Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

Working Methods: some notes

First things first: get up. This can be harder than it sounds.

Second step: do something other than go lie down on the couch in the living room and turn on the tv. Note: this is much harder if you have once again slept all night on the couch. Second note: if you have a dog, this is much easier because you will get an immediate disapproving look.

Third thing: take care of the dog, who requires at least a ten minute walk to pee and poop. When you return, you must feed the dog and get him some clean water to replace the slimy puddle that is yesterday’s clean water.

Sometimes I eat breakfast and sometimes I don’t eat before working. I can’t see much difference in production either way.

In the absence of my normal coffeehouse routine, I ordered a six cup orange teapot from Amazon one day. When I got to my husband’s apartment, I found he only had some 8 oz coffee cups. I was microwaving water every half an hour.  Ordinarily, at the coffeehouse, I order a pot or a 16 oz drink and sit for an hour or two and then order something else and then I’m done. So the teapot substitutes for that time now. I sit down for as long as it takes to drink an entire pot of tea. Generally, this takes me about two hours.

English or Irish Breakfast, two bags, some lemon and honey.

Then I sit in front of the computer and check in with my students on Courseweb, my colleagues on Microsoft Teams, and the rest of the world on email.  (Social media I probably checked while I was walking the dog or while he was eating his kibble or in the gray areas between me getting out of bed and trying to resist the pull of the couch. I do have the phone close and on while I type this, incidentally, so I might be kidding myself about how much I’m checking it.)

This morning there’s nothing on Teams (thank you colleagues who are trying not to work on the weekends so we all get some kind of break!). On Courseweb there are still two Senior Seminar student poems I need to respond to, but I’m not going to do that immediately because they are both very complicated pieces. I’ve so far been only able to tackle a couple such pieces a day. Their poems have always been and still are complicated and ambitious, just as I hope they’ll be, so it’s been useful to have some time to really respond. I do feel the difference between writing by hand my comments and typing them out, however.  The latter takes about twice as much time. I also note the difference between reading them on a screen versus reading them on a printed page; it’s easier for me to read any thing as a printed page than on a screen. I can see the beginning and ending of a printed page or set of pages in the way I can’t on a screen. I know what I’m getting into when I hold the thing in my hand. I don’t know when I have to scroll and scroll. I have to keep more notes to keep my reading and then my comments coherent.

So, let’s say that’s the first half-hour of the day. It often isn’t the end of work but just the noticing of what work there is to do today. Sometimes I make a little list to the side of the computer:


Check in with G about S



Comments on L and N’s poems for SSP

Tamara and Sarah

Check in on D and K…


If I start all this by 8, I’m usually done by 10, and I take a little break.

When people ask me why I work so much in a coffeehouse at least a fifteen minute drive from my house, my answer is always the same: to escape distractions, which for me are mostly in my house—distracted eating, video games, and napping. I can’t really do the last two in the coffeehouse and any eating I do has to be paid for, so I can actually concentrate on what I’m supposed to do. And the drive time is just enough of a threshold to keep me from getting up and wandering back home. The pleasant things a coffeehouse offers me that my house doesn’t are the freedom from feeling the need to clean and a constant buzz of white noise from other people’s conversations, which is a feeling of not being alone. I can choose to overhear conversations or not. I am sometimes thrown an interesting word or phrase from another table.

Here in the apartment, my husband usually working away on his computers in his bedroom, I have much to be grateful for but I’m having a difficulty getting anything new to start. And yet, I’ve already written about 800 words as of this sentence. But nothing that feels like it might be a poem or a story or something we might call literary. Just sentences that seem factual, that seem descriptive. If I were my own student, I’d tell myself to just write and not care so much, so I do try to do that as much as I can. I take my pictures of the landscape as I walk the dog. I occasionally work on a painting or drawing—something about the gestures in the visual arts feels easier, not fraught with having to “mean” something in the face of the news of the coronavirus or the corrupt and inept political leadership of the President. So I let myself pick up the charcoal and grind it against the white toothed paper I brought with me. Just lines, not even shapes.

