A Blog of Seattle Arts & Lectures

Two Writing Prompts: Pablo Neruda

Feeling stumped? Drab? Uninspired? Or maybe you’re simply looking to shake up your writing routine. These two prompts from WITS writers-in-residence, Sierra Nelson and Laura Gamache, were inspired by the works of the late, great Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. 

Want the chance to be published on Sonder? Do one of these prompts and email your results to Alison Stagner at [], with “Pablo Neruda Prompt Submission” as the subject line. We’ll be publishing our favorite submission on the blog!

Prompt #1: By Sierra Nelson, WITS Writer-in-Residence

The Lesson: In Pablo Neruda’s collection El libro de las preguntas (The Book of Questions), each poem is made up entirely of questions. Lyrical, vivid, often startling, sometimes silly, Neruda’s questions are not meant to be easily answered, but to help us see in a new way and to take a moment to reflect with each couplet. Neruda’s questions aren’t a quiz but a series of beckoning doors.

When working with students, I love to begin by reading some of Neruda’s question-poems, delving into his unique sensibility to help open up our imaginations to what a question can be. Other writers have used the interrogative in exciting ways too—but reading Neruda’s questions before doing this prompt is like drinking a refreshing elixir of mystery, yielding new magical powers of language. Recommended!


Sergio Larrain, 1957.


From Pablo Neruda’s The Book of Questions (translated into English by William O’Daly, Copper Canyon Press):

What is the distance in round meters
between the sun and the oranges?

Who wakes up the sun when it falls asleep
on its burning bed?

Does the earth sing like a cricket
in the music of the heavens?

Is it true that sadness is thick
and melancholy thin? 


Why don’t the immense airplanes
fly around with their children?

Which yellow bird
fills its nest with lemons?

Why don’t they train helicopters
to suck honey from sunlight?

Where did the full moon leave
its sack of flour?

The Prompt: Write your own list of questions, large or small, profound or mundane. They can be questions from your imagination or questions from observation, personal questions, questions about the natural world, questions about your surroundings, questions you hope to know the answer to, questions without answer. Try to write as many questions as you can in 5 minutes. Then choose your favorite questions from the list to arrange into a poem.

Here are some question poems by my WITS students at Seattle Children’s Hospital:

“Poem of Questions” by Lizeth (Age 8)

Where does the sun go before the moon comes out?
Does it go down the hill by the water?

How do you make the color brown
when you really need it?

How do you make a pen that will write a letter
to my grandma in Mexico?

How does the snow come out of the sky?
Does it make the sky feel cold?

How do teeth grow and how do they
decide whether to become vampires?

How do batteries work?
Is their electricity fast as a magnet?

How did they put the hook-line in
while I was asleep with medicine?

Did it cut out a piece of my chest
to move past my neck, to my heart?

                        *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

from “Questions” by Heather (Age 10)

Will the world actually end in 2012
by volcanoes and earthquakes?

Why do monkeys like bananas?
Do bananas hate monkeys?

How did my dad learn squirrel language?
What color were the dinosaurs?

When will robots be invented to do our chores?
What will my sea-monkeys look like?

Prompt #2: By Laura Gamache, WITS Writer-in-Residence 

The Lesson: Neruda brought the ode to the everyday, celebrating table and chair, scissors, the watermelon, French fries. For this “Smellorama” lesson, based on Neruda’s “Ode to a Bar of Soap,” I pass around sample smells – my favorites to use are coffee, rosemary, mentholatum, and lemon zest – and have students fill out a worksheet to help them create metaphors and similes for these scents.

Next, I’ll give a compressed history of the ode: Pindar celebrating Olympic athletes, the European use of ode to celebrate lofty ideas (including “Joy” – many kids have played part of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, so singing some of that theme is fun and lights eyes). Then, I’ll show pictures from Absence and Presence, Alastair Reid’s picture book of collections in Neruda’s houses, with snippets of Neruda poems about his loved objects (ships in bottles, figureheads, stirrups, giant shoe from a shoe repair shop, life size plaster of paris horse, his writing table made from a door that washed ashore.)


One of Neruda’s writing spaces. Louis Poirot, 1990.

“Ode to a Bar of Soap” from Pablo Neruda’s Odes to Common Things (translated into English by Ken Krabbenhoft, Bulfinch Press)

When I pick up
a bar
of soap
to take a closer look,
its powerful aroma
astounds me :
O fragrance,
I don’t know
where you come from,
– what
is your home town?
Did my cousin send you
or did you come from clean clothes
and the hands that washed them,
splotchy from the cold basin?
Did you come from those
I remember so well,
from the amaranth’s
from green plums
clinging to a branch?
Have you come from the playing field
and a quick swim
beneath the
Is yours the aroma of thickets
or of young love or birthday
cakes? Or is yours the smell
of a dampened heart?
What is it that you bring
to my nose
so early
every day,
bar of soap,
before I climb into my morning
and go into the streets
among men weighed down
with goods?
What is this smell of people,
a faint smell,
of petticoat
the honey of woodland girls?
Or is it
the old
air of a
the heavy white fabric
a peasant holds in his hands,
of molasses,
or the red carnation
that lay on my aunt’s
like a lightning-bolt of red,
like a red arrow?
Do I detect
your pungent
in cut-rate
dry goods and unforgettable
cologne, in barbershops
and the clean countryside,
in sweet water?
This is what
you are,
soap : you are pure delight,
the passing fragrance
that slithers
and sinks like a
blind fish
to the bottom of the bathtub.

The Prompt: Read “Ode to a Bar of Soap” to see how Neruda uses colors, animals, weather, and so on for his metaphors and similes—how he wasn’t afraid to whirl into hyperbole, and how we go with him into a giddy appreciation for what’s right in front of us. Now, selecting a particular smell, jot down notes. You may use the following categories as a guide:

music or sound
places on Earth

If you like, fold your notebook paper into lengthwise thirds to keep your ode narrow. (Neruda wrote his to fit within a newspaper column so that his editor-friend wouldn’t mess with his line breaks). Finally, use all of your notes in your poem of praise.


Neruda in Capri, Italy. Associated Press, 1952.

Thank you, Sierra and Laura!

In conjunction with Copper Canyon Press, Forrest Gander and friends will be presenting a bilingual book launch for Then Come Back: The Lost Neruda, translations of Neruda’s never-before-seen poems, tonight at McCaw Hall. 

Posted in Literary Arts Series