POETS ONLINE ARCHIVE - the writing prompt


"Theme for English B" by Langston Hughes is a poem that wonders if it is "that simple" to write in response to a poetry prompt. In this time when the poetry workshops and MFA programs are in full production mode, our site asks you to respond too.

What has been your experience in writing on demand? (For a class, workshop, for this site...) The current prompt asks you to self-consciously look at your own process. Are you one who ponders until the last hours? Starts on a poem immediately? Digs into the file to rework an old poem into something resembling the current prompt ? (It's OK - we understand - you won't have to stay after class.)

Go home and write a page tonight. And let that page come out of you-- Then, it will be true.

I wonder if it's that simple?

"Theme for English B" is available in The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes

Writing on Demand

Right away I'm feeling anxious,
knowing that I have to come up
with something before the deadline.
Everyone else must already have an idea
and is trotting along iambically.
They're probably using powerful imagery
that I'll admire and wish I'd thought of
and vocabulary that my dictionary
doesn't even include-
When I read those poems,
I feel utterly ill-suited for this work.

I'd like to be clever this time
because it seems like that kind of prompt,
one you could be clever with.
Humorous might be even better;
I love a poem that makes me laugh.
But what comes to mind
is neither clever nor funny.

Feeding on demand.
How I breastfed my daughter
to keep her a part of me just a little longer,
how whenever she cried, I held her to my breast,
sure that she was hungry, doubtful
that I had enough milk to nourish her.
Still, I loved the feeling when my milk let down,
the building up and the release.
And I remember how sometimes,
in the middle of the night,
she'd suspend her nursing for a moment and,
still grasping me between her gums,
meet my gaze and stretch her lips out in a smile.

Susan Rothbard

The Prompt

A finger nail
to scratch an itch
so irritating that
the skin swells
and throbs in anticipation
of release

the voice
yes, yes, yes
the prompt brings
blood to the
raw open

--Susan Sapnar


12:32 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon.
Sitting in a sea of computers
Listening to the unintelligible murmurs
of others as they slave away at term papers,
projects, and sometimes
even the occasional thesis.

Inside I can feel the rush building--
the rush of getting another poetry assignment
done before the wire.
A line at the door yields
allowing one more frantic student
to join the revolving door.

Looking over, my glance meets the person's
just sitting down next to me.
Ah, a fellow classmate from poetry class.
We exchange knowing smiles.
Got it done, yet? he asks with a sly smile.
Nope, almost done , though.  What about you?
Before he even answers I know his reply.
These frequent meetings on Thursdays
seem to have become part of the writing process
for both of us.

We turn to our work and in a writing frenzy,
my masterpiece is done.
At least, it's done until the revision is due.
I send the words on my screen to be printed,
then wait for the paper to be shoved
into my numbered slot that matches the terminal
where I am held captive, itching to be let out
of this stifling room.

Finally, my eagle eye sees the paper
peeking out of the opening.
Grabbing my coat and disk,
I am on my way to retrieve my treasure
with a smirk on my face,
knowing I have beaten the clock
once again.

My friend will be late for class.
I, on the other hand, still have time
to stop and get a Pepsi
before class begins.

Welcome to my weekly writing frenzy.

Tonya Anderson

A Fruit, a Seed

Like a fruit
        a seed
a possibility deep inside
the moist kiss
        of words
      imagination pines

I probe the skin
    thick, textured,
      searching a twist
    a nick, a tiny tear
a point
    of entry.

I pierce the flesh
peeling the pieces
each one a means,
a path.

Then a taste
hesitant, probing
until flooded
in sweetness
     the succulent
meat of idea.

I revel in the juice
inspiration runs
        down my chin
as I find seeds
and plant them
row upon row
       stanza on stanza.

From this fruit
the verse
      hopefully blossoms,
        to bloom
in the heart
        and soul
of us.

James M. Thompson

I have to write a poem
Just like that – I have to
Like that spring when he told us to write –
With the last line
you could as well die –
A poem and it was then
When I had
For the first time
But now I am the one who
Tells iT when To sTarT
To sTop


The Pencil

The pencil in my head moves not
despite the deathgrip.
Write, damn you, write.

Michael Z. Murphy


I'd whore myself over a noun
spread my verbs any day.
Give me a word
some lax of reason
to expose my truth,
or better yet: create another's.
It's easier for me this way-- being provoked,
some "hieroglyphic-like high-five okay".
You might even forgive me,
pardon my word play,
indulge my almost original
thought in some small way.

