NaPoWriMo Day 21: Saying Goodbye

Today, we time travel. We can do that, we’re poets. Let’s set the dial forward just a bit and think about what it will mean to have lost something that is now just barely hanging on. How will we feel? What will we remember? What will we have learned?

Elegy. Write an elegy for some aspect of the natural world or human culture that is disappearing. An elegy is an ancient Greek poetic form traditionally written to commemorate someone who has died. It is typically comprised of three components: (1) a lament, expressing grief and loss, (2) praise for the lost person or thing, and (3) some final thought of consolation.

Do a bit of research first. What unique qualities does your subject have that will be lost? What will that mean for the rest of the world? For you?  Write about an endangered species, an island or city threatened by rising sea levels, a Unesco World Heritage Site on the verge of disappearing. Explore photos and videos of your subject. Listen to recordings of a language on the verge of extinction.

Here’s what I wrote today about the Great Barrier Reef.


Coral Sea fringe, you were mighty! Visible from space.
Cyclone-ravaged, choked by the far-flung dust of desert sandstorms,
beset by sucking starfish. You endured.

But then one stark white coral.
Albino mushroom pedestal,
stack of bone china plates. And another.
Soon vast tracts blanched in the heated waves.
What vampire, what sucking leach, what white witch of Narnia
made the overnight chalk gardens?
Tangled heaps of deer antlers, branching bones,
rimed hoarfrost landscape, flash-frozen and still.

For a while you lived on, stolid and glowing
white as fiber optic cables. Fish came and,
not stopping, glided on to the open sea.
But, your algae expelled, you were starving,
rooted in the sterile waters of the tropics,
your brittle skeleton buffeted by currents.
Regions crumbled, limbs snapped,
and with a sudden soundless shudder, it was done.

Gone the whiskered angelfish, orange clownfish,
cobalt blue damselfish, and frowning gold cubies.
Gone the fluttering fields of pink and blue anemones.
Gone the turquoise parrotfish with their tiny nibbling beaks.
Gone the glowing yellow-spiked surgeonfish,
pouting striped triggerfish, and scuttling crabs.
Gone the needle-clustered sea urchins.
Gone the hinge-jawed trout, pink like watermelon flesh,
with their ice-blue freckles. Gone the bobbing sea horses.
Gone the roving shadows of speckled grouper
and barbell-eyed hammer heads.
Gone the sage turtles with their scarred faces.
Gone the blossom-pink fingered polyps,
glowing lavender footstools, sulfurous sheafs of ochre fans.
Gone the cerebral tangerine folds, mint green
branching structures, rubbery soft pink hearts.
Gone the great clustered pipe organs.
Gone one quarter of the earth’s sea creatures.

Bones furred with algal turf. A murky
seaweed forest marks your grave.

We know, now, that there are patches
of heat-resistant coral off the coast of Kimberly.
In 8,000 years a new reef will teem with life
because Nature always finds a way.
Trust we must in that. We won’t be here to see it.

NaPoWriMo Day 20: Now I Know My ABCs

Hi poets! Today we are going to find ourselves an arbitrary organizational structure to climb inside of with our poems. As we learned back on Day 3, constraints are our friends. This is why writing challenges work, why writing prompts “prompt” us. We give our worker bee brain a little problem to solve (or a big one) and she gets right on it. She gets right out of the way, with all of her doubts and hesitations, fretting and obsessing. And then our writer brain steps forward, the one with all the ideas, the one who rarely gets a word in edgewise, who makes unusual choices, who knows beautiful words, who will quietly remind us of something we knew once, and had almost forgotten, but which really should be written down.

Abecedarian. The idea behind an abecedarian poem is pretty simple. There are 26 lines and each one starts with a different letter of the alphabet, in order, from A to Z. For an added challenge, you can ask someone else to select the words for you. I once tried this with words my 5-year-old selected. Or you could make yourself a little list of four or five words of varying length for each letter and keep it by you while you write, seeing if you can make any of the words work as you go along.

