Weekly Prompt: Superstitions

This week’s prompt is based on a surrealist exercise.  I tried leading a version of it this past spring at the Center for the Homeless, where I was participating in a writing group, and it was fascinating to hear the kind of responses that the topic of superstition evoked.  Everyone had a story to tell: of Irish grandmothers who threw salt over their shoulders, fathers who insisted that if their son did not wear a particular “lucky” jersey, their favorite team would lose, fears of opening umbrellas indoors and ruminations on the subject of black cats (What happens to people who own black cats? They must cross their pets’ paths all the time). Whether or not one would identify oneself as superstitious, there is something attractive about the imaginative possibilities evoked by unusual relationships of cause and effect.  If I sleep with my notes under my pillow the night before a test, will the information really seep into my brain?  There’s something intriguing about the idea of translating physical symbols — marks on the page — into knowledge which might be acquired through touch, mediated by the permeable state(s) of sleep and dreaming.  Superstitions celebrate the strange and fantastic, the unusual and the inexplicable and the ways that we ground our narratives of encounter with them within the contexts of ritual and belief.  Where do superstitions come from?  What happens when we develop new ones?  (For example, “If you sneeze when the wind is blowing South, you’ll generate a tornado somewhere” or, “Don’t eat pretzels on a Sunday; you might come down with the measles”). The following exercise asks you to engage with the question of where and how we come to associate actions with otherwise mysterious consequences.

Prompt: Come up with a new superstition and elaborate upon it in a poem; or, develop a series of new superstitions — and use them to write a list poem.

As an interesting example of a poem based on a made-up superstition, we’ll leave you with this excerpt from Marin Sorescu’s poem, “Superstition“:

My cat washes
with her left paw,
there will be another war.
For I have observed
that whenever she washes
with her left paw
international tension grows
How can she possibly keep her eye
on all the five continents?
Could it be
that in her pupils
that Pythia now resides
who has the power
to predict
the whole of history
without a full-stop or comma?
[Visit the Poetry Foundation web site to read the rest of Sorescu’s poem.]

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: YW’s Prompt (National Poetry Month Contest 2nd Runner-Up)

This week’s prompt comes from LR reader “YW,” whose submission to our National Poetry Month Contest we’ve chosen as our second runner-up.

Prompt: Rewrite a fairy tale in verse from a different character’s perspective (e.g. the witch in Hansel and Gretel).

We were intrigued by this persona poem exercise, and thought that it might be interesting to consider in conversation with Louise Glück’s haunting take on Hansel and Gretel, “Gretel in Darkness.”  Here’s an excerpt of the poem to get you thinking (the rest can be found on the Poetry Foundation’s web site):

Gretel in Darkness

by Louise Glück

This is the world we wanted.
All who would have seen us dead
are dead. I hear the witch’s cry
break in the moonlight through a sheet
of sugar: God rewards.
Her tongue shrivels into gas. . . .
Now, far from women’s arms
and memory of women, in our father’s hut
we sleep, are never hungry.
Why do I not forget?
My father bars the door, bars harm
from this house, and it is years.”

Congratulations to YW, and happy Friday to all!  Look out for the prompt from our first runner-up next week.

Weekly Prompt: Dramatic Monologues (remembering Ai)

Ai in 1972

In honor of the poet Ai, who recently passed away, this week’s prompt focuses on the dramatic monologue — a technique for which she was famous.

Born Florence Anthony, she adopted the name “Ai” after discovering that she had been conceived through an affair between her mother and a Japanese man that she (Ai) had never met.  The Poetry Foundation’s bio on her describes her particular sensibilities well:

Ai is a poet noted for her uncompromising poetic vision and bleak dramatic monologues which give voice to marginalized, often poor and abused speakers . . . She has said that her given name reflects a “scandalous affair my mother had with a Japanese man she met at a streetcar stop” and has no wish to be identified “for all eternity” with a man she never knew. Ai’s awareness of her own mixed race heritage—she self-identifies as Japanese, Choctaw-Chickasaw, Black, Irish, Southern Cheyenne, and Comanche—as well as her strong feminist bent shape her poetry, which is often brutal and direct in its subject matter.

