Weekly Writing Prompt: Writing About Workshop


The inspiration for this prompt comes from a lesson I taught recently in my Intro to Poetry class: “How to Workshop a Poem.”  From an instructor’s perspective, it was a lesson on workshop protocol, giving constructive feedback, etc.  As a creative writer, however, one who has sat through (and participated in, don’t get me wrong!) countless undergraduate workshops, graduate workshops, informal workshops, community workshops, middle school workshops, etc. etc. etc., the sense I got while delivering my mini-lecture was that my students were being inducted into some secret society, one with oddball rules (“The person whose work is being workshopped must never speak.”  “If one wishes to refer to the ‘I’ in a poem one must always say ‘THE SPEAKER’ and never ‘YOU.’ “) and traditions not immediately intuitive but terribly, terribly important nonetheless.

Since the proliferation of university-housed creative writing programs, a process that began in the 1930s with the establishment of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (just called “The Workshop” on the department webpage) and has caused the number of programs to skyrocket to unprecedented numbers (the current program count is somewhere around 800), we’ve entered an era in which most—if not all—of us have at some point encountered the Workshop beast.  Most of us have been trained in an institutional context and as such, have grown accustomed to specific patterns of speech and behavior in the classroom.  Which can be a bit weird.

[T]hat gives me a very strong feeling,
a very powerful sense of something.
But I don’t know if anyone else was feeling that.
Maybe that was just me.
Maybe that’s just the way I read it.

(“Workshop,” Billy Collins)

All the same, we know workshop, both love and hate it, think it’s vital, useless, irrelevant, etc.  So why not write about it?

Two well-known examples of “workshop” poems:

Workshop” by Billy Collins

For a Student Sleeping in a Poetry Workshop” by David Wagoner


Write a poem about workshop, set in workshop, or against workshop.  Take your cue (or not!) from Collins and use the peculiar language and syntactical constructions we’re trained to use in the creative writing classroom.

Play with perspective and speak, like David Wagoner, from the instructor’s point of view, or if you’re more familiar with the student experience, from the shoulder of the participant.  Have fun with voice and persona, and don’t be afraid to take a few jabs at what we all know as the Workshop beast.

Weekly Prompt: Inversion


A couple of weeks ago, we posted an imitation exercise, so I thought it would only be fitting to post that exercise’s opposite: writing an inversion. I’ve done this exercise a few times before, and on each occasion I’ve found it very difficult! The decisions one has to make about how to flip another poet’s meaning inside out and yet still remain somewhat faithful to the sonic/syntactical frame of the original poem and at the same time create a piece that has some aesthetic sense to it really stretch one’s abilities in all sorts of ways.  Though I couldn’t imagine the results of any of my inversions as finished poems (I’m not yet good enough at the exercise to have made it really work for me!), I’ve often found myself being pleasantly surprised by the fresh aesthetic directions in which the exercise has pushed my language and has caused me to step out of myself.  Often, I find that allowing myself the freedom to write what feels like complete nonsense truly makes me pay further attention to technicalities of sound and word choice.

Prompt: Write a poem that is an inversion of another poem.  Take each line of the original poem and  try to write its antithesis or opposite, subverting the original poet’s imagery and meaning while remaining as close to their rhythms and syntactical patterns as possible.

Just for kicks, here is an excerpt from a first draft of an inversion exercise that I patterned on Pattiann Rogers’  “Address: the Archaeans, One Cell Creatures“:

“Yes, some are fully clothed
but too large for even the boldest
black and white and since they are silent
and neither tuneful nor stoic, they are,
therefore, not any less than mirage, less
than illusion, less than truth.

They have not stood against stiff
white desert surfaces and stayed,
they have crumbled beneath the breath of equatorial steam, have failed to root
amidst loose radicals and reactive
salts, slipped away easily while coughing up
conjoined flesh. They are more whimsical
than concrete, far more solitary
than black holes (. . .)”