After my mother’s death in 2013, I couldn’t imagine what I was going to write about for a bit, and I finally settled on just writing “lines” of poetry, usually 10 syllable lines. It could be about anything, I said, or nothing. I probably need to go back to that system.  When I did that, I usually found that if I wrote for about 12 to 20 lines, something interesting would appear, out of the boredom of the mind or out of the deep delight of the language itself or maybe both I don’t know, and I’d have something to follow at last.

Here’s one of those poems from my new manuscript, The Things.


Lines Where Something Was Supposed To Be


I can feel where the nouns ought to be most days.

But there’s often now an odd coming-up-short

when I go to grab that thing that one needs when one

needs to open a door in a conversation and cannot

find its name. My fingers flipper the air where

I know something I know should be solid, sayable,

and simply isn’t. The door thing. The thing you turn.

The thing, you know, you can lock and unlock.

The thing, oh my god, you can jiggle, you can try.

Helpful, a friend will say, oh you mean —-,

and it will burst out of me with relief, the word,

the word, the word, I say over and over again,

like the name of a kidnapped child returned.

At least you knew it was lost, friends will say,

meaning I’m not that bad yet, I’m not one of those

whose language is really going, whose memory

is leaking away in some home full of strangers in white.

Not yet is what I hear, my hand on the knob. Not yet.


(originally published at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)



Action Plan, Week of March 23rd: Senior Seminar

Dear Poets,

Here’s my action plan for class this week:

1) Because I don’t know what your situation is at the moment, I’d like all of you to write back to me (via email at sometime this week letting me know that you’ve a) received this note and b) how you’re doing at the moment and what you think you want to do for the remaining few weeks we have. None of this has to be fancy, so please don’t stress about it. If I don’t hear from you by Friday, I’ll write you directly.

2) What I am also going to ask you to do for Wednesday is to write and post a poem by tonight if possible, by tomorrow night if not. I’ve set up Discussion Boards for that. You will be required to respond to at least five of your colleagues’ poems by Friday.

3) I’d like to continue with my plan to read a big chunk of your work and give you feedback. My plan was to get that work by tomorrow (Wednesday) night and to give you all feedback by next Sunday. But, as I’m unsure where you are and what resources you might have, I’m going to leave that as your choice. Please let me know what you’d like to do this in your email to me.

4) I’d also like to shift gears a little and invite you to write and hand in a piece of prose (Yes, PROSE, so no line breaks) of at least 250 words, describing the room where you’re writing OR a window out of which you can look. Just let us see and feel where you are.
Here’s mine:

It is 4:30 am on Tuesday the 24th of March. I am in Springfield, MA, sitting in the dark at the small dining room table in my husband’s apartment. Husband is still asleep in the next room. Dog is snoring, a dark mound on the gray couch nearby. On the stove in the kitchen, there’s a saucepan of water slowly heating to a boil. The noise the electric stove makes as it works reminds me of the creak of an old wooden ship feeling the pressure of the sea all around it, all its small parts moving back and forth with the swell of the ocean. I like being on boats, it turns out, even though I’m actually afraid of deep water. I like this feeling that I’m in the dark hold of a ship. I can write in it, it turns out. It focuses me. The windows in the apartment here look out at a parking garage which is always well-lit. Consequently, the curtains my husband’s put up are thick and usually closed. We opened them up yesterday to watch snow fall, at first barely visible and then becoming heavier and heavier until both of us were talking about our childhoods and what having a sudden day off from school meant.

He spent his day in the bedroom, which is also his office, talking to colleagues; I could hear their tinny voices as they talked to each other from wherever their homes were. He had meetings and interviews and learning sessions in there. He talked one-on-one with his manager and in groups of people working on particular projects. They set rates and debated valuations. No one said, Will the world be changed when this is over?

He broke for lunch around noon and we watched the news to see if anything had happened. He never got out of his sweatpants.

Meanwhile, I’d spent the morning deconstructing a brown paper bag and re-constructing it into a journal for my class The Book as Art. It kept my hands and mind busy if nothing else. All morning, I talked to no one except the dog and then only occasionally. I kept my phone nearby to monitor Facebook and Instagram and all the little cheering faces of friends with their little dopamine hits of likes and comments as we keep each other company. When I’d finished my brown paper book, I walked the dog to keep his boredom to a minimum. We took the stairs to get some exercise.