I wanted to see what sort of words I would get if I typed each letter into everyone’s favorite search engine and looked through the little list of suggested searches that popped up. I realized those suggestions were real questions that people around the world had asked. Questions the magical algorithms thought I might be wondering too. I got totally sidetracked and enchanted by this idea of a poem capturing all of those random voices and their pleas for information. So, I did a variation of an abecedarian made up of Google suggested searches. It’s fun on its own and a few of the lines would make good titles for future poems. Here’s the result.

Queries of the Twentieth of April, 2018

Why are the flags at half mast?
Why bother?
Why can’t I sleep?
Why do cells divide?
Why is evolution true?
Why is Friar Laurence to blame?
Why go to law school?
Why have you forsaken me?
Why is it a sin to kill a mockingbird?
Why did Jesus have to die?
Why Kill Carl?
Why is liberalism failing?
Why me Lord?
Why not?
Why oh why?
Why do planes crash?
Why quit smoking?
Why read Shakespeare?
Why should we hire you?
Why are there no snakes in Ireland?
Why u always lying?
Why was virtual reality invented?
Why does water look blue?
Why is the X unknown?
Why do you want this job?
Why did Zeus give the box to Pandora?

NaPoWriMo Day 19: Less Is More, More is More

Today we’re going to consider some advice on editing our poems. Your daily (optional) poetry prompt involves, not writing a poem from scratch, but giving an existing poem a good once over.

Revision exercise. In her chapter on craft in the latest edition of Poet’s Market (an excellent resource I recommend that is full of articles on the business and craft of poetry, as well as a huge list of poetry competitions and publication opportunities), Nancy Susanna Breen gives a few tips for trimming your poems down at the same time that you bulk them up. Her first tip? Take yourself out of the poem. Resist the urge to act as a tour guide to your poem, narrating it with a lot of “I did,” “I saw,” “I felt” statements. (Oh, I am guilty of this!) Breen provides the following short poem as an example:

I step out into the frosty night air
and I feel the cold in my lungs. I look up
and see the moon surrounded by stars.
Somewhere in the distance
I hear a dog baying at the moon.
I’m aware of an emptiness in my heart.

Then she shows how much more immediate and direct the poem can be if you take out some of the first person singular references:

The frosty night air
is cold in my lungs.
The moon is surrounded by stars.
A dog bays in the distance.
My heart feels empty.

And then once you’ve taken yourself out of the poem in a very literal way, Breen asks you to put yourself right back into it, in all of the subtle and not-so subtle ways that makes poetry wonderful. She points out that the images in this poem are still pretty universal, the language pretty run-of-the-mill. Anyone could have written this poem. As an exercise, she asks her readers to completely rewrite the poem, using images and words that infuse it with their own unique voices.

Shall we give it a try? If we do it right, we will each write a poem about a cold night, the moon, and a howling dog, but each one of those poems will be absolutely different.

Here’s mine: 


When the little interlocking pieces of frost
enter my lungs, zipper them shut.
When the moon, bloated grease-paint-faced queen,
holds court in a cloudless sky.
When silent stars wink from their places,
caught in a celestial game of musical chairs.
Not daring to move. Listening.
A stray unravels her canine soul,
unspooling it back to her wolf forebears.
Her howls, like theirs, a sounding out of empty spaces.
My heart, like hers, a tin can on a broken string.


NaPoWriMo Day 18: Introspection

Hi poets! Today we are going to turn the cameras on ourselves and write a selfie poem, starting with some timed free writing that will get us sifting through all of those murky, behind-the-scenes thoughts that are running in the backgrounds of our minds. The results may surprise you. Here’s your daily (optional) poetry prompt.

Selfie poem. You will need a timer you can set for one or two minutes, a lot of paper, and a pen. We’re going to do about 15 minutes of free writing, to try to access some deep thinking about a subject we may not normally gravitate to: ourselves. The important thing about free writing is to JUST KEEP WRITING. No matter what. Write whatever comes into your head, even if it makes no sense or is embarrassing, and don’t stop. If your mind goes completely blank, keep copying the last line you wrote until something new occurs to you. Remember, this is not your poem. This is you clearing out the rubbish in your attic so you can turn it into a dance studio.

