Saturday, November 4, 2017

Prompt #297 – Top Ten Tips

Often, when I offer tips for writing poems, I include one of more of the following items that I feel are important to remember. I used to do a "High Five," but I've added to that list. There are, of course, many other “tips” for writing poetry, but observing these will help move your poems toward final versions that shine. 

1. Avoid the passive voice.

2. Eliminate “ing” endings wherever you can.

3. Limit use of adjectives.

4. Avoid prepositional phrases when you can.

5. Get rid of articles (a, an, the) as much as possible.

6. Create images that are unique and memorable.

7. Avoid overstatement and too many details—show, don’t tell.

8. Stay away from clichés, abstractions, and sentimentality.

9. Create layers of meaning—point toward something bigger than the body of the poem.

10. Work on form and format (syntax, line breaks, and stanzaic arrangements).

This week’s challenge is to look through some already-written poems (that you consider “finished”) and to “checklist” it using the ten tips above. 


1. Take a look at a poem you’ve already written and apply the preceding items as a checklist for editing. 
2. Go through your poem one item at a time and see if there are changes you can make. 
3. After you’ve finished, compare your original version and the newly edited one. Is the edited version stronger than the original?

 4. Try this with other "finished" poems too!


Saturday, October 28, 2017

Prompt #296 – What Does Your Costume Say about You?

Dressing up in costumes (called ”fancy dress” in England) has a long history. Masked balls and other fancy dress occasions were popular long before the custom of wearing costumes on Halloween came into popular practice. Halloween costumes as we know them today were first recorded as late as 1895 in Scotland with little evidence of the practice in England, Ireland, or the US before 1900. Early Halloween costumes took their character from Halloween’s pagan and Gothic sensibilities and were worn mainly by children. These costumes were made at home from found materials, but by the 1930s, several companies began to manufacture Halloween costumes for sale in stores, and trick or treating became popular. Today, Halloween costumes are worn by children and adults, all of whom enjoy the fun of becoming something or someone other than who they really are.

From the time I was little, I enjoyed Halloween costumes for the pure fun of them but also because, in costume, I was able to step out of myself and into another personality. 

Although, traditionally, Halloween costumes are monsters, vampires, zombies, and other ghoulish creatures, many more are based on characters and figures from history, movies, and everyday life. In a very real sense, costumes are communication devices—they say something about the people who wear them.


1. Write a poem about a costume “experience” that you  had as a child or as an adult.

2. Write a poem about a costume that you’d love to wear. What’s the “character” you’d like to “become” on Halloween night? Why and how would a particular costume take you out of yourself and into a new personality?

3. Write a poem about the costume you would never want to wear and why.

4. Write a poem in which you “create” a bizarre costume that makes no reasonable sense—a fantasy costume. You might try a prose poem for this one (and be sure to include a little surreal imagery).

5. Write a poem about the animal you’d like to dress up as and “become” on Halloween night.

6. Write a poem about a historical person whom you’d like to “become” on Halloween. 

7. Write a poem about a costume party that you attended.

8. If you were going to dress up as a famous poet, which poet would you choose? In your poem, tell why you would choose that poet and describe your costume. For example, if you were to dress up as William Carlos Williams, your costume would include such things as latex gloves, a white lab coat, a stethoscope, eyeglasses, and brushed-back hair. For William Shakespeare, you’d need an Elizabethan-style outfit, beard, etc.


1. Remember as you write to let your poem take you where it wants to go, and to be aware of meanings other than the obvious.

2. Link the end of the poem to the beginning but not overtly—and don’t over-write.

3.  Write beyond the last line, then go back and find the last line hidden in what you’ve written.

4.  Try (minimal) repetition from another part of the poem—sometimes this can work very well.

5.  Use more one-syllable words than multi-syllable words in your last couple of lines (think in terms of strong verbs and no superfluous language).


It’s Halloween by Jack Prelutsky

It’s Halloween! It’s Halloween!
The moon is full and bright
And we shall see what can’t be seen
On any other night.
Skeletons and ghosts and ghouls,
Grinning goblins fighting duels,
Werewolves rising from their tombs,
Witches on their magic brooms.
In masks and gowns
we haunt the street
And knock on doors
for trick or treat.
Tonight we are the king and queen,
For oh tonight it’s Halloween!

Happy Halloween!

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Prompt #295 – Mysterious Monsters

(Yep, that's me in my zombie costume.)

It’s been more than a decade since zombies began their hungry shuffle into the mainstream of popular culture; and, in the monster aristocracy, zombies are currently the reigning royals. Since establishing the Carriage House Poetry Series in 1998, I’ve tried to come up with ideas (especially on occasions like our 19th anniversary this year) that will be fun for both performers and audiences, and something other than the typical poetry reading fare.

