Saturday, September 27, 2014

Prompt #202 – Postcard-Sized Apology by Guest Prompter Peter E. Murphy

This week’s prompt comes from Peter E. Murphy, founding director of the highly-praised annual Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway and other programs for poets, writers, and teachers in the U.S. and abroad.

Peter is the author of Stubborn Child, a finalist for the 2006 Paterson Poetry Prize, and three chapbooks of poetry. His essays and poems have appeared in The Atlanta Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, The Green Mountains Review, The Journal, The Lindenwood Review, The Literary Review, The Little Patuxent Review, Rattle, Witness and elsewhere. He has received fellowships for writing and teaching from The Atlantic Center for the Arts, The Folger Shakespeare Library, The National Endowment for the Humanities, The New Jersey State Council on the Arts, Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the White House Commission on Presidential Scholars.

From Peter

Assignment: Write a postcard-sized poem in which you apologize for or argue against something or someone for an offense, real or imagined.

Requirements: Choose three postcards that attract you and one that disgusts or confuses you and incorporate one or more of these images into your poem.

[Note: When Peter uses this prompt at his Getaways, he provides participants with postcards from which to choose. He also offers a site for postcards at which you’ll find several postcard examples:

Alternatively, Peter suggests that you might choose from your own postcards or even old photographs or letters.]

Variation: Have someone apologize to you instead. Wouldn’t that be sweet?

Challenge for the delusional: C’mon, do you really need any more stimulation? Oh, all right. Integrate some writing from one or more of the postcards into your poem.

Note: Speaking of “challenges for the delusional,” be sure to check out Peter’s book Challenges for the Delusional: Peter Murphy’s Prompts and the Poems They Inspired (“a selection of Peter Murphy’s infamous and eccentric poetry-writing prompts. For 19 years he’s shared these prompts at his writers’ conference, the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway, and this collection features a sampling of the many diverse and wonderful poems that they’ve inspired. Contributors include: Stephen Dunn, Kathleen Graber, Dorianne Laux, James Richardson, and more.” Click Here to Order


"Sorry" by Ella Wheeler Wilcox (Though this one is definitely not postcard-sized!)

Thank you, Peter!

This prompt calls to mind one that was posted in August of 2012 . If you missed it first time around and would like to try a different spin on the apology poem, here's the link.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Prompt #201 – Poem Beginning with a Line By ...

Autumn begins here in the Eastern United States in two days’ time, and that got me thinking about  beginnings. Accordingly, in a spirit of beginnings, it might be interesting to write a poem that begins with a line by another poet (kind of a new beginning for a previously written line).

This, of course, isn’t a new idea or one unique to me, but it’s a great way to create a poem, especially during those times when wrestling a poem out of your pen isn’t easy.


1. Read a couple of the example poems below.

2. Now read several other poems, poems that are long-time favorites or new poems (perhaps in current issues of journals) that you haven’t read before.

3. From the poems you read, select the one that “speaks” to you the loudest and read it again.

4. Pick one line from that poem and use it as the first line in your own poem.

5. Either use quotation marks or italics to set the line apart and to indicate that it’s the quoted line (and make a note of the title of the poem from which the line comes).

6. Let the line you quote inspire you, let it direct the content of your poem; give it its “head” and see where it leads you.


1. Keep your poem under 30 lines.

2. Remember that good poems have more than one subject (the obvious and the suggested or inherent).

3.  Show, don’t tell.

4. Don’t let the obvious meaning of the line dictate what your content will be.

5. Let your poem connect, reveal, and surprise.


Some Lines You Might Like to Use:
  1. “In my beginning is my end” by T. S. Eliot from “East Coker”
  2. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty; that is all” from “Ode On A Grecian Urn” by John Keats
  3. “But at my back I always hear” from “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell
  4. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” from “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats
  5. “And miles to go before I sleep” from “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost
  6. “Let us go then, you and I,” from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
  7. “Because I could not stop for Death,” from Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death”
  8. “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”
  9. “Hope is the thing with feathers” from “Hope Is The Thing With Feathers” by Emily Dickinson
  10. “Scarcely a tear to shed” from “An Evening” by Gwendolyn Brooks
  11. “Our whisper woke no clocks” from “Dear, Though the Night Is Gone” by W.H. Auden“When we two parted / In silence and tears” from “When We Two Parted” by George Gordon (Lord) Byron
  12. "When we two parted / In silence and tears” from “When We Two Parted” by George Gordon (Lord) Byron)

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Prompt #200 - What Does a Poem Need?

This week prompt is a follow-up to last week’s and all those wonderful poet-tips. 

So ... let's stay in revise/edit mode and begin by taking a look at a few ideas of what a poem needs to be a poem.

