A bunch of years ago, BFF Jill Crammond introduced me to Emergency Brake by Ruth Madievsky, and I was hooked immediately. I wrote about the collection in 2020, digging into some of what the book and its poems do and calling Madievsky’s use of language “next-level playful.” Her poems bust at the seams with wild imagery and imaginative phrasing.
Turn after turn, her lines surprise me as a reader. And as a poet? I find myself fawning over the work with the highest-of-all poet compliments: “I wish I’d written that!” A review of Emergency Brake in Prairie Schooner calls Madievsky’s poems “bracing yet raucous, vicious yet whimsical,” and a Waxwing review says, “Madievsky creates episodes of surprising disjunctive association and beauty.”
While some of this talent is likely natural to “metaphor maker par excellence” Madievsky (Jill is similarly gifted, btw!), I do believe that learning to trust our own strangeness in our writing is a skill we can develop. So let’s practice! Using some Madievsky poems I really love, I’ve crafted three poetry prompts to get us started.
1. Flip something (everything?) about a love poem on its head
This poetry prompt is inspired by Ruth Madievsky’s “Electrons.” As you read the poem, consider how she delivers something unexpected with nearly every image. For example, she turns “apple” into “un-apple” and gives us “the repulsion of electrons” when we’re used to their attraction. Now see here how she surprises us with “making love” when we’re expecting violent collision:
the way right now someone’s car leapfrogspublished at poets.org
a sidewalk, her body
making love to the windshield
the windshield. And still the fireflies glow
with their particular sorrow.
Now get your “fork and knife,” as Madievsky does, and write a love poem. Every time you stumble upon a familiar image in your draft, challenge yourself to take it in a strange and perhaps uncomfortable direction instead of going where it may usually go. Need help getting started? Use your own phrases to complete Madievsky’s thought “when I hold / the hand of the person I love, I ______.” Repeat as necessary until you find a rhythm. (And be sure to see my important note below regarding what to do with this assistance once you’re done with your draft.)
2. Try on some other kind of body and shake out its pockets
Read “Wormhole” by Ruth Madievsky and note how she starts her poem by becoming the squirrel and imagining what may be inside the insides of this strange, new space:
don’t stop untilpublished at American Poetry Review
the senators inside you
go home to their creamed corn and televisions,
their partners and dogs, until
the two-way mirrors
and oyster knives you hang from your optic nerves
Look at all that stuff: senators, creamed corn, dogs, mirrors and oyster knives! Now write your own poem where you try on some other creature or object and dig around in its pockets to see what you may find.
In this first draft, don’t worry about making sense or being cohesive. Just play and follow some images long enough to tease out their strange contents. Need help getting started? Once you’re “in” your new body, make lists of what’s true — as Madievsky does here: “It’s all true…” — and see where it takes you. (See the important note below about relying on this little helper.)
3. Draft a list poem starting with “Now I remember”
One classic writing prompt is to repeat “I remember…, I remember…, I remember…,” and “Tuning Fork” by Ruth Madievsky offers an example of how lively the result can be. For this one, a 10- or 15-minute free write will give you a solid list as a starting point. Try not to limit yourself to the facts. Follow Madievsky’s example and use metaphor to describe the scenes and actions in your memories.
I was floating somewhere betweenpublished at Rattle
the beer cooler and the red eyes
of three cigarettes
the way I imagine silk floats
inside a spider
IMPORTANT NOTE –>
Remember: Do not copy Madievsky. It’s a good idea when you harvest material from these exercises to either credit their inspiration (i.e. “after Ruth Madievsky’s ‘Poem Name'”) or remove the scaffolding entirely and keep only the phrases you crafted.
Be sure to let me know if you write a poem or other piece in response to the poetry prompts inspired by Ruth Madievsky. I’d love to read your work! You can find more poetry prompts here, including posts that contain 30 prompts in one place to keep you chugging along on any poem-a-day challenge you may tackle.