Books for Poets | Mailing List | Copyrights | About Us


In Your Next Letter

April 2016

The Latin “epistula,” for “letter," led to epistolary poems, which are poems that read as letters. They can be to an internal or external audience, to a named or an unnamed recipient or to the world at large, intimate or not, to abstract concepts or real people. The epistles can use any form or free verse. It's a type of poem with much freedom. Elizabeth Bishop’s “Letter to N.Y.," uses rhyming quatrains and begins:

In your next letter I wish you’d say
where you are going and what you are doing;
how are the plays, and after the plays
what other pleasures you’re pursuing:

Bishop's poem came back to me when I read "In your next letter," from Cause for Concern (Able Muse Press, 2015) by Carrie Shipers when it was featured recently on The Writer's Almanac.   Shiper's poem uses Bishop's opening for its title and then goes on to say:
                                ...please describe
the weather in great detail. If possible,
enclose a fist of snow or mud,

everything you know about the soil,
how tomato leaves rub green against
your skin and make you itch, how slow

the corn is growing on the hill.
Thank you for the photographs
of where the chicken coop once stood,
clouds that did not become tornadoes.

This month we'll be writing epistles, which date back to verse letters of the Roman Empire, and was refined and popularized by Horace and Ovid.

You may want to use the conventions of a letter, as Langston Hughes does in his “Letter," which begins:

Dear Mama
Time I pay rent and get my food
and laundry I don’t have much left
but here is five dollars for you.

And you can certainly be creative in your use or abuse of letter writing forms and conventions.

For more on all our prompts and other things poetic, check out the Poets Online blog.


Ma, in the next letter, please tell me more about Pa’s health.
Bit worried. How are you coping with your cough? Did the elder brother
Send some money from the Gulf? Or, has he defaulted again?
He has his family, I know but he has to send his share.
How is your fever?
Do tell me in your letter these things, too.
I want to know everything happening there.
Letters are the only source of information.
Take the medicines regularly. Last time I visited, you looked a ghost.
More than two years now. I want to visit you again in my beloved village…
Ma, let me tell you---saw the home in the dream…and you. I had cried so much!
The brick walls crumbling…the doors battered…the cow dung-swept courtyard!
Yes, Ma. In the dream, I visited.
Saw you working in the kitchen, alone. Frail. White-haired. Eyes vacant..
Your hands shiver!
I got depressed!
Be careful.
Yes, the house was real. I saw all the details.
The thatched roof. The sacred Tulsi flower. And a half-moon hanging from the Margo tree in the corner.
The north- Indian village looked the same as ever. Dusty. Decrepit. Narrow alleys. Caste politics. The violence and the earlier murders.
How is the money-lender? Tell him your youngest son, a car driver, sends regularly the monthly money orders. He need not bother.
Do not worry. I work for 18 hours and save some money by being frugal.
Next time, I will, in rains, get the roof fixed of your room.
You can retire there without the leaking rain water.
And save some more money to be sent to the second married sister also. Tell her she has got her own brother.
Do not worry. If all children turn their backs on you and Pa, I am always there…Just take care.
Your little son is 22 and has got a full life ahead!
But, Ma, please… do write the next letter!

Sunil Sharma


What a terrific prompt for a poem
A letter, the letter, that letter, a
Never sent letter in a locked drawer,
So thin like a stiletto used to open it
Yet to have shattering consequences.

The authorities want it to be written
When you accept a position of service
Like a prenuptial contract, to be polite
No hard feelings, but something smooth
A formal white invitation card
With the future date to be filled in.

In dictatorships these letters are not
Written out but memorized
So over a bottle of ordinary wine
They are recited with a blank face
So people can say they heard nothing
I was not paying attention to what
Was said, I dreamed of what I'd write.

And in some affairs we're resigned
To write an ambivalent letter
And if, we are actually In love
The letter is easily ripped up
The pieces thrown into a winter fire
They are blossoms in a cold spring rain
As the coming warmth of love appears.

Edward Halperin


What do you mean, you’re going
on a trek to Thailand to pound nails?
and not even your own sweat equity
in a sweaty jungle, you’re doing it for
strangers, a roofless family. And
you want ten dollars from me to further
the cause? Not for me, you say, I’m paying
my own way, it’s for lumber. You,
friend-poet who raps the world, a shrap-
nel rhyme-bomb. You love nothing
but your husband, your cats, your students,
the goat you pass in a weedy field
down the road, the skunk who appears
at your door. Your friends. The elephant
who once looked you in the eye.
Your words are eyes, are cinders from
a burned-out city, shatters of glass
catching light. That light is a struck flint
to roast the heart. Last night between
sheets of cloud the full moon sailed
at perfect peace with Jupiter.
Get down on my knees in wet grass.
You only want a few paper dollars?

Taylor Graham


I’m going on a road trip
I decided just last night
I need vastness
Night skies to wake me
Birds in the morning
Lulling me to a land of dreams
If I don’t return
Water the plants on the back deck
Fill glass vases with sweet peas
Let the dusty smell of pepper
Make you want me
I’m not bringing the dog
He’d miss you too much
I’m hoping the same of me
To find you in the night sky
There are boxes of love letters
Written by you to me
They are in old shoe boxes
To the left of my desk
Open theses please
Smell both the lust and the love
I’ve stored these thirty plus years
I’ll be waiting under a night sky

Patty Joslyn


Dear Mum,
The leaves have turned yellow
the skies scowl at me
lobbing thunderclaps and lightning bolts
drenching me with torrential rain
The scowl deepens
as I enter Attica Tollway.
The heavens have opened fire
shooting bullets
on the metal roof of my old sedan.
Lightning flashes again.
The sky's camera shutter speed
dazzles my windscreen wipers
blurring my vision
as I crash into the sturdy steel barriers

Sofia Kioroglou


       About the rain,
This morning’s shower flashed across the sky
      Dumping inches in minutes,
Racing down the map like a giant squeegee
      In your mighty hand.
Trees fell, lights failed, bayous filled—again.

