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February 2009

I came upon the idea for this prompt when I was reading Brian Brodeur's blog, How A Poem Happens. Brian is himself a poet living in Virginia, and his blog gives contemporary poets the chance to talk about the making of one of their poems.

The poet and poem used here is "Facts About The Moon" by Dorianne Lauxbook which is the title poem from her 2006 collection Facts About the Moonbook.

In the blog post (which reprints the poem), Laux talks about how a casual conversation about the solar/lunar system led her to become tuned in to "moon facts" she encountered in reading, watching TV or movies.

Among the many facts I learned that night the one that stuck was the fact that since the expansion of the universe, the moon has been steadily and significantly backing away from the earth, which meant the moon once appeared much larger in the past and would only appear smaller in the future. I couldn’t get over it. I went to bed trying to imagine it and woke up thinking about it. I was obsessed.

That obsession led her to seek more information about the moon and was the prewriting for the poem.

I also read everything I could get my hands on about the moon. That fascination has been long-lived as I’m still reading about the universe and am just now I’m finishing up Timothy Ferris’ Coming of Age in the Milky Waybook . The second aspect of the poem is that my extended family was going through a life-crisis, a not uncommon state of affairs for them, so that was in the back of my mind. I was in the process of working to pull away from them. Maybe I became obsessed with the moon as a way to curb my obsession with the latest family crisis. But the tug of the family is tremendous. Even a crazy family can seem better than no family. The poem is two obsessions in collision.

I like this idea of two obsessions or ideas in collision. Like so many poems, her intent at first ("That the listing of the facts was in some way interesting was my only concern.") took a leap in another direction.

The leap from the planetary to the personal might have been a technique had I thought of it consciously, but I didn’t. It happened naturally, organically, without my being aware of it until I had finished the poem. I really thought the poem was about the moon, and these two people I had made up, the woman and her boy, strangers to me, but realized then it was my mother and my sister, or my sister and my niece, in disguise.

Our prompt for this month is to start a poem by first collecting a series of facts about a subject that interests you. You will use the facts in your poem, but the poem will also leap (hopefully, actuarially) like Laux's poem to another place. Of course, you could work backwards - start with an idea for a poem and then research the facts about a subject within the poem - but that somehow feels like cheating. If you can put one obsession into motion, perhaps it will naturally collide with another and produce the energy for the poem.

There is more about this prompt - plus poetry news and conversations amongst poets at the Poets Online Blog.

Dorianne Lauximg is the author of four collections of poetry. She is also the coauthor, with Kim Addonizio, of The Poet’s Companion. Among her awards are a Pushcart Prize, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Guggenheim fellowship. She is a professor of poetry at the University of Oregon’s Creative Writing Program and lives in Eugene, Oregon, with her husband, the poet Joseph Millar.

For more on this prompt and others, visit the Poets Online blog.


Pushing away white herons, ducks, and carp
the nutria goes his way in the River Sasagase
- Ito Shinsuke (translated from Japanese)

What creature did my terrier dig from its burrow
and, like snapping a wet towel,
break the neck and drop onto the snow?
Muskrat of Native American tales,
essential oil, Captain and Tenille?
Or noo-tree-ah, coypu, nutria-rat—
invader of habitat, destroy of beneficial plants,
displacer of mallards and green herons?

Thirteen nutria-rats were imported from Argentina
to Louisiana in 1937, farmed for meat and pelt,
and in the 50’s mail-order marketed as “gold nuggets in fur,”
a rush that ran aground. Never the new mink,
they were released to the wild, or escaped storm-flooded pens.
Hardy and adaptable, the rodents bred well.
Even Paul Prudhomme’s desperate dish—
deep-fried nutria—couldn’t stem the northwards tide. 

New Jersey winters are not what they once were.
My 1960’s childhood was one big snowstorm
after another, the rural landscape seamed
by red snow fences half buried in drifts,
a paradise of sledding hills and frozen lakes,
the refrain of chains rolling on packed snow.

When George Washington’s troops encamped at Morristown
the winter of 1779-80, General DeKalb wrote,
it is “so cold that the ink freezes on my pen
when I am sitting close to the fire. The roads are piled
with snow until, at some places they are elevated
twelve feet above their ordinary level.”

Winters in New Jersey are mostly sleet and freezing rain now,
snow in inches, not feet, and periodic thaws—
60-degree days that entice everyone outdoors—
and blizzards are rare. In January, I came across a flock
of robins wintering in Rittenhouse Town, Philadelphia.
And South American natives are socked into springs
feeding the iced-over pond down slope
from my rented cottage.