For starters, a poem needs
  1.  to be fresh and to have a dynamic sense of language;
  2.  to have a strong emotional center;
  3.  to engage readers, to be accessible;
  4. to require every one of its words—no more, no less;
  5. to avoid preachiness and sentimentality;
  6.  to steer clear of abstractions (to show, not tell);
  7.  to be clear even when complex;
  8.  to create an integrated whole of meaning, language, and form;
  9.  to startle, to connect even the unseen dots, to reveal;
  10.  to employ craft effectively and attend to the mechanics of verse while using the head as much as the heart;
  11. to have more than a single subject (the obvious, yes, but at least one other suggested and inherent);
  12. to “speak” with the ownership of the poet—both the poem and its contents, its emotional core, and its voice (the page may be silent, but readers must hear the poet’s voice).
  1. This week again, take a look at some of your previously-written poems and pick one that hasn’t quite worked for you, one that still needs “fixing."
  2. Using the checklist above, examine your poem analytically and see if it meets the criteria. If it doesn’t, ask yourself why not and work on it line-by-line to make improvements. 
  1. Go back to last week’s prompt and review the tips noted there. 
  2. Focus on one or two of last week's tips and apply them to your poem.
  3. In the process, you may think of some tips of your own. If you do, be sure to jot them down! 
  4. Click here for some helpful editing tips from Writer's Digest.

The Poem Wants a Drink
By Karen Glenn

In the workshop, students analyze
what each poem wants, what each one
strives to be. Well, this poem is
a layabout with limited ambitions. It wants
a drink. This poem doesn't give a damn
for rhyme or reason. It only sings
off-key. It has no rhythm
in the jukebox of its soul.
It grew up without symbols.
It doesn't know from assonance.
Give it mambo lessons, and it
still won't learn to dance. It has
not one stanza with a lyric pedigree.
It's late, and getting later, and this poem
wants a drink.
Call it gray and tired. Even call it
a cliche. This poem's lived long enough
to know exactly what it means
to say: Don't be stingy
with the whiskey, baby.
.....Yes, the night
has been a cruel one, and this poem
could use a drink.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Prompt #199 –Tips for Fixing Your Poems

I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning,
and took out a comma.
In the afternoon I put it back again.

— Oscar Wilde

Edit: Correct, condense, or other wise modify written material.

Revise: Alter or amend already-written work to make corrections or improve.

We all spend time editing and revising our poems, and I’m sure we all have certain things that we attend to as part of the usual edit-and-revise process. 

I recently read an article about famous poets whose first editors were famous poet friends. Wouldn’t it be a treat to have a noted poet-mentor who would look at every poem we write and offer expert advice on how to make out poems better? Of course, we’re not all lucky enough to have poet-editors in the way that William Wordsworth had Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the way Lord Tennyson had Arthur Hallam, and the way T. S. Eliot had Ezra Pound but, this week, we do have advice from several distinguished poet friends who were generous enough to share some of their editing and revising tips with us. 

Renée Ashley:

Compression is one of the keys to a well-tuned poem, and one easy edit for tightening is a read-through for the notoriously almost-always-deleteable relative pronoun (that, which, whom, who). If you find one in your draft, try reconfiguring the sentence without it. You’ll probably see your line become crisper, swifter, and more effective.

Laura Boss:

Recently, I've been using some of my own lines from poems I've written in the past and incorporating these lines into my newer poems. I've suggested this idea to some of my writing students who have had success using their own favorite lines from their previously written poems and incorporating them into newer work. (I don't believe in using lines from other poets in your own poems unless you credit the poet or at least use quotation marks to show the words are not your own; using your own previously-written lines eliminates the need for acknowledgments.)

Robert Carnevale:

Take all the punctuation out of the poem and put it away without reading it in this state. When you take the poem out again, look for places where the absence of punctuation adds a new meaning or makes the meaning ambiguous. Consider the possibility that the new or ambiguous meaning might be the true-to-life one. Look for places where the absence of punctuation alters the rhythm or makes it ambiguous. Likewise, the tone. Stay open each time to the possibility that the change brings the poem closer to life or enlivens it some other way. Finally, restore just the punctuation marks that have passed this test and still seem to you gains for the poem.

Barbara Crooker:

“Sometimes, you have to kill the little darlings.” I’ve seen this quote attributed to Seamus Heaney, but I’ve also seen it attributed to numerous other writers. At any rate, it’s good advice—sometimes, you have to delete lines you absolutely love in order to make a good poem better.  Something I’ve found that helps me do this is to save cut lines and cut images that I still really like. I then try and use them to help jumpstart new poems.

Catherine Doty:

When I’m blundering about in a narrative and find that I’m sticking too close to the truth, whining, or beating to further death the horse of some watery epiphany, I summon the voice of a mentor—someone whose work I greatly admire. Would Thomas Lux say this, I ask myself, would Renee Ashley let something this overstated out of the corral? Sometimes it snaps me in the right direction, sometimes it just helps me toss what needs to go, even if I’m not sure what will replace it. 

