Poetics of haunting: a writing prompt

The Corentyne River at Khan’s Saw Mill

When thinking about haunting or being haunted, most remember moments of power outages and makeshift light — whether by torch or by fire. Haunting, as we will see, can also be something, a form or subject matter, that you find yourself returning to often. Do you ever finish writing a poem and think, I can’t believe that I’m writing about my ex again. What is it about that relationship that brings me back?

Sometimes the things that haunt us are more ethereal — for example, you don’t know why, but every time you stand in a field you remember some aspect of your life that gives you the shivers. This is the haunting. It’s sometimes affective, unpredictable, and almost always reckless.

Shivanee Ramlochan, Faizal Deen, Andre Bagoo, Sudesh Mishra, and Mahadai Das are all haunted by different aspects of their histories. Faizal Deen writes in fragmented form that allows for a return of past subject matter. In fact, by disrupting time the speaker is able to exist simultaneously in many different timelines.

Shivanee Ramlochan writes about actual ghosts and ghouls. In her poem “Song of the Only Surviving Grandmother” she writes,

The wind that midwifed you

was unafraid to be curry thick.


Aji, I believe

I hear your bootfall in my dreams.


While I sleep

you cut through cane (55)


It’s clear from this excerpt that the speaker muses through a memory, a ghost of the grandmother (Aji) performing the work descended of indenture. There are several hauntings at play here: the literal haunting of the speaker, a linguistic haunting of the Bhojpuri word for grandmother, and the labor of indenture. They work together to make a poem that feels “curry thick” and haunted.

Ghost poem: A writing prompt

For this exercise, consider subject matter that haunts you. What is it that once you’ve learned you can’t unlearn, unsee, forget? Is it a historical event that implicates you? Is it a relationship with a parent or partner that leaves you haunted?

  1. Free-write for ten minutes trying not to remove your pen from the page too long. Think automatic writing.
  1. Write no more than ten words per line as you draft your poem.
  1. After you have finished drafting, go through the draft and cross out any of the language that is filler or that is not achieving the poetic of your intent. Limp words, familiar language, passive constructions, adjective-heavy phrasing, explanation of the image instead of the image itself. The idea here is to remove the lines that don’t work hard.

Rewrite your poem preserving the lines that you find are the most important/work the hardest. Feel free to keep the fissures, fragmentations, juxtapositions, and grammatical disjoints that arise to add ghostliness to the poem.