Ai’s poetry practically vibrates with the force of its imagery.  Her lyrics leap from the page and inhabit the personas she takes on without apology.  One of the things for which she was noted was her ability to enter the voices of those at the margins of society and infuse them with dignity and magnetic strength.

To illustrate, here is the opening to her poem Salomé:

I scissor the stem of the red carnation
and set it in a bowl of water.
It floats the way your head would,
if I cut it off.
But what if I tore you apart
for those afternoons
when I was fifteen
and so like a bird of paradise
slaughtered for its feathers.
Even my name suggested wings,
wicker cages, flight.
Come, sit on my lap, you said.
I felt as if I had flown there;
I was weightless.
You were forty and married.
That she was my mother never mattered.
She was a door that opened onto me.
The three of us blended into a kind of somnolence
and musk, the musk of Sundays. Sweat and sweetness.
That dried plum and licorice taste
always back of my tongue
and your tongue against my teeth,
then touching mine. How many times?—
I counted, but could never remember.
What stands out for me in these opening lines is the unforgettable boldness and clarity of its images: the scissored red carnation becomes a severed head, her description  of dried plum and licorice give a sickening viscerality to the complexity of the speaker’s relationship to the “you” — he is at once abuser and lover, taker of innocence, and seductor, the wielder of an invisible tyranny in which the mother is also implicated: at the end of the poem, when a ghostly sword slices through the speaker’s throat, the mother’s dress is like that “of a grenadier,” and we are made to see how her kiss becomes an act of terrible violence disguised as tenderness.

In honor of Ai’s life, work, and legacy, here’s this week’s prompt.

Prompt: Write a poem in the form of a dramatic monologue in the voice of a single speaker who is not yourself.  Optionally, if you do not wish to write a traditional persona poem, you may imagine the speaker’s voice as a loose projection of your own.

Weekly Prompt: Poem-Objects

Untitled and "Mot Cache" by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha

This week’s prompt is inspired by some of the visual poetry work done by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951 — 1982), a Korean American artist and poet who experimented with film, mixed media, intertext, and live performance to push her audience’s experience of the written word in radical directions.  Cha lived an incredibly productive, but tragically brief life: at the age of 31, she was murdered by a stranger in New York City.  Her much-studied book of hybrid poetry, prose, and image, Dictee, was published a week before her death.

One of the things that interests me most about Cha’s body of work is her experimentation with the book as object.  On many occasions (as in the two pieces pictured above), she made use of objects other than the standard book format in order to demonstrate a kind of poetic.  The forms and physical textures of the (often handmade) media with which she presented words in these pieces creates a process-oriented experience for the observer, in which we see and can feel the labor required to produce each piece of text.  The text itself, too, has a physical quality to it.   In the “untitled” piece above, it dangles almost precariously on wire, trapped halfway in a glass jar (the words read “water,” “fire,” “earth” . . . and something which I can’t quite make out . . . in French).  We sense the microcosmic nature of language — it becomes a flimsy, yet beautiful item that constitutes our world.

Prompt: Create a poem designed to be presented as a 3-d object.


The piece I’m sharing with you here is actually a project I created for a contemporary poetry class last year: we were supposed to create an archaism, and I decided to use the technique of embroidery, along with nineteenth century / early twentieth century botanical diagrams and mottos from the language of flowers, to reflect on the idea of a curated representation of self (the work, obviously, is a pun on my name; the antique language of flowers handbook that I used indicated that the Iris used to convey the message “I Burn [for you]”).  This, when combined with the sexuality of the plant’s anatomical structures (a flower is a plant’s reproductive organ), and the traditionally gender-bound craft of decorative embroidery, I hope — forms a reflection on gender, artifice, craft, and time.

To see more works by Cha, visit the BAM/PFA online archive.

As always, please do feel free to share your experiments on our Flickr pool. Happy Weekend! (Don’t forget to think about an entry for our prompt contest!)

Announcing Our 2010 National Poetry Month Prompt Contest

Special Prize: A Signed Copy of Monica Youn's IGNATZ.

