Poems for the Writings: Prompts for Poets, by Valerie Fox and Lynn Levin, editors

Texture Press, 2013

Reviewed by L.S. Bassen

Who invented the coat hanger? At the MIT Museum in Cambridge, MA, a display answers that a 19th century factory worker, arriving too late to find a peg for his jacket, took some wire and bent it into the hooked bow most of us use for clothes and Joan Crawford wielded as a weapon of child abuse. Dowels evolved into closet bars to hang the hangers from, and closet organization went corporate. There was a time before Academia offered Creative Writing as a degree path. Now its cobblestones have become superhighways complete with signage and lines, HOV lanes and scenic overlooks where non-academics can also hitch an inspiring ride.

In other words, educational programs require a curriculum, and texts are necessary. There are (cyber) shelves of books for mixed genre, like one I’ve reviewed, Robert Olen Butler’s excellent 2010 e-collection Weegee Stories 63 Short Shorts with Photographs; for fiction, like Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft; and for poetry, Michelle Boisseau’s (et al) Writing Poems (8th Edition). Among those that cover a gamut of genres is the Portable MFA in Creative Writing from the NY Writers Workshop. To this expanding library of how-to texts, Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets is a charming, intelligent, useful addition.

For instructors, there are 14 poetry prompts which could instantly organize a semester course. The authors, Valerie Fox and Lynn Levin, who teach at Drexel and Penn in Philadelphia, “wrote the book to be structured enough for the classroom, friendly enough for the informal poetry workshop, and rich enough to serve as a source on ongoing inspiration for the poet working alone.” All the prompts in the book “have been classroom or workshop tested.” At the front of the book, you read descriptions/definitions of types of poems (subject/form/both) and can find “sample poems written in response to the prompts” at the back of the book, illustrated at times by Steig-like drawings by poet Don Riggs.

The very first prompt on page 3, for a paraclausithryon (lament before a shut door) shows a sad-eyed fellow with flowers illustrating Emily Dickinson’s “I Years Had Been From Home (#609)” that can be found among four examples of that form on page 39.

I Years had been from Home And now before the Door I dared not enter, lest a Face I never saw before Stare solid into mine

The second prompt on page 5, for a Fibonacci poem, defines how to do it “by adding the last two terms to create each subsequent term: 0+1=1, 1+1=2, 1+2=3, 2+3=5, etc… Basing a poem on the Fibonacci sequence may lead to unexpected insights in the way that following a traditional form like the sestina or villanelle might also do.” A gem of a poem by Peter Wood (worth purchasing the book for this one alone) is given as one of four examples starting on page 40.

Oh I, I And you Do we count? What is our number? And how did it come to be this Most unfortunate of numbers, the dreaded thirteen? And passing that, we are here beyond the scope of lines, counting our break and breathing deep, At last arriving, haven’t we, at a place calling for the rolling cadences Walt Whitman charged against the tyranny of numbers? Have you, like Fibonacci, seen a sample thread spin out and bind? I have seen thread spin out and bind the branching leaves of licorice, the spiral seeds in a sunflower’s head, the spider to the nebulae, the cancer to a brain.

I found the rhythm of the text’s back & forth organization as engaging as it is encouraging. Whatever expertise a reader possesses or lacks, this book makes poetry feel understandable and possible. The penultimate prompt on page 31, “Write What You (Don’t) Know” is an irresistible invitation, exemplified by Valerie Fox’s poem “Property Plot for The Voyeur’s Handbook” on page 114-115.

On Stage: Persian carpet with scattered papers, film canisters labeled luck and perseverance, dictionary circa 1900, battery installation instructions (for galvanism, variable number of dry cells) Cushions, silk, lipsticks (Mimi’s) …Puberty…Petticoats Side table with inspirational calling cards water glass (Mr. Fodor), teacup (Mr. Michelin) scotch tumbler (Mr. Petersen) Ice cream cone vouchers, ice cream, sherbet sorbet, tinsel for festive decorative bird nests Off stage: 5-iron Paints, orange, tangerine, tangelo Natural light (gates of hell) Starlings, Devils (Mimi) Odorous roses—new names, new types The City Personal: Static cling, sick, Dali’s trademark dripping clock Scars Acids Sibling rivalry Lipsticks mirror Greyhound bus ticket (s) Notebook and pen (Doctor) The Fool, The Flood, The World

The admirable array of poems chosen to be examples for the prompts is enough to attract readers to Poems for the Writing. The clarity of definitions and directions for instructors and autodidacts guarantees its appeal as curriculum and companion.

L.S. Bassen is Fiction Editor for and a finalist for the 2011 Flannery O’Connor Award. In 2014, Typhoon Media published her alternative history novel in which Hitler is successfully assassinated, Summer of the Long Knives. Also in 2014, Texture Press published her collection Lives of Crime & Other Stories. She was an original reader for and won the 2009 APP Drama Prize & a Mary Roberts Rinehart Fellowship. She writes poetry reviews for and others and is a prizewinning, produced, published playwright:, ATA in NYC, OH, NC).