Weekly Prompt: Stein on My Mind

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Paris 1923 | Courtesy of VerySmallKitchen

Speaking of summer reading, my summer reads (and flicks too, apparently!) have demonstrated the uncanny trend of featuring the work and life of a single character: Gertrude Stein.  Without knowing anything about the book except that it was recommended to me by multiple people, I started reading Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt.  I’m about four chapters into the novel, and have just begun to realize that the mysterious “Mesdames” referenced obliquely throughout the introductory chapter are none other than Alice B. Toklas and, as she is called in the book, “GertrudeStein.”


I had also planned to read Juliana Spahr’s Everybody’s Autonomy: Collective Reading and Collective Identity (University of Alabama Press, 2001) later this month, and when I flipped through it a few days ago — lo and behold, the title of chapter one?  “There Is No Way of Speaking English: The Polylingual Grammars of Gertrude Stein.”  Spahr goes on to consider such figures as Lyn Hejinian, Harryette Mullen, and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, but, as far as I can tell, grounds most of her inquiry in the groundwork Stein laid for future generations of poets in Tender Buttons and other influential writings.

But last night’s movie is what really convinced me that something the universe has been orchestrating a grand conspiracy to get Stein on my mind.  Friends had warned us to walk into Midnight in Paris without any expectations or previous knowledge about the film, so we had no clue what the movie was about — or into whose home the main character would stumble after wandering into 1920s Paris.  I won’t spoil the (admittedly very thin) plot, but suffice it to say, I got the message.

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Weekly Prompt: “Stealing”

On the subject of "stealing" poems from the observed world: a "steal-worthy" orthographical variation? (Bag reads "Roos Beep").

Today’s exercise is less of a prompt and more of a practice, but having just returned from the 2011 Kundiman retreat—at which Oliver de la Paz announced on the first day that he fully intended to “steal” from each of us, and where Kimiko Hahn shared a lovely collaborative variation of a “stealing” exercise during my final workshop of the weekend—I wanted to continue the chain and extend the same thought to you.

Perhaps the term “stealing” is a bit harsh-sounding—”recycling,” “quoting,” or “riffing” might be more a more genteel way to put it, since what it involves is not outright plagiarism, so much as a process of exploring new avenues through “sampling” and strategic mimicry—but somehow it still feels apropos, as the delightful discovery and surprise that occurs when one takes something that one admires and puts it into a different context, tinkers with it, uses it as a launching pad or a frame, embeds it, or layers it with one’s own work, does in part come from the feeling that one is doing something utterly subversive.  Socially and culturally, we tend to envision the artist as a lonely figure who operates entirely self-sufficiently—the work, and its every element, must come out of her head and her head alone.  But in fact, in our daily lives as artists, we are engaged in a perpetual process of “stealing”: we observe things in the world around us—the quality of light on a bedspread, the deep crease in a parent’s forehead, the conversation between a pair of girls at a nearby table, the color of a house, what the host is saying on TV, the sound a cash register makes when it opens, the texture of a wall at the train station, the funny taste of food when one is sick, a joke that fell flat at a party—we process them, we file them away, and these things which we file away filter themselves, eventually, into our creative work.

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Weekly Prompt: Dramatizing Change

At Gasworks Park in Seattle

This week’s prompt is inspired by two things — which happen to be closely related.  First, the group of beginning poetry students I had the pleasure of teaching this spring.  Second, the end of the school year, which, for those of us tied to the academic calendar, signals a shift in many things: schedule, work pace, travel & place, life rhythm…

Midway through spring quarter, a group of my students developed a writing prompt, or “pitch,” in which they asked their classmates to write a poem that paid particular attention to sound.  In class, we’d been discussing Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1994), in which she introduces the concept of “sound families”: vowel and consonant sounds divided further into mutes, liquids, etc.  I’d asked the class to develop their own families of sound, based not only on Oliver’s taxonomy of vowels and consonants, but on their intuitive sense of language as well — what sounded “spiky,” what sounded “smooth;” what sounded “purple” versus “yellow,” and so forth.

What emerged from this class session was the following prompt: write a poem whose use of sound dramatizes a change, or shift, in mood and circumstance.  I found this to be a brilliant way of getting the class to explore the use of dynamic structures in their work, as well as to think about the possibilities of sound in enacting meaning.

After all, why not use sound to signal change?  When frightened, it’s our ears that prick up first — sounds acquire sharper, more jagged edges; loud noises reverberate in a clanging, dizzying cacophony.  The change of a season, the death of a loved one — these are dramatic moments that shift the ways in which we understand our surroundings and, thus, alter our sense perception of the world.


*  *  *


Write a poem that dramatizes a shift or change, not simply in its narrative or rhetorical structure, but in its sonic textures as well.  Think about the relationship between sound, speaker, and tone; ask yourself how your piece’s aural qualities can become a dynamic force that alters the mood or circumstance of your poem.

