Evolution of the Poem Through Prompt Writing
by Aleathia Drehmer
My mother passed away suddenly in January 2014, and that was devastating. In my younger years our bond was very strong but, in years prior to her passing, our relationship grew strained. However, the emptiness her loss created was one I’ve spent the last eight years trying to fill.
In 2014, I wrote 50 poems, with 30 of them being from National Poetry Month. Since 2006 I’d been a part of a small press poetry circle, and watched author Robert Lee Brewer advertise prompts during April’s "poem a day". I had little interaction with him personally, but I’d been published alongside his wife, frequently.
I looked for direction in this time of grief, for anything that allowed me to put pen to paper again, so I tried writing poems via prompt. Brewer’s direction with these prompts was simple and wide open, allowing for ease of interpretation with words like "message", "proverb/saying", and "elegy". Each morning I woke up ready to pull the pain from inside of me to get some relief.
Here is my poem from 2014 using the prompt “future”:
An Unfinished Sentence
The future holds empty seats
at my daughter’s graduation,
her wedding, and the birth
of her first child.
You will always be the ghost
of the elephant in the room.
You will be the whisper
people think they hear.
You will turn their heads
to make them look when
the smell of roses linger.
The future holds too many
should haves and what ifs.
The words from our lips
always an unfinished sentence
dangling in the air.
The future holds nights of tear
stained pillows and retractable resentments,
curses and prayed forgiveness
and there is nothing to be done of it
but hold hands in the cool silence
of what could have been.
By 2018, my life was brighter and writing got easier. I made my prompt lists to write outside of National Poetry Month and, occasionally, I generated work without the use of prompts. That year, my friend Joseph Bouthiette, Jr. invited several writers to participate in prompt writing. This was the first time I’d ever written in a group and I was curious to see the unique works produced from the same prompt. He is wildly creative and thinks outside the box. I knew this adventure in writing would stretch me out of my comfort zone. He gave us prompts like the Komodo dragon, the dogs of Rotterdam, and the adversary.
Here is my 2018 poem from the prompt “the dogs of Rotterdam”:
Dogs skulk around the corners
of the Pilgrim Fathers church
looking for scraps
among skirts held close.
Their children fading
into libertine lifestyles
hidden among tulips
and red lights.
The dogs come sniffing:
something to hide,
something to steal.
In 2020, deep in the throes of the pandemic, I felt anxious as a healthcare worker and the effects it might have on me and my child. There were so many unknowns. New York State instituted the lock down right before National Poetry Month and I felt my poetry was one-noted, still lingering around my mother and all the deaths that followed. The pandemic heightened all our fears. We simply didn’t know the fate of the world.
One night an old writing acquaintance, Jason Huskey, posted. his first poem for National Poetry Month onto his Facebook feed. I decided right then to follow his prompts. It was spur of the moment and outside my character. He wrote at night and I wrote in the quiet of the mornings, so it was a challenge for me to wait all day to write. I formed a new process that year by writing a line or two from the day for my poem at night, not knowing if what I’d started would go with the prompt. It was a fun experiment to shake me out of my doldrums.
From this year-long journey of isolation and pandemic, my full-length collection of poetry “Looking for Wild Things” was born. It consisted of three sections of poems: Jason’s prompts, my prompts, and one of mixed contributions that focused on writing to music.
Here is my 2020 poem from Jason’s prompt, “viral”:
Nothing Makes Sense
The sun sets behind me in the rear-view mirror. Cool temperatures settle into my bones through the open window. On the radio, The Smith's want to hang the DJ, and it's the perfect viral soundtrack to the violent mating ritual of robins on the sidewalk.
Standing on the porch, rain falls in sheets, as the memory of yesterday's sunshine runs in rivers down the hill. My muscles shiver from the cold while the lilt of Joni Mitchell's voice runs through my mind like a viral, sad dirge for a time that can't be named.
"Everybody knows I'm lost in a dream..." and the crochet hook darts in and out;
A meditation on the wind beating its viral ghost code against the glass. I drift to a time when love swallowed me whole. There is so much emptiness inside me.
Summer of 2021, I began writing a new collection of poems that centered less around prompt words and more around lines I loved from other poet’s work. I chose five books of poetry and formed a list of lines I enjoyed that I’d work from. The process for this collection was that one third of the poem needed to be written before I chose an inspirational line to inform my work. These poems felt bigger than myself, deeper and more complicated. I named the collection “Borrowed Light” because the lines I borrowed helped to shed light on my life and the voice of my poetry.
Here is my 2021 poem written after Greta Bellamacina’s line “blankets of exhausted geography”:
I left myself a cryptic message,
fragments on a wide open page
meant to trigger my brain
into remembering all the words
needed for this poem,
but here I am left with codes
I don't have the skill to break.
How does rust steam and rise?
When was the last time I heard
I have exhausted all the thoughts
of geography and stormy weather
on these pages, reliving
their beauty like a trauma
dream I just can't shake.
How long before they stop reading?
How long until I'm a hunched old lady
covered in cat hair with plastic bags
stuffed full of leaves and rocks
and stray bird feathers?
I'm reaching out my hand
for something different, for a
crack in reality that I can
squeeze my fingers into
and pry apart, plaster crumbling
beneath my fingers.
The chalky fine dust floating
in the air holds court In my lungs
like the thought of an afterlife wrapped in a blanket of secrets.
Prompt work helped me to strengthen my poems in ways I’d never expected. By not always taking the prompt at face value, I’ve learned to transmute it into something that speaks to me personally. I hope you can see the evolution of my work through years of prompt writing and consider trying it yourself as a fun exercise.
Join me next week as I discuss the poets that informed my writing life at pivotal moments.
about the author
Aleathia Drehmer lives in Corning. She will share her thoughts on the art of poetry throughout April to celebrate National Poetry Month. Learn more about her at www.aleathiadrehmer.com.