UPDATE 03.26.2023 / New poetry prompts for NaPoWriMo 2023 are live!
UPDATE O3.25.2022 / The 2022 version — with 30 additional writing prompts — is live!
Here are 30 new poetry prompts for NAPOWRIMO! They’re ready for use in the April poem-a-day attempt, but of course, you can use them any time. (I recommend bookmarking the page for easy return!) You can also find more prompts for NAPOWRIMO/National Poetry Month in my lists of online prompts from others, along with poetry prompts I’ve published previously.
Before you jump in, please take a minute to consider something really important: In cases where the prompt turns to another poet’s work for inspiration, please do not copy the source poem. When you harvest material from exercises inspired by OPP (other people’s poems), it’s essential for you to credit your model (i.e. make a note at the top of your poem, like after AUTHOR’s “POEM”) or remove the other poet’s scaffolding entirely and keep only the material you crafted.
In other words: make it your own. Every time.
WRITING PROMPTS for National Poetry Month (or any poem-a-day challenge)
1. If I only had a brain
In the immortal words of Scarecrow when introducing himself to Dorothy, “My head all full of stuffin’, my heart all full of pain.” Write a poem in which your skull contains something besides a brain or your chest holds something other than heart and lungs. What’s it like? What can or can’t you do? What new dreams and wishes do you have? Does anyone notice? Does it affect your relationships? Your job?
2. Carpe diem
Write a bucket list poem with a twist. Instead of things like “visit Antarctica,” string together ordinary things — walks, plants, new recipes, telling people you love them — that are available to you any time you choose. Here’s an example: Richard Terrill’s “You Must Change Your Life.”
3. The place in between
Take a look at all the items dropped in or near the entry to your home. For example, I have a basket of shoes (always full and overflowing), a collection of reusable shopping bags and stuff that we’re trying to remember to take with us next time we go out. It’s a crossroads of sorts, but one that we rarely regard. For this prompt take some time to pay homage to this small space and write a poem that celebrates what exists between your (literal or metaphorical) inner and outer lives.
4. Food for thought
Conjure up images of food showcased at your favorite grocery store or farmer’s market, and write a poem that honors one food item that’s in abundance. Go on (and on) far longer than you think you should to really get to some unique descriptions. (You can delete any excess later on.)
Take a look at Mark Doty’s “A Display of Mackerel” for inspiration. Its descriptions are so vivid! The poem imagines the mackerel from all “angles,” including alive and dead. It wonders what they’re thinking and expresses awe over them: “Suppose we could irridesce, // like these, and lose ourselves / entirely in the universe / of shimmer.” What an ode!
5. Dear God
Write a poem in which you tell a deity, spirit or religious object what you are and are not going to do. This prompt is inspired by “Today, God” by Starr Davis. Note how she gives it a time frame: “today.” To help focus your poem, you could choose a time (tomorrow, next week, in July, when I turn 50, etc.) or a place (in the car, on Zoom, at a job interview, childhood home, etc.). Note also how Davis includes both ordinary tasks (“wearing a bra”) and tasks with gravity (“question America”).
6. Pack for a difficult journey
You’ve been selected to travel to Mars and allowed to pack two personal items, a supply of favorite snacks and a selection of digital media: one song for the in-flight playlist, a movie you’ll watch over and over and videos of three personal memories. (Yes, there’s “room” for more than that and you’ll have lots of time on your hands, but just play along. It’s a 2021 version of “what’s your desert island band?”)
Write a poem in which you prepare for the journey to Mars. In the poem, you could also prepare for any difficult passage, like sitting with a loved one who’s ill, watching someone you care deeply about make a big mistake, digging into your own dramas with or without the help of a therapist, etc. Bonus points if you can mention why the selections/sounds of a fellow passenger really piss you off.
7. How do I love thee?
Read “Hours Days Years Unmoor Their Orbits” by Rachel Zucker. Write a short poem that describes something ordinary you’ve done for a child or someone else in your care and dig into how it meant more to you than it did to them. Try to keep it short, like Zucker does, and if you want, pay homage in the title to the passage of time.
