Blank page? Blank screen? Blank mind? If you should suddenly find, horror of horrors, that lately you're confronting one, two or even all of the above, please be advised that you are not alone. In fact, as you sit reading this column you can be pretty certain that there are thousands of poets out there who are slouching, just like us, through their own psychological Saharas and Death Valleys.
You also have something in common with the great poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who, on his 32nd birthday, wrote in his notebook: "So completely has a whole year passed, with scarcely the fruits of a month--O Sorrow and Shame.... I have done nothing!"
If Coleridge's lament sounds uncomfortably familiar, then repeat after me: This temporary lull will soon pass. Your muse will come back, and you will recover to write something memorable.
How, you ask? An excellent question. There are almost as many systems for conquering writer's block as there are practitioners of poetry, and what has succeeded beautifully for some might not be particularly helpful for you. Mind-altering substances, for example, may have been just the ticket for our friend Coleridge, but they are emphatically not recommended. Instead, some vastly more effective strategies (not to mention more healthy and more legal) are readily available and have been known to work wonders.
One that's frequently done the trick for me involves simply picking up a good anthology, or a single collection by an extraordinary poet, and reading the poems therein. You will be amazed at how often you'll come across a stanza, or even just a line, that will stun you, and send you on your own unplanned journey in the direction of a new poem. A line-and-a-half from a master like Eamon Grennan, for instance ("Sitting outside when the sun comes back, I hold up my throat / to its open blade ...") or Pattiann Rogers ("Almost everything I know is glad / to be born ..."), might lead you to a spectacular point of departure. Allow some virtuoso snippets to show you the way, and then proceed, inspired, on your own.
Other approaches to block-busting are sometimes referred to collectively as prompts. They are not hard to come by. Workshop facilitators often have several up their sleeves, yours for the taking when you join a group. Others can be found in poetry handbooks, and hundreds more are available on the Web.
This column will include 23, presented for the sole purpose of nudging you into leaving your slump behind as quickly as possible, and simultaneously saving you some painful trial-and-error time. Thank you to the creative-writing teachers, students and poets--including Ellen Kort, Kathrine Varnes, Daisy Fried, Stephen Powers, Bruce Taylor, David Weinstock, David Keplinger, Debra Bruce, Jane Hilberry and Moira Egan--who contributed their own prompts and other prompts that they've found helpful.
Without further ado, here are some almost foolproof poetry prompts:
1 Write a poem in celebration of one part of your body, or a poem that is spoken by one part of your body. Use Lucille Clifton's "homage to my hips" as an example.
2 Create three columns with the following headings:
a. an article of clothing;
b. an event;
c. a feeling or emotion.
Use all three items for a nonstop free-write or "spill." Keep at it until you've filled at least a page or two with your scribblings. Remember, digressions are permitted, even encouraged! Then go over what you've written with a highlighter, and mark the best moments. Discard all the rest, and turn these good moments into a polished poem.
3 Write a poem as if it were a letter to someone well-known. Choose anyone at all, from Brian Williams to Mike Tyson to Cameron Diaz to the Dalai Lama, or even someone from the past, such as Emily Dickinson or P.T. Barnum or one of Pavlov's dogs.
4 Making sure that you use the third person, write the difficult, potentially painful poem you've been afraid to write for years and years.
5 Keep a journal next to your bed and enter a line a day for 90 days. When the 90 days are up, go back and use these lines as the raw material for your new poem.
6 Research the year of your birth. Write a poem that incorporates at least a half-dozen of the events, facts or details you discover about it.
7 Jot down your favorite excuse for not having written any poems lately. Use it as the first line of a new poem.
8 Write a 10-line poem in which each line is a lie.
9 Write a whole poem without any adjectives whatsoever.
10 Write the worst poem you possibly can. Now go back and revise it so it's even worse.
11 First, read "Lonely Hearts" by Wendy Cope (at http://writers almanac.publicradio.org/index.php? date=2001/12/06). Then write a poem in the form of a personal ad.
12 Write a poem made up entirely of questions. (The questions don't have to be related.)
13 Pick a shoe, any shoe, and let it tell you about where it's been lately. And where it's likely to go. Turn this confidential intelligence into your next poem.
14 Go to Lake Superior State University's annual "List of Banished Words": www.lssu.edu/banished/ current.php (the list includes phrases as well as individual words). With a straight face, write a poem that incorporates at least four or five of them.
15 Write a poem that's at least 50 words long, in which each word has only one syllable.
16 Write a poem about the very first time you did something. Try to avoid writing about the first time you fell in love, however; too many of those are around already.
17 Write a poem that consists of exactly 35 words. No more, no less.
18 Try three extended metaphors, as follows:
a. Write a poem (or take a poem you have already written on the topic) about sex. Then rewrite it, substituting words having to do with warfare for the words having to do with sex.
b. Write a poem (or take a poem you have already written on the topic) about love. Then rewrite it, substituting words having to do with politics for the words of love.
c. Write a poem (or take a poem you have already written on the topic) about God or religion. Then rewrite it, substituting words having to do with a political figure whose policy you oppose for words referring to faith or God.
19 Pick a poem or prose passage that you admire, and steal its verbs. (Or just steal your favorites.) Make a list of these verbs, then try to use them all in your own poem. Feel free to change the forms of verbs (past to present tense, infinitive to participle, etc.), but for the sake of challenge, try not to change their order.
20 What are you obsessed with? What would take the meaning out of your life if it were gone? Write that poem.
21 Go to a gallery, studio or museum where you can observe sculpture, paintings or other works of art. Choose one work of art and draw it. Then describe it as fully as possible. Return to the gallery the next day, reread your first description, observe the artwork again, and add details you didn't notice the first time.
22 First, read a good number of John Berryman's "Dream Songs." Then write a poem that is highly critical of yourself, or a named person representing yourself. Be as objective as you can with this one, and dig deep.
23 Think of what you can now write (feel, see, think) at your age that you never could have done when younger. Who were you then; who are you now? What have you gained; what have you lost? What have you learned; what have you forgotten? Write a poem that uses those ideas in any way you can. One possible (but certainly not mandatory) approach: I used to ... But now I ... repeated throughout the poem.
Using prompts like these, perhaps one of them per day or even one per week, virtually guarantees the demise of writer's block as we have known it. Have a wonderful time with them!
Marilyn Taylor, a contributing editor at The Writer, is Wisconsin's poet laureate. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Measure, The American Scholar, The Ledge, Cream City Review and other journals. She is the author of eight collections of poetry, including Subject to Change, which was nominated for the Poets Prize, and a new chapbook titled Going Wrong. Web: www.mlt-poet.com.
Source Citation:Taylor, Marilyn. "23 writing prompts to get you on a roll: these techniques--from free-writing to composing a 'bad' poem--will boost creativity.(Poet to Poet)(Column)." The Writer 122.10 (Oct 2009): 17. Academic OneFile. Gale. BROWARD COUNTY LIBRARY. 20 Sept. 2009
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