  1. Write for 2 minutes. Each line must start with “I am.” Go through all of the obvious things. I am a human. I am a woman. I am a mother. I am a daughter. I am …
  2. Write for 2 more minutes. You’re lines still start with “I am,” but start to get into less obvious things. I am a perfectionist. I am a list-maker. This is also where you need to get any clichés right out of your system. I am a bridge builder. I am a trail blazer. I am …
  3. 1 minute. Write lines that fill in these blanks. “I am [AN ANIMAL] [DOING SOMETHING].” I am a rabbit grazing on lettuce. I am a fish swimming in circles. I am …
  4. 1 minute. Inanimate objects. I am a dog-eared book. I am …
  5. 1 minute. Scientific phenomena. I am an orbiting moon. I am …
  6. 1 minute. Plants. I am a creeping vine. I am …
  7. 1 minute. Moments in your life. I am the moment I drove off in that car. I am …
  8. 1 minute. Food/drink. I am the last sip of coffee. I am …
  9. 1 minute. Literature. I am Shakespeare’s lost play. I am …
  10. 1 minute. Music. I am the bass line. I am the melody. I am …
  11. 1 minute. Fabric. I am a rusty tweed. I am …
  12. 1 minute. Works of art. I am a Kandinksy circle. I am …
  13. 1 minute. Switching things up here. Start your lines with “I make.”

Okay stop. Go back and circle the lines that you like. Choose 8-12 of them for your poem. You can tweak them, change their order, add new lines you think of. Now choose a title for your poem. Or perhaps one of your lines would make a good title.

I did this exercise with my mom last night, who told me she had never written a poem before in her life. What she wrote was amazing!

Here is my poem, which I suspect was better for me than a session on a psychoanalyst’s couch.

I Am Not What I Imagined I Would Be

 I am an elephant plodding.
I am a whale straining the ocean.
I am a squirrel darting into traffic.
I am of inconsistent moods.
I am a cracked mirror.
I am a length of coiled string.
I am a tea kettle whistling.
I am almost always happy.
I am a sequoia with a hole in the middle.
You can drive your car through me.
I am always beginning again.
I am full of excuses.
I am about to tell a little white lie.
I make progress.
I make lists.
I make notations over everything.
I make things harder for myself than they should be.

NaPoWriMo Day 17: Now You’re Cookin’

Hello poets! Today we draw inspiration from food, infusing our favorite recipes with poetry or employing the language of food preparation to uncommon uses in poems about less tangible things. Here’s your daily (optional) poetry prompt.

Recipe poem. Turn a real (or real-ish) recipe into a poem by employing poetic devices like imagery (metaphor, simile), repetition, assonance, or alliteration. Really transform your recipe. Don’t worry about specific measurements. You want to capture the essence of what is being created. Check out Bill Holm’s “Bread Soup.”

Or, write a poem about something completely different in the style of a recipe. A recipe for disaster? Love? Happiness? Loneliness? How about a recipe for a new beginning (see Jane Hirshfield’s “De Capo”)? What about a recipe for a color (see Arthur Sze’s “Ten Thousand to One”)? What are the ingredients? How must they be prepared? Peruse old cookbooks and see what comes to mind.

Here’s my poem, from a recipe I make each year. I think I was inspired by yesterday’s out-of-season snow.

Christmas Cookies

Combine equal parts margarine and cream cheese in a bowl.
“Cut” with a fork until the white and yellow swirls are perfectly combined,
pale yellow like the ghost of a daffodil corona.
Add flour, a little shake at a time.
Your arm will grow weary.
You will believe you have made a mistake.
Granules will whisper and slink
against the sides of your bowl and pile into little dunes.
Sink your fingers and clutch fistfuls.
Close your eyes.
Marry the particles to one another through force of will.
Form two large balls of dough,
cover with cling wrap, and chill.

Pour a white river of granulated sugar.
Watch it cascade in little sparkling falls from the counter.
Pinch dough and roll it between your palms.
Invoke the alchemy of body heat to raise it from the dead.
Dredge each ball in the river of snow.
Stack them, an arsenal of twinkling cannonballs,
a dozen snowmen, awaiting assembly.

