Poetry Madlibs: April Isn’t the Cruelest Month

Image Courtesy of Patrick Emerson

The following exercise comes to you courtesy of Rob Carney, an astounding poet and a professor at Utah Valley University. When Carney’s class was recommended to me, it came with one of the strangest testimonials I’ve heard. To paraphrase, my friend told me that when they took the course, they didn’t feel like they were learning at all. Rather — thanks to the exercises and assignments given in class — they were simply playing with language throughout the semester. It was only after the semester concluded that they realized how much this form of play had improved their effectiveness with the craft.

So, without further introduction, I bring you an exercise from that course (posted here with permission of the original author).


(Have enough fun that you can’t wait to share the resulting draft.)

1. Begin with “April isn’t the cruelest month. That would be [pick one of the other 11],

2. then continue after the comma by saying “when [specific object/thing doing/being some specific action] and [choose another, but it has to be unlike the first one].

3. Now keep going on the opening thought/elaborate: “In April, [a series of three things that make the reader conclude “joy,” “happiness,” “sex appeal,” “contentment,” “adventure,” or etc., but you can’t use those words. The feelings have to be evoked, the moods enacted. For ex., if I write “On bright blue days, I flap my wings,” I bet twenty bucks you can name that emotion. So, three evocations, please.]

4. Introduce a contrast/redirect via direct address: “Maybe if you’d written a letter to [insert someone literary, or at least someone specific and individual], then [he (or she or they)] could have explained, could have said, [Insert some explanatory or other type of quote: no more than 30 words in that person’s voice, so make them count; make them vivid, or scolding, or curious, or flirty, or wise, or etc.]

5. But wait!—you get more than 30 words after all since you will now tack on a ‘P.S.: [something that sounds like an old saying/adage/bit of folk wisdom, but it must be entirely new, probably strange, and invented by you.]

6. Backtrack now to the opening idea: “No, it’s [month] that’s cruel because [something having to do with animals, or children, or difficult directions to ? and getting lost].

7. Either skip to #8, or add anything you want hereMaybe you should be declarative, or philosophical, or say something about a month you’d like to stay in bed late with, or . . . how should I know? Surprise yourself, your poem, your listeners.

8. By the end, you have to be evoking something underwater, or talking about space, or detailing/enacting what happens when you open a window.

9. If you feel you need a final line, something else in the way of closure, do it, especially if your final lines(s) recall(s) an earlier phrase or image while also changing something about it.

10. Call the poem “Dear T.S. Eliot,” or “Dear Ghost Poet,” or “Dear Bank Clerk Sneaking Poems into My Checking Account,” or “Dear Majesty of Unhappiness,” or “Dear Sir Who’s Been Chalking Messages on My Tabula Rasa,” or “Dear Grandpa Shantih Shantih,” or “Dear [Whomever].”

I’m eager to see where this exercise leads you! Share your results in the comments.

And before we depart, a little more about the author:

Rob CarneyRob Carney’s fourth book, 88 Maps, was published by Lost Horse Press (distribution by University of Washington Press). Previous books and chapbooks include Story Problems and Weather Report, both from Somondoco Press.

Read poetry by Rob Carney appearing in Escape Into Life and Terrain.org: 6th Annual Contest Finalist, 4th Annual Contest Winner, and Issue 30. And listen to a new radio interview with Rob Carney, and here’s an older radio interview.