Saturday Song and Dance, and Why I Hate the Phrase “Poetry Prompts”

I miss Margo Roby. No, not the Australian actor and movie producer. She spells her name differently. I miss Margot, my some-time poetry buddy and inspiration on the interwebs. Her old WordPress site is still live, but her last post was two years and one week ago. I hope she’s okay. I didn’t have the heart to Google too far, having uncovered more sad news than I wanted to find by doing that in the past.

But lives change and social media can be overwhelming, so let’s just hope she’s quietly leading a workshop in Atlanta, taking a long break from the web, and working on her next book of amazing poems.

Margo was, and hopefully still is, a tireless cheerleader for poets and poetry in general. Every week she would post links to other blogs where people were writing and sharing their ideas, essays, and projects. She even linked to me a few times and made my day in the process.

Poetry Exercises vs. Poetry Prompts

Margo would regularly post what I thought of as poetry exercises and challenges. Often she used those very words. It seems she sometimes used the word “prompts,” but I didn’t really think much about it then.

You’re going to hate me for saying this, so I’ll just be blunt. I hate how the use of the phrase “poetry prompts” has proliferated across the writing community, both online and in person. Here’s why: To prompt means to help or to remind or to get someone to say or do something. When an actor forgets her line, a prompter whispers it to her from the wings. When the President is too stupid to know what to say (too harsh?), or when she (too hopeful?) simply hasn’t memorized her speech, she reads it from the teleprompter.

English: Czech writer, journalist and theater ...
Czech writer, journalist, and theater prompter Irena Fuchsová. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why do we feel like we’re out of ideas? Where did this belief start, that we need someone to nudge us into writing? Do painters get painting prompts, or do they simply work hard at learning to paint? Do athletes need to be prompted, or do they workout and exercise? Do musicians need to be reminded that they can play, or are they just eager to get to their instruments and practice?

I submit to you, my poetry-writing friends, that this is really what we mean when we say “prompts.” We mean exercise, practice, challenge, stretching and working out our writing muscles. So why have we fallen into the habit of using marketing buzzwords that were meant to encourage traffic on blogging platforms (and therefore advertising revenue), rather than operate in our native realm, that of the specificity and clarity of language? I swear it was all challenges and writing exercises when I got into this back in the 90s. I don’t remember the writing landscape littered with prompts.

It has carried over into publications like Writer’s Digest, and it’s become a weekly feature of Poets and Writers dot org. It’s become so ubiquitous that at least one dictionary, Cambridge, has added a definition that applies to the usage of the word “prompt” in writing circles. I don’t find this complimentary: “A prompt is . . . a set of directions or a passage from a book, poem, or play to give you ideas for writing something.”

I fancy myself an amateur linguist so I know that I should embrace and celebrate the evolution of language, yet language influences thinking. Are we sure we haven’t been duped into thinking less of ourselves here? Is this really the language that we want to use? And what are we implying to those who haven’t evolved into this new usage of “prompt?”

William Faulkner's Underwood Universal Portabl...
William Faulkner’s Underwood Universal Portable. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To them, it sounds like we are at our desks desperately wishing we had an idea. But maybe that is how we see ourselves now. Maybe the need to publish has lead us to this. Or did we let some web marketers convince us, as they have in the past about our weight and complexion, our social or economic status, that we were helpless without them, hopelessly lost like the actor, searching for his next line?

I don’t mean to be a grumpy old man. I am speaking in your defense, writer. You are more than your insecurities, and writer’s block is just a state of needing to practice. It’s just the fear of stepping out into the dance, to get all those ideas that are already there onto a page.

Call it semantics, but word choice matters. As poets, we know this. “Tree” implies more than oak or pine. And you would never say juniper if you were thinking palm. I stand by my assertion that what we need is not prompts but practice. And we should say what we mean.

Rant Over

So at last, I turn back to where I started. Margo. Check out this “Poetry Tryout” post of hers from three years back. It includes the first video below.  I’ve added a second clip with even older movies and a different song. Mostly, because I got caught up in the joy of it.  If you need some inspiration or practice just do as Margo suggested, “Watch the video(s) all the way through. Then watch it (them) again. This time pause it at scenes you find are nudging at you.”

You might want to write about memories evoked by individual scenes or about how the music makes you feel. Ignore that she used the word “prompt.” I swear, she didn’t mean it. Work it out. Have fun and remember, if you’re feeling overwhelmed today, you probably just need dance rehearsal, poetry practice. You don’t need no stinkin’ prompts.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. I simply cannot write a poem (or any worthwhile prose, for that matter) unless I have a significant emotional attachment to the subject. So a prompt is useless in my world.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was looking at a few of the websites again. One of them had what I literally would call prompts: Write a nature poem; write a poem about the seasons, write a poem about an animal. That sort of thing. I don’t see much profit in that, even for a student. Unless you really are in such a place that you can’t think, depressed and needing a nudge, or perhaps very young in your writing and not yet awakened to all the life material at your fingertips.

      However, a lot of places who are using the word “prompt,” like P&W.org, really mean exercise or challenge. Read three different styles of sonnet and write one. Or use these seven words. Something that actually helps you stretch and grow, not merely get started. I feel like that kind of thing can help me break out of ruts and try something new from time to time.

      But as you said, the source material, the inspiration is all there already. I have so many poem started in my head, or a few lines are down on paper. Any of us can walk outside or sit down and look at our cat, or an apple and start writing. The problem isn’t that we need to be prompted, but sometimes, I think I need to be focused so I can actually get the damn writing done, started at least.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I like the way you think.

    I am guilty of using the word ‘prompt’ – no more!

    Can’t stop, I have to prepare eight writing exercises for a group of schoolboys on Wednesday.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am glad I am not alone! I was expecting to take some heat for this. 🙂 I wish I was in on that class. Sounds fun!

      Liked by 1 person

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