National Poetry Month is coming up in April, and in order to mark it, the LR blog is going to be hosting our first ever Prompt Contest, made possible by the generous sponsorship of Four Way Books.  Do you think our Weekly Prompts could use some spicing up?  Do you have a favorite writing exercise that you’d like to share?  Here’s your chance to have your ideas featured in our weekly content, or even — if you turn out to be the one lucky person whose prompt we like best — to win a signed copy of Monica Youn’s new collection Ignatz!

Here’s how it will work:

1) Leave a comment on this post that includes the text of your prompt.  Entries must be posted by 11:59PM EST on Thursday, April 1st April 8th. Comments on this post will close after that time. Please leave some form of basic contact information in your comment (even if it’s just a link to the contact page on your web site), so that we can get in touch with you if you win.

2) During the first full week of April, we’ll be choosing the four prompts that we like best.  The winner and all three runners up will have their entries featured as Weekly Prompts on the LR Blog during the four Fridays from April 9th – 30th.  In addition, the winner will also receive a special prize that has been graciously offered  by Four Way Books: a signed copy of Monica Youn’s Ignatz. We will announce the runners up and winner week by week starting with the third runner-up and culminating with the winner, so keep on checking back in April to see if your entry has been featured.

3) A few ground rules: You may only enter once. Please submit only poetry prompts.  Keep all prompts appropriate: anything of a bigoted, demeaning, or nasty nature will not be considered; we’d also appreciate it if you could please try to keep your prompts somewhat PG in nature, as when choosing prompts we always try to look for flexible exercises which can be adapted for classroom use with either adults or kids.

That’s it!  Go forth and prompt-ify; we look forward to reading your entries!  And while you’re at it, please do check out Ignatz on Four Way’s site.  Many thanks to Editor Martha Rhodes, to Monica Youn, and to Four Way for their generosity.  Be on the lookout for our review of the collection next month.

Weekly Prompt: Poems that Play with Shape

During the past week or so, we’ve been looking at poems and aspects of presenting poems on the page which take into account (2-D) visual space and make room for illustration and elements of painting, drawing, collage, etc.  This Friday, our prompt asks you to reexamine a form which many of us may remember being introduced to in grade school: the concrete poem.

Examples of Calligrams by Guillaume Apollinaire
Examples of Calligrams by Guillaume Apollinaire

Concrete poetry,” according the Poetry Foundation’s glossary, is “Verse that emphasizes nonlinguistic elements in its meaning, such as a typeface that creates a visual image of the topic.”  Far from being limited to poems whose words take on the outline of the object they are describing, concrete poetry can encompass everything from a playing with the sizes and spacing of text on the page to certain kinds of full-on “visual poetry,” which are more akin to collage or painting in their methods of arrangement words. The challenge, of course, is how to integrate the visual into a poem in a way that is satisfyingly beautiful (or jarring, depending on the desired effect) and yet feels organic and further enhances the complexity of the reader’s interaction with it.

Prompt: Write a  poem takes into account shape and visual space on the flat plane of the page.

Some suggestions:

1) Compose a calligram, or poem in which the shape of the words enacts or take on the visual form of some object as a kind of complex illustration.  (See examples of Guillaume Apollinare’s famous calligrams at the top of this post).

2) Create a poem that experiments with unusual typographical arrangements to emphasize its meaning.   The Poetry Foundation also has a couple of neat visual poems that play with the shapes of letters: here, and here.

3) Write a poem on a piece of paper (or other flat surface) that is not a standard vertical letter-sized or notebook-sized sheet, using the shape of the surface to guide your form.  For example, a long piece of ribbon, or the back of a circular coaster.  I’ve found that this exercise (which I’ve borrowed from a former teacher of mine, Bruce Snider) becomes especially interesting if one uses a writing surface that already has words on it and allows those words to seamlessly flow into the resulting poem.  (Examples of poets who’ve used a similar technique include A.R. Ammons, who wrote “Sphere” on ticker tape, and D.A. Powell, who wrote one of his books with his notebook turned sideways).

4) Write a poem that engages with the use of negative space in an existing piece of text or image (for example, a poem written in the margins of a newspaper, between the lines of a letter, or in the background spaces of a photograph or advertisement).