Bring out Grandma’s old, red-handled rolling pin,
smooth wood cured by butter, cured by lard,
sealed with the kiss of a thousand floured surfaces,
color of sunlit honey, old saddle leather, fresh-dipped caramel apples.
Roll the balls of dough into discs.
Launch dozens of little flying carpets on the river of sugar.

Open a can of Solo almond pie filling.
Hear the delicious suck as the lid sticks; prise it open.
Behold the glistening cylinder of amber,
trapping in time the secret dreams of almond trees.
Hear their leaves rustling in the breeze.
Spread it sparingly on the little flying carpets,
distributing the flecks of almond like panhandlers’ gold.
Roll the ovals width-wise, into little sleeping bags for elves,
ready to be slung over tiny shoulders.
Dredge once more in sugar and tuck the little bundles,
close but not touching, on a parchment-lined sheet.

Bake until done.
Trust no timer, you must use your eyes.
Check often for signs of progress. They will not rise.
They must not change color. But, by some magic
in the hot almond-scented air,
you will know when it is time.

Remove the attractive ones immediately
to your best serving dish, or, if traveling,
to the tin with the red cardinal perched in the snow.
Behold your little tight-wrapped sleeping babes,
hummocks of Christmas snow, washed gold
by the light of a candlelit window.

Dispose of the castoffs. Those broken and imploded,
oozing fast-hardening blobs of burnt amber,
those that have become browned, on their edges or their tops.
These are best dispatched with a mug of steaming tea,
in the glow of the Christmas tree,
everyone gone to bed.


NaPoWriMo Day 16: Indulge

NaPoWriMo halfway there mini victory dance! I hope you are having as much fun as I am poets. Your daily (optional) poetry prompt is all about celebrating your progress. Keep writing!

Ode to your craving. Today I want you to write about something you are craving. An exquisite pastry? A juicy steak? That bottle of wine you’ve been saving? Little handmade caramels with pink Himalayan sea salt on top? Maybe what you’re craving isn’t food. Maybe it’s an afternoon with a good book. A hot bath. Playing hooky to see a movie. Maybe it isn’t something but someone. Maybe it’s something intangible. A moment of solitude? Permission to vocalize something you’ve been keeping inside you? The satisfaction of Marie Kondo-ing your closets?  Whatever it is, to write the poem properly you must do research. To the extent feasible (and legal), go ahead and indulge in your craving. You heard me. And pay very close attention to every last detail of that experience. Savor it. Relish it. Then write about it.

And consider writing an ode. The ode is a lyrical, celebratory poetic form. There are several formal types you can try. But my favorite are the skinny meandering odes of Pablo Neruda. Neruda wrote many, many odes, to things both great and small, but he had an uncanny way of paying sincere homage to utterly ordinary things, like his socks, an artichoke he saw in the market, or a bowl of chowder.

As a working parent of small children with a hobby that gets me up early each day, it is perhaps no great surprise that what I usually crave is my pillow.

Ode to Pillows

When my body,
full of my babies,
sunk to bed
like stones
in a river,
there was a
of pillow that
I coiled about me.
Cupped as if
by a pair of hands,
I was presented,
like an offering,
on the white
square bed.
Tucked between
the knob-stones
of my knees
and ankles,
that pillow
me tight.
I was proclaimed
by those ramparts
a bastion
of the night,
a barricaded
of baby-making.

The French
call it l’oreiller—
after l’oreille,
the ear—a word
briskly dismissive
of all but the
My ears have
bedded down
in little fields
of pleasantly
egg crate,
have passed,
as if through
into pistachio-green
memory foam,
and felt it rise
again like
bread rolls
in the morning,
have been
in the
sigh of
goose down
I have marveled
at snow-white
pillows rising,
like mountain ranges,
against the
of hotel beds,
my ears
little alpinists
ready to try
those peaks.

