Writing Prompts: Find Your Phrases

I’ve been working from a cheat sheet of sorts — Bernadette Mayer’s List of Journal Ideas — to create some of my poems. The neat thing about such a list is you can choose one of the many ideas and create not one, but many poems or writings from it.

Plus, it gets you thinking about your own list of prompts.

At some point in my life, I’ll compile these into a tidy little list. Until then, I’ll just blog about them in hopes something will spark your creativity.

This prompt came at me sideways (as things tend to do for us Cancers). Annie Dillard, who captured my undying admiration with her book An American Childhood, has a book of “found poems” — poems created from words or phrases found elsewhere. Mornings Like This is the result, and it’s fascinating. To think these sentences, once complete strangers, now feel just right together is just delicious, isn’t it? Here’s an example from that book:


It is not without regret

That the author bids farewell.

It is hard to lay down the pen

And again plunge into the busy world…

So this week’s writing prompt:

Find your phrases. Create a poem entirely from sentences you find elsewhere. An email. A website. A favorite book, maybe page 112, second paragraph. First sentences of ten books you have access to. Whatever appeals, go for it. Just remember the only rule:

No adding anything beyond your title or subtitles. You can choose to omit words, as Dillard did in her poems, but no adding. Also, just for fun, try keeping the sentences and phrases exactly as they appear. Maybe keep track of where your sentences come from, just for fun.

Here’s my attempt:

And that is when the rage and the outrage and the injustice and the betrayal must a got unbearable to him, 

by the time the noise quieted down

the old man stopped and turned 

He was looking at nothing more than a sullen sky 

Everyone my age remembers where they were and what they were doing 

The talk of shooting men in cold blood 

A tiny vignette of the Civil War 

please believe that I am falling apart.

like moving through water chest-high

I knew we’d never get back there 

I never stopped looking down onto that clear, clear day 

She laughed again and shrugged her shoulders 

we shall both have a great iron chunk of misery behind us 

The fact that she had played out her marked cards to the final consequences 

He had made a fool of himself, but in good hands one does not mind 

This was the reason she was ashamed

(The Town by William Faulkner, page 84)

(A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, page 73)

(Cannery Row by John Steinbeck, page 25)

(The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough (page 157)

(Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, page 1)

(The Dream of the Golden Mountains by Malcolm Cowley, page 76)

(Inishfallen, Fare Thee Well by Sean O’Casey, page 133)

(Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, page 36)

(A Good Hanging by Ian Rankin, page 200)

(The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr, page 210)

(Impossible Vacation by Spalding Gray, page 124)

(Alexander’s Bridge by Willa Cather, page 43)

(Vita and Harold by Nigel Nicolson, page 138)

(Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, page 41)

(The Woman of Andros, by Thornton Wilder, page 31)

(Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin, page 219)

Want to play along? Post your attempt here (or tell us what you created and what works you used).

Poets, have you ever played with found poetry? If so, what parameters have you given yourself?

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