We realize that this week’s prompt is a little different, in that your response may or may not be easy to share in comment form.  In light of this, we’ve created a Flickr pool where you can upload photos of your responses to our prompts if you’d like to share them [if you don’t feel comfortable uploading photos of whole poems, feel free to crop creatively or blur out portions of the text].  Here’s how to do it:

1) Follow this link to get to our pool.

2) Click “Join this Group.” (Sign into Yahoo/Flickr if you need to do so, or create an account).

3) Confirm that you want to “Join this Group.”

4) Upload the image or video you want to your stream.  In the description, mention the prompt you’re responding to (if you like you can include the text, too, but that’s not necessary). We suggest that you tag your poem for ease of navigation as the pool grows (for example, I’ve tagged the concrete poem I uploaded with “concrete poem”), but that’s also optional.

5) Choose “Groups >> Your Groups”

6) Select the group “Lantern Review — Weekly Prompt Responses”

7) Click “Add something.”  Follow the instructions to add your photo to the pool.  That’s it!

We hope that you’ll share some of what you’ve written with us; we’d love to see how your experiments turn out.  If we get enough responses, we may even feature some of them on the blog in upcoming weeks.

Weekly Prompt: Winter Weather

Sun rising over snow in New Jersey

The deep of winter can be a particularly difficult time, especially for those who (like me) are affected by short, dark days and perpetual gray skies.  El Nino has wrought some particularly freakish incidences of heavy snow this year on the East Coast and some has dumped some uncharacteristically heavy bouts of rain on parts of the West Coast, but even here in the Midwest, where the storms have been much milder than usual (last year at this point, we were in the middle of a deep freeze in which the moisture in my nostrils would turn to ice each time I stepped outside), the weather’s inability to make up its mind in favor of clear skies has made my artificial sunlamp my new best friend.

Winter weather (and in particular, the alien quality of harsh winter storms) has always been a popular subject of poetry, it seems.  Robert Frost fixed winter in the national imagination forever with his “Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening.”  William Carlos Williams captured the human viciousness we often project onto driving snow and ice in his poem “Blizzard.”  And Cathy Song’s “Leaving” deftly embodies the feeling of being under siege that can result when one is housebound by winter rainstorms:

The mildew grew in rings
around the sink
where centipedes came
swimming up the pipes
on multiple feet
and the mold grew
around our small fingers
making everything slippery
to touch.
We were squeamish and pale.

This week’s exercise asks you to follow in this tradition of writing the winter blues.

Prompt: Write about an experience of extreme winter weather.

Here’s an excerpt from my own attempt:

February Brown

The ground liver-spotted
with half-receded ice scales
takes up fresh powder

with swift muddy gulps.  Snow
is what the weathermen
back home are calling it,

and yet here, we are stuck
between ice storm and thaw.
Let there be less of this

frozen monochrome, more
of the acid sun slanting off

the glazed drifts . . .

As usual, we’d be thrilled if you shared a portion of your own attempt with us in the comments below.  Happy writing — and for those of you who are snow or rain bound, hang in there!  May spring come very, very soon.

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: Poems Using Non-English Words

A favorite prompt of mine from Kenneth Koch’s classic book Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry is an exercise in which he asks his students to compose poems using words from a list of Spanish vocabulary. Writes Koch in his commentary:

“Writing these poems enabled children who knew Spanish to enjoy their knowledge of it and gave those who didn’t a feeling for another language . . . Too often, the non-English language a child knows is regarded in school as something that has to be overcome rather than as an additional source of knowledge and pleasure.” (297).

I love the idea of allowing a language whose rhythms feel natural to one’s ears (whether it is a first or second language) to color and inflect the poetic voice, and so to give it a place in one’s own [English language] writing. A year ago, when I traveled back to my undergraduate institution to co-present a writing workshop at an Asian American activism conference, my collaborators and I tried out Koch’s prompt with the group in attendance, but instead of using Spanish, we challenged ourselves to substitute words from our own families’ native languages. Continue reading “Weekly Prompt: Poems Using Non-English Words”