Poetry Exercise: Destruction of the Self

I often say things like “when I go over the edge, it will be because I had to change my fucking password one more time,” or when they admit me to the institution for good, it will be because . . .

We all have buttons. Place we are pushed that trigger a particular outburst or sequence of events. Write about them.

From what will you self-destruct?

What is your self-destruct sequence?

What small and ordinary experiences will be your undoing?


You might begin brainstorming using the first person I, but after you get a few items written down, switch to second or third person pronouns and see what happens.

You might reverse the sequence, or discuss its origins. Like, passwords were not really a thing until the last two decades and they take up a ridiculous amount of space in my brain. What would be in my brain if they weren’t? What did people do with all that bandwith before personal computers and smartphones?

Try this out and tag me if you post your results.

Poetry Exercise: Responde Si Vous Plait

So much art is a response to other art; so many amazing poems are in response to other art. Art in all its forms is a collective conversation, and we are all participants in it. Pick up a conversation already in progress—whether sculpture, painting, movie, novel, poem, etc.—and respond to it in poetry.

Take up one of the work’s unanswered questions. Point out what it missed, pick up the narrative where it left off, swap the pronouns, tweak the details. Fanfiction is an excellent example of this kind of writing.

Ocean Vuong’s “Torso of Air” is an evocative and aching response to, as Jocelyn K. Glei puts it, Rilke’s call to action in “The Archaic Torso of Apollo.” W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” explores the fall of Icarus in painting form, while Carolyn Kizer picks up the woes of Midas after he turns.    What is your favorite art in response to other art?

Do you know any response poems? Which are your favorite?

Try this out and tag me if you post your results.

Poetry Exercise: Asking Questions Part Two

Questions are a staple in poetry throughout history. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” is a question, as is “How do I love thee?” and “What is all this sweet work worth / If thou kiss not me?” and “Who made the world?” (Shakespeare, Browning, Shelley, Oliver).

Questions embody wonder, and wonder is a raw material of poetry. There are a number of ways to use questions to generate ideas and create poems.

One exercise is to write a poem in which you answer a question posed by a previous writer. All of art is in conversation with other art and the world; take this basic tenet literally by grabbing a question from another writer and answering it. Here are three to get you started.

“How do you suppose time works?” Dana Shapiro, Hourglass

“Where is the angel for me to wrestle?” Denise Levertov

“Are you waiting / for time to show you some better thoughts?” William Stafford

Ways to use questions in your writing:

  • Write a poem in which you begin with metaphysical questions and provide literal answers, or vice versa. The reverse of this is when Kim Addonizio begins with the answer then asks the question: “I have a shovel. / Can I turn it into a poem?”
  • Experiment with rhyme or with couplets, grouping your questions together in interesting patterns.
  • Start by making a list of questions you find, and then swap out the nouns or verbs with the ones next on the list. So, if your original questions were “why does the beet smell of dripping earth?” and “how does the door eat sound?” and “what spoon is the bell’s mate?” you might exchange the parts to make new question, like: “why does the beet smell of sound and spoons?” Don’t worry about things making sense here. Whimsy is a source of joy!

Try this out and tag me if you post your results.

Poetry Exercise: Asking Questions Part One

Questions are a frequent feature in poems, and many poetry exercises begin with questions. 

I’ve seen variations of this exercise used by many poets and teachers, and examples abound in the history of poetry.

To begin the exercise, start freewriting, asking questions that either can’t be answered by a quick internet search, or questions for which true answers are unsatisfying. Like, someone explaining how light and color work is not a satisfying answer to the question “why is the sky blue?”

As you write these questions, don’t feel like you have to be literal or serious. Your questions can be silly, mundane, philosophical, and so on. You can answer them in the poem, or leave them wide open.

Here are questions, written by children, that poet Kenneth Koch and his colleagues taught and published in Where Did You Get That Red?                 

“Dog, where did you get that bark?” (9).

 “…dragon, where did you get your flame? / Is it from Veronica when she kissed you?” (10).

“Little duck, little duck…

How does your head glow in the light?

What god made you?” (11).

“Do you like cream cheese, little bug?” (25).

“Who made you so fearful that even the creatures of the world are afraid of you?” ( 29).

Kids are a great source of questions. The internet is littered with great posts about questions kids ask. Begin with one of those and see where it takes you. Because really, why aren’t all postal carriers named Pat? Is God a kid at Jasper’s school? Is drama a place?

Ways to use your brainstorming from this exercise:

Try this out and tag me if you post your results. Find more poetry exercises here.

I’m also teaching a four week poetry workshop filled to the brim with goodness. All the details can be found at www.cherriporter.com/poetry/ or by clicking the button below. 

Online Poetry Workshop Preview

During the Heck and Joy Online Poetry Workshop we’ll be reading and writing poems. The writing will begin in a variety of ways, through brainstorming, prompts, exercises, and challenges. April 3-6 I’ll be posting a short video exercise to Instagram and here on the blog to preview the kinds of things we’ll be doing in the workshop.

Click image to view introduction video.

The following four exercises are to brainstorm for content you might later shape into a poem. When you write in response to these prompts, give yourself ten minutes of zero pressure and just freewrite—let the ideas flow, even the stupid ones, without judgement. Write everything that comes to mind down and don’t censor yourself.

<©2018 Cherri Porter>