June 25, 2012  |  Events & Programs
Poetry Challenges in the Spirit of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems

From left: Frank O’Hara, photo: Kenward Elmslie; Poet Stefania Heim reads her favorite O’Hara lunch poems in MoMA’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden

On June 8 and 15, poet-scholars Stefania Heim and Wayne Koestenbaum shared their favorite “lunch poems” by the beloved poet Frank O’Hara—who worked on and off at MoMA from 1951 to 1966—in the Museum’s Sculpture Garden at lunchtime. They effortlessly elicited O’Hara’s humor, earnestness, and timelessness, while also giving the public the chance to experience what his creative process might have looked and felt like.

Both Heim and Koestenbaum pose a challenge to all of you: go out onto the streets of New York and write your own lunch poems according to their prompts and guidelines. So get moving, explore the city, put it down on paper, and send what you’ve come up with to us at [email protected]. Our favorites will be posted here on June 29.

Stefania Heim’s Challenge:


(Please use as many of these as possible in constructing your lunch poem)

  1. A description of the contents of your pocket or bag
  2. One food item you or someone you see is eating
  3. One foreign phrase, place name, or the name of a foreign head of state
  4. One instance of personification
  5. The current day and time (ideally this should interrupt other action in the poem)
  6. The weather and your opinion about it
  7. One sentence you hear someone say
  8. One existential question
  9. A comparison of someone you see to a famous person
  10. One thing you wish you were doing
  11. One literary reference
  12. Your current attitude toward love

Wayne Koestenbaum’s Challenge:


  1. Go into a store where you would never buy anything (because you can’t afford it, because you don’t wear women’s clothes, because you hate candy and toys), and write a poem about the merchandise—maybe just a list of it.
  2. Stand on the steps of a church or temple or mosque and make an inventory poem of what the people walking in and out are wearing.
  3. Ride the subway and get off at a stop you’ve never gotten off at. Write a poem whose title is that subway stop. In the poem, include all the reasons you’ve never gotten off here.
  4. Stand in front of a painting in MoMA for 15 minutes and write a poem that includes all the phrases you overhear from fellow museum-goers. The title of your poem should be the name of the painting; don’t describe the painting.
  5. Take an elevator in a building. Not your usual elevator. Not your usual building. Write a very quick poem while in the elevator. Get out of the elevator when you’re finished with the poem. Mention the name and function of the building and, if you feel like it, some of the businesses in the building. (If there are businesses.)
  6. Take a walk on your lunch hour and make a list of all the trees you see, identifying each tree (“the birch tree in front of the Clearview Cinema where Dark Horse is playing at 5:10”).
  7. Find a seat in a public place. Sit down for 10 minutes. Describe or annotate or list some of the noises you hear—not words, just noises.
  8. Strike up a conversation (however brief) with a stranger. Afterward, write down the conversation in as much detail as you wish. Include a description of this stranger and indicate why you chose this specific stranger.
  9. Find a seat in a public place and write down the first memory that comes into your mind, especially if the memory is stupid or embarrassing. After you’ve written down the memory, describe where you are seated. Then describe the next place you’re headed. Then stand up and go to your next destination.
  10. Stand up in a public place where you can find a surface to lean on. Write down the 10 people you’d most like to see today, in no particular order. Give a brief reason for why you’d like to see each of them. Then mention exactly where you are standing.
  11. Sit down somewhere and have a drink or a cup of coffee. In the vicinity (within your range of vision) find three people whom you’d like to meet or whom you find attractive or interesting. Say why. If you can only find one person you find attractive or interesting, that’s OK. If you find none, that’s OK, but speculate why there aren’t any attractive or interesting people around you right now.
  12. Find a magazine or newspaper. (Ideally, don’t pay for it.) Write down a few headlines or stray phrases. Write a short poem, very quickly, using these phrases, and little else.
  13. Take a five-minute walk and write down the names of signs and any other words you see around you. Take another 10 minutes and put these names and words into a poem.
  14. Go into a pharmacy (Duane Reade, whatever). Choose a specific kind of product. (Shampoo.) Write down 14 varieties of it. Write a 14-line poem, each line containing one of the varieties, or at least one word from the name of the variety. Now you’ve written a sonnet.
  15. Sit in MoMA’s Sculpture Garden. Write down everything you’ve done today, starting from the moment you woke up. Be quick. Let the last line or sentence of the poem include the art work you’re seated nearest to and the exact time. (12:10.)
  16. Describe what you’re wearing. Why did you choose these clothes? Which item do you like most? What would you rather be wearing? If you could change one item, which would it be?
  17. What did you have for lunch?  What do you want to have for lunch?
  18. Take a walk. While walking, keep a list of whatever music you hear—tunes in your head, sound systems in stores, songs on car radios. Write a quick poem that includes these tunes.