Hooray! It’s National Poetry month! Poets and poetry lovers everywhere have been looking forward to this all year. I know I have.

I teach poetry to incarcerated youth. They’re a tough audience. They don’t want to do anything and they REALLY don’t want to write poetry. It takes me a few visits to get them into it and while I don’t convert everyone in loving poetry I do seem to get a lot of them writing it. I’m going to share some of the ways I get these kids to write poetry. They always involve prompts and exercises of some kind so I will do the exercise and I hope you will play along. Not all of the poems and exercises I share will speak to you and that’s okay.

When I go to a poetry residency I usually go for 10-12 visits. This is good because in the detention facilities it usually takes 3 sessions before I have built up any trust with the kids. So I start off easy and set certain things in place that they know will happen every time.  After reading to them from Ruth Gendler’s wonderful book The Book of Qualities, I bring out my purple cards.

I let a student pick a card and from there we do a group poem on the board based on using our five senses to describe the word. It takes a while but pretty soon they get into and are shouting out some great descriptions and I jot them all on the board. We pick our favorites and put together a quick list poem. This is the one thing I do every single visit. In the classroom it helps get them warmed up without writing yet and because they are all doing it together, there is less pressure on them. And they get used to it and look forward to being able to pick a card and get us started. As you can see from the photo, these are just words cut from magazines that I taped onto some index cards.  I use these cards in a lot of different ways and when I am teaching, there are always a stack of them in my back pocket. I keep some on my desk too, if I am looking for a prompt.

So let’s do one of these now. I pick the card ENVY. In the classroom, this is what I would write on the board:


What does envy look like?

What does envy feel like?

What does envy sound like?

What does envy smell like?

What does envy taste like?


Okay, here’s what I came up with:


Envy looks like every person I’ve ever seen who doesn’t have issues with their weight.

Envy feels like a beach bonfire blazing out of control.

Envy sounds like steam hissing from a broken overheated pipe.

Envy smells like candy cooking on the stove, so sweet it makes me feel sick.

Envy tastes nothing like I imagined it would taste like.


Now in a classroom you’d have a lot more sentences for each sense but this will give you the idea. And if you’re doing this on your own, go ahead and freewrite as many as you can come up with. You can use my word, ENVY, or one from the picture or picture a word of your own.

After I have my sentences I like to play with them and see if I can find the poem.  I should add that I do these quickly. They’re great warmups for just that reason. You don’t have to spend hours or days revising it. I might go back and play with it some more but here’s my 10 minute poem.



Envy sounds like steam hissing from an overheated pipe

every time I seem someone who doesn’t have issues with their weight

my chest hurts.


Envy feels like a beach bonfire blazing out of control

and smells like candy cooking on the stove, sickening sweet,

it makes my stomach turn

it makes me feel sick

it makes me into someone I don’t want to be.


Envy tastes nothing like I imagined it would taste like,

it sticks in the back of my throat like peanut butter

choking my possibilities.

— Susan Taylor Brown, all rights reserved


And I tell these new poets, this is it. You wrote a poem.

Your turn. Why not give it a try here in the comments or on your own blog. If you post it on your blog please leave a link in the comments so I can come see what you’ve done.

I hope you’ll share your poems in the comments so we can all be inspired.