Gail Fishman Gerwin:

Print out your poem(s). Take them to a quiet place, away from your computer. Pretend you are someone else: an editor, contest judge, respected mentor. Read the poems aloud as if you were an audience and look for cadence while observing unnecessary details: words that halt the movement, detours meaningful only to you, punctuation, overkill. Make your changes, repeat the process, and see how the work looks and sounds. 

Penny Harter:

I write mostly on the computer these days, print a couple of drafts, read them out loud to myself, make some edits by hand, go back into the computer to make those changes, and THEN find myself making even more. I also let a poem sit a day or two and revisit it to see whether I need to make further edits. One thing in particular I like to do is vary line lengths to see what works best, evaluating whether I want all the stanzas the same number of lines, or different, and also whether a longer or shorter line works both for content and sound.

Diane Lockward:

Finding the right form for your poem is best left for late-stage revising. Let’s say you have a single stanza of twenty lines. You like the way it looks and reads. But before you mark it Done, explore the possibility of alternative form arrangements. Divide your single stanza into four 5-line stanzas. Live with that for a while. Then try five 4-line stanzas. Now break those 4-line stanzas into 2-line stanzas. How about 3-line stanzas? This strategy often exposes the poem’s flaws—a weak line, a redundant line, a spot where something is missing. And eventually, you’ll uncover your poem’s true form.

Priscilla Orr:

Poems that drive me a bit crazy are poems where the speaker says what the person being addressed already knows. You once said…, or when we walked here. This is deadening to a poem. Instead, start after that moment, or argue with the person (even if they’re dead). Keep drafting until your poem takes a turn and you discover where it really wants to go. One thing that helps me is to move back and forth in time, so that the dialogue goes beyond what has already been said. 

Bob Rosenbloom:

Even with a couple of revisions, hearing yourself read a poem aloud helps. Reading to an audience is like airing a poem out and helps me hear how the poem might/should sound, so I often read drafted poems at open mics. If you edit as you read, which I do, you’ll discover better phrasing. Also, talk the poem out. What are you trying to say with the poem? Do you say what you meant? Talking the poem out with another poet, or even non-poet friend, who doesn’t mind listening to you often helps.

Charles Simic:

Remember, a poem is a time machine you are constructing, a vehicle that will allow someone to travel in their own mind, so don’t be surprised if it takes a while to get all its engine parts properly working.

Matthew Thorburn:

An early draft of a poem often takes a couple lines to rev up to full speed—and likewise it may drift along for a few extra lines at the end. When revising, take a close look at your opening and closing. Would the poem be stronger if you cut lines 1-2 and start with line 3? Could you delete those last three lines for a more surprising ending? Try folding the page over at the top or the bottom and see how it changes your poem. Your poem may actually be shorter than you thought.

Michael T. Young:

Sometimes a poem feels clunky, it’s just hitting some wrong notes no matter how much I revise.  I rework the poem but as a prose poem. I give myself the breathing space to write anything that comes without the restrictions of stanza and line breaks. Then I rework it again to find the stanza and line breaks after having found the images and diction necessary to the material. Giving myself that freedom helps find the movement needed to hit all the right notes in the final poem.


… and one from me with a quote from Mark Twain (’cause no one else mentioned how pesky adjectives can be).

Adjectives are descriptors and, in general they lack the power of nouns and verbs. Often, adjectives are just spectators at a prizefight, the real power and punch come through nouns and verbs. In fact, adjectives sometimes duplicate the meaning of the nouns they describe and are therefore redundant. Too many adjectives can ruin an otherwise good poem. So, as Mark Twain 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.”

Guidelines & Additional Tips:

1. The activity for this week is to revise and edit one or more of your already-written poems using the tips provided above to help jumpstart the process. 

2. Look at each of the poems with which you choose to work this week and identify a phrase, sentence, or line that represents the poem’s emotional center. What have you included (and should delete) in your poem that’s really meaningless in relation to the poem’s emotional core?

3. Don’t lose sight of the whole poem while editing the particular.  As you prune your poems, make sure that every word, every, phrase, clause, and sentence is necessary.

4. We all know what we mean when we translate thought into written language, but what we actually write on the page isn’t necessarily what we intended (and that includes the typos we don’t see precisely because we “see” what we intended and not what we typed). Be sure to “listen” to whatever spell checking program you have on your computer (they’re not always right, but a heads-up here and there can be a good thing.

5. Keep a copy of your originals and compare them, line-by-line, with your edited versions.

And ... here's a related poem by Wendy Rosenberg for you to enjoy.  

By Wendy Rosenberg

To renovate a poem
gut your kitchen first,
then sit in the middle of
the rubble and imagine
words climbing a trellis
outside the window.
Notice which words fall
to the ground when the
winds change. Invite a few
inside to light up the dark corners. 
Let the boldest ones paint a
fresh coat of phrases over dull walls.
If your poem still needs a
shelf to house some sadness,
leave the doors off.

William Butler Yeats wrote, “A line will take us hours maybe; / Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought,  / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.”