8. Size it up
Write a poem about something for which size *does* matter. Consider slurpies, plants you grow from seed, hurricanes, snow accumulation, waistlines (or other body parts, ahem), beach frontage, rockets, dinner plates, body counts/carnage, cocktails, TV screens, etc. If you can, make it strange like “Gestational Size Equivalency Chart,” a list poem by Catherine Pierce. (Notice also, how Pierce uses both repetition and a clear title to help hold together her list of wild and interesting things.)
9. Ruins all around us
A bunch of years ago, I saw an exhibit at the New York State Museum on Hudson Valley Ruins. Have you noticed how imagery from abandoned sites is practically its own genre of photography? One thing I really love is how the photographs invite us to to feel something about what’s falling down around us. From collapsed barns to graffitied warehouses, there are abandoned buildings in almost every community.
Write a poem about a structure near you that’s sitting empty and/or falling down. If you like, let it represent a sign of things to come — what we’ll leave in ruins, what we’re doing while everything we built crumbles around us, etc.
10. Whistle while you work
What songs do you sing in the shower? What band is on every road trip playlist you make? What do you sing/hum while hiking? What’s your go-to belt-it-out-while-you-vacuum song? Write a poem in which music helps you pass the time or finish a task.
11. Food orgasm
Gooey brownie, get in my belly! Write a poem in which eating something delicious makes you happy to be alive. “Lingonberry Jam” by Henri Cole is a terrific example, if you’d like some inspiration.
12. Road trip!
Write a poem in which you take a solo road trip, like the narrator in “Driving Montana, Alone” by Katie Phillips. If you want, use the name of a place in the title along with a clue about the nature of the trip (“alone”). Use dialog and scenery to go deep into what the road trip evokes for the speaker.
13. Pet project
Write about an animal you’ve loved. Dog, cat, goldfish, goat, hermit crab, parakeet, pony, chicken, sea monkey. Caring for other creatures helps us offer uncomplicated tenderness to the world. Give us a glimpse of this type of attention and affection. (You could also write about a pet that frustrated you or gave you a difficult time.)
14. Count me out
Pretend with me we haven’t been living in a pandemic. Return to a time when we got together and did things. Except when we didn’t. Except when we bailed. “No, Karen, I can’t come to your wine tasting because I don’t want to.” Do you try to get out of Christmas at your mom’s house? Do you refuse to watch Presidential debates or election results? Do you prefer to stay home on St. Patrick’s Day/New Year’s Eve? Do you read instead of watch the Super Bowl? Do you send regrets to baby shower invites or weddings? Write a poem about taking a pass on a communal event or celebration.
15. Rewind the tape
“Isn’t It Pretty to Think So” is a heartbreaking poem from Emry Trantham that reports a tragic event and then imagines it never happened. The scenes, played in a kind of reverse, unravel reality and in doing so slowly return the narrator, characters and readers to a more comfortable time. Write a poem that gives solace by somehow taking back an awful thing that has happened.
16. Permission to go find yourself
Brynn Saito opens “Ordinary Animal” with these two lines: “When aspens shiver in the dark / I understand myself.” In subsequent lines and stanzas, the narrator explores a sister self within and cares for and protects her. For this poem, wrap your arms around who you really are. (It’s perfectly OK to invent a self, as well.) Now write a poem that begins with how you come to know yourself and give him/her/them what they need.
17. A dark and stormy night
Make a list of words you commonly use when a particular type of weather (heat wave, blizzard, rainy season, wind, etc.) makes an appearance in your work. Next to those words, create a list of stranger, more imaginative words and phrases you could use instead. Think “raining cats and dogs,” but avoid any and all clichés. Now write a poem using your list of weird weather words.
18. What you didn’t know at the time
Dante Di Stefano juxtaposes innocence/playfulness with devastation/destruction in “My Eighteen-Month-Old Daughter Talks to the Rain While the Amazon Burns.” The title gives us the intriguing premise, but the real magic happens in how he braids together the two plot lines — the daughter’s whimsy and the utter seriousness of climate change. The poem builds, not to outcry or lecture, but to a reason to care: “there’s so much to save.” Now you give it a try. Write a poem that pairs some terrible fact about the world with a person/thing that’s oblivious to it. Let yourself be surprised by what emerges from that tension.