Curated Prompt: Jon Pineda – “Caesura”

Jon Pineda

This May, in celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we have asked several respected teachers and writers of Asian American poetry to share favorite writing exercises with us.  This week’s installment was contributed by Jon Pineda.

Once, for training purposes at my job, I had to practice setting up an extension ladder mid-span, into that near empty space between telephone poles.  This space is usually connected by a cable lashed to a thin, metal strand.  At the top of the extension ladder are swiveled hooks for resting on the strand itself, so that there will at least be some resistance when it comes time to ascend the rungs, and then—once at the top, roughly twenty feet up—to attach the leather harness belt.  Then you simply lean back.  Ahead, there is nothing but the sky in front of you.

Though in that particular moment, suspended high above the ground, I was, of course, thinking about my physical safety, I couldn’t help thinking about other things as well.  That sky in front of me, for one.  It felt as though I could have fallen easily into that space.  Later, as I was working on a poem, I found myself thinking a lot about the caesura: the pause that usually occurs within a line of a poem.  I have always been interested in how this visual and aural delay aids in securing and distancing sections of imagery, so that the presence of a caesura is immediately felt by the absence it evokes.

Consider the first section from Ellen Bryant Voigt’s poem “Practice”:  “To weep unbidden, to wake / at night in order to weep, to wait / for the whisker on the face of the clock / to twitch again, moving / the dumb day forward— // is this merely practice?”  Voigt begins with a list of infinitives, each separated by a comma.  The reader is carried along by the undulant churning of each subsequent infinitive pushing into the next.  Then, the arrival of the dash halts the momentum just prior to the speaker’s question, “is this merely practice?”  The caesuras become a place that simultaneously allow the reader to rest within the pause and yet momentarily resist the unfolding tension of the poem.

I am grateful to Eileen Tabios for her contribution in resurrecting the work of the Filipino poet José Garcia Villa.  In The Anchored Angel, a book thoughtfully edited by Tabios, I first encountered Villa’s elaborate use of the comma, and I remember feeling confused and yet oddly at ease by this rush of punctuation.  In my mind, I kept hitting against the commas, until the words that preceded them became buffers for the next.  At that point, I settled into each word, pausing before and after:  “The, red-thighed, distancer, swift, saint, / Who, made, the, flower, principle, / The, sun, the, hermit’s, seizures, / And, all, the, saults, zigzags . . .” (from Villa’s poem “The Anchored Angel”).

In both examples I feel a presence at work.  Each point of pause tests the strength of the line.  It lets me, the reader, live in the suspension for just a little while longer.

Prompt: Write a poem that prominently features a caesura (or a number of caesuras).  Make the absence essential.

Jon Pineda is the author of the memoir Sleep in Me, a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection and a Library Journal “Best Books of 2010” selection.  His poetry collections include The Translator’s Diary, winner of the Green Rose Prize, and Birthmark, selected by Ralph Burns as winner of the Crab Orchard Award Series in Poetry Open Competition.  He teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte, and this summer, he will join the faculty for the Kundiman Asian American Poets Retreat held at Fordham University.  His poem “[we left the camera]” appeared in Issue 1 of Lantern Review.

Curated Prompt: Stephen Hong Sohn – “Food Pornography Poems”

Stephen Hong Sohn

This May, as part of our celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we have been asking teachers and writers of Asian American poetry to share favorite writing exercises with us.  This week, in acknowledgement of the fact that the work of reading and theorizing Asian American poetry is as important as the work of writing it, we’re changing things up a bit by adding a perspective from the world of literary criticism to the mix.  For today’s Curated Prompt, we have the privilege of collaborating with one of our regular guest contributors—Asian American Literature scholar and Stanford professor Stephen Hong Sohn—as he writes about one of his aesthetic interests and shares, for the very first time, a sample of his own (hitherto secret!) creative work.

Alexis Kienlen’s She Dreams in Red begins with my favorite kind of poem: the “food pornography” poem, which immediately problematizes issues of authenticity and Asian American identity. The lyric speaker often contemplates ethnic heritage as routed through her mixed-race background. What does it mean to so unabashedly crave ethnic foods, the lyric speaker seems to ask?  What can one claim ownership over, and what can one not?

Here is an excerpt from the opening poem, entitled “Chinese Café”:

“i want to savour pork dumplings,
dribble hoisin, garlic and black bean sauce over rice,
want to twist and drip noodles into my mouth,
lick my lips” (11).

The ending of the poem leaves us with this line: “this Chinese café stays open all night,” and we, as voracious readers, couldn’t really be happier.