In the spirit of the season, and with Halloween coming soon, the Carriage House Series presented a program of ghoulishly good poetry, costumes, and celebration on October 17th. We called the program “Poets’ Apocalypse,” as a play on the current popularity of zombies and the term “Zombie Apocalypse.”

The slideshow from YouTube is below!

It’s amazing how fascinated we humans are with things that “go bump in the night.” As far as literature goes, books by Stephen King delight us, and Edgar Allan Poe’s stories and poems draw us to their characters and situations in the most appealingly spine-chilling ways. Given a choice between such written works and ballerina and bunny stories, the choice for many of us is obvious.

It may be that, because there’s so much real fear in our personal and global worlds, we find comfort of a sort in reading “scary” books and poems about other peoples’ terror. Or, maybe, we find it encouraging to “see” how weaker protagonists outsmart their terrifying antagonists. Whatever the reason, fictional monsters of one sort or another (from Stephen King’s vampire to Poe's raven, as well as the monsters we fear within ourselves) excite the imagination and continue to draw us to them. 

There are undoubtedly dozens of psychological explanations for our fascination with monsters, but I like to think that scary creatures are just plain fun. With that in mind, this week’s challenge is to write a poem about a monster.


1. Make up a monster or personalize one that’s commonly known. (Keep in mind that “monsters” may also be emotional or psychological.)

2. Describe your monster—not too much detail but enough to create a solid visual for your readers.

3. Tell how a "psychological monster" manifests itself in your life.

4. Create a poem about a "monster" fear that haunts or taunts you (based on things such as fear of the dark or fear of being alone).

5. Think about how you might be (or have been) a monster to someone, and write about it.

6. Write about an unexplained monster: the Yeti, Bigfoot, the Jersey Devil, the Chupacabra, the Loogaroo (or any other regional creature that’s known in local lore).

7. Write about how someone is a monster to you, or write about how something in your life is monstrous.

8.  If “serious” monsters aren’t your cup of tea, you might want to try a humorous approach. If you do, be monstrously funny.


1. The first line of your poem should be inviting, shocking, or curious enough to lure readers in.

2. Your poem should astonish readers in some way: insights, perceptions, imagery, description. 

3. You should include at least one image or figure of speech that makes your readers gasp. 

4. There should be an element of mystery and understatement in your poem—don't give everything away.

5. Avoid the usual pitfalls: 
·  writing in the passive voice, 
·  over-using adjectives, 
·  "ing" endings, 
·   too many prepositional phrases.


Saturday, October 14, 2017

Prompt #294 – Autumn & Halloween

It’s that time of year again! Autumn and Halloween! Time for colorful leaves, pumpkins, a special crispness in the air, as well as ghosts, goblins, ghouls, a touch of suspense, a bit of mystery, and poems to fit the occasion! Located on the calendar between autumn and winter, harvest and scarcity, Halloween is associated with early festivals and traditions, especially the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced SAH-win). Samhain, the Celtic New Year, was celebrated on November 1st.

Because Halloween falls on the 31st and is coming up soon, I thought I’d post two Halloween prompts for you to enjoy this week and next.

BTW, did you know that the poet John Keats was born on Halloween in 1795? His last poem is an untitled, eight-line fragment that seems chillingly well-suited to Halloween:

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed—see here it is—
I hold it towards you.

It’s widely believed that Halloween was influenced by western European harvest festivals with roots in earlier traditions, especially the Celtic Samhain (pronounced SAH-win). Samhain, the Celtic New Year, was celebrated on November 1st. According to the American Folklife Center at the U.S. Library of Congress, the Celts gathered around bonfires lit to honor the dead. At Samhain, the Celts believed that the wall between worlds was at its thinnest and that the ghosts of the dead could re-enter the material world to mingle with the living. At Samhain, the Celts sacrificed animals and wore costumes (most probably animal skins). They also wore masks or colored their faces to confuse faeries, demons, and human spirits that were thought to walk among them.

As Christianity began to replace earlier religions, the feast of All Saint’s was moved to November 1st, making the night before All Hallows’ Eve, or Halloween. Originally celebrated on May 13th from 609 AD, the date of All Saints’ was changed by Pope Gregory IV in 835 AD to November 1st, the same day as Samhain. All Saints’ was followed by All Souls’ Day on November 2nd and, by the end of the 12th century, these days together became Holy Days of Obligation—days in the Church’s calendar set aside to honor the saints and to pray for the souls of the recently departed. Related traditions included groups of poor people and children who went ”souling” from door to door on All Saints’/All Souls’ to beg for traditional soul cakes (mentioned by Shakespeare in The Two Gentleman of Verona when Speed accuses his master of puling [whimpering] like a beggar at Hallowmas). In return for the soul cakes, the beggars promised to pray for the households’ dead. “Souling” is very likely the older tradition from which today’s trick or treating evolved. Click Here for a Soul Cake Recipe

Halloween history notwithstanding, how about writing  a poem that “remembers” an autumn or Halloween time in your life? That is, a “historical” poem based on your own history.