19. The absolute worst
Make a list of superlatives. For example, the ugliest, the meanest, the loudest, the most beautiful. Now think of a person, animal, place or thing that one of those superlative describes, and write a poem that imagines what it’s like to be the literal “worst” (or whatever extreme descriptor you’ve chosen).
I thought of this prompt after reading Matthew Rohrer’s poem about a Mars rover, “There Is Absolutely Nothing Lonelier.” Take a cue from Rohrer and resist the urge to ramble or give us too much. Stick to 8-10 lines if you can. (I think the danger in getting too verbose on this one is that it would be easy to overdo it. Rohrer keeps it tight, allowing simplicity to knock us right over.)
20. No tea leaves allowed
Interpret the things you encounter as signs, omens, portents, visitations, etc. Now write a poem about What It All Means. There’s just one rule: anything typically used as messages — horoscopes, tea leaves, tarot, etc. — is off limits.
21. Out of sorts
We don’t always know how to behave. Our thoughts aren’t always appropriate for the moment. We may feel melancholy at a joyful event or erupt into laughter during a somber one. Write a poem in which your feelings or actions don’t match the occasion. (By the way, schadenfreude totally counts.)
22. Mandatory COVID poem
When I started this list of poetry prompts for NAPOWRIMO, my plan was to avoid referencing COVID so that the list would have utility beyond 2021. But then I read “Self-Portrait in the Time of Disaster” by Deborah Paredez, which isn’t necessarily a pandemic poem but reads like one because, well, we’re in the pandemic. COVID casts its shadow on everything. So! I’ve reversed course and decided it’s mandatory (you know, for posterity) for you to have written at least one Who I Am in This Pandemic poem.
F*ck the haters who say the next sickness to infect us is a glut of COVID writing, and draft a pandemic portrait of yourself or someone you love. If you’re up for it — this part is NOT mandatory — focus on one moment/scene like Paredez does. And by all means, if your resolve is stronger than mine, feel free to substitute some other wretched disaster/event for the global pandemic.
23. 528,600 minutes
J. Alfred Prufrock famously measured his life in coffee spoons, and from the lyrics to the opening song in Rent (one of my favorite musicals), we can measure a year by knowing how many minutes are in it. The T.S. Eliot coffee spoon reference contributes to the idea of melancholy and tedium in Prufrock. Rent’s “Seasons of Love,” in contrast, is a call to make every second count. Consider what repetitions in *your* life mark time, and write a poem featuring one or more of them.
24. Been there. Done that. Got the t-shirt.
As a culture, we’re obsessed with buying stuff, especially when that stuff commemorates something we want to remember or say we were part of. And I do not say that in judgment: I am guilty as charged. No shame! It’s all about the bling. In this house right now, I still have “I’m with Her” stickers from Hillary’s campaign and a “Billionaire Tears” coffee mug from Elizabeth Warren’s run. Our favorite way to celebrate something is to get the merch. This Red Planet Donut from Krispy Kreme is a great example.
It was available for one day only: February 18, 2021, the day Perseverence, our latest celebrity rover, landed on Mars. To be human is to crave souvenirs, apparently. Even (or especially?) edible ones. Poetry prompt #24 is to write a poem that features at least one tchotchke you cherish and take us back to its time or place of origin.
25. Rebel without a cause
Write a poem in which you reject a habit other people swear by as a source of joy or health. Possible examples include daily walks, meditation, pedicures, family meetings, naps, camping and kale. If you like, flip this on its head and write about something you do for yourself that no one else understands.
26. Nostalgia optional
Dorianne Laux’s “Fast Gas” offers so many possibilities as a writing prompt, but for this one, I want to focus on it as a slice of Americana. That’s a loaded term, of course. And so for this poem, nostalgia is optional. Write a poem about a job you’ve had and how it’s part of a tradition/value that’s important in the region/country where you worked.