The terrier was hunting for hours, sticking his narrow
snout down muddy holes, digging, sniffing,
rubbing his nose raw, going to ground.
Muskrat’s tail is flat (not rope-like),
and muskrat is smaller than coypu,
and nocturnal, unlikely to scurry
in sunlight to mow down cattails.

I plan to examine the body for trademark white whiskers,
yellow incisors—to get the facts straight—
but my landlord’s red pickup pulls up,
and this man who rarely walks his land without a mower
heads straight to the dark bump in the snow.
He scrutinizes the rodent like a scientist,
a detective, a poet—holding it up to his face,
rotating the tail, finally toting the body back
to his house to do who-knows-what with it.
If I ask questions I may have to rat out the dog.

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, but today
the terrier is sleeping in the spring-like sun,
and the nutria are underground,
burrowing, multiplying.

Victoria Reiners


I see how the poem prompt starts
With a heavenly body over which we have
No control.

The Halley Comet is controlled
By its closeness to the sun
And how it crosses the orbit of the earth.

I took my son to a movie about Mark Twain
Who was born and died close to Halley's cycle;
Twain saw his life as seventy six years
Give or take the pull of gravity
Or the inclination to the planetary plane
The comet comes and comes again.

My wife was big into modern parenting,
The children were to know science,
Especially our oldest son.

In nineteen eighty six;
It was a year of less than good display
Almost the worst in recorded time
According the record books.

But my wife convinced of her duty
Plodded me to do what she saw fit
To make an early evening sighting.

We faced West on a dark driving range
With an early Autumn dew falling
And the sky full of urban diffuse light.

Nothing to be seen,
But she had her sarcasm that I cannot find
What the journalist suggested was easy or apparent.

And cheap binoculars
Those 10 by twenty four from China
Without a chromatic aberration ring
Did not help.
We only saw star dust

I was tentative
But my wife was sure,
There it was, what she had found
A marvelous sight.

So my stating it, was it,
Was a bold lie to give my oldest son a truth
Your father can reach into heavens.
A good lie for one seen as ineffective.

Edward Halperin


they say that if i quit smoking
in two to three days
food will smell and taste better.

as i flick ashes in the empty coke can
i smirk and wished that smoking
gave me an ear infection

this way i wouldn’t have heard
her shrill scream in the background
of the voicemail you left me

because your cell phone didn’t
hang up
right away.

they say that smoking increases
your risk of heart disease by twenty percent
the more you smoke- the greater the risk

so if
you count all the butts in the ashtray
add them to all the “please but babys”

i am well
on my way
to dying.

they say for a person trying to quit
it takes about seven or eight times
before they quit for good

but with you
it only took seven
anytime minutes.

Michele Mitchell


A birthday.
Many birthdays,
and anniversaries.
The Battle of Lexington and Concord
to start a revolution.
I never started a revolution
or participated in one.
In my own time,
the Warsaw Ghetto uprising,
and a siege in Texas where
eighty-one people die.
I didn't know any of them.
I didn't know anyone
in Oklahoma City in 1995
when the bomb went off.
One hundred and sixty-lives
connected to me in some way
that I don't understand.
If my mother had held past midnight,
the thread would be broken

turn the page to twenty
and the needle
stitches you to Hitler in 1889
and a hundred years later
to a Colorado high school
where two boys
who also read that page
rip out the binding
on twelve lives.
Turn back,
turn forward,
the stories are all the same.

Ken Ronkowitz


Bacteria live in social groups and wage wars upon one another
There are ten times more bacterial cells in the human body
Than human cells
Bacteria make up most of the earth’s biomass
Without them we would have no air to breathe
And would die
There are good bacteria and there are bad bacteria
And some that we are indifferent to
Not on our radar
Some say the flagellum of bacteria was designed by God, in one go
Others say that it is not as perfect as it first appears, still it gets
Gets them from A to B
To remove bacteria from your hands you have to scrub
But if you try to kill them with chemical warfare
They will grow stronger

So make your peace even though you don’t understand them
Or why they are as they are and do as they do, or because of fear
Don’t go to war
Don’t go to war because you don’t like the idea of them
Don’t go to war thinking yourself superior and the more
Seasoned warrior
Don’t think you can claim the moral high ground
In war there is no moral high ground, all in war is lowland
Don’t go to war
Because if you do
The whole wide world will suffer and no-one will ever win

Iris Lavell