Write About Sickness, a Poetry Prompt from Fred Marchant's Suffolk Workshop

Workshops with Fred always enlighten me. They enliven my creativity. Every poem I start in his workshops gets me on a writing roll, and I’ll post up on r/warriorwriters a revision of the poem that I started at his workshop last Wednesday. His topic for Warrior Writers last week was sickness.

“All of us have been touched in some way or another by illness,” he said. “Whether it’s yourself, or a friend, or a family member, or all of those, we all are touched by illness at some point in our lives.”

A very small group of us met at the Suffolk Poetry Center in a back corner of the upper floor of the library, that rainy evening, kicking off our fall workshop series. To inspire us to create some new work, he passed out a sheaf of poems: Bess, by William E. Stafford; The Mistress Speaks, by Cathy Strisek; What Does Your Seeing Want?, by Joan Houlihan; Hospital Writing Workshop, by Rafael Campo; 1994, by Lucille Clifton;  Cachexia and Afternoon, by Max Ritvo. I won’t post all of those poems here, but one that particularly captured my attention, one that’s invaded my thoughts in the week since, anticipates a poet’s death:


By Max Ritvo

When I was about to die
my body lit up
like when I leave my house
without my wallet.

What am I missing? I ask
patting my chest

and I am missing everything living
that won’t come with me
into this sunny afternoon

—my body lights up for life
like all the wishes being granted in a fountain
at the same instant—
all the coins burning the fountain dry—

and I give my breath
to a small bird-shaped pipe.

In the distance, behind several voices
haggling, I hear a sound like heads
clicking together. Like a game of pool,
played with people by machines.


Ritvo had Ewing’s sarcoma for eight years before the cancer took him when he was 25 years old. In that time premiere poetry journals published his work, he got an MFA, and his book of poems, Four Reincarnations, published just last year.

The poetry in Four Reincarnation dwells less on the tedious melancholia of cancer treatments, and lives instead in the moment mixing a tableau of suffering with bright, fresh, unexpected snippets of life and excitement.

Writing about illness in the library after Fred told us a little about Ritvo, I thought of all the overwrought, breathless poetry and diaries I wrote on the boat. Now, looking back, I feel nostalgic for those carefree days, when I didn’t have to think about anything much more than eating, working, exercising and getting sleep. In theory, it was a blissful time. In practice, of course, it was a little tough to ignore the bombs, and not to wonder where they were going, and how exactly bombing a foreign city was going to help prevent another terrorist attack.

Looking back down those muddy waters of doubt and discontent, the more unsavory elements of my character often spring forth. Something about Fred’s prompt last week, maybe the poems he read with us, got me focused on the material reality of my experience on the boat. I remember being sick a lot: the flu, hives, pink eye. It was tough to stay clean, despite the daily antiseptic happy hour.

Reading poetry taught me to escape from my thoughts, and enter a moment, to observe the material reality around me. My favorite poems ground themselves in truth, and it’s hard to grasp reality when stuck in a personal perspective. So, I encourage you, if you try out this prompt, describe the physicality more than the grievances involved in your struggle with the quantifiable but unaccountable devils of disease and disability. What wisdom do we find in illness?

Take 30 minutes to just write about a real experience of sickness. It can be about your sickness. It can be about someone else’s sickness. Just focus on your memories for awhile.

You can thank Fred Marchant for the prompt by reading his latest book: Said Not Said.

Writing Prompt, PoetryCaleb SN