After all the enforced enclosure we’d been breathing, the snow was wildly bracing.

Action Plan, Week of March 23rd: The Book as Art

This week’s action plan:

1. Go to Youtube and watch videos about Book Making (avoid Book Art as a search term–that’s stuff that’s more sculptural) or Bookbinding. I recommend Sea Lemon as a source and her DIY Bookbinding Methods and Stitches. Try to give yourself two hours or so today or tomorrow to just do something you haven’t done before.

Remember too that you can improvise if you don’t have all the elegant materials owe had in class. Use what’s around you. THAT may actually be the best materials to work with, since it will really be the material of your life–junk mail, brown paper bags, grocery flyers, etc. Dental floss is a replacement for waxed thread. Scissors can act as bone folders if you turn them around and use their handles. And so on.

2. PLEASE everyone write me a paragraph or two about your ideas for your final project. I’m hoping to get them as soon as possible. By Tuesday evening would be great, but by this Friday (the 27th) by the latest. If I don’t hear from you, I’ll come looking for you. Don’t be afraid to talk to me about materials, issues you have, questions, fears, etc. I am here to help, even if I’m physically in Springfield, MA, sitting next to a Labrador retriever who is snoring while my husband works in the next room with his team.

So that’s it for the week. If you make something interesting, please take a photo and upload it onto Courseweb if you can. Or make a movie?

I send all best wishes to you all wherever you’re finding yourselves. Write me if you have questions, of course.

All best,

The Tigers of Consciousness


Normally an introvert, yesterday I snapped.  My whole body itched. I wanted a long drive or something, anything to get me out of the apartment where I’m parked now probably until May. My husband is working from home for his job (attending virtual meetings, having discussions with colleagues over proposals) while I sat on the couch with the dog who moves alternately between lying on the rug on the hard floor and sitting next to me on the static-y couch. He’s bored, bored, bored, I can tell. I’m bored. By 4 pm, M who seemed to be adapting well to this WFH situation came in to say that, you know, this working from home thing is getting boring.  It turns out that human interaction is actually important, actually feels important, even if it’s just seeing other people walk around. I used to joke that to “only” dogs it must feel sometimes as if they are the only dog left on earth, which is why some get so excited to see each other they’ll cry out, leap up, or start dancing at the sight of another dog coming toward them. It’s a relief not to be alone in one’s life.

This past week I’ve received a couple of emails from students which were as lovely as a teacher could ever ask for. People have missed class and our fellowship once a week. They have said how important it has been to have that time set aside to read poems to each other or make books with each other, to think about the delight of art, the endlessness of play and invention. How wonderful and important is the sense of there being no end to what you can imagine and how you might construct and reconstruct your feelings once you get them on the page or, in the case of The Book as Art class, make a place for them.

I was deeply touched by the emails which all spoke in different ways about the difficulties of being in the places where they are, which are either far away from the university—one, a whole ocean away!—or are complicated spaces, full of people who don’t have a clue about what studying at a university can open up in your life, by which I mean your imagination, your consciousness. It can be difficult to shelter-in-place when you’re in a place that is for a variety of reasons filled with fear or neglect or full of anger or even terror. In every email, though, there has been a recognition that writing was another place where people had found another place to call home, a place where one can speak and be listened to, can have feelings and not be mocked for them, and even where one can be “selfish”.

And it’s that word “selfish” that got me off the couch at approximately 3:45 am this morning to write. Selfish has been of course routinely condemned as a feeling, and especially now when some people are hoarding necessary materials and selling them to others in order to make money or when some people are loading up on unnecessary supplies and thus potentially taking from others in need. Selfishness that arises from greed or fear ought to be reined in, and is being rightly exposed by the news or checked by limits at the supermarkets. We must all stay in to avoid spreading what will be for many a very dangerous virus.