Valerie R. Cutlar

Prompted Page

i couldn't concentrate in writing class
a mandatory, yet seemingly useless place to be
three hours a week,
my night class
with the professor that had this manner of
perusing his "infallibility"
to irritation

but i digress

and i told him "i'm bored, immensely bored, this class irritates me"
and he said
"you're a poet, write a poem"
and immediately my artistic arrogance was bruised
and i thought
"what, me?  the poet?  write a poem on demand?
who does he think he is?  i need inspiration"
and when i realized how ri-goddamn-diculous i was acting
i wrote one of the poems i like
the most
though i don't seem to think any are good enough
they are as true to me as any...

but i digress

and i sat and wrote, and was reminded of prompts
i have read here
but i felt my pride be wounded by his suggestion
like he was impinging on my personal life
and my heart
and that's not right

but i digress

Brandi Semler


on time; punctual; done without delay.
Surely this is not not the right definition.
My pen lies on the table waiting.
Deadline ringing the bell.

Try: to give rise to; inspire.
Not yet. And now
he looks into the side window.

in theater: to give a cue
Someone in the orchestra pit,
giving me the next line.
A lovely thought,
but not to be.
He opens the vestibule door
and raps his fist on the inside door.
His insistence makes my head jump.

From the Latin promptus "brought to light,"
and he opens the door!
There I am, pulling my robe closed,
covering my breasts with one hand
while the other offers to him
the poem.

Pamela Milne

Go Home and Write A Poem Tonight

That's a teacher for you!
From your lofty podium
you issue your command,
demanding full response before a sleep
will calm and keep this brain alive!
And yet...
when does one beget a thought?
What has brought MY latest
bomb exploding on MY scene?
What ever have I wrought
when living was serene?
Challenge is the key
that opens doors.

Poor's the poet who's so sure
he needs a sleeping pill to write,
because he's read
Serenity is needed
'ere the Muse will heed his will.

I've had my fill of making things just right
before I dare -
before I care enough - to crash a gate
or stay up late
and smash my mind into the wall
that's built to stimulate
my ever-urge
to purge another silt of rhyme,
and filter out the nothings
'round my brain; and drain
what's left
onto the plane of flashing light:
a sight (and sound) sublime,  that's built
to last until another blast
- from either podium or fate -
will urge this poet to poem one more time!

Catherine M. LeGault

After You Died, We Did Find Out

After you died, we did find out
About the Samaritans, the lives you saved.

In class we wrote, the words coming,
The words flooding out, worlds unfolding,
Conjured from nothing, ink joining ink,
Inside turning out, worn torn seams -
An old coat with a silk lining

Some of us wrote better, wrote swift and bitter,
Lifted out our past, left it on the page.
Shallow water, only inches,
The glittering dross easily dredged.
But deeper water, with depths untouched -
It's harder to plumb, to pull the emotions
And display them, for pity and for play.

What did we learn, laughing at each other
After in the pub, our pens put away
But still telling stories, setting ourselves up
With a little truth, a lot of little lies.

After you died, we did find out
About the Samaritans, the lives you saved.
Not the best writer - but the best one of us.

Paul Milne

Process (Tuesday, January 25, 2000)
1/ 6:20 a.m.

I think about writing a found
poem made up of lines from my
Excite homepage. I plan to call it
"Going to Hell in a Handbasket."
But there's a storm, and
my provider is down, which means
I have to use the Bergen Record instead,
where I find the following headline,
which is almost a haiku:

    Newark Airport
    crew finds body
    in jet's wheel well

2/ 8:47 a.m.

I think about how to write an erotic poem
that won't address sex directly --;
and I want to use a metaphor,
and for me this would have to be
getting my teeth cleaned, the total
surrender to the little head cushion
and the occasional pain, the soft hands
inside you and how you feel smooth
afterwards, and safe.

3/ 9:05 a.m.

Maybe I can use the email message I once sent
to someone. It goes a little something like this:

    NOTES ON MY PROCESS: First I look up this week's prompt. Then I
    procrastinate. Then I wake up in the middle of the night after some
    angst-driven dream. In the morning it all sounds like shit. On the ride home
    from work I begin to agonize about love. As soon as I arrive I turn on
    the computer and take a nap. Are you relating yet?

4/ 9:22 a.m.

Look, all I know is
that I woke up one day and
had to write a poem.

Mary DeBow

the task master

so you want to see my soul
you say
watch me jump through the hoop
as you move it ever so higher
my only reward your approval
you want me to play, faster; faster
as you wave the baton back and forth
through my memories
can you hear the music?
you ask
and i shall write for you this
standing here before you with no pretense
stripped of even those thoughts
i once thought only mine
exposing my self to the world
sooner, later, what matter?
as long as i have this need
to feel wanted
where is my pen?

ray cutshaw

One true sentence started
a war between two people who
loved each other, but not wisely.

They clamored for each other's
kind words and ached for glances
that assured them they
were ok.

I lived with them while I was
young.  Then one day I grew up
and they seemed so silly.  Adults,
and me the child.  But I thought
with truth and they only reflected
what they wanted to see.

Yes, these are words from inside
of me.  Words that weight me down
like lard.  The truth and yet so simple.
It's only the living of it that's hard.

Kitty Jarman



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