Another interesting possibility for the inversion exercise—one that I have yet to fully explore myself—is the opportunity that it might afford for a poet to “write back” at the politics of a poem representing a set of ideals that he or she might want to subvert.  I’ve yet to find a poem that this would work well with for me (the success of the exercise depends as much on one’s choice of an original poem as it does on the execution!), but if you’ve tried this before successfully, I would love to hear about your experience—please do share your thoughts with us in the comments!

Happy writing, and happy weekend!

Weekly Prompt: Steph’s Prompt (National Poetry Month Contest 1st Runner-Up)

This week prompt is from Steph, the reader whose prompt we’ve chosen as the 1st runner-up in our National Poetry Month Contest:

Prompt: Find a childhood toy and write about the first memory that comes to mind. Also consider the toy’s colors, textures, heft, etc.

We thought this was an interesting take on the exercise of writing about an object as a memorial trigger (I’ve done this before with vegetables and with household items like hangers and lightbulbs, but never with toys, which have a peculiar relationship to memory as both mute witness to and the subject/object of memory).  There are so many ways that you could spin it: a textural list poem, a persona poem, an ode, a poem in the form of an advertisement, an epistolary poem, etc.

Many congratulations to Steph!  Please check back next Friday when we reveal our first place winner and the recipient of a signed copy of Ignatz.

Weekly Prompt: Joy’s Prompt (National Poetry Month Contest 3rd Runner-Up)

A big thank you to all of you 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 our third runner-up, a prompt that comes from an idea submitted by LR reader Joy.

Prompt: Write a poem having to do with place characterized in some way by a border or boundary.

Congratulations to Joy, and thanks again to all of you who submitted entries.

Check back again next Friday to see the prompt from our second runner-up!

Weekly Prompt: Rituals for the Turning of the Year

This year’s Year of the Tiger begins on Sunday, Feb. 14th (according to the Gregorian calendar).

Orchids for the turning of the year.

For most people, the approach of the New Year (whether according to the Gregorian or Lunar calendar) signals a time to reflect upon our habits and to make lifestyle changes in order to have a “fresh start” in the coming year.  The traditions surrounding New Year’s celebrations are filled with rituals celebrating transition and fresh hope, and also with traditions that remind us of our roots — our connections to family and beloved friends.  Whether toasting to Auld Lang Syne or visiting our elders to exchange New Year’s greetings and receive gifts, our traditions engage us in a rhythm of return and renewal — each year, we come home or look back at what’s familiar and beloved in order to move forward again.  Lunar New Year rituals, in particular, are rich with symbolic resonance.  Cleaning out the house, donning new clothes, consuming foods which are meant to stand in for one’s hopes for the year, celebrating with firecrackers and tree blossoms — these are actions which can remind us of the fleeting nature of what’s past, but which also evoke a sense of hope for the new experiences we anticipate in the coming season.  It’s with these things in mind that we give you this week’s prompt

Prompt: Write a poem about a personal or familial ritual for the turning of the year.

If you need help getting started, here are a couple of links to some beautiful New Year’s poems from the Poetry Foundation’s archive:

Burning the Old Year” by Naomi Shihab Nye

New Year” by Bei Dao (trans. David Hinton and Yanbing Chen).

* * *

Happy Lunar New Year!

– The Editors

Weekly Prompt: “The Right to Inquire”

Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. (Lib. of Congress, via Wikipedia)

Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been 81 years old today.  I wanted to do a prompt this week which engaged thoughtfully (in some way) with his legacy—with the work that he began and which continues today—and so I was pleased to stumble upon Laura Gamache’s lesson plan, “The Right to Inquire” (on the Teachers & Writers Collaborative’s web site), in which she uses poetry as a means to link the questions about equality raised by the Civil Rights Movement with contemporary racial injustice for a group of children two generations removed from MLK’s era.  In her three-part exploration, Gamache juxtaposed the big, outspoken rhetoric of the challenges raised in Langston Hughes’ poem, “Let America Be America Again” with the much-quoted rhetoric of Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” and asked her students to write poems that engaged in different ways with questions about the slippery relationship between what we imagine or idealize as “freedom,” and the reality of the matter.

