Thursday, April 11, 2019

National Poetry Month Writing Prompts

Photo by Tony Gao
For those who don't know, April is National Poetry Month. For some, that means they share poetry on social media, or book poets to visit their schools (wink); others engage in "30/30s," writing 30 poems in 30 days.

To be honest, I've never done a 30/30 and don't plan to. I definitely encourage others to try it, as long as it feels like a healthy challenge, and not something stressful; it just doesn't work for my personal process. I do, however, love the idea of sharing writing prompts, little poem starters or ideas for people who are looking for some inspiration, or are struggling with writer's block.

TruArtSpeaks is sharing a writing prompt every day this month. Young Chicago Authors also has an archive of prompts. There are plenty of others online. For this post, I wanted to share a few of my own, with a small twist.

Most writing prompts focus on form (and that's great!); just for a change of pace, here are a few that focus on content instead, leaving the form part completely up to you. Maybe it's a sonnet, or a song, or a persona poem, or an open letter, or something else; but here are a few topics I'd personally like to hear more poems about.

I am not saying that these are the only important issues of our time. I am not saying that every poet should stop what they're doing and write about these topics right now. I am not in the business of telling people what to write about (especially since we all face different interests, pressures, and expectations). But for poets, songwriters, and other kinds of artists out there who ARE actively looking for a challenge, I'd offer these five prompts:

1. How can artists meaningfully address climate change?
This has always been something I've wanted to write more about; it's just challenging. For so many of us (though not all of us, of course), climate change is an abstract issue. We know it's important, but don't necessarily have a personal story to share. I'm also thinking about how important it is for poems to transcend the basic "hey this is something to be aware of" stuff and really get to a call-to-action. That's also challenging, though, since so many calls-to-action are so individual-oriented, and we know that to truly address climate change, it's going to take more than individuals choosing to recycle, or buy an electric car. A few thoughts:
  • How do you make this issue "real" for the audience? If personal narrative isn't an option, and speaking "for" others isn't an option, how else can imagery, metaphor, and storytelling propel a piece of art beyond the rattling off of statistics and facts? Maybe it's a more speculative/sci-fi approach? Maybe it's something really left-field and outside-the-box?
  • How can a poem or song invoke a sense of urgency? How do you call the audience to action in a way that acknowledges the true scope of the problem and transcends easy, individual answers, while still energizing and mobilizing people to do something? Especially when it's so easy to feel powerless about this issue; where might power come from?

2. How can artists meaningfully address authoritarianism and fascism?
I'd argue that this is a defining issue of this particular moment in history. Of course, the US has always had an authoritarian streak, and immigrants and Muslims have always been targeted, and racism and oppression have always been built into the foundations of this country-- that's all true. But what is also true is that the past couple years have accelerated all of this in specific and meaningful ways; the implicit is becoming explicit. The most extreme elements of the Right are emboldened. And it's all getting worse (here's some required reading). So what can a poem do? A few thoughts:
  • A key line in my song "Bumbling Shithead Fascists" is "the smallest act of resistance/ when the emperor is naked/ is just to say it, and say it, and say it." I wonder, sometimes, whether part of why this stuff is hard to write about is because it's easy to write about. Of course Trump is a disaster. Of course his administration is wrong about everything and hurting people. It can feel like a challenge to say something new or original. So maybe one writing prompt here is to write about what's happening, without the pressure to be more radical than the last person, or more "right" than the last person. Just adding our voices to the larger chorus can be valuable-- poetry as witness, poetry as journalism.
  • At the same time, of course, we want to create art that cuts through the noise, that does say something new or original. So how might we do that? Maybe it's about political education, getting more and more people to be able to identify a fascist policy or talking point when they hear it. Maybe it's about focus-- choosing one specific element of this larger political shift and really zooming in on it, in order to comment on the bigger picture. Maybe it's about calling people to action, highlighting specific organizations doing good work and sharing ways to support them. None of that is "easy" for poets, but I think it's important.