Causing havoc where houses, like eviscerated
      Animals, their insides splashed
Along countless roads, stood as sentinels,
      Guarding what remained.
Water raising impounds, sopping streets—again.

      About the rain,
It’s April, Chaucer’s month with “shoures
      Soote,” but we’ve had enough,
More than any other April—ever.
      So much we fear
Deucalion must start us over—again.

I know. I sent you fervent prayers last
      Summer when no rain fell
And trees blanched and died, dust
      Choking the mouth, heat
Cracking the earth, sweating us all—again.

      But about the rain,
As you saved the thunder legion, sending
      Water from an empty sky,
We pray you temper your abundance,
      Stay your flowing hand,
Let us dry, so we may pray to you—again.

Robert Miller


You will be happy to know
                 I went for a walk past midnight
taking the shortcut through the cemetery on the way back

As I passed the orange blossoms
                       I slowed my pace to a stop
an emaciated soul at a river's side,
I drowned in the sweet stickiness of summer's citrus;
                         garlands lit in the dim of dawn

dusk not yet overcome,
your head stone shines; pennies in full sun

You will be happy to know
I went for that walk past midnight

Sylvia Ceja-Gonzalez


Dear lady
leaning on the safety rail
a hundred feet above the water
with a tear stained face.

I'm sorry for my clumsiness,
the cycling past, the not quite certain what to do
then stopping to return;
the awkward orbits of a male
to check the safety of a female
on an empty bridge.

Thank you for reassuring me you would not jump.
I believed you for I saw the tiny smile that
seemed to spring from something brighter
than the source of tears.

I wish I'd said a little more to reassure
but you were likely wishing I would go away.

I stopped a little further down the road to write a letter,
just a paragraph or two
to say how glorious it was
to be alive despite the pain.

I popped it in a phonebox in the foolish hope
that you might pass that way again.
Alistair McNaught


dear lover of letters, please
sit here in this chair
your comfort
a prerequisite
for clear thought

take a moment to relax
and forget your busy day
let your eyes
drift down
upon the first lines

dear lover of letters, please
may the ideas flow
with the pace of your mind
like the planks of wood
in the floor

your gaze strolling along
its bright surface
its unique form
and grain

notice the smooth dark areas
and know others
have walked here before
with its patina
and random knots
like footnotes in time

dear lover of letters
can you imagine
when all of this was new ?
the smell of solid
freshly cut pine
the slow steady work
on one's knees
nail by nail
in its place

Mark Willard


Dear Grief Filled One:
Your day is not done
sit still
in the rock garden
of sadness
among the blooms
“Bitter Root”
“Basket of Gold”
on stone steps warmed
by the sun.

Margaret A. Dukes


Dear Magnus,
You asked in that last mail about who he was,
who we thought we were, the upcoming reunion
of people who never had so much as a glimpse
of each other, two too terrified of Skype ...or
were we somehow techno-laggers? My best take
to a live (and by that I mean non-virtual) friend
was to say we were not Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks.
Damn, I can’t even tell you who I am (in the rapidly
degenerating flesh so to speak) much less Felix
Navidad over there, 'cross dem Great Waters.
We just hacked into each other - cyber ravishment –
by accident almost - bodas de sangre...en linea.

Used to be they warned ya don’t fall in love
outside your area code. Today...? Anyway,
we are now crysknows how many time zones
into limbo. We're more or less set to meet in a month.
He said Paris. I said Prague. (Any bets we wind up
in Budapest?) Do I feel anything? I'm hysterical -
or at least that's what my brother keeps saying. I
can't wait. It's worse than Christmas when you're
seven. (He says that too.)

Oh and btw, friend, you think when you play taptap
you are invisible? Safe behind your big bad avatar?
Think again, ducky. WE ARE ALL NAKED HERE
with our typos and our lousy punctuation. Warts and all,
we are on stage on the in case no one
taught you right, the most important sex organ is the brain.

Please keep in touch: I need all the support I can muster.
PS. Hey, maybe times are closer if I count
the other way. Count down to liftoff or something.

Timea Deinhardt


Where is the pleasant rhyme, you ask?
That pretense of order,
That boxes the world in stackable rectangles
That even a weak man can carry?

But my poetry, like my world, is in rags,
Which I dedicate to my lover,
Who has grown fat with the cum of every man,
Including yourself,
Who’s ever had her.

She tells me she loves everything
That brings suffering
Because, as she so eloquently puts it,
Her heart has begun to rot.
You can smell it on her breath.

I won’t give her the satisfaction of beating her.
Maybe if you were my friend,
I’d ask you to do it for me.
But desperate as I am,
I am neither so fatigued nor bored as to need a friend.

You ask to see my latest work.
The best work I do anymore
Is found in the letters I send my mother,
Begging for money to support me and my whore
For the next three weeks,
Since it takes me that long to write a good letter.

Ron Yazinski