Weekly Prompt: “Questions Without Answers”

This week’s prompt is adapted from a writing exercise in Poetry Everywhere: Teaching Poetry Writing in School and in the Community (T&W Collaborative, 2005), a writing handbook now on sale on the Teachers & Writers Collaborative website.

Poetry Everywhere by Jack Collum and Sheryl Noethe
Poetry Everywhere by Jack Collum and Sheryl Noethe

What happens when we die?  Where do noises go?  How far is far?  These types of questions without answers are the focus of today’s writing prompt.  According to Collum and Noethe, an unanswerable question is one that causes the mind to “kee[p] on seeking.” Don’t lose sight of this objective!  Allow each question to lead to the next without bothering to consider an answer.  Resist the impulse to know it all.

As it may take a while to get your mind into “seeking” mode, begin with a few practice questions.  Let your thoughts wander.  Stare out the window…  Where do birds sleep at night?  How do they recognize their family members?  Do baby birds ever find their fathers?  Would they want to?  How tall do pine trees grow?  How long would it take for one to grow into outer space?  Unfetter your mind: no question is too whimsical for this exercise.

If, in your freewrite, you find your questions circling around a particular person, or incident in the past, begin to consider more serious questions.  Introduce a cultural or historic overlay to your inquiry.  Consider the fact that much of Asian American poetry emerges from unanswerable questions of transculturation and history, and that these, like all good questions, must be constantly (re)negotiated because they lack simple answers.

This exercise is designed not so much to produce polished verse, but to move you into a mind space in which no question is ‘unaskable.’  A single question such as “What secrets did you parents keep from you as a child?” can give rise to a thousand others, which may guide you into totally new poetic territory.  As you might imagine, the result can be both wonderful and terrifying.

If you have one or two questions without answers (on any topic, really), please consider posting them here. We look forward to reading your comments!

4 thoughts on “Weekly Prompt: “Questions Without Answers”

  1. Thanks for these weekly prompts! They’re great fun to do.

    I’m working on a series of poems on the aswang (a Filipino witch). These questions are in her voice:


    Who still remembers the island of witches,
    the faith healers who spill rooster’s blood
    on a honeyied hill?

    Along my body’s horizon, where does the darkest
    planet rise and set?

    Does a kiss on my mashed mask, snarl of teeth

    Who feels the temblors, crashing waves of coral,
    their red crumbs at the ends of my feet?

    Is it me who is beautiful
    or the magic that chanced me here?


    Thanks again for all the work that you do! Lantern Review is awesome.

  2. Thanks for sharing this, Rachelle! You have some beautiful images and sonic textures going on in this excerpt; we’re glad that this prompt was able to inspire you!

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