Marking ethnicity is always a challenge within poems, but many Asian American poets such as Li-Young Lee and Aimee Nezhukumatathil have been able to explore gastronomic tropes with much complexity, and often with much humor.  At once, we understand that food can mark ethnicity, but that it can also be deconstructed or employed to complicate superficial consumptive habits. Food also provides a particularly rich terrain of vocabulary. As someone who can’t cook myself, I find cookbooks endlessly fascinating and endlessly ethnic. Frank Chin once made a scathing critique of writers who employ food pornography as a way to mark themselves as native informants, but it’s difficult to know when excess is intended or not. For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll intend to push this excess, as Kienlen does when craving those “wontons” and “custard tarts” (11). Here is a food pornography poem I’d like to share:

Vietnamese food pornography poem #2: the sacred and profane

on this misted early morning
the haze ever so beta-particulate
japan’s nuclear crisis compared to Chernobyl
but culinary erotics distract me
the sensuous curve of the baked egg tart from Kang Lac
hand pressed pork puffs and steaming pork buns
so coy under the dim lights of Asian Garden Mall
Yum Cha Café boasts the understated elegance
of coconut crusted mochi balls with taro curd filling
flirtatious with such pliant, feathered skins
next door, Bánh Mi Saigon delivers me
into succulent hybridities: liver pâté, cold cut meats,
pickled carrots and turnips, all on French baguettes
postcolonial oriental cosmic

can i be so apolitically gastronomic
in these electromagnetic times
what intersections do i allow at Bolsa and Magnolia?
vendors at food stalls gesture in Vietnamese
frown, furrowed brows, shrugged shoulders
i profess that i am purely Korean
retreat into a bustling noodle shop
where my psychic sukiyaki emits a spectral glow,
brains scrambled in sinewy ramen, measured in sieverts
tripe floats on radioactive, soupy currents
bulgogi strips infesting this curry-flavored broth
as i later salt my phở with iodine and wasabi

Now, let’s see your version of a “food pornography” poem.

Prompt: write a poem that engages greedily, lasciviously—even pornographically—with the sensual pleasures of consuming “home” or “ethnic” foods in order to challenge, reimagine, or push familiar culinary markers of ethnicity into the realm of playful excess.

* * *

Stephen Hong Sohn is an Assistant Professor of English at Stanford University.

Curated Prompt: Eileen R. Tabios – “A Writing Prompt That Goes With the Flow . . .”

This May, as part of our celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we have asked several respected teachers and writers of Asian American poetry to share favorite writing exercises with us.  This Friday’s installment was contributed by Eileen R. Tabios.

My favorite writing prompt is based on Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Day Feature. I once signed up to receive daily emails of their chosen “word-of-the-day” (you can also subscribe here). I used their daily word as a poem title. With that title—and subject or theme or however I responded to it—I’d then write a prose poem. As a secondary strategy to this prompt, I suggest writing a complete poem (or at least its first draft) in one sitting. Relatedly, I suggest the prose poem form, as I don’t wish the issue of line-breaks to interrupt the flow of the poem.

Trying not to interrupt the flow—and energy—of the poem is important, so feel free to add any strategies that would facilitate this. Chinese-American poet Arthur Sze, for example, has shared how he often doesn’t bother capitalizing “I” when writing his first drafts so as not to intrude on the flow of the poem (I don’t recall if he called it “flow” but that’s the net effect).(1)

I like several things about this prompt’s conceptual underpinnings. First, it helps to take you out of self-focus as the site for poetic inspiration. More poets need to realize their personal lives really aren’t that interesting to others (which is why, when I address biography and autobiography in several of my recent books, it’s not because I’m talking about myself, so much as because I’m disrupting conventional ways in which biography unfolds across genres—from the poem to the memoir to the third-party biography). Not that I’m dissing confessional or such types of poems; I’m suggesting this prompt as another way to generate poems where having a title or idea given to you necessarily forces you to address something that may or may not have been of personal concern. In this way, the prompt metaphorically writes the world into the poem rather than the poet writing something at the world.

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Weekly Prompt: Tamiko’s Prompt (National Poetry Month Contest 1st Place Winner!)

This week, we’re featuring the prompt submitted by the grand prize winner of our National Poetry Month Prompt Contest (sponsored by Kaya Press) . . .


Tamiko Beyer!

We loved the freshness of Tamiko’s exercise, and the way that it challenges the writer to combine the particular vocabulary of one activity with the extremely close, almost manic, focus, of an “obsession.”  As poets, we all have obsessions to which we find ourselves returning again and again, and Tamiko’s prompt provides a great way to step out of the boxes we draw for ourselves in order to approach a familiar topic from a new angle.

