poem “Obligatory ____  Poem” and use the following six words from Sarah’s poem: name, living, head, hiss, kindling, mirror. Try to change the usage of the words from verb to noun and vice versa or feel free to binge on gerunds like potato chips and piss off writing instructors everywhere.  

Btw, to read the rest of Sarah’s poem, you have to buy the book!!!! Muhahahahahahahah. Here’s the link


And here is that sweet face housing the diabolical mind that makes Ian’s friends worry about his incipient demise involving pogo sticks, an inflatable baby pool filled with electric eels, and a banana peel. 


Poetry Prompt from Phillip B. Williams—Stealing Prompts Because Mice Are Cute Thieves

So I am pretty tired, and no prompts (or anything else productive) is happening in my brain. The hamster wheel has rusted still and quiet. So, time to find Twitter prompts! Blessed, blessed poets posting prompts... 


Photo chosen because I love this children’s book and because the mouse is me, my brain, and my current level of ambition all holding a flower.