In may ways, I think that Gamache’s title, “The Right to Inquire,” touches a vein at the heart of the struggle for social justice as it continues today.  Who has the right to raise difficult questions, or questions that nobody wants to hear?  And who will have the courage to do so?  In reading Hughes’ poem myself, I was struck not only by the questions that he raises (“Who said the free? Not me? /Surely not me? The millions on relief today? / The millions shot down when we strike? / The millions who have nothing for our pay?”), but also by the broad claims that he lays to the voices of those who (ought to) have the right to freedom, in order to argue that America has not been “itself,” or has not met its own precious standard of liberty, in which the call to equality rings foremost:

“I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek–
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean–
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today–O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.”

Continue reading “Weekly Prompt: “The Right to Inquire””

Weekly Prompt: Superheroes

A favorite childhood superhero (via Muppet Wiki)
A favorite childhood superhero (via Muppet Wiki)

It’s been a superhero kind of week.  Inspired simultaneously by this song, this NPR story, and by an article (I think from Teachers & Writers’ Collaborative magazine)  in which a writing teacher asked her tentative students to write about their secret superpowers, I developed a prompt about superheroes to use with a group of adult residents at the South Bend Center for the Homeless, where my M.F.A. classmates and I lead a workshop on Wednesday nights.

After opening with an icebreaker about flight vs. invisibility, I shared two poems (“The Flash Reverses Time” by A. Van Jordan, and “Superhero Pregnant Woman” by Jessy Randall) written from the perspectives of different kinds of superheroes with the group, and asked them to choose between three options: 1) to write about an unusual superpower of their own, 2) to write about what their life might be like (how it might be the same or different) as an undercover superhero or villain, and 3) to write from the perspective of a “real” superhero (fictional or living).  The intent was to draw out the class’s imaginations, away from the everyday perspectives of self, and to have them enter into the fantastic realm of the alternative desire – the “what if,” so to speak.  The class responded with a wide range of interpretations – two people wrote about the ability to stop pain, several people inhabited their favorite comic book and movie characters, one young man who says that he normally writes “on the dark side” wrote a very sweet poem about his ‘superhero’ of a mother, and a young woman who was at first hesitant to share her work wrote a hilarious piece about a superhero who could, among other abilities, toast pieces of bread with her built-in laser beams.

Continue reading “Weekly Prompt: Superheroes”

Weekly Prompt: The Art of Rhetoric

Note: This prompt was first introduced to me by poet and UW professor Andrew Feld, author of  Citizen (Harper Collins, 2004).  Because I found it so helpful to my own writing, I have decided to share it with Lantern Review.

Shakespeare Resources Center

The art of rhetoric, one of the ancient arts of discourse, is the art of persuasion and using language effectively.  Rhetorical devices and figures can prove tremendously useful to the contemporary poet, in the sense that they offer one a variety of syntactical structures that force tighter form and syntax, quicker turns in language, and—at times—more rigorous thought.

In my experience, experimenting with “rhetorical poetry” can allow a poet’s language to move in unexpected ways, thus enabling them to explore territory they wouldn’t normally breach.  Think of rhetoric as a tool than can be applied to language; the use of chiasmus, for example, will structure your thought in such a way that you begin with a word of idea, move to another, and then circle back to the initial one.  Consider the rhetorical effect of this particular construction: the sense of venturing out, circling, and returning is created not by description or narrative, but by the language itself.

The following excerpt from one of my “rhetoric” poems is an example of how using a rhetorical device in your writing can lead to some productive experimentation with voice, tone, and syntactical structure:

Sometime in the nineties, midway through

Her Southeast Asian exile, she directed the Frenchman at the salon

To Do Anything.  Thus began the cropped years.

She came home and cried.  We all cried.

Here the use of epistrophe is demonstrated in the repeated use of the word “cried” at the end of the two sentences in the final line.  Ending both sentences on the beat “cried” affects not only the rhythm of the language, but the manner in which the stanza shapes meaning and tone as well.

To write your own rhetoric poem, refer to this article, entitled “Shakespeare’s Grammar: Rhetorical Devices,” which is a quick glossary of some of the most common rhetorical devices.  Select a few (two or three, to begin) devices from the list and incorporate them into your writing by either (1) revising a previously written poem, or (2) tackling some new material.  It may be easier to begin with a poem you have already written, although starting on a completely new project may afford you a greater degree of freedom.

