Is it a prompt or a constraint?

What prompts you to write?

I’ve been working on prompts for April, and I’ve started sorting my ideas into two camps:

Prompts, which get you started
Constraints, which get you to do something that might be unfamiliar

And I realize that, for me, a prompt is something that helps me get past the blank page by telling me what to write about. That subject gives me purchase on beginning the writing. Here are some I’ve encountered (or used) in the past.

  • Write about the first house you remember living in.
  • Write a poem based on a fairy tale.
  • Write an ode to a color.
  • Write an ekphrastic poem.

So what am I calling a constraint?

  • Write a poem without any adverbs or adjectives.
  • Write a sonnet (or sestina, or pantoum, or your favorite form).

Constraints are great, but they don’t help me to start. Although there’s a hybrid: Write a poem using these words, and then a list of words. I think that kind of combination is my favorite–get me started and make me go somewhere new.

Prompts are great, but they’re also, for me, a slippery slope. I don’t want to be told exactly what to write about.


I look at April as one big generative poetry class. I’d like us all to reach the end of the month with poems we can use–preferably in a theme or even a series, enough poems we like enough to work on so that we’ll have a chapbook. So I don’t want to tell you write about x, because you might be deeply pursuing y–and I want to give you a prompt that will keep you in that hot pursuit.

Have I been successful yet? Marginally. I’ll try harder this year. And I’ll work on sticking with prompts, as opposed to constraints (although I might pair some just to mix it up).

Stay tuned for prompts that you can use to build sequences.