Winona Daily News poetry contest

Hi Teen Voices participants and mentors,

I know most of you are amidst the process of working with us on poems for the book, but it never hurts to keep writing.

So in the interest of poetry, I wanted to share a local opportunity with you folks. It’s the Winona Daily News poetry contest, open to submissions now through April 1. The theme this year is the news, so we’re asking local poets like you to respond with a poem to a current event.

Find the contest description and rules here. Winning poems selected by a panel of three judges get published in the Winona Daily News, and all entrants are invited to share their poems at a public reading event at the Book Shelf April 26.



Ode to a sprig of parsley, and other things

IMG_5706 (1)Introducing… odes! Odes are a fun kind of poem written in praise of something.

Well-loved Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote a lot of odes, including this, his Ode to the Onion (or Oda a la Cebolla). Here’s the English version. And for the folks who prefer to read in Spanish, here’s the Spanish original.

He writes to praise the onion (which is a pretty magical thing if you think about it). I love the line where he says “You make us cry without hurting us” because wow, sometimes I really want to chop onions because I need to cry about something but can’t otherwise.

Write an ode to your favorite vegetable. If you aren’t quite up on the ode-mode, try a love letter. But keep it specific. That’s what makes these poems tick. Readers won’t know what you mean when you say an onion is beautiful, but if you describe it as a “luminous flask” with “crystal scales” then everybody sees onions in a new way, and poetry magic happens.

Happy writing,


In the details

red_wheelbarrow2Here’s another prompt from Ken, based on another famous poem by William Carlos Williams. By focusing on observation and detail, you can counterbalance whatever tendencies your poems may have toward too much abstraction.

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends



a red wheel



glazed with rain



beside the white


– William Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963)

Using “The Red Wheelbarrow” as a model, write a poem in this style in which you present some objects that, taken together, seem to have an intrinsic relationship, even if that relationship is transitory, occurring only at that instant of time. This operates like a freeze frame in a movie, except this is the movie of your life.

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Writing about place: Carl Sandburg


In honor of poet Carl Sandburg’s birthday earlier in January, here’s a Carl Sandburg-inspired prompt.

First, hop on over to Poetry Foundation and read this poem. Sandburg spent some time in Chicago throughout his life, so this poem is a kind of love-hate letter to the city. Mostly love. And a bit of terror. But love.

Your task? Write a poem about Winona, or another city you know well, in the same vein. You could start a few lines with “They tell me you are…” You could experiment with different personifications of Winona, as Sandburg does with Chicago, giving us a vivid image of a half-naked wrestler laughing as he stands over an opponent.





Just Sayin’…

Here’s a poem famous for its brevity and humor, followed by a quick prompt from Ken. Enjoy!

fridge door 2


I have eaten

the plums

that were in

the icebox


and which

you were probably


for breakfast


Forgive me

they were delicious

so sweet

and so cold


Using “This is Just to Say” as a model, write a poem in this same style—short lines, incremental. His poem was written as an apology to his wife that he left on the refrigerator. Find something in your own experience that parallels this. Write an apology for something you did. Notice that Williams uses the title of the poem as his first line. Williams’ topic is light and whimsical. It would be good to find something easy-going like this, but you could also take on a more serious apology, which is probably the more usual situation in our lives. Don’t start it with “This is Just to Say” as your first line—come up with your own parallel move.






Poetry and swimming

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” It can be hard work, it can feel risky, and it can lead you to unknown places.

Write a poem that responds to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quote. Do you agree with him? Or do you have a better interpretation? What is good writing to you?


DIY holiday

I must be in the holiday mood, because here’s another one. This prompt might be especially welcome or intriguing if you’ve celebrated your particular winter tradition(s?) until you’ve had enough for one year. Time for something new…create your own holiday. You’re a poet, so you can do anything you want to (in your poems).

  1. Think up a new holiday. If you ponder this for a while and are drawing a blank, here are a few angles you could try:
  • You could transplant elements of a familiar holiday to another setting or venue. Gift-giving among the pre-historic druids. A “feast” in a refugee camp. An annual anniversary celebration on an intergalactic spacecraft.
  • You could create the “reverse image” of a familiar holiday. I thought of this for a first line: “Every year in heaven, they celebrate / The Day of the Living.” If you like it, you can have it.
  • You could invent a fictional small town festival, in a fictional small town. Milkweed Days, Carrion Fest…
  • Or go whole hog and create it all from scratch: the cultural background, history, geographical location, and whatever else you need for a holiday.

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Turn, turn, turn: a nonfat holiday idea


Holidays are fascinating, aren’t they? In some ways, we structure our collective lives around them, with their bright colors, favorite foods and intense emotional associations. Here’s a holiday writing prompt:

  1. Pick the mid-winter holiday that means the most to you. (Christmas, Hannukah, Chinese New Year, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice, Diwali, Three Kings Day, somebody’s birthday…?)
  2. Over a period of two or three days, observe and/or remember, and take notes, focusing tightly on one or two elements of this holiday:

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Finding a magnetic lexicon


From mentor Kaysey Price, a great exercise to beat writer’s block:

Another break from school is upon us and that means there is ample time for creating! This winter break I have made it my personal goal to write 20 new poems, which sounded great until the writer’s block set in…

Creating a lexicon at our last meeting got me thinking about how I sometimes feel like my own vocabulary is inadequate. Sometimes the words are right on the tip of my tongue, but I just can’t seem to find the right one. I think this feeling of inadequacy is what leads to a lot of my writer’s block (maybe I’m not alone here).

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Lexiconic, a prompt


This prompt is adapted from Zach Carlsen’s exercise that he led at our December session. I think this will work just fine on your own, though it’s probably not quite as much fun that way.   –Scott

  1. Set a timer and write freely and continually for five minutes about a vivid memory or dream. Pick your topic before you set the timer.
  2. Go back and mark the following types of speech in your writing:
  • Circle nouns (persons, places, things)
  • Box adjectives (describe persons, places, things)
  • Underline verbs (action words)
  • Squiggle around adverbs (describe or modify verbs, usually end in “ly”)
  1. Make a list or chart of 10-12 of the most interesting words from each category. This is the word-bank or “lexicon” for your poem.
  2. Write a five-line poem that only uses nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs from this lexicon. You can add other types of connecting words as needed:
  • articles: a, an, the…
  • pronouns: he, she, it, they….
  • conjunctions: and, or, but….

Remember that poems don’t have to “make sense” in the literal, everyday sort of way! Do you think your five line poem is influenced by the memory or dream with which you started?


the Legendary Zach Carlsen in action