A certain amount of selfishness is, I think, okay, even necessary. To want to live one’s life separate from one’s family of origin is often thought to be selfish (especially by one’s family!) but I know students whose family was abusive or neglectful or sometimes smothering and had to be escaped from, at least until the student could establish a life on her own terms. One student wrote a beautiful letter about feeling the difference now between her major, which she chose at 17 out of an abundance of love, so that she could be of service to others (and frankly make a living), and her love of writing which has been stirred and strengthened by her classes at the university. She called her love of writing “selfish,” as in it is primarily for herself that she imagines its use. It doesn’t cure anyone’s cancer or aid anyone in buying a house. I want to praise that selfish desire for writing, however, because it has clearly awaken her sense of self as a self, and not just as a useful and well-paid cog that gets out of a bed on a schedule, does certain things at certain times during the day, and then returns to a space to feed, clean, and renew itself with sleep. I think of the Wallace Stevens poem


Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock

The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches tigers
In red weather.


How important it is be, and sometimes how rare it seems it is to meet, an “old sailor,” a person who has seen things, has an internal mythology that’s so incompatible with one’s community!

And yet, most people I’ve found are full of tigers and red weather. They might not recognize it as a gift if they don’t live in a situation where those kinds of energies would be appreciated or turned to good use. They might hate the feeling of having desires in them which make life uncomfortable or which pinch or stab or irritate or pain them when all they want to do is sleep through the night like other people (we imagine) do.

The truly sad thing, I’d argue, is not to communicate with those baboons and periwinkles, those things that itch in your dreams and wake you up and make you sit in the darkness at 3 am. This shelter-in-place stuff, this “social distancing” stuff is a good time to make a list of all the cargo you’re carrying into port, where you’re going to be docked for the un-foreseeable future. What’s growling in your hold right now? (While you’re groaning at all these ship metaphors, I’m having fun!) What needs to get up and stretch its legs? Think of what Blake’s The Tyger is and what Rilke’s The Panther is reduced to. Think of how few of them are left and how you might resist their vanishing even now. This thinking of the self, of the many selves inside all of us, is a form of selfishness we might do well to consider speaking to and of at the moment.

I made my husband come with me to the supermarket, where we kept our distance of course from everyone but the woman at the deli who seemed tired but delighted to see us as I ordered the Honey Ham my growly inner tigers wanted. We stalked the aisles a bit and picked up more tea and honey, more pears, ice cream, nothing too extravagant or unnecessary. Two frozen pizzas because we just wanted something easy for dinner. We marveled at the aisles in which the only the word Lysol remained on the shelves, all the missing rolls of white toilet paper. But we also laughed at some of the unexpected absences—no small bags of Peanut M&Ms at the checkout line, no whipped cream cannisters on the refrigerated shelves, those gigantic bags of rice I could never imagine leaving the store finally gotten their day of freedom.

The Book as Art Goes Online

Hi all,

We are losing our face-to-face contact obviously. I am trying to keep it very simple. I’m also trying to not overwhelm your emotional resources or the university resources by using Zoom or some of the group meeting programs.


Here’s what I’m going to do:

I’d like to write a once a week post which I’ll put up on the discussion board, which you can respond to as you’d like—either in the threads or as private emails to me. You don’t have to respond to those posts though. Responses to my post is not an assignment. I’m trying to think of my post as a mini-lecture/talk, with perhaps some links to youtube demonstrations, prompts, interviews or interesting posts. Feel free to add your thoughts and/or links of your own.

I’m going to give you this week to do what we had already planned—gather materials, think about ideas, plan your project (especially if you weren’t sure what to do, this moment is a kind of historical moment you could make use of—tell us the story of your quarantine)—and then next Tuesday I’ll do a quick check-in with everyone to see where you are.

What you’ll be required to do:

This was the most difficult challenge for this class’s online conversion!  In a face-to-face class, it would be your attendance and your obvious working with materials toward your final project.  I can’t very well ask you all to film yourselves working for two hours, nor do I really want to watch you doing that.  So, I’m just going to trust you to do that—set aside at least two hours a week to play with materials toward your Final Project.  I’ll check in with you to make sure you’re proceeding. You are free to send me emails at any time, of course, if you have questions or concerns.

