Next Line, Please

Prompting a Poem, Dreaming of a Drink

By David Lehman | May 24, 2016


The prompt this week: to devise a prompt. Paul Michelsen wins not only for his amazing industry but for his ingenuity. One of Paul’s prompts is itself a prose poem, it seems to me. Here it is:

“One of the classic questions interviewers love to ask writers is who they would have to a dinner party if they could invite anyone, living or dead. Write a poem about the dinner party of your dreams. Who would you invite? What would you serve? Who would drink too much? Who would choke on one of your exquisitely prepared hors d’oeuvres? Which one of your guests would you most like to perform the Heimlich maneuver on? Why on Earth would you try doing the Heimlich on someone other than the one who is actually choking? Horrible host, redeem yourself with the kind of brilliant poem only you can write. This is your party after all.”

The two runners-up have major virtues.

Berwyn Moore: “Find an unusual or archaic word and make it the springboard for a poem.” Berwyn has acted on this prompt herself. The prompt has the virtue of referring us to the Oxford English Dictionary as an unfailing source for poems.

Andrew Paul Wood suggested that the reader “Write a poem titled ‘American Democracy’ loosely following the structure of Philip Larkin’s ‘This Be The Verse,’ including references to at least three US presidencies from any point in history to the present.” This is quite an ambitious assignment. It has the virtue of getting the engaged reader to read this excellent and still somewhat notorious poem, which begins,

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do. / They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you.” Of course it turns out that the parents themselves were “fucked up in their turn.” The dire conclusion: “Get out as early as you can, / And don’t have any kids yourself.”

Now, it may be objected that this prompt is guilty of leading the witness—it urges the idea that the “fucked-up” parents and children of Larkin’s poem are stand-ins for American democracy, which is implicitly in a sorry state with reference to “at least three” American presidents. The political is poison for poetry. Nevertheless, in the writing of it, problems can turn into spurs for the imagination.

Under the heading “An invitation to poetry,” Mark Doty asks, “What’s your dream drink, what goes into making it, and what happens after you have one?” Let’s make that our prompt for next week. Think of the poem as a cocktail—or the recipe as a poem. Julie Sheehan has an entire book of poems based on this cocktail conceit.

And now that summer drinks are upon us, the mind turns to such concoctions, and I hereby give notice that I am writing a poem entitled “Cocktail,” which is itself a beautiful word if you think about it. My entry begins with “the summer of sangria (a puree of white peaches made the difference), the summer of classic daiquiris (rum, sugar, lime juice in equal measures), the autumn morning bloody mary’s (hot and spicy but refreshing), the fortified martinis (the ice-cold gin topped by a capful of Laphroaig scotch), the March old fashioned with muddled cherries and slice of blood orange).”

Let’s have your “dream drink” (and feel free to enter more than once) by Sunday, June 5, at 6 P.M.


Due to Memorial Day, Next Line, Please will be on hiatus until June.

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