1. Touch base with an autumn or Halloween memory, think in terms of a narrative poem (one that tells a story), and let the memory guide your poem. 

2. Be sure to evoke a mood or tone that’s compatible with your subject.

3. Imagine that you are an object of Halloween lawn décor. What would you be? Why would you choose to be that?

4. Autumn may also be an alternative subject that powers your poem. Create imagery that expresses autumn.


1. Avoid overuse of adjectives and adverbs.

2. Create a tone or mood that appropriate to your subject. Remember that the verbs you choose will give your poem momentum and a sense of trajectory.

3. As you develop your poem, move away from the obvious and work toward deeper meanings.

4. Work to engage your readers by using precise imagery and by layering meaning through similes, metaphors, and sound value.


“Haunted Houses” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“Mr. Macklin’s Jack O’Lantern”  by David McCord

“Theme in Yellow” by Carl Sandburg

And … by way of sharing, here’s a Halloween prose poem from my book, A Lightness, a Thirst, Or Nothing at All.


Trick-or-treaters come to the door repeatedly—little ones early, older kids into the night until she runs out of candy and turns off the outside lights. The wall between worlds is thin (aura over aura—stars flicker and flinch). The woman buttons her coat, checks her reflection in the mirror, and stands cheek to glass (eye on her own eye, its abstract edge). She leaves the house (empty house that we all become)—shadows shaped to the trees, crows in the high branches.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Prompt #293 – Pick a Picture

Have you ever looked at the Mona Lisa, or at any other painted portrait of someone you know nothing about, and wondered what the person was like at the time the image was created? We all see images differently. When we look at a photograph or a painting, we see something literal. The ways in which we interpret a photo or painting depends on a wide range of variables as we engage our individual experiences, perceptions, differences, ages, and cultural backgrounds and bring them into the interpretive mix. This week’s prompt will begin with a picture (painting or photo) that you will choose to write about.


1. Look through a newspaper, look at photos online, or select a painting (contemporary or time honored, there are many from which to choose online) of a person—someone unfamiliar to you. It’s important that the picture or portrait not be of a well-known person—in other words, choose a picture of someone you know nothing about. There should be only one person in the photo (like the photo above).

2. Either free write about the picture or make a list of words that describe the person in the picture.

3. Next, make a list of things that the picture suggests to you. When you look at the picture, what do you see? What does the person’s expression imply (the eyes, smile, frown, etc.)? What emotions do the picture bring to mind? Physical features will get you started, but then begin think about what the person’s story might be.

4. Does the person in the picture make you think of a particular emotion, an issue, a social injustice, a tragedy, or perhaps a happy ending?

5. Write a word “portrait” about the person in the painting or picture. You may even try writing in the first person, as if the person in the picture is speaking. (You might want to try a humorous approach.)


1. Try to write in the active, not the passive, voice. To do that, it can be helpful to remove “ing” endings and to write in the present tense (this will also create a greater sense of immediacy).

2. Be on the lookout for prepositional phrases that you might remove (articles & conjunctions too).

3. The great author Mark Twain once wrote, “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when close together. They give strength when they are wide apart.” This is especially true in poetry. So ... as you work on a poem, think about adjectives and which ones your poem can live without. (Often the concept is already in the noun, and you don’t need a lot of adjectives to convey your meaning.)

4. Avoid clichés (and, while you’re at it, stay away from abstractions and sentimentality).

5. Show, don’t tell—through striking imagery, a strong emotional center, and an integrated whole of language, form and meaning.


Saturday, September 16, 2017

Prompt #292 – "From Here to There" by Guest Prompter Penny Harter

As you know, I like to offer you prompts and poetry-related posts written by poets other than me.  Back on August 2, 2014, poet Penny Harter wrote a guest prompt that dealt with haibun and the spiral image. I’m very happy to post, with my sincerest thanks, another prompt, "From Here to There," that Penny recently wrote for us.
Earlier, at Adele’s invitation, I sent her the following paragraph for her blog about the various ways we poets end our poems. I’d like to expand on that with some suggestions and sample poems:

"How I end a poem is not usually a conscious decision. However, I do know that I want my poems to take a turn toward (or at) the end, similar to the turn in a good haiku. At the heart of haiku is the juxtaposition of two images or ideas across a kind of "spark gap". And these images connect in a way that both startles and seems inevitable. When I look back at poems I wrote some years ago—or even at occasional recent work—I find myself saying, "Well, I like the imagery, or the sound, rhythm, theme, etc., but if I reach the poem's end and it hasn't gone anywhere, hasn't taken me from here to there (wherever here and there are), it doesn't satisfy me." For me, writing a nice representational poem doesn't feel like enough anymore."