Final Project (due April 22 by 5 pm)—This date may change, as I think administration is thinking a couple things about graduation dates and grading options, but I think it’s a useful deadline at this point.

All that I need is your Final Project, which you’ll have to document for me.  I’m going to be a little loose here with requirements but here are the things I’d like to see:

1. At least ten pages of text and images. There should be a sequence to the text and the images, although as we saw in the texts we read, the text and images don’t have to follow the same sequence.  In other words, text and images could be working alongside each other (Carson), be in conversation with one another (Rankine), exist mysteriously next to each other (Galeano), or even be in disagreement with each other.

2. Elements of construction and arrangement should be obvious: the project could be a bound book, an accordion book, a folded book-object, or a book made out of rescue materials. Feel free to surprise me, of course! There are a lot of examples of unusual book forms on Pinterest. I have some pinned under my Jeff Oaks account there.

3. This is your last assignment, and I’ve been really impressed by the depth and range of stories, poems, and essays you’ve already presented. I will be looking for a similar depth and level of complexity in your work. Be vulnerable! Be willing to tackle the important questions in your life! And also be aware that if you “just” kept a journal that was both text and images about this quarantine time, THAT would be a terrific thing.


What I’ll need is either:

1. A set of photographs that illustrate the outside and the inside of the project (If it’s a book, then a photograph of the covers and of the inside pages. You might want to send me the text in a document in case it’s not clear from the photographs.

2. OR a movie in which you show and read from the book. Again, make sure that I can see important details.

AND an author’s note of at least 500-1000 words about the project—what your idea was, how you constructed it, what materials you used, and anything else that struck you as useful or interesting for me to know.  You can send this as a separate document.


(please let me know if this is impossible for you to complete. As you can probably imagine, there’s a lot of flexibility surrounding everything right now.)

Notes to the Senior Seminar In Poetry as we go online

Hi all,

We are losing our face-to-face contact obviously. I am trying to keep things very simple. I’m also trying to not overwhelm the university resources, or my or your emotional resources.

Here’s what I’m going to do:

I’d like to write a once a week post which I’ll put up on the discussion board, which you can respond to as you’d like to—either in the threads or as private emails to me. You don’t have to respond to those posts though. I’m trying to think of it as a mini-lecture/talk, with perhaps some links to readings, prompts, interviews or interesting posts. Feel free to add your thoughts and/or links of your own.

What you’ll be required to do:

A poem a week submitted on Courseweb by Wednesday at 6 pm.
5 100-250 word responses to poems by your classmates per week (by Friday at 6pm of every week.) Please be specific and remember to focus your comments on the poem.

Final Folder (due Wednesday, April 22 by 5 pm)—This date may change, as I think administration is thinking a couple things about graduation dates and grading options, but I think it’s a useful deadline at this point.

Final Folder will consist of:
15 pages of poetry,
with an author’s note of at least 250 words about the work you’re handing in to me.

(Please let me know if this is impossible for you to complete. As you can probably imagine, there’s a lot of flexibility surrounding everything right now.)

To My Students in the Present Moment

My dear students,

I’m in Western Massachusetts thinking about you. I drove up here to hang out with my husband, expecting to read from my book at a small university close by in New Hampshire on next Tuesday. I brought the dog. But yesterday, on Friday the 13th no less, the host of my reading called to say she was sorry but they were cancelling all events. And I said, I completely understand. And I did understand. And I understood also when she said that she’d try to reschedule but she couldn’t make any promises. I had had plans for the money they were going to offer, which was a good amount of money for a poet. I was excited to read from my new book to a crowd of students, to talk to a class, eat something wonderful with strangers in a new place.

