I never imagined I'd be writing poetry. After I graduated with a B.A. in German, I worked in publishing and dissatisfied with meager pay, took a leave of absence to get my M.B.A. in Marketing. I got a coveted position with AT&T and entered the real corporate world. I stuffed my creativity under the bed and patted my analytical self on the back constantly. My analytical self prevailed when I tried to write a novel. It stubbornly stuck to its roots when I did my M.F.A. Then, in 2011, I was introduced by hometown acquaintance, Marian Calabro, to the method of Amherst Writers & Artists. Founded by Pat Schneider, this method assumes everything we write is fiction. It dictates we don't critique work just written. I walked out of the first session buoyed by this creative process, so unlike the M.F.A. workshop. Finally, my creative voice was allowed to speak without getting slapped across the face.
In the AWA method, the certified leader offers a prompt and a time limit. The prompts can be words, pictures, recordings, or exercises. You write. When time is up (typically 15-25 minutes), you can volunteer to read your work (or not). Others comment on what they liked and what struck them, what was memorable. I was writing poetry and fiction, soon also nonfiction. And I was getting published. Sometimes I never bothered to type up what I wrote let alone send out to literary journals. But sometimes there'd be a gem, a piece of writing I felt good about. I needed AWA to silence my inner critic. I became a certified leader in 2013.
Around the same time, I discovered the weekend workshops of New Jersey poets Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Laura Boss. Their method is similar to AWA, only they offer ten or more prompts and you write to what speaks to you. They read some poetry first to get you in the mood. You typically get 20-25 minutes to write, proving the muse does not have to visit you for you to be productive. You can create, you can write a poem in 20 minutes. Most participants have been coming to these workshops for years. It was here I learned that writing narrative poetry was okay. By the end of the weekend, I'd write six poems. Some I sent out; some found publication, including Gillan's journal, Paterson Literary Review, and Boss's journal, Lips. Their daytime Mature Poets Workshop offered for four weeks in the fall and four weeks in the spring offers the same method.
Lately I've been working one-on-one with poet Matthew Lippman. I'd taken three online courses with him about ten years ago at Gotham Writers Workshop. His prompts are based on a particular poet's work and to write a poem like that. I'm finally writing poems that have some emotional depth and I'm writing on topics I never considered before, like money.
So what is it about these prompts?
They take me out of my analytical self and give me permission to write what comes to mind. They allow free associations. When I was working on a novel, I bent the AWA prompts to write scenes that deepened characterization. These scenes were more organic than the ones I wrote at my computer. When I have an idea for a new short story or creative nonfiction piece, I use the prompts to take me to new places. A photo of a little boy, for example, became my father on a trip to the Lower East Side with his mother. A photo of a fence became a Dutch administrator's recollection of Anne Frank. A recording became the music the orchestra played on the doomed MS St. Louis in 1939.
I offer prompts to friends writing novels. I offer prompts to memoir writers. I offer prompts to Jewish writers who follow my blog, The Whole Megillah, and to those who have attended my workshops at the Highlights Foundation. I use prompts in my creative writing classes at William Paterson University, especially 14 prompts for the 14-day poetry challenge.
For the naysayers
I used to be among those who would wrinkle a nose at the idea of writing on demand, writing in real-time. I've certainly come across peers whose analytical sides prevented them from embracing this method. But when they tried it, their writing felt lighter, freer, more imagistic. To those of you now shaking your head, I say, try it. You have nothing to lose. You might just come away from the experience saying, I wrote a poem today.
Do you have something say about poetry? An essay on being a poet, tips for poets, or poetry you love? TrishHopkinson.com is now accepting pitches for guest blog posts.
Barbara Krasner holds an M.F.A. in Writing for Children & Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she also pursued a post-graduate semester in poetry with David Wojahn. She teaches creative writing at William Paterson University and online at The Whole Megillah. Her prompt-based writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Michigan Quarterly Review, Nimrod, Paterson Literary Review, Blue Lyra Review, Naugatuck River Review, Jewish Literary Journal, Jewish Women's Literary Annual, Poetica, and many other journals.