book review: The Daily Poet by Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Silano

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So far, this autumn has been a time of planning, sifting, and sorting for me: spending time with projects to understand their clockwork insides, piling up mini-manuscripts for submissions, making applications for writerly gigs (also, crossing fingers; yes, definitely that). There hasn’t been much generative work happening at the desk of this poet, until I picked up my recently-purchased copy of The Daily Poet: Day-by-Day Prompts For Your Writing Practice.

Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Silano wrote this book out of their own practice of bringing prompts to one another for joint writing sessions. The Daily Poet, published by Two Sylvias Press, is a sturdy but compact book of 366 poetry prompts – even one for leap year! That’s right: you basically have no excuse for not knowing what to write about. Ever again.

With the vague notion of writing a poem-most-days in November, I picked up The Daily Poet on November first, and dug right in. The book begins with a message from the authors that sets what I consider to be the perfect tone for a book of prompts. Right away, the message is:

  • realistic “Each day offers a unique exercise to get you closer to a new poem.” Because we all know that responses to prompts are not necessarily going to be poems by the end of the day. Sigh.
  • supportive  “There is no wrong way to complete a writing exercise.” Because we all know the most important thing for a prompt to do is to get us to the page, regardless of whether or not we follow the prompt in the end.
  • inspiring  “So enjoy, go forth, and write the poems you need to write. Our hope is that these exercises lead you to compose inventive, original, and downright daring poems, leaving you with a healthy stack of work that will enrich not only your life, but perhaps the lives of fellow readers.” Because sometimes we all need a reminder of why we’re doing this crazy poetry thing anyway.

I don’t know about you, but already I like this book.

Now on to the prompts and how I’ve used the book. Coming off a period steeped in particular projects, it was refreshing to have a wide variety of subject areas in the prompts I used. For one week in November (and I paraphrase):

  • Write a poem to a saint, actual or imagined
  • Write a poem that uses the names of as many types of candy as you can think of
  • Write a poem where the weather plays a particular role in changing something
  • Write a wedding poem
  • Write a poem in the form of a three-ring circus
  • Write a poem whose title is chosen thus: Pick up a book, turn to page fifteen, go down seven lines. That line is your title.
  • Reduce, reuse, recycle words and images from a poem of yours that you’ve never really liked and use them to write a new poem.

For me, the main strength of this book is that the variety of prompts helped me get into a very generative space, where what I wrote one day had nothing to do with what I wrote the next (generally speaking). The variety of prompts also encouraged creative exploration of topics I might not have considered fertile ground for poetry (candy cigarettes, anyone?). For me, this is the book’s greatest gift to its user: its power to dig deep inside the rabbit holes of your poet’s brain and/or subconscious and pull out work that might never have been pulled out without it.

Other strengths of the book are:

format  I love that each page of the book has just one prompt on it, and has room for notes – ideas that the prompt sparks right away, the title of the draft the prompt brought forth in a particular year, etc. To wit:

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The one prompt per page format also helps me to clear my head and focus on just that one thing (I promise you, if there were more than one prompt per page, I’d be saying, Nah, I don’t feel like doing this one, let me see what else is here…).  Bonus: there are also a few blank pages for notes at the end of the book.

portability  When you see that a book has 384 pages, you worry about being able to throw it in your bag, which you then throw in your bike basket and ride with to the library. You worry about whether that bag will hurt your shoulder as you go upstairs to the quiet second floor. At least I do. But although this is a hefty book in terms of page count, it’s a compact size (.9 x 4.9 x 7.9 inches) and a reasonable weight (14.9 oz.) – it’s utterly portable, and will even fit in most purses in case your kids have a dentist appointment and you’re going to try to write a poem in the waiting room. Bonus: it’s also available in e-book format.

steeped in seasons and history  As I paged through the book beyond the prompts I’ve used for November, I was happy to see that the prompts often highlight particular dates (e.g., St. Patrick’s Day, May Day, Veterans Day), seasons (e.g., Carnival, Chanukah, Christmas), and historical events (e.g., the first documented snowfall in L.A., the birthday of Langston Hughes, the day someone first applied for a patent for a shoe-making machine). Although not all the prompts are calendar-tied, enough are so that the book feels cyclical and honors our very human need to mark time.

As for drawbacks, from my perspective there are only two. Neither of them are deal-breakers for me, but I point them out for people who might have a strong preference on one or both of these points:

One is that there is no table of contents or index. This means you need to mark up those notes pages at the end so you can find a particular prompt again. This is a relatively easy workaround, no? What I miss is being able to read the TOC and/or index as a poem – one of my favorite things to do. But I can deal.

The other is that, for the most part, the prompts are content-based rather than language-based (there are some exceptions). If you are one of the lucky ones who only needs an idea of what to write about to come up with a poem, this won’t be an issue for you. I am one of the less-lucky ones who needs more, which is why I typically use lots of tricks and traps – or language based prompts and/or constraints – to get into a poem. The easy workaround for this, of course, is to have all your old tricks and traps up your sleeve. Which I do.

I see this book on my shelf for many years, note-scrawled and page-marked, scuffed and showing its age. These are the books we love most, right? – those that endure for us over time, that keep giving, giving, and giving. I truly believe The Daily Poet will be one of those books for me. If you’re a poet, I highly recommend that you fold it into your writing practice. This book is also a great find for those of you who teach writing, and for those who lead or participate in writing groups that write together. You can buy it here.

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Martha Silano & Kelli Russell Agodon have eight books of poetry between them, along with twelve years of friendship. They visit each other by ferry for long writing dates that always include coffee, laughter, and chocolate. The Daily Poet is the first book they’ve written together.  (bio from book cover)

4 thoughts on “book review: The Daily Poet by Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Silano

  1. Thanks for your recommendation, Molly. I have been hopelessly ensnared inside a particularly uncreative place for nearly a year; ‘The Daily Poet’ looks like an excellent resource. I will definitely check it out…much appreciated!

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