After I heard the cancellation news and hung up, I told my husband, and because he’s a good husband, he suggested we take a walk nearby with the dog, get this great tea he likes, and take in the warm day while it lasted. We’d been inside all day, me writing long emails working out issues of colleagues at Pitt, him working from home (he works at a huge insurance company where everyone was now working from home. WFH). So a walk was good, nice, took my mind off of the disappointment of the cancelled reading. When we got home, we watched something on tv but I don’t remember what it was now. At around 8:30 he said he was ready for bed, so I sent him in. I didn’t want to sleep yet. Then I played a little more Skyrim, got my dark elf character up to a new level, then shut off everything, lay my head down on the couch, and fell asleep until around 1:30 am when I took the dog out to the green space in the apartment courtyard to pee.

I thought about you all all day, in little bits and pieces, when I wasn’t thinking about the stock market or the issues of online interaction or how the world would recover from this new pandemic and what changes would it require. I’d spent most of the day writing to my colleagues, urging them to write to me about their anxieties trying to turn their classes into online equivalents, asking certain of them for information, trying to guess who might need a word here or there of friendship and/or solidarity. Many of them are very nervous about turning the end of the term, a time that is generally reserved for putting together final projects and/or bringing together things they’d been discussing for ten weeks, into some useful form using only the digital world…

But tonight, in the darkness, a strong wind whipping around the buildings, I thought, I wonder what the students are doing? How are they navigating this strangeness we’re all in? Are they writing and what are they writing?

I have told some colleagues to write directly to their students, to ask them what they wanted and needed. We’re being strangely overwhelmed by helpful resources at the university and among our profession. I suddenly belong to at least three new groups on Facebook whose aim is to help other teachers turn their classes into online classes. Yesterday, I jumped at the chance and joined every group I could to get some handle on what we’re being asked to do. But tonight, having brought the dog back up to the apartment, given him his present of a greenie, which he immediately chewed up, listening now to him fall back to sleep, I want nothing so much as to just see your lovely poetic faces again.

You may too be feeling overwhelmed. It is an overwhelming moment. I hope you’re taking time to just breathe. Breathe. Just be you for a little bit and not let your mind wander into the future which seems full of panic. Just breathe for a minute. Longer if you can.

I don’t really want to write this letter. It’s a stupid and clumsy way to communicate, this writing thing I’m doing. But it’s what I have, what I’ve always had when the world didn’t work the way I wanted it to, what I’ve always turned to when I couldn’t say what I wanted or even knew what I wanted. At the same time, I’ve somehow built a whole life around teaching others how to do it. It’s much longer than I expected it to be. You might have grown bored with it already. But for me, writing is another way of breathing, by which I mean putting my mind down on the page so I can see it, begin to work with what is there, what’s present.

Because we hadn’t planned to meet this coming week anyway, because I had this reading to do, I hadn’t thought to reach out to you all until Monday. I also didn’t want to add to the avalanche of things that may be your life at the moment. But tonight, as I was standing outside in the dark, in a strange place, I thought I’d better reach out to just say I’m thinking about you, and I am thinking about how and what we might do to finish up our work for the class. The current disruption, with all its cancellations and surprises and anxieties, will pass eventually, and in fact can be written about, will be written about, will become part of what we will know now. We’ll get things done.

In the meantime, if you’re feeling inclined, please feel free to write to me and let me know how you’re doing, if you need anything. I’m going to take the weekend and outline a plan so we can finish up the work we’ve been doing. I’ll send out another email on Monday with those plans, but if you have a great idea in the meantime, feel free to pass it on. I’m hoping to create as simple as plan as possible but I don’t want to miss things that are important to you.

And if you just want to write to me to write, to have something to do, please feel free. I’m happy to hear what you’re doing, what you’re thinking about, even if it’s to say you’re feeling overwhelmed or paralyzed. Those are pretty valid feelings right now. Writing your way out of those feelings is one of the best things writing can do. I am, as always, glad to be your reader, dear writers.

Bus blog#1

Why not blog on the bus ride into work, I say to myself?

It’s October 2nd and I’m taking a cough drop because allergies are killing me this year. Is this how the world will kill us off? Choking on tiny particles of itchy plant-dust? Meanwhile, we imagine we’ll be drowned or burned by unrestrained sunlight.

A mysteriously large group of senior citizens gets on the bus. Usually seniors board in ones and twos. They disperse into separate seats so they’re not a cult or family.