Prompt: Obsession

  • First, make a list of your obsessions – the topics you find yourself writing or thinking about again and again.
  • Now, think of a specific thing that you know how to do well – knitting, rock climbing, photoshop, fixing cars, etc. Make a list of as many words specific to that activity – the specialized vocabulary of it – that you can think of.
  • Finally, choose one of your obsessions (not related to the activity you chose) and write a poem about it, incorporating as many words from the second list as you can.

Tamiko will receive a copy of Lisa Chen’s Mouth, courtesy of the folks at Kaya Press. Congratulations, Tamiko, and thanks once again to all who submitted!

Signing off for this National Poetry Month,

Iris & Mia

Weekly Prompt: Aaron’s Prompt (National Poetry Month Prompt Contest Runner-Up)

This week, we’re featuring the prompt submitted by LR reader Aaron Geiger, whom we’ve chosen as the first runner-up in our National Poetry Month Prompt Contest (sponsored by Kaya Press).  We really enjoyed the genre-bending nature of this exercise and thought it was a fun and unusual approach to the challenge of writing narrative poetry.


Find one of your favorite short stories or essays; perhaps even one you might have written. Make sure it is a story that you know, or that you are going to read thoroughly. Deconstruct the elements of the story into a form suitable for a poem that is no longer than 20 lines.

Rules: you must maintain one of the plot devices, and you can only use words that appear in the story. The purpose here is to show how dense and vibrant poems are, and how much they can  convey with a few carefully chosen words. Can you recontruct the “essence” of a short story or essay in a poem?

Thanks once again to all who submitted, and congratulations, Aaron!

Happy Good Friday, and (early) Easter, to those who are celebrating this weekend.  We’ll see you on the other side of Monday morning.

Weekly Prompt: Chris’s Prompt (National Poetry Month Prompt Contest Runner-Up)

This week’s prompt features the idea submitted by LR reader Chris, whom we’ve chosen as the second runner-up in our National Poetry Month Prompt Contest (sponsored by Kaya Press).

Chris’s prompt was short, but we felt that it aroused a number of interesting possibilities.  It made me, in particular, think of the “beautiful witch” archetype that’s present in so many myths, legends, fairytales, and folklore (from the Greek sirens to Snow White’s stepmother)  and which is often sinisterly underwritten by the deep-seated fears of people in power (men, whites, imperialists, US ‘nativists’, etc.) about those who are ‘under’ them (women, racial or political minorities, colonized and indigenous peoples, immigrants, etc.).  In some cases, especially under colonial rule (and here I am thinking particularly of the line of questioning that Barbara Jane Reyes explores in her books Poeta en San Francisco and Diwata), culturally powerful local figures have been forcibly re-coded as demons, monsters, exiles by imperial powers. How the faces of those obscured behind such imposed masks of monstrosity might be reclaimed, even amidst the violence cast upon them by history, is something with which many writers of color, women writers of color, immigrants and descendents of immigrants, colonized peoples and descendents of colonized peoples, must wrestle on a daily basis.  Chris’s prompt thus resonates with me in the sense that it asks us to explore the possibility of celebration,  even from within (and, in fact, despite) a position in which individual identity has been marginalized by culturally- or socially-imposed images of monstrosity.


Take something that (or someone who) is frightening and write a poem about why it (or he or she) is beautiful.

If you’d like to investigate the approach I’ve described above a little further, here are a few books that deal with rehabilitating the voices of figures who carry the weight of  “monstrosity” in some way :

Poeta en San Francisco (Barbara Jane Reyes, Tinfish 2006)
(Barbara Jane Reyes, BOA 2010)
Habeas Corpus
(Jill McDonough, Salt 2008)
Brutal Imagination
(Cornelius Eady, Putnam 2001)

(Know of more collections that we should add to this list?  We’d love to hear your recommendations; please let us know about them in the comments!)

Congratulations to Chris, and thank you once again to all who submitted!  Stop by next week to see who we’ve chosen as our first runner up.

Weekly Prompt: Janet’s Prompt (National Poetry Month Prompt Contest Runner-Up)

Thank you to all those who submitted prompts to our National Poetry Month contest!  We’ve chosen three runners-up and one winner, and will be announcing them week by week as we post the ideas that they submitted.

This week, we’re featuring, as one of our runners-up, a prompt derived from an idea that was submitted by LR reader Janet.  We were intrigued by Janet’s entry, an exercise which involved plugging elements of one’s memory of a childhood meal into the form of a recipe, and have elaborated upon and expanded that idea slightly to produce this week’s prompt.  (The text of Janet’s original exercise can be found here).


Write a poem that recalls the recipe for a meal from childhood or which uses such a recipe to frame your memory of that meal. Be sure to include, besides the actual ingredients that went into that recipe, descriptions of more intangible elements, such as the people, the place and emotions that were present when you ate that meal.

Congratulations to Janet, and thanks again to everyone who entered our contest.

Please check back again next Friday to see a prompt from our next runner-up!