As poets, we know that all things are connected, one way or another. But sometimes those “connections” within our poem are like quantum leaps—the path of our writing suddenly taking an unexpected turn. For this to happen, we have to be open to where the words may be leading us.

Speaking of connections reminds me of a time in my life when I didn’t know what I was going to do about a difficult relationship. I wasn’t even writing about it; perhaps, I was afraid to do so. After a poetry reading when I told a poet friend about my dilemma, she asked me, “Where is your life in your writing? Your poems will know what you are going to do before you do!” And the shock of her question gave me permission to begin writing about it. Once that door was open, I wrote so many that the poems became a book—and discovered my solution in the process.

Just as what we write often reveals to us aspects of ourselves we didn’t know were surfacing, so, too, the turn in a poem can reveal to us an aspect of our poem it didn’t know it had. We won’t know where it’s going until it gets there.  


Here’s one of mine that leaps toward the end:

When I Taught Her to Tie Her Shoes

A revelation, this student
already in high school who didn’t know
how to tie her shoes.

I took her into the book-room, knowing
what I needed to teach was perhaps more
important than Shakespeare or grammar,

guided her hands through the looping,
the pulling of the ends. After several
tries, she got it, walked out of there

empowered. How many things are like
that—skills never mastered in childhood,
simple tasks ignored, let go for years?

In the Zen tradition, When the student is ready,
the teacher appears. Perhaps that is why this
morning, my head bald from chemotherapy,

my feet somewhat farther away than they
used to be as I bend to my own shoes, that
student returns to teach me the meaning

of life: not to peel my potato, though that,
too, counts, but to simply tie my shoes and
walk out of myself into this sunny winter day.

Copyright © 2016, Hospital Drive,

This poem was triggered by my reminiscing about years of teaching high school English. I suddenly remembered the surprise (and irony) of the sophomore girl whose shoelaces were dragging, and how when I suggested she tie her shoes before she tripped, she said she didn’t know how.

I started writing about that, and suddenly, my being in the midst of a course of chemotherapy after a cancer diagnosis, which I hadn’t wanted to write about...yet...thrust itself into the poem.  I named it right then and there with, “Perhaps that is why...” , and the connection fell into place. In the process, I found myself affirming that I was going to "walk out of myself" into a sunny day" (versus a dark night of despair).


1. Think of a memory that has stayed with you. It need not be a "big moment". Sometimes the most simple and ordinary moments are redolent with meaning for us. On the other hand, you may recall a challenging or sorrowful memory, or a very happy one.

2. Jot down as many images and feelings associated with that memory as you can. Make sure to list both nouns and verbs, as well as short phrases. Try to avoid tried and true emotional judgmental words like "beautiful, exciting, sad, scary," etc. Be as specific as you are able, and your reader will  "get it" without being told.

3. Start free-writing your poem. It may come out in verse or prose format. That doesn't matter in the beginning.

4. At various points throughout your draft, ask yourself, "What else does this remind me of?" Or, "How does this connect with my present life?" If you can answer either or both of those, your poem can make a turn right there. A poem can make more than one turn, sometimes earlier within it as well as at the end.

5. Decide whether you want to break up lines from a prose format into verse, or leave your piece a prose poem.

6. Look at your stanzas or prose blocks and see what you can do without. I often find I delete the first verse, or even more. Sometimes the engine of a poem has to rev a bit before you find the real poem several lines or verses into it. Also see whether you might want to rearrange your stanzas or blocks of prose. Sometimes a middle or final verse can work as a powerful beginning.

7. When you think you have finished your draft ask yourself whether you have ended up somewhere different, found an unexpected destination or revelation. Assess whether your poem goes beyond merely painting a pretty word-picture, taking both you and the reader somewhere new.

8. Keep writing :)!

About Penny Harter:

Penny Harter's poetry and prose has been published widely in journals and anthologies, and her literary autobiography appears as an extended essay in Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 28, as well as in Contemporary Authors, Volume 172. Her essays and poems also appear in the writing guides Wingbeats: Exercises & Practice in Poetry, The Crafty Poet I: A Portable Workshop, and The Crafty Poet II.

Penny’s most recent books include The Resonance Around Us (Mountains and Rivers Press, 2013); One Bowl (prizewinning e-chapbook, 2011); Recycling Starlight (2010); and The Night Marsh (2008). A Dodge poet, Penny was a featured reader at the 2010 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. She has won three poetry fellowships from the New Jersey State Arts Council, as well as awards from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the Mary Carolyn Davies Award from the Poetry Society of America, the first William O. Douglas Nature Writing Award, and two fellowships from Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA).

Be sure to visit Penny online at the follow websites:

To order Penny's books: