Four Writing Prompts from Queen of Cups


One feature of my mini lit mag Queen of Cups is a weekly writing prompt. Sometimes I base the prompt on the week’s tarot card, other times I’m inspired by the featured writer, or I come up with something out of left field. As a poet, I’ve found prompts invaluable in generating new material. Here are four of my favorite from Queen of Cups back issues, all are accessible to poets and prose writers alike.


1. Write a piece that takes place in a structure, dwelling, or shelter. Think of Shirley Jackson who suffered from agoraphobia and wrote ghost stories and psychological thrillers where houses are not only haunted but become malevolent main characters imprisoning their inhabitants. Conversely, look to Rumer Godden who wrote at least five novels with the word ‘House’ appearing in the title. Godden’s dwellings also rise to character status but are more benevolent, becoming meaningful because of the accrual of inhabitants over the course of history. Like a beloved and ancient oak, Godden’s houses take on personalities of their own and tend to stand both within the passage of time and beyond it. Houses symbolize safety, nurture, and personal and family identity, but can also work in the opposite direction and quickly convey danger, imprisonment, and stultification. Your job is to write something with a physical structure in it, see where it takes you and what your structure reveals to you through the writing of your piece.


2. Write a piece titled “Grief Hallucinations” which incorporates the sentence: “You are a little soul carrying around a corpse.” (Epictetus)


3. The tradition of lachrymatory dates to Greek and Roman times, but was popular around the Civil War. Wives and sweethearts would collect their tears in small vials, called lachrymatories, in hopes of showing their returning soldiers how much they were missed. Lachrymatory was a common ritual in the elaborate Victorian mourning process which also included: ‘deep mourning’, ‘half mourning’, and, my favorite, ‘slighting the mourning’ the moment when scratchy crepe dress trimming could be removed. Mourning in dress was observed right down to the smallest detail: I own a small box of antique stick pins with black heads labelled ‘Mourning Pins’. Women collected tears shed over death into lachrymatory and would leave the uncorked vials on loved ones’ graves; uncorked so the tears would evaporate over time. Write a poem or prose piece where lachrymatory (or ritualistic mourning) appear.


4. Write a micro essay/story (about 500 words), or a prose poem about consciously throwing something special away, or about getting rid of something in a bizarre or unique way.




Corrupting the Form, Techno-Creativity


I like to play around with poetry prompts, approaching the muse with averted eyes and veiled intentions as I do with my cat when I need to catch him for any reason. Whenever I post a writing prompt, or open up a discussion about the usefulness and fun of writing prompts, the classicists, fountain pens in hand, claim it’s a form of cheating. A real poet (fiction writer, essayist) shouldn’t need prompts to be creative. A real writer just sits down and distills brilliance from all the daily verbiage vying for prominence. Well….. suffice it to say, I disagree. I love writing prompts and I use them regularly. I don’t use writing prompt collections, a prompt a day for instance, as much as I seek out unique ideas, project-based ideas, prompts that get my creative blood pumping. I have no interest in dredging up memories of kindergarten and writing a sonnet about the colors, smells, sights. The prompts I’m drawn to are little poems in their own right. I often create my own, combine two or more prompts, change a prompt to suit my needs. And, this is the most important facet, I never stick religiously to a prompt, I never end up with a prompt-poem. The minute I know a particular prompt is likely to spark a poem, I go where the poem leads. This is probably why all my poems in form have the disclaimer: ‘deconstructed pantoum’, ‘loose pantoum’, because if I sense the poem would be better in a ‘broken’ form, I’ll break it. I imagine this will also infuriate the classicists. So, if I’m using a prompt that has a word list and the poem gains momentum away from it, I’ll throw the list out the window, the prompt already served its purpose. The other day, I discovered this thing called The Text Mixing Desk, which cuts and ‘echoes’ a piece of text when it’s pasted into the generator. I began writing on the generator itself, intending to mix up my ‘poem’ from the original and see what I got. For fun. I took the first lines, moved them into a document and wrote a full poem. I then took the poem, put it into the generator and ended up liking some of the repetition created. So I went back to the original poem and targeted those few lines I wanted to repeat, but I altered them slightly through repetition. I revised several times and only used the generator one time. It allowed me to see the poem in a different way and that altered view was invaluable as I went forward. The process wasn’t vastly different from writing a poem without any ‘intervention’. I think the key to writing a poem that has legs from a prompt, a poem you want to keep and claim as your own, is to use judgment as you would in any writing process. Writing to a prompt is no excuse for bad writing. But bad writing can be generated by an online poetry generator, or can spring whole from your consecrated poet-brain. So beware!

This is all a very long-winded preamble to a few cool sites I’ve stumbled across and want to share. Check them out, even just for fun.

Text Mixing Desk

Poem Generator


Text Clock (this isn’t a prompt, it’s just a cool invention)

Fiction Generator

Heretical Rhyme Generator

Write a Cento (the classic prompt)

Bigram Generator

Story Generator (This one has a twist: it garbles your coherent original)

Erasure (I’ve listed this one before, but just in case you missed it…)

Rewilding Language (A great article from The Guardian. This could be classified as a ‘prompt project’)

Found Poetry Review (A blog article, but check out the entire Found Poetry site. It’s one of my go-tos)

General Writing Prompts

Genre, Plot and Story Prompt Generators

Disaster and Poetry; A Prompt

circusfire Hartford Circus Fire of 1944

In July 1944, The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s big top burned to the ground in Hartford, Connecticut, killing over 100 people and injuring 700. The fire started in a corner of the tent and was dismissed by those who first saw it as a minor disturbance that would soon be dealt with. The big top was coated with over 1,000 pounds of paraffin wax, essentially creating a candle once it caught. Many died of burn injuries from raining hot wax and pieces of searing big top, but panic and stampede contributed to the majority of deaths. People waited too long to get out and became trapped. A tiny detail in Stewart O’Nan’s The Circus Fire; A True Story of an American Tragedy intrigued me. O’Nan mentions that several people were saved that day because young boys with pocket knives sliced the tent canvas, creating escape hatches. Big top canvas is apparently pretty tough, so the job wasn’t as easy as a quick swipe of the blade, but the fact of it seemed so perfect, so simple. Plus the birth imagery….
In the following poem, I tweaked the idea of boys with pocket knives. Read the poem first, perhaps, to understand the prompt, which is this: write about something (an ‘it’, a mystery, a ghost, invisible force; think ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ style) without naming that thing. Allow images and other sensory details to accumulate toward a kind of shadowy, peripheral understanding of your unnamed subject. Honestly, you don’t even have to be clear, and probably shouldn’t be, about what this ‘thing’ is yourself. The fun of writing this type of poem is allowing yourself to free associate and catalogue, you’re mixing the concrete with the invisible here, like throwing a cloak over a ghost. It’s challenging but also allows for an amount of irreverence; trying to catch a glimpse of something through the corner of your eye. I could go on and on with similes but it’s just something you have to get into the swing of and try for yourself. You could also do as I did and take a detail, or several, from life, an urban myth, or story that resonates with you and tweak it, change it, to suit your needs and create a fresh meaning. This is a great exercise for both aspiring and practicing poets. Writing begins in darkness and leads us toward understanding. As a writer, you want to be surprised; it’s not your ‘to-do list-brain’ that’s going to write a genuine poem. We’re pulling things out of the depths here; that’s the name of the game. Leave revising and tightening for another day. Most poets will tell you that their best poems don’t result from sitting down with a big idea. So, go forth in darkness. Have fun!

It Left the Room

It left the room as fact, but in the narrow
hall shadows whispered: leaf rot,
forgotten potatoes, their eyes protuberant.
It left the room as fact
but darkness and history waylaid it in the hall.
Jugs of wine followed, wine spiced
with the entire spice rack, dried oak
leaves, worm castings. The fact is,
it left the room (its first mistake)
came back story-flocked, feverish, babbling—
blanked on names, the number
of gallons, depth of graves. Like one traumatized
or in the eye of ecstasy it invented details:
how the big top burned like a candle,
how all the people would have melted inside
if it weren’t for the girls with pocket knives.

Vintage Photo Writing Prompt

These vintage photos are from my ever-growing collection. None of the individuals are family and I have no knowledge of their back stories, which makes creating poems and stories around them so much more fun. I use photos quite often as writing prompts. The last of this bunch sparked one for me. In a future post I’ll include a couple photos and their companion poems. For now, enjoy these great images, maybe one of them will inspire a little writing.

Woman with birds in unknown city

Woman with birds in unknown city

Great perspective. That sidewalk into infinity!

Great perspective. That sidewalk into infinity!

Child bride, forced marriage? The possibilities  are endless.

Child bride, forced marriage? The possibilities are endless.

First communion dress handed down in an eccentric family.

First communion dress handed down in an eccentric family.

I think she's in mourning but stylishly so. Reminiscent of Dickens' Bleak House.

I think she’s in mourning but stylishly so. Reminiscent of Dickens’ Bleak House.

Look close, the original boy band. Love the jacket falling off the guitarist's shoulder.

Look close, the original boy band. Love the jacket falling off the guitarist’s shoulder.

Family photo with cemetery.

Family photo with cemetery.

Oh that hat!

Oh that hat!

There's a companion photo to this where they're all facing the camera. Love that sense of humor.

There’s a companion photo to this where they’re all facing the camera. Love that sense of humor.

Lady with two dapper gentleman. Love triangle?

Lady with two dapper gentleman. Love triangle?

And my favorite. I had to write a poem about this one, I'll include it in another post. The woman in mourning laying flowers, the shadowed photographer. I love the second photo where she seems to disappear completely in all that black.

And my favorite. I had to write a poem about this one, I’ll include it in another post. The woman in mourning laying flowers, the shadowed photographer. I love the second photo where she seems to disappear completely in all that black.