3. How can artists talk about electoral politics without just sounding like shills?
The 2020 elections are going to be really, really important. I'd love to hear more poems about voting, but again-- those can be challenging to write. We don't want to write "voting is the only thing you can do to create change" poems, because that isn't true. We don't want to write "vote for my candidate because they're perfect" poems, because all of the Dem 2020 candidates have major baggage, and while I know a lot of us are going to vote for whomever comes out of the primary, that's just not a very inspiring message. So how CAN we talk about electoral stuff in a way that is artistically engaging and cool? A few thoughts:
  • A get-out-the-vote poem doesn't have to focus on a specific candidate, and it doesn't have to position voting as the be-all-end-all of political engagement. There are more nuanced ways to talk about all that. In this poem, Tish Jones makes some great connections; here's what I wrote about it: "...the poem isn't parroting the old 'vote because it's your civic DUTY' line; it's saying something more specific, and more meaningful. It's connecting the listener-- especially the listener who may not come from a privileged place in society-- to a history of struggle, not to mention a *present* in which far too many people have had their rights stripped away. That connection drives the call-to-action."
  • Check out point #6 in this post for the smartest thing I've ever heard someone say about voting. There are hundreds of poems in there.

    4. What does the world that we're fighting for look like?
    This could be a writing prompt on its own: describe a healthy, peaceful, just world. What does it look like? What does it sound like? What do you notice as you walk down the street? There's also a deeper question in this prompt, though, something about the power of art to visualize movement goals before the policy/strategy language exists for them. Franny Choi's "Field Trip to the Museum of Human History" does this. Sci-fi work from writers like NK Jemisin does this. A few thoughts:
    • That world doesn't have to be perfect. In fact, it can be powerful to acknowledge that a healthy, peaceful, just world isn't necessarily a utopia-- people will still struggle. But maybe there's something about that struggle that's different. Maybe describing paradise's problems can give us perspective on our own.
    • A useful quote from the editors of Octavia's Brood, an anthology of visionary fiction: "Whenever we try to envision a world without war, without violence, without prisons, without capitalism, we are engaging in an exercise of speculative fiction. Organizers and activists struggle tirelessly to create and envision another world, or many other worlds, just as science fiction does... so what better venue for organizers to explore their work than through writing original science fiction stories?"

    5. How can radical, progressive, anti-authoritarian art subvert expectations? How can it be funnier, or weirder, or more adventurous?
    This one is maybe a little more general. I'm just wondering about the possibilities in humor, in sci-fi and fantasy, in pushing the boundaries of how "political art" has come to be understood. Especially in slam poetry (just as an example), we all already know what a political slam poem sounds like. It's not that there's anything wrong with that, either; sometimes, the best approach is direct: the serious call-to-action, the powerful exploration of an issue. But because those expectations exist, there is opportunity in subverting them. How can the previous four points here be explored via outside-the-box, off-the-wall approaches? A few thoughts:
    • Humor is, of course, tricky. There's a danger in making light of serious issues. I'd always recommend getting feedback on "funny" poems before sharing them with the world. But when it's done well, it's so powerful. I'm thinking of this "All Lives Matter" poem, or "Dinosaurs in the Hood," or the incredible "Pigeon Man" (which, I would argue, opens with some humor but is actually not supposed to be a funny poem, even though the audience keeps laughing-- again, humor can be risky).
    • It's been useful to me to think of political art on a spectrum: on one side, there's work that's so blunt, so straightforward, that it's just kind of boring. On the other side, there's work that's so ultra-adventurous and boundary-pushing that it's completely opaque; if people don't get it, they won't be moved by it. It can be helpful to think about who the audience is for a particular piece, and what we'd like them to walk away with. But that's a whole other post.

    I hope there's something here that can be generative or useful. This is definitely a challenge to myself, more than it is for anyone else. But please feel free to share if you end up writing something.

    A few other links/resources people may be interested in:

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