Read on for poetry prompt pointers!
I’m a BIG fan of writing prompts. I’ve been using, writing and sharing poetry prompts since my earliest days networking online (2003? 2004?). I’ve seen them bring together and motivate communities of poets from around the globe (who remembers Read Write Poem?) and I’ve spent plenty of time sitting alone with them as they re-ignite my writing practice.
What is a writing prompt, anyway?
A writing prompt is a simple topic or set of instructions you can use to start a piece of writing. It’s a suggestion, a jumping off point that can get your pen/stylus moving (or fingers typing!).
I also like to think about writing prompts as instigators. They want to start something. No matter what form they take — instructions, images, articles, lists of words, etc. — their intent is the same: inspire you to get words on the page. Sometimes it feels like a gentle nudge into a room. Other times, it’s more like the first shove out of the nest. Either way, don’t underestimate their generative power!
Where can I find poetry prompts online?
I have published a number of poetry prompts on this blog, but I also regularly turn to these favorite sources:
- Poet Donna Vorreyer’s Tow Truck archive and Mix Tap archive
- Melissa Donovan’s Writing Forward Poetry Prompts
- Robert Peake’s poetry prompt generator
- Emilia Phillips’ creative writing exercises
- napowrimo.net (official home of National Poetry Writing Month)
- Bernadette Mayer’s writing experiments
- Robert Lee Brewer’s Wednesday Poetry Prompts for Writer’s Digest
- Poets & Writers “The Time Is Now” prompts
- Kelli Russell Agodon’s 30 Writing Prompts for National Poetry Month
- Nancy Reddy’s Substack has 30 poem prompts for National Poetry Month (2021)
- Twitter thread prompts by W. Todd Kaneko for National Poetry Month (2021)
Many of those are updated regularly, but don’t let the dates on the archived resources deter you. They’re terrific sources of writing inspiration!
Can I DIY a poetry prompt?
Absolutely! If you prefer to build your own, here are some quick and easy ways to spark your writing:
- Take a “word salad” approach, which means choosing a specific number of random words (3? 5? 7? 13?) and write a poem that includes those words. You can find your words by
- flipping through a book, eyes closed and point to words on the page
- using an online random word generator
- cutting strips of paper from old poems/print-outs and place them in a bowl
- Do a Google image search on a topic that interests you and let one inspire a poem.
- Use anaphora (repetition of a word or phrase at the start of each line) not as final form but as a generative exercise. “I remember _____” is a famous one (Joe Brainard), but you can use anything.
- List objects/items you see and follow where it takes you. There are a number of ways to do this:
- look around the room
- go for a walk
- scroll through Instagram and note the literal stuff: cat asleep in a sunbeam, blurry moon over the rooftops, pair of hands lacing up new sneakers, etc.
- Read a poem by someone else, find a line/phrase that resonates with you and use it to get started. (Be sure to note/credit the source of this material!)
- Grab a headline from the news and use that as your title. (Smithsonian Magazine has some truly fascinating headlines, for example.)
- Try counting syllables and string together a bunch of 17-syllable American Sentences.
- Visit the Magnetic Poetry website and play with an online version of poetry magnets.
How can I use writing prompts?
However you like! If you’re a prompt pro, just dig in. You know what to do. If you’re new to prompts, here are a couple of suggestions:
- Set a timer and free write without stopping for 12-15 minutes. Later, you can harvest phrases and lines and turn this free write into a first draft.
- Go with anything and everything that comes. No editing permitted. The idea is to let it flow. If you get stuck, repeat the current phrase until something new emerges that entices you to follow it.
- Follow the prompt as loosely or as closely as you want. Think of it like a planet. You can depart from it on a rocket and view it from far above or leave it behind entirely. Alternately, you can scrape away at its layers with a back hoe if that’s how you roll or a toothbrush if that’s more your style.
- Let the prompt add new texture to a revision by incorporating elements of the prompt into an existing draft.
How do other poets feel about writing prompts?
People either love prompts or they hate ’em. I plan to keep an eye out for what other poets are saying in interviews and articles and gather some quotes here. Stay tuned!
Feel free to ask questions in the comments and/or let me know how you use poetry prompts!
Ready to get started? Let these recent personal photos and original collages inspire a new poem (or work with some of these more detailed writing and poetry prompts I’ve put together or use the links above).