But there is
about you,
my own pillow,
your divine
air-spun cumulous,
your dual nature:
warm side
all smoldering
cool side wind
whistling through
Tickle-tumble place
for babies
in mama’s big,
high bed,
crushed repose
for the tossings
of a fevered
you know
what I whisper
to my man
at night,
and what
he whispers

Stripping you
for wash day
I see your
shy tea stains,
timid traces
of a flock
of fluttered
They seem like
raised from
invisible ink.
You have
grown thin,
dear friend,
and tired,
and with
a pang of guilt
I wonder
if it isn’t time.

NaPoWriMo Day 15: Word Harvest

Did Day 3 convince you that random words are your friends? Today’s (optional) poetry prompt is another simple way to harvest words for your poetry.

Borrowed Word Challenge: Grab the closest book, go to page 29, and write down ten words. Use seven of them in a poem. Extra credit if you use four of them at the end of a line. Thank you again to Kelli Russell Agodon for this and other fun prompts for National Poetry Writing Month.

Here are my words and what I wrote with them. I tried to be keep this poem pretty lean, using the found words and little else. The book I grabbed was my current obsession, a falling apart 1895 copy of The Cottage Physician that I inherited from my grandmother. Page 29 describes the structure of the human heart.

ventricles, flattened, inclosed, moist, membranous, sack, smooth, cavity, valves, heart-case

unrequited love

valve me into
your heart-case
moist cavity of a
membranous sack
ventricled memories
pumping me flat
pumping me smooth
you will hardly know
that I am there

NaPoWriMo Day 14: Find Your Muse

Get thee to a museum, poets! Or to the Internet. Or just crack open one of the big coffee table books collecting dust in your living room. Today we’re seeking inspiration in art. Here’s your daily (optional) poetry prompt.

Ekphrastic poem. “Ekphrasis” means “description” in Greek. Write an ekphrastic poem—a verbal depiction of a work of art. The classic example is Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” But modern ekphrastic poetry finds lots of other ways to interact with art besides just describing. What would you tell us if you were this piece of art? What would you want people to know if you were the artist? Interpret the art for your reader. What is going on in that painting anyway (see Victoria Chang’s poem “Edward Hopper’s Office At Night”)? What happened just before the moment that is captured (see Marianne Boruch’s “Still Life”)? What is going on just outside of the frame?

If you can, sit with the piece of art and just look at it for … well, a long time. Then go somewhere else and try free writing for 10 minutes about all of the details you remember. Go through what you’ve written and circle words or phrases that you like to be the building blocks of your poem.

Need more inspiration? Browse the Academy of American Poets’ collection of ekphrastic poetry.

My poem today employs a persona of my own invention, inspired by a finely rendered portrait of a lively gentlemen done by a Loyola University Chicago art student, which is now on display at LUMA, the Loyola University Museum of Art. The museum is free to the public and is currently showcasing two amazing collections of photography and collage, in addition to some student works.


(after a graphite-on-paper portrait with the
same title by Amanda Lovelace)

What this?
L’il funny mouse neck-wattle
low-reposed in my shirt collar?
Hen-pecked holes like dice pips in my chin?
Ravaged lip-ruff pucker mouth
puff suck hollow cheek bellows
fixin’ a blow a raspberry?
That look melancholy to you, girl?

Melancholy here?
Nose like a creepin’ newt sal’mander thing
seekin’ its home? Slidin’ down
the worried rivets a my crease-case
old church window glass
gettin’ thick at the bottom.
What we call The Slow Melt,
half-set Jello puddin’
boiled milk skin clingin’ to the pot.

‘Bout here?
L’il oyster eyes, settin’
in their frame shells,
each worryin’ a shiny black pearl?
Dry river bed all ‘round ‘em
Grand Canyon cliff scape,
techtonic face plates
shiftin’, shiftin’.

Keep goin’ girl?
Whirled-circuit cart’lage gnarls
drawn low long-lobed
ears tuggin’ em down.

And risin’ ‘bove it all
Mount Melancholy his self!
Spotted birds-egg dome
haloed white fluff quiver shimmer
floatin’ in the breeze
like sea anemones,
just goin’ in their current.

Melancholy!? Nuh uh!
Gotta think of another name
for this one honey!
But ya do gotta way
with a pencil baby girl,
Ya do. Gotta. Way.

