Robert Gray: 10 Poetry Month Writing Prompts for Booksellers

We're looking for some composed and composing booksellers (and bookstore fans) as National Poetry Month enters its final stretch. After weeks of hosting poetry events and handselling collections, you may be ready for a little personal creativity. Below you'll find 10 poetry writing prompts, along with sample opening lines, to get you started. We invite you to share your creations with us.

1. Mending bookshelves: Take a poem you love and rewrite it from the perspective of a bookseller. Maybe William Carlos Williams's "The Red Wheelbarrow" (so much depends/ upon/ a red dust-/ jacket) or "This Is Just to Say" (I have borrowed/ the ARC/ that was on/ your desktop). I chose Robert Frost's "Mending Wall," as reimagined by a children's bookseller.

Something there is that doesn't love full shelves,
That tempts the children's fingers into them;
And spills so many books upon the rug;
And makes the gaps where no books can be sold.
The work of mothers is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one book by a book,
But they would have one title from hiding,
To please the yelping kids. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But after story-time we find them there...

2. This book is...: Write a poem about staff shelf talkers, using blurb clichés.

This book is
a stunning page-turner
that kept me up all night;
a lyrical, haunting
and compelling tale
that reads like a suspense novel
even as it transcends
the genre with sweeping prose
that is at once
timely and unputdownable...

3. Bookstore haiku: Compose a haiku about reading in a bookshop.

In bookshop armchair;
murmurs, novel, coffee, jazz,
then street noise... Shut up!

4. Handselling blind date: You just spent 20 minutes of fully engaged handselling with a new customer who was looking for "something good" to read. They leave empty-handed, saying, "Thanks for your help, but nothing really sounds like me, y'know?" Write a poem about handselling connections deferred or deflated.

Sometimes handselling
is like a bad blind date
that catches you by surprise.
It starts so well, the cheerful greeting
exploratory chat, shared interests,
then gives way, like thin ice,
to awkward silence, rushed parting,
maybe next times...

5. Author non-event: Write a poem about an author event that drew a sparse audience.

That terrible moment when
it's all too clear
no one else is coming.
The author shuffles his feet,
while you give the introduction
from a podium
to chairs...

6. Limerick: Create a limerick about bookstores or bookselling.

In a used bookstore called Books Just a Buck,
Locating titles took patience and luck.
In every section I delved,
Too many books were mis-shelved.
I guess the owners just don't give...

7. Confessional bookselling poem: Seems like a natural for booksellers, who must keep their emotions, even when borderline homicidal, professionally... under wraps.

They demand all their stuff
be giftwrapped so neatly,
too neatly. They watch me,
I pause, then focus
on the table, the tape,
the festive red paper,

the newly sharpened scissors...

8. Words found on the sales floor: Write a found poem using things you overhear from customers during the course of a single shift on the sales floor.

They sure have a lot of books here.
Where's the nonfiction?
Did you read this one? It's great!
Have you seen the birthday cards?
Can I have this, mom? No!
Can I...? No!
Read me a story, let's get lunch,
look at those comfy chairs.
You almost done here?
We have to go!
I'm coming back tomorrow.
Wish we had a store like this at home.

9. Ode to a Bookstore Cat: Write a... well, you know.

Flashing her Cheshire grin
from deep within the stacks,
our bookstore cat can read
the tone of customers' words,
the subplot of their movements,
the character of their nature,
like prey...

10. Independent Bookstore Day: Consider the poetic implications.

Not on our turf, you don't.
Indies Unite, you have nothing to lose
but the chains and Amazon do,
their customers
to you
on Indie Bookstore Day
and after, and before.
Taking it from the shelves
to the streets...

Verse up, booksellers, and anyone else who loves bookstores. We'd love to see your creations. Send your poems to (Disclaimer: An amazing assortment of prizes is not at stake.)

--Robert Gray, contributing editor (Column archives available at Fresh Eyes Now)
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