“Fast Gas” could be about America’s love of the automobile but winds up being a love poem. Yours doesn’t have to do that. Work in a cubicle? Maybe you’re inspired to think about what capitalism necessitates. Do you harvest vegetables? Maybe you’re part of the trend of more of us knowing where our food comes from. Follow your reminiscing wherever it goes — the good, bad and ugly! — and remember that it will be more impactful if it takes us somewhere personal.
27. Per my last email
I’m not one of the cool kids. I’m not hip. And I have zero chill. However, I do enjoy trying out strange phrases that make it into the zeitgeist. (My current favorite is “f*ck around and find out.”) For this prompt, let a popular term/phrase send you down a rabbit hole (industry jargon or acronyms will do, too). To help you get going, you could start with, “When I heard _____” or “The term _____ really grates on my nerves.” Or you could also try repeating the term at the start of each line.
Need some leads for what phrase to choose? These may point you in the right direction:
- If you don’t have teenagers around — or if you’re not GenZ yourself — Google is your friend for finding and translating the latest slang. Some examples: let’s get this bread, no cap, low-key, bet, fam, extra and simp.
- There are also more fun/interesting acronyms than we can count, including AYFKMWTS (are you f*cking kidding me with this sh*t?), GTFOOH (get the f*ck out of here) and IMHO (in my humble opinion).
- And for jargon? Well, in marketing/corporate America, we’re always saying annoying things like “loop you in,” “circle back” and “having/not having bandwidth.” (I’m sure there’s jargon specific to your workplace, too.)
28. Eye of the beholder
Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti died in February. He was 101, I believe. In memorializing him, someone shared this poem on Twitter: “The world is a beautiful place,” and I knew right away I’d use it as a prompt for myself or for the blog. The poem repeats “the world is a beautiful place” throughout and always in the context of that sentiment being conditional, as in “The world is a beautiful place / to be born into / if you don’t mind some people dying / all the time / or maybe only starving / some of the time.” The effect is for us to question if the world is so beautiful after all. We see what we want to see.
Write a poem that, like Ferlinghetti’s poem, repeats “the world is a beautiful place” and put your own spin on why that may or may not be true. Show us evidence. We want receipts. (And as noted in the opening of this post, if you keep the copied phrase in your final poem, be sure to credit Ferlinghetti.)
29. Don’t call it a comeback
I’m a huge fan of The Walking Dead, the original AMC television series about the zombie apocalypse. I’ve also always revered the premise of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, which is that when someone or something we love dies, we wish they hadn’t. We want them back. We really do. Well, we think we do. Trouble is, they’re not the same when they return. Write a poem in which you call something or someone back from the dead and tell us how it goes. Your poem can be morose or humorous, but either way, try to give us details and maybe share with us what you learn from the encounter.
30. Prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet
Yes, that’s another Prufrock reference. I’m annoying like that. What Eliot means, of course, is that we’re often putting on for other people. In other words, we wear masks all the time — and no, I don’t mean COVID masks, but they may work, too, depending on what you choose to focus on when you write a poem in which you wear a costume. Maybe for Halloween as a child? A costume party as an adult? Maybe to play out a fantasy with your lover? Maybe it’s a uniform for a job, a role in a play or participation in some kind of celebration (parade, Mardi Gras, etc.)?
Whether you’ve made your way to the bottom of this list by writing to each of these NAPOWRIMO poem-a-day poetry prompts or only by skimming, I hope your April days — and other days, too — are full of inspiration and poetry!
This list is a different format from the other writing prompts I’ve shared, but the challenge of writing a poem-a-day in April for NAPOWRIMO requires you to get in and out quickly. I’ve tried to make them as simple as possible, while still being inviting.
Be sure to let me know if you use any of these poetry prompts for National Poetry Month or any other time. Once we’ve come out the other side of April, I’ll resume my regular schedule, which is to share at least two new poetry prompts with you each month in 2021. You can find past poetry prompts here, including writing prompts from prior years.
You may also like to check out this list for inspiration: 15 different types of poems you probably never imagined!