Tag Archives: Writing prompt

Facing It: Poetry Writing Prompt

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Kenneth Koch’s Rose Where Did You Get That Red is classic book of poetry invention exercises geared to fourth graders. He uses the structure and premise of existing poems as a template or recipe for a new poem. For example, the recipe you might extract from William Blake’s “Tyger” is: ask a magical creature how it was made and what makes it tick, and make each question describe an awe-inspiring aspect of the creature using metaphor. This recipe technique is a common writing prompt for adults, also.

Inspired by Koch and the “Where I’m From” poetry template broadly available online, I developed a template based on Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “Facing It” which has resulted in some excellent student work in my college introduction to creative writing classes.

If you haven’t already, outlining some basic components of poetry reliably steers students in the right direction, especially those afraid of poetry.

Rough Poetry Rules

Poetry usually:

  • Uses images and more than one of the five senses to show rather than tell
  • Balances concrete and abstract word choices
  • Uses the space on page for evocation (line breaks to emphasize last and first words, white space and stanza breaks, etc)
  • Comes from the unconscious and speaks to the unconscious
  • Reverberates with more than one layer of meaning the more you read it
  • Uses language concisely (is compressed)
  • Involves leaps of association (from light to dark, inside to outside, etc)
  • Progresses (as in change of mood, plot, character-development, or perspective)

Good class discussions also occur when I ask students to extract their own recipes from published poems.

The Writing Prompt

Preparation: Yusef Komunyakaa’s  poem “Facing It” takes place in front of the black, reflective surface of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C.  Read the poem two or three times, each time asking students what images they remember ( as per Sheridan Blau’s literature workshop).  Note how Komunyakaa uses reflective surfaces to shift from outside to inside the reflection, from flesh to image, from surface to depth, from past to present, and from illusion to reality.

Directions for students:

Compose a poem following these steps. Break the rules wherever inspired. The numbered directions loosely correspond to the lines of the poem. When confused, notice how Komunyakaa’s poem does it and substitute your own images/ideas. Read the rest of this entry

Toenail-Tombstone: a Group Writing Prompt

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typewriter.jpgAs I’ve mentioned somewhere before, I balk at the typical kind of writing prompt, like “Write about a secret” or “Imagine you just won an award.”

I like prompts that give you the material to manipulate, preferably with some element of chance, so that it causes you to trip over a stool and fall into a new piece of writing.

Here’s one I developed after walking in late on a session at a conference long ago. I never quite found out what the directions were or point was, so I developed my own.

Writing consists of splitting the brain between conscious and unconscious choice, between free association and deliberation. This exercise builds on that, isolating the activities so you can hone them in the same  way you would build up to a back hand spring.

Sit in a circle. Begin by warming the group up with quick associations. One person should say a word, say, toenail or pomegranate. The next person says the first thing that comes to mind, no pausing, no thinking, no passing. Then the next person says a word, then the next and the next. Keep it moving. If you freeze, say ugh, aaak!, lemon, blah, anything. Laughter is good. Do this until the words are flowing easily and no one is getting stuck. It may take as long as ten minutes.

Now slow down. Instead of choosing the first thing that comes to your mind, pause after the spoken word and allow your mind to leap from one word to the next until you come up with a peculiar, contrasting, truly unusual association, an association that causes friction or wonder. The next word should never be something that bears any close or common connection like toaster – oven. But toaster – tornado would be acceptable, or tornado – omelet.

Say the word slowly, savoring its flavor and texture.  Maybe even say it a few times, pronouncing short vowels long or long vowels short, or pronouncing odd spelling the way it looks, like veg-et-able, vege-table. Everyone should write it down on their pad.

If someone’s association is lame, don’t correct them. However the group facilitator may at some point ask people to slow down, pause longer and search farther. It is essential that that you not choose the first word that comes to mind, but the fourth or fifth, always going for the delightfully surprising, mysterious or strange. Do this until you have about 100 or so words – a thick, paragraph-sized chunk. Then throw it on a floured board and knead — oh wait, where was I?

Now write something and use every word in the chunk you collected.

Feel free to share results in your comments below!

Use the Random to Write

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510-playing-cards-randomI read a poem in a magazine recently by someone famous who shall remain nameless, and it made absolutely no sense. Each line/image seemed random and unrelated to the next.  He/she then wrote an explanation of what the poem meant or what life experience it rose from, and again, it seemed to have nothing to do with the poem.  What a great writing prompt, I thought.  So here it is:

Write ten random sentences. Just look around you and write down ten thoughts that occur as you look. Be sure to get something concrete/physical/visual in each line.  Or if you’ve been writing in the same spot for 100 years and are sick of your surroundings, pick ten random lines from 10 different poems by other people. If you happen to miss-read the lines, even better.

Then write a preposterous explanation of what it all means.  Or, if you like, somehow fashion these 10 lines into a coherent piece, changing them all to make them your own, of course.

This exercise has never failed to generate new material for me. Hope it does the same for you.