20 Questions: A Poetry Prompt

Call and Response

I got the original for this prompt in Wingbeats: Exercises & Practice in Poetry a collection of in-depth, creative, sometimes simple, sometimes complicated poetry prompts by different poets. The prompts could also be adapted for other genres. The original prompt, titled: Teaching Imagination, was created by Blas Falconer. I plan to use it in my found poetry workshop in June, so I’ve altered it and added some additional components to suit my goals. I used a few of the prompt’s original questions and made up the others. It would also be fun to collect oddball questions from different sources. This prompt would lend itself to all kinds of variations and extensions.

The Basics: Answer the following 20 questions on index cards, one card for each answer. The original prompt says to form your answers as complete sentences, but I found that can result in homogenous sentences that begin ‘I was’, ‘I did’, ‘I went’. So I’ve altered the prompt and am encouraging you to mix things up. Write some very short sentences, some longer, and some incomplete sentences, two-word phrases, basic images. Once you’ve answered the questions and have 20 index card answers, choose 10 and play around with their order for your poem. You can write the ‘poem’ down as is, or add connective tissue.

Variations: Call and Response: On 20 additional cards, write the questions. Now mismatch questions and answers to create a call and response poem. These questions answered straightforwardly would not be good fodder for the call and response poem, but could be strange and off-kilter enough when mismatched. The beauty of the call and response is its strangeness, the way the questions and answers exist on different plains and the freedom the poet has to consider the questions metaphorically, to write from an illogical place. This prompt could also be done with ‘questions’ from odd sources or questions taken out of context, like this one from an 1877 Catholic Catechism: “Must we then not make any image at all?”. This question is in relation to the making of graven images, but taken out of context could be answered in all sorts of creative ways. Form: Use 14 answer cards to make a sonnet, try to adhere to the form’s tenets. Make a Pantoum (4 line stanzas, the 2nd and 4th lines of each stanza are the 1st and 3rd lines of the next). Use as many cards as you’d like to make the pantoum long or short. Haiku and Tanka are other possible forms. Or, create a poem from your answers and then actually write the Haiku or Tanka in the spirit of your poem.

I love this and the other prompts in ‘Wingbeats’ because they simultaneously encourage writing with some kind of imposed rules or form and free-play with words, images, ideas;  breaking and remaking what you’ve already written.

As I said, I think this prompt could be endlessly altered and branched. You could add questions and thus have more answers to choose from. Play around and let me know what you come up with.

The Questions:

  1. Who named you? Why did they choose your name? What does your name mean?
  2. How near do you live to the place where you were born?
  3. How are the landscape of your birthplace and your current residence different?
  4. What is one scene or image from a movie that has stayed with you?
  5. Describe the last dream you can vividly recall?
  6. Describe a scar you have and how you got it. (skip if you have no scars)
  7. Write something in another language (do your best)
  8. What is your favorite bird? for plumage? for song? other? Describe its plumage and song.
  9. When was the last time you had a laughing fit. Who were you with? What were the circumstances?
  10. If you have a tattoo, describe it, why did you choose it? If you don’t have a tattoo why have you made that choice?
  11. Describe your first job.
  12. What’s your earliest memory?
  13. What natural landscape suits you best? What landscape do you have an aversion to?
  14. Do you sleep on your back, stomach or side?
  15. Describe the kind of child you were.
  16. Write a sentence that begins: “I’d be lying if I said…”
  17. If you could change one thing in your life what would it be?
  18. How do you visualize the days of the week (grid, line, calendar, other?)
  19. Describe a disaster without naming it.
  20. Write a sentence that includes the words: sinter, thin, blades.