Who is providing our poetry writing prompt today? One of my poet-heroes. It’s Nikki Grimes! I am honored that Nikki is participating in the #WaterPoemProject.
Nikki’s prompt is: Word? Play!
I started writing when I was six, but even before then, I was fascinated with words. The idea that one word could mean many different things seemed endlessly interesting. I was drawn to word jumbles and word puzzles of every kind. I even made up my own word games, flipping through the dictionary and plucking out word, after word, and trying out various ways of using them, first in sentences, and later in metered verses. I was all about word-play, and word play led me to poetry. I became obsessed with the challenge of painting a picture or telling a story using as few words as possible, in just the right way. Little surprise, then, that I fell in love with haiku!
Eventually, I took my love of word-play to the page, in the form of Pocketful of Poems, a collection of free-verse poems paired with haiku. The free-verse poems were a play on one of the main words in the haiku. Each free-verse poem resulted from word studies and word-play.
My original idea for Pocketful of Poems was to create a collection of urban-themed haiku. As with the traditional Japanese form, I wanted my haiku to include seasonal themes. And so, I thought about the four seasons, and the American holidays that took place during those seasons, and captured the images that started coming to mind. In considering autumn, the Thanksgiving holiday seemed an obvious choice. I jotted down notes about the colors associated with that holiday, as well as the foods. Pumpkins loomed large in my mind, and so I took that word and ran with it. First, I wrote a haiku.
Pumpkins catch a bus
to town. How else could they get
here by Thanksgiving?
Then, I closed my eyes and thought about the word pumpkin, sifted it through my mind, and my imagination. I studied the word, what it looked like, where you’d find it, how it was used, how it tasted, and so on. Then, I wrote the following:
Pumpkin is an orange word.
I set its roundness out
where others can enjoy it.
I help Mama carve
a crooked smile on its face.
we bake others like it for dessert.
But first we have to wait
for them to arrive.
Pocketful of Poems has been in print for nineteen years, and counting, and it all began with word-play. I’d been creating these kinds of poems for years, but only as writing prompts for myself. Now, you can join in on the fun.
When I do a word-study, I sift the word through all of my senses. I approach the word as if it’s something brand new, and I pose questions to get at the heart of what that word, or the thing that word represents, is. How does it look? What is its color, its shape? Does it have a sound? If so, what is that sound? Does it have a scent? If so, what does it smell like? Does it have a taste? What does it feel like? I go on to ask where it may be found, how it is used, what it does, and what you can do with it. I try to study the word from the inside-out, and think of ways to describe it to someone who has never encountered that item before. If my mind is scattered, and I don’t know where to start, I’ll look the word up in the dictionary and start there. Once I have all the information I need, I shape it into a simple poem of a few lines, as follows:
Ball is a round, rubber word.
It fits inside my palm.
I play with it outside,
bounce it on the sidewalk.
When it hits the ground
it makes a smacking sound.
My cupped hand waits for it
to come back home.
This word wets my pocket.
I have to stay indoors
until my blue jeans dry.
Shower is a clean word—
soap and water for the sky.
Pen is a slim word,
a tube of possibility.
Poems and essays hide inside
or ride the river
of her ink.
Pen jots down things
that make you think.
Pen is round.
Pen speaks, yet
makes no sound.
I bet you’ve got the hang of it! Now, it’s your turn. This exercise is a two-fer. Write a pair of poems focusing on one of the words below. First, write a haiku about the word you’ve chosen. Second, follow the word-play exercise focusing on that word. Make that word the star of your poem.
Ice Snowball Steam Puddle Hail
- Write a short paragraph about the word you’ve chosen. Consider all aspects of the item that word represents: how it looks, sounds, feels, tastes, what it does, what you can do with it, how it affects you, what its made of, where its found. Does it have an age, color, a smell? Try to think about each word in a new, animated way. Give it life.
- Turn this paragraph into a poem. Use as many, or as few poetic elements as you’d like: metaphor, simile, repetition, alliteration, rhyme, etc. And as you write, pretend that the reader has never seen that item before.
Note: My own poems tend to be short. However, I’ve seen writers create fairly elaborate poems in my workshops using this exercise, so don’t concentrate on length.
- Have fun! Remember, this exercise is called word play!
We’re down to the last few writing prompts, poets. Keep up the good work! Your goal is to have a word-play poem drafted by the end of the day tomorrow, Saturday, April 17, 2020.
If you’re doing the #WaterPoemProject with a group, be sure to share or post your rough draft, read other people’s poems, and cheer for their efforts. Or leave your poem here, in the comments.
New York Times bestselling author Nikki Grimes is the recipient of the 2017 Children’s Literature Legacy Award for substantial and lasting contributions to literature for children, the 2016 Virginia Hamilton Literary Award, and the 2006 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children. The author of Coretta Scott King Author Award-winner Bronx Masquerade, and recipient of five CSK Author Honors, her most recent titles include the much-honored Words With Wings, Garvey’s Choice and Boston Globe-Horn Book honor, Between the Lines, and One Last Word, winner of the 2018 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award. Her 2019 memoir Ordinary Hazards, won both a Printz Honor and a Sibert Honor.
Find Nikki online at https://www.nikkigrimes.com/.
Prompt 1: Irene Latham, The Language of Water
Prompt 2: Elizabeth Steinglass, What Would a Raindrop Say?
Prompt 3: Linda Mitchell, Found Haiku
Prompt 4: Shari Green, Fogbow Fibonacci
Prompt 5: Margaret Simon, The Taste of Water
Prompt 6: Heather Meloche, The Shape of a Wave
Prompt 7: Amy Ludwig VanDerwater, A Water Memory
Prompt 8: Laura Shovan, Rainy Day Opposites
Prompt 9: Kathryn Apel, Silly Solage
Prompt 10: Buffy Silverman, A Watery Home
Prompt 11: Kara Laughlin, Frozen Fog
Prompt 12: Debbie Levy, Jump into a Limerick
Prompt 13: Joy McCullough, What Are Water Bears?
Prompt 14: Linda Baie, Frozen Water Skinny
Prompt 15: Chris Baron, The Hidden World of Water
Prompt 16: Michelle Heidenrich Barnes, Water Wordplay
Prompt 17: Susan Tan, The Sound of Water
Prompt 18: Mike Grosso, Waterplay!
Prompt 19: R. L. Toalson, Wishing Well
Prompt 20: Margarita Engle, Ode to the Shore
Prompt 21: Faye McCray, Poem in a Bubble
Prompt 22: Meg Eden, Surprising Connections
Prompt 23: Beth Ain, Water with Salt
Prompt 24: Kevin Hodgson, A Poem about Peepers
Prompt 25: Laura Purdie Salas, Be a Snow-Maker!
Prompt 26: Amanda Rawson Hill, Where Does Water Come From?
Prompt 27: Nikki Grimes, Word? Play!
Please support the #WaterPoemProject authors by buying their books from your favorite independent bookstore.