William James

working class poetry // punk rock performance

writing prompts from the SFOD workshop

On the 1st & 3rd Saturday of every month, I help run a writing workshop with fellow Slam Free Or Die organizer Mckendy Fils-Aime. We pick a poem each week, discuss & analyze it, then come up with a few writing exercises based on or inspired by the poem. For those of you who can't make it in person (or workshoppers looking to revisit old themes!), here are some archives of former workshop materials. There will be three prompts; two loosely related to the poem in question, and one curveball. I encourage you to follow the poem, not the prompt - if the poem takes you in a totally different direction than the prompt suggested, roll with it! And if you come up with something you're proud of, drop me a line! My info is in the CONTACT section, I'd love to hear from you.

Good luck. Write on.

#014 - "Baptism" by Talin Tahajian
published in Devil's Lake Review, Spring 2015

  1. What does your most sacred place look like after midnight?

  2. Think of a time in your life where something came to a definitive End. Write a poem that explores how that ending served as the beginning for something else.

  3.  What is the thing that you can only unlearn by learning?

#013 - "The Kid" by Ai
"Vice: New and Selected Poems" (W.W. Norton & Co. Inc.)

  1. Think of your favorite movie monster or villain. Write a poem, using the narrative structure of "The Kid" as your guide, that describes when that character reached their point of no return. (Adherance to canon is not required)

  2. Write a poem that describes a day in the life of an unlikeable character.

  3.  Your favorite breakfast cereal mascot is running for President. Write their campaign speech.

#012 - "A Brief For the Defense" by Jack Gilbert
"Refusing Heaven" (Alfred A. Knopf Publishing)

  1. When you're in the shit up to your neck, there's nothing left to do but sing.” - Samuel Beckett. What is your song that gets you through your most challenging times?

  2. Write about a moment where you sacrificed pleasure for delight (or vice versa) – was it worth it? Why or why not?

  3.   Someone sets you up on a blind date that turns out to be a robot. Tell that story to your friends at the bar.

#011 - "Turning The Tables" by Joel Dias-Porter
published in Poetry Magazine, Apr. 2014

  1. Think of something you love that is often ignored or trivialized by society. Write a poem of celebration that explains to the reader why this thing matters.
  2. You are the only remaining member in your field. Write an instruction manual on how to do what you did.

  3. The last white rhino died today. Use this line however you choose – as a ghost line, the first line of a poem, or just something to respond to.

#010 - "If a Black Bird Moves as a Cop Grabs Your Crotch, Does it Really Make a Sound?" by Robert Lashley
published in NAILED Magazine, Feb. 2014

  1. Imagine the black birds from Lashley's poem are looking down on a moment in your life. How does that appear to them? What do the birds see?

  2. If you could boil down your approach to, or movement through life to a single word/phrase, what would that be? Why?

  3. Respond to the following: “Shit don't change until you get up and wash your ass.”  


#009 - "The Mare of Money" by Roger Reeves
published in POETRY Magazine, Dec. 2008

  1. Think of a fairy tale you know well. Write a retelling of that story from the VANTAGE POINT (not a persona poem) of a minor character from the tale.

  2. What are the inevitable things that we ignore?

  3. Tell a story, using only single-syllable words. Make it ugly, or beautiful, or tragic, or scared. Make it interesting.   

#008 - "A. Machine" by Terrance Hayes (2nd poem)
published in Guernica, Nov. 2007

  1. Using the first line of “A. Machine” as a ghost line, write a short poem of 14 lines or less describing what it means for YOU to “ride condemned.”

  2. You check your voice mail,and find you have received this poem as a message. What would you say in response?

  3. What would you say to Death if you knew you couldn't die?

#007 - "Universe In the Key of Matryoshka" by Ronnie K Stephens
published in RATTLE #39, Spring 2013

  1. Using “Universe In the Key of Matryoshka” as a model, write (a portion of) your own life, starting from the outermost layer and distilling until you find your core.

  2. Think of the most uninteresting event you can imagine, and write it in an interesting way.

  3. Make a myth out of how you were born. Tell it as a tall tale or fable. Be as exaggerative or fantastic as you want.

#006 - "The Last Time My Father Sees Me" by Dalton Day
published in The Good Men Project

  1. You are about to depart from someone who you will never see again. What do you keep, if anything, in order to remember them?

  2. At the end of the poem, the author uses the imagery of baptism as a metaphor for new beginnings. What would your baptism look like? What do you wear, what are you bringing with you, what gets washed away?

  3. Write an apology to a part of your body you have mistreated. Allow your body to forgive itself.

#005 - "I'll Write The Girl" by Jan Beatty
from "Red Sugar" (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008)

  1. In the narrative of “I'll Write The Girl,” we see a moment of crisis; if the poem represents the action, think about the antecedent (what lead to the action) and the consequence (what resulted from the action.) Pick one and describe it. Try to “show, not tell.”

  2. Destruction is a coping mechanism in this poem. Let's invert that trope, and use creation as a coping skill. Re-write the thing that frightens you so that it is no longer threatening.

  3. Thirty minutes from now, you will lose all means of communication w/ humanity. You will not die, but will no longer be able to interact w/ the world. What's the last thing you say?

#004 - "The Lung and the Haircut" by Zachary Schomburg
published in CutBank 63/64

  1. Write about a conversation/interaction between 2 unlikely objects.

  2.  In The Lung & The Haircut, the Haircut lies about its feelings for the Lung. Why do we deny the things that we love? Write a response poem from the haircut to the lung, stating why he chose to keep his feelings from the lung.

  3. You're spending a day in your favorite scary movie. What happens?

#003"Ode To A Hawk With Wings Burning" by Ryan Teitman
published in the Summer/Fall 2010 issue of the Sycamore Review

  1. Think back to the time you first became aware of your own mortality. What did it look like? How did you feel? How were you able to process this new awareness?

  2. Write about the thing you couldn't name for the longest time. Give it a name.

  3. Picture a hypothetical event of your choosing. Write this event in three parts, exploring how it would occur differently in the following settings: city, country, small town.

#002 - "Ultrasound" by Vikram K. Sundaram
published in the Sept. 2014 issue of [PANK]

  1. In “Ultrasound,” we're given the sense that the poem starts in the middle of the action. Write a poem that starts at the midpoint of an event.

  2. Write a confessional poem using the voice of someone who typically isn't given the chance to be confessional due to their profession.

  3. The multiverse is a theory that states our universe is not the only one, but many universes exist parallel to each other. Assuming that, then given an event, every outcome is possible. Think of a time in which you narrowly avoided a disaster – now, write a poem in which that disaster occurred.

#001 - "black girl in paris: lust retrospect" by Mahogany Browne
published in the Sept. 2014 issue of Thrush

  1. Think of a time in your life you were conflicted by a decision. What did it look like? How did it feel? Did it have a resolution?

  2. In “black girl in paris: lust retrospect” we find the narrative arc of desire/action/regret. The poem explores what happens at each of those separate points – write a poem that explores what happens in between two points on that triangle.

  3. You are watching a deity in the midst of an intimate moment – what do you see?

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