In short, consider the ways in which rhetoric can take pressure off you as a poet.  Let syntax do the work of poetry—you may be pleased with the results!  We would love to see any experimentation that results from your work with rhetoric, so please consider posting your responses on our blog.

Weekly Prompt: “We Mustn’t ____ Anymore”

First things first: a shout out to Oliver de la Paz, who unwittingly provided the impetus for this week’s prompt.  Mr. de la Paz, we love what you write!

I’ve been spending a lot of time on Twitter recently in order to keep up with the LR community and last week, I happened to read one of Mr. de la Paz’s Tweets that said:

Oliver_delaPaz mustn’t put two spaces after periods anymore. Oops. Old habits die hard.
11:37 PM Nov 13th from web

The content of the Tweet registered briefly with me (I spent a lot of time this summer having to retrain myself to use one space after periods because my job involved cover copy work), but as the week wore on, I found that the rhythm of that first sentence had, in a strange way, worked itself into my head.  “We mustn’t ____ anymore,” I thought as I washed the dinner dishes.  “We mustn’t_____anymore,” chugged the buses rolling past my apartment on their morning routes.  “We mustn’t ______anymore,” wheezed the teakettle as I brewed my afternoon cup. 

Being haunted by a Tweet (okay, a variation on a phrase from a Tweet) is no easy thing.  It twists itself into your every thought and action, pokes at you until your very footsteps are beating out “We mustn’t_____anymore,” and you feel you must do something with it.  Hence, this week’s prompt.  To Mr. de la Paz: apologies for hijacking your internet musings.  No irreverence was intended. Twitter made me do it!

* * *

This exercise takes its form from both the phrase “We mustn’t ______ anymore” and from Kenneth Koch’s classic poetry exercise for children, in which every line begins with the words “I Wish.”

Write a list poem composed of sentences that begin with “We mustn’t . . . ” and that end with ” . . . anymore.”

Continue reading “Weekly Prompt: “We Mustn’t ____ Anymore””

Weekly Prompt: Directions to My Childhood

In 2008, Florida-based poet Nick Carbo published the poem “Directions to My Imaginary Childhood” in the Norton anthology Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry From the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond (eds. Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal, and Ravi Shankar).  “Directions” sweeps the reader through the bustling streets of Manila and then, in an eerily meta-textual moment, onto the page itself (“open the door and enter/ this page and look me in the eye”).  It also offers a set of instructions, directions, and pithy observations on the people and places of the speaker’s childhood; this, for me, was an access point into writing some childhood directions of my own.

As, in a sense, all homelands are a kind of fiction (for more, see Chapter One of Salman Rushdie’s Imaginary Homelands), write a poem exploring the sights, smells, and idiosyncrasies of your childhood homeland, whatever your conception of that that space/time may be.  Frame your exploration as a set of instructions: tips, insights, observations on how to best navigate the tricky terms of not only childhood in general, but your childhood in particular.

Here is an excerpt from my version of “Directions to My Childhood.”

If the meat lady catches you lingering by the catfish,

Goggle-eying the eels, she’ll pinch; better to watch

From behind mother’s grocery bag.

Watch for the sacred beam when you enter.

You may think Buddha is in tranquil meditation

But a careless foot will cost you.

A crumpled owl found at the bottom of the cage

Fits perfectly in my palm.  The backyard fills with parrots,

Slow lorises, spotted turtledoves, and the cold forms

Of a rabbit and her progeny.

A can is not a good place to bury a bird.

You may think a lid will preserve it from decay

But when you see the sodden remains—

Though a “Directions” poem will generally operate in the instructional mode, you are of course welcome to explore alternative ways of framing your narrative.  Take seriously the notion that all homelands are–or quickly become–imagined spaces, and allow this to authorize creative moves you might not otherwise consider in a poem.  Have fun with this, and good luck!  Please consider posting an excerpt or entire poem here for the Lantern Review blog community to read–we would love to see your responses.