The bus is very busy today. It’s a long, articulated bus, and as we pass through the normal student apartment area, the students appear with their oversized backpacks and blue jeans. They speak a variety of languages, so it’s always interesting to listen to them talk (for me) because all I can hear is a sense of the structure of meaning. Like Frost’s Sound of Sense.

More and more students. Many of us on our tiny screens now, having retreated into games, email, and movies to pass the time. There’s now only one pair of students still talking.

And then we’re at the corner where the CMU students disembark. The bus empties out by half. Off to engineering and computers and the technological wizardry CMU is famous for.

It’s almost my stop. I go through the anxiety of how to signal the young man sitting on the aisle I’m going to get off. What will be the right way to say move it, my friend?

A cough, a shift of weight, a pull on the yellow cord.

Writing Prompts: a repost

This is a repost of set of prompts I made for my students last spring.

You can use them or not. You can strike out on your own one day and another day use the prompts. It’s totally up to you.  The point is to get you to write daily and generate more work. Try not to judge it too quickly. Write day after day and then at the end of the month you can look over and try to see what’s there.

Okay, so the easiest way for me to begin is to simple write







and so on down a piece of paper and use those letters as prompts. What’s a title that starts with an A?  Here are seven:

Aubade, (pronounced O bawd) which is the name of a traditional love poem written at the break of day, usually regretting that the day has come and the lovers must part. See Philip Larkin’s poem Aubade for a much more cynical version of the genre, in which a lonely man meets the break of day.

Against…, this is a kind of poem in which you can take a side against something. Against Forgetting. Against Love Poems. Against the Idea that Wealth Brings Happiness.  The trick to poems like this is not to fall into a rant but to make a kind of argument that makes your point but also fulfills the characteristics of good poetry–beautiful language, complicated thinking and feeling, and surprising patterns of sound or image.

An Apology. A kind of poem that makes an apology for something you did. William Carlos Williams’ famous one This is Just to Say is an example of an apology that is really a non-apology to his wife for eating the plums in their refrigerator.

Anaphora. Anaphora is a name for the repetition of a phrase or clause over and over again, usually at the beginning of the lines. So a poet might write:   Because you are so lovely, I bought you an alligator for your lawn./ Because you are so lovely, I bought a swan and set it free./ Because you are so lovely and beginning to think I’m crazy, I bought you a butter croissant and left it on your front porch. / Because you are so lovely, I didn’t call you all day. /     and so on and on.  You can just start, as I did here, with something stupid and force yourself to write at least twenty lines and see if something weird and interesting doesn’t show up. It might not be autobiographical or even make sense.

Ode to an Apple (or an Avocado or to an Aardvark or to any thing that begins with A). The gret example is Pablo Neruda’s Elemental Odes, which you can find in several places.  My favorite is the Selected Odes that Margaret Sayers Peden translated. There are great ones to a Lemon and a Tomato.  The idea is to transform something so common no one even sees it anymore into something astoundingly beautiful.

Advice.  Write a poem of advice to someone who needs it, which could include yourself or a public figure who has screwed something up. Try to remember that everyone secretly hates people who give advice, so anything you say may have to be angled interestingly to distract a reader from the fact that you’re reminding them of their own inadequacy.

After _____ (fill in the name of a writer who has given you some inspiration or who you’ve stolen a line from to start the poem). Steal a line from Sylvia Plath that suggested a memory of your own. Here’s a line from Celan I liked: ” Whichever word you speak/ you thank–/corruption.” How would write the line of a poem that follows that?

So there’s a group of prompts!  Just start and try to get to at least 14 lines. You might not manage it, but give yourself some goal.

Little What

My first book is out! I am an ISBN now. I am very excited, as you might guess.

This page will be updated regularly with news, reviews, and occasional writing about poems, poets, teaching, and writing prompts.

Here are the links where you can pick up a copy of Little What:

My fantastic publisher’s site is the best place to place your order, since the most money goes to the press. It’s at

Lily Poetry Review Books

There are the other places of course:

and of course

Or, if you see me in Pittsburgh, I might have a copy or two on me, which I will gladly and gratefully sign.


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