NaPoWriMo Day 13: Find a Penny, Pick It Up

Friday the Thirteenth. The perfect day to write about a superstition—real or imagined, yours or someone else’s—and how to ward it off. Here’s your daily (optional) poetry prompt.

Superstition. Here’s another from the archives of the Poets&Writers weekly poetry prompts, this one from October 17, 2017. “Write a poem that begins with the presentation of a mysterious or inexplicable anxiety. Then in the latter half of the poem, present a ritual to reverse the effects … a physical ritual, lucky objects, or incantation.” Shorter may work better here. See what Amy Lowell does in her poem “Superstition.” Or consider making your poem a magic spell or a recitation of ingredients for a potion or concoction (think of the witches in Macbeth tossing ingredients into their cauldron).

Here’s my poem:

“Hi Grandma”

the rag that
twice daily
slips from the
dishwasher handle
has nothing
to do with my
who died
in a bed
almost three
hundred miles
from here

but what can it
hurt she’d be
so disappointed
if I didn’t at
least say hello


NaPoWriMo Day 12: Utter Nonsense

Hello poets! So here we sit, on Day 12, with the whole English language at our disposal—the inherited wealth of our Germanic and Latinate roots—and what are we going to do? Throw it out the window! Sometimes the best word is an invented one. To prove it, we’re going to invent a whole bunch and launch them in a poem.

Nonsense verse. Write a few stanzas of nonsense verse employing your own, made-up vocabulary. Nonsense verse can be defined in different ways. Some would include traditional nursery rhymes and Dr. Seuss. What we’re after today is something more akin to Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” a poem you may have read as a child. It first appeared in Through the Looking Glass, when Alice happened on a book that could only be read when held to a mirror. “It seems very pretty,” she said when she had finished it, “but it’s rather hard to under­stand! … it seems to fill my head with ideas — only I don’t exactly know what they are!”

We can understand something about what is happening in “Jabberwocky” because the invented words correspond to actual parts of speech. In the lines below, for example, we know that “brillig” and “slithy” are adjectives. Perhaps they have something to do with “brilliant” and “slithery,” but then again perhaps not. Likewise, “gyre” and “gimble” are verbs that call to mind gyrate and gambol. And “toves” and “wabe” are nouns. Toves are the things doing the gyring and gimlbling. The wabe is where they’re doing it. We’ve been transported to a magical realm where the sounds and shapes of words are detached from any fixed meanings and we have only a partial sense of what is going on.

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Make yourself a little vocabulary before you get started. See if you can invent 10 verbs, 10 adjectives, and 10 nouns. Be sure to include some of different lengths. If you need a little assistance in this department, try this great fake word generator. And remember, this is an excellent time to play with rhyme, since you are in complete control of your word endings!

Why on earth are we doing this?

(1) To prove that you do not need to know exactly what is happening in a poem to enjoy it.

(2) Because rhythm, meter, and rhyme are wonderful fun but tricky to implement in a way that does not feel forced. Letting them out to play on their own, divorced of serious meaning, can liberate them right back into our toolboxes.

(3) Because inventing words is a thing. Shakespeare did it like crazy. Modern poets do it too. Turn a noun into a verb, a verb into an adjective. Make up a word that just feels right, when no other one will do. Your poetry will thank you.

Guys, I had way too much fun with this one:

The Last Imatecksa

Came the tobbled cakeweassl with his kirdo of meef
To the jobox of a great san-plexa.
Turning once, in a cruda, his vassagles streef,
He oncouied his last imatecksa.

There the glit and bloxi crestboots creabered,
All together on a dryngli blench.
Their leader, a rosioned and tartic hissiburd,
Kwarried down to cakeweassl and roodaled his slench.

Cried he out, “By the cenion of my bistup hawkloon,
Fesson to me cakeweassl, don’t pessel me,
Or inloosi we will, our swooflia toon,
And fast purloff you a yaulèd blestbee.”

Unballied, cakeweassl mimbed up the last ‘tecksa
Zoosrickered it forth and rarsocked their bavims
And the crestboots, all kinesqui, ravv’ning out from the plexa,
Left their hissiburd weelt nagled on the stymms.