Queen of Cups has ended its one year run this month as an alternative mini lit mag delivered weekly to subscribers’ inboxes. Over the past year, QOC has featured 53 writers, 53 original writing prompts, 53 tarot cards and around 100 tarot readings! 100 because nearly every issue included a general reading as well as a reading specifically for writers and artists. Check out the last issue featuring poet Courtney LeBlanc and The Empress. The full year of back issues is archived and available for viewing. Thank you to all subscribers and occasional readers alike. It’s been a surprising journey from quirky idea to fruition and such a learning experience.
One feature of my mini lit mag Queen of Cups is a weekly writing prompt. Sometimes I base the prompt on the week’s tarot card, other times I’m inspired by the featured writer, or I come up with something out of left field. As a poet, I’ve found prompts invaluable in generating new material. Here are four of my favorite from Queen of Cups back issues, all are accessible to poets and prose writers alike.
1. Write a piece that takes place in a structure, dwelling, or shelter. Think of Shirley Jackson who suffered from agoraphobia and wrote ghost stories and psychological thrillers where houses are not only haunted but become malevolent main characters imprisoning their inhabitants. Conversely, look to Rumer Godden who wrote at least five novels with the word ‘House’ appearing in the title. Godden’s dwellings also rise to character status but are more benevolent, becoming meaningful because of the accrual of inhabitants over the course of history. Like a beloved and ancient oak, Godden’s houses take on personalities of their own and tend to stand both within the passage of time and beyond it. Houses symbolize safety, nurture, and personal and family identity, but can also work in the opposite direction and quickly convey danger, imprisonment, and stultification. Your job is to write something with a physical structure in it, see where it takes you and what your structure reveals to you through the writing of your piece.
2. Write a piece titled “Grief Hallucinations” which incorporates the sentence: “You are a little soul carrying around a corpse.” (Epictetus)
3. The tradition of lachrymatory dates to Greek and Roman times, but was popular around the Civil War. Wives and sweethearts would collect their tears in small vials, called lachrymatories, in hopes of showing their returning soldiers how much they were missed. Lachrymatory was a common ritual in the elaborate Victorian mourning process which also included: ‘deep mourning’, ‘half mourning’, and, my favorite, ‘slighting the mourning’ the moment when scratchy crepe dress trimming could be removed. Mourning in dress was observed right down to the smallest detail: I own a small box of antique stick pins with black heads labelled ‘Mourning Pins’. Women collected tears shed over death into lachrymatory and would leave the uncorked vials on loved ones’ graves; uncorked so the tears would evaporate over time. Write a poem or prose piece where lachrymatory (or ritualistic mourning) appear.
4. Write a micro essay/story (about 500 words), or a prose poem about consciously throwing something special away, or about getting rid of something in a bizarre or unique way.
I admit, I’m a writing prompt snob. I don’t know how many ‘prompt a day’ type books I have bought (no names mentioned) that sit on the shelf after I flip through and discard such suggestions as ‘write a poem about your first day of kindergarten’ or begin a poem with ‘haste makes waste’. Really? With a cliche? Poetry prompts consisting of a phrase: ‘bucket list’, ‘fall leaves’, ‘all I ever wanted’ (go!) leave me cold. I’d rather begin with the Egyptian hieroglyphs above; actually I have done that. Or this:
A class of blind children at New York’s American Museum of Natural History in 1926. I love how the children are exploring and caressing the animals, maybe unaware of the ferocious poses of their taxidermy.
Besides odd photos and hieroglyphs, I love to use technical manuals: a clockmaker’s guide, pipe fitter’s manual; and terms like civil twilight and nature permanence; I found the latter, with definition, in one of my files, but was not able to find a reference for it again. I used it anyway. Maybe I made it up, all the better. I intended to give this prompt, which can also be found on the Found Poetry Review site, I’m really loving their prompts page. I took that particular prompt, a six page list of phrases most often encountered by beginning readers, and pasted it into a word document. Because it was originally in PDF, many of the phrases got mashed together, creating some pretty cool juxtapositions. My strategy was a combination of erasure and free association. I jumped around between the six pages and came up with a sparse two-page poem that may contain a few of the original phrases. The prompt lured a poem from my subconscious, a poem which may not have been written otherwise, certainly not in that format. It was the generative process at its best; and that’s what a great prompt can do. Amen.
I recently stumbled upon a list of phobias. The list seems pretty comprehensive to me. Who knew there were people afraid of plants: botanophobia or gaiety: cherophobia. I took a few, somewhat related phobias, then branched out into compulsions, which resulted in the following poem. Check out the phobia list and pick a few for your own poem.
I’ll be leading some unsuspecting workshop participants through writing exercises like these at my Found Poetry Project workshop in early June. There are still spaces available; the workshop won’t be just a sit-in-your-chair-and-write affair, we’ll be wandering, eavesdropping, free associating all over the place and, finally, using a little Mod Podge because it’s Squam after all. Here’s my phobia poem:
You Are Not Grass
The last wild passenger pigeon was called
‘Buttons’ because the mother of the boy who shot it,
stuffed the bird and sewed black buttons for eyes.
People with Ekbom Syndrome imagine
they’re infested with mites.
It’s possible the entire Buttons family
an aspect of which is Folie à Deux
(madness between two) where another person
living with the sufferer develops symptoms—
as in an actual infestation.
All wild things have kleptophobia:
the fear of being stolen, as well
as cleithrophobia: the fear of being trapped.
I did, after the divorce and my mother began dating—
fear of being adopted by a man
wearing slacks and brown saddle shoes, (automaton
ophobia?) who winked at me and promised to return
my mother at a decent hour. Whose accent
was Midwestern, who pronounced his R’s
so long they became words in their own right,
words at the ends of words; his R’s
like grappling hooks, like a crocodile-
purse with yellow eyes.
Why is the fear of being trapped a clinical phobia,
while the compulsion to slit and stuff a thing
not listed in the DSM?
Nature permanence is the healthy acceptance
that you are not grass but human, beneficial
if you suffer from hylophobia, fear of trees,
not so helpful if you have Cotard delusion
and know you’re not only human, but a corpse.
Related to Cotard is xenomelia: the feeling
that one’s limbs don’t belong to the body,
chirophobia: fear of hands, and worse apotemnophilia,
where a person disowns the limbs,
yearns to live life as an amputee: la liberte de l’auto
(freedom from self).
Why the insistence that an animal
have black buttons, yellow marbles, key holes
for eyes? that its entrails be replaced
with horsehair and rags? that the peppery dots
swarming the blanket aren’t mites? What are the chances
that a man who flashes his teeth when he talks
doesn’t bite? To fear is animal.
To create out of fear must be human—
slits to let the mites out, stuffing
the last wild passenger pigeon
because it’s the last, tweezing steel shot
like beautiful beadwork out of its breast. Phantom limbs
when real hands become too dangerous.