Poetry prompt: A flowered still life story

One of the best things about writing poetry is how unexpectedly inspiration strikes. Have I dictated a poem into a note on my phone while in the shower because I had an idea while I washed my hair? Why, yes, yes, I have. Do I keep a tiny notebook in my purse so I can jot down a line or idea or first draft while I’m at lunch, or shopping, or in the passenger seat of a car? Obviously. Is the thing that serves as the muse usually intented to be a muse? Of course not.

And yet … sometimes, the things that are trying to be a muse succeed quite well. I’m talking about prompts here. I rarely seek them out, but I adore coming across one and having it wave an idea in my face like a second grader with the answer, Pick me! Pick me, I know it! Let me tell you!

I’m a long-time subscriber to Poets & Writers, and each issue includes a trio of writing prompts: for poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. The July/August 2022 poetry prompt asks for a still-life poem:

Will your poem consider inanimate objects or living things, actions, emotions? Use this exercise as an opportunity to challenge a familiar perspective and consider a new viewpoint.

My favorite thing about a good prompt isn’t following it to a letter but using it as a diving board to see what’s in the water when you splash in headfirst. And given where the world is right now, this idea didn’t exactly crawl up to me and tap me lightly; it burst in front of my face, a firework in the days before an Independence Day where we’re facing a literal loss of freedom.

A more traditional still life … and, frankly, something that could be its own prompt: Write a list poem about the flowers you’d select to gift a friend who’s just moved into a new house.


Tiny cell clump
or baby, we can’t
agree on what to call you,
but I don’t care

that you have a heartbeat.
Life is not in the heart but in our love
list: bonfire smoke, slow dances,
the burning of ice cold

Cokes, slow kisses, green
gulfs that illuminate better than
Jordan or Quinn-Munson, and the men
who plucked their eyes from that very same gulf.

I suppose, one might say, my heart
beats for those loves.

Yours doesn’t.

It can’t.

It’s not your fault, little cells,
that this longing will never
propel your ventricles, chambers, aortas.

And that’s OK. This isn’t
fate but the decision of women
and people who get pregnant and want more
than you with their one wild and precious life.

Moving forward, I plan to use this blog primarily as a space to share poetry and encourage others to write by providing prompts or ideas. A side benefits of the format is getting to explain details or references that might be a little obscure. One of the treats of a poem is when it makes a reader do a little research, but allow me to help:

  • “Jordan” is a reference to Chicago photographer Thomas Jordan, who uses lighting in his photography to transform what might otherwise be a mundane subject into something beautiful and eternal.
  • “Quinn-Munson” is Connecticut painter Deborah Quinn-Munson, who paints light in a way that looks as though you could reach out and dip your finger into it.
  • Fun fact: “Nature-morte” is the Italian for “still life” or, literally, “dead nature.”

If you’re inspired by the still life prompt, I’d love to see what you produce.

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