Calling the Elders: Writing Prompts

Calling the Elders:

A Queer and Trans Writing Workshop


Using a model of poetry workshops, Calling the Elders creates opportunities for UC Berkeley’s QT students, faculty, and staff to use creative writing to build community, articulate needs, and collaboratively build an inclusive and ambitious vision of support. The writing workshops center around poems and prompts offered by queer and trans poets or inspired by work they have put out into the world. We will be posting the writing prompt after each meeting for those who might not have been able to attend.

The spring workshops will be held weekly on Thursdays from 5 – 7pm in Dwinelle Annex Rm 126. (Please note: Dwinelle Annex is located behind Dwinelle Hall, location link on our About page). While Berkeley is online due to the surge in the pandemic, the workshop will be held on Zoom at

Calling the Elders is developed and run by Julia McKeown (they/them), Graduate Equity Director of the Queer Alliance Resource Center, and co-sponsored by the Arts Research Center and the Graduate Assembly’s Sexual Orientation and Gender Advocacy (SOGAGA) project. For more information, please contact Julia at

Happy writing!

WEEK 1: Ollie Schminkey

This prompt is from Ollie Schminkey’s #WritingPromptWednesday posting on their Instagram account, @ollieschminkey.


#1. Brainstorm (1 min, no stopping) a list of recent times you have crossed the street.

#2. Brainstorm (1 min) a list of thrift stores near you.

#3. Brainstorm (1 min) a list of emotions.

Title your poem, “I Buy My {insert Emotion} Secondhand at {insert Thrift Store}.” Let your title guide the content of your poem, and include at least 3 vignettes of you crossing the street.

Have fun, and don’t be afraid to be bad!

Ollie Schminkey is a non-binary transgender poet/musician/artist living in St. Paul, MN. They facilitate, direct, coach, and host many organizations, including a weekly writing workshop called Well-Placed Commas, which serves primarily queer and trans writers. They’ve performed poems in 18 states, and their work has been featured everywhere from THEM to Upworthy. When they’re not writing and performing poetry, they spend their time making creepy+cute pottery under the name Sick Kitty Ceramics. They are the author of three chapbooks, as well as the full-length collection Dead Dad Jokes (Button Poetry). You can find them touring nationally, making music, or playing with their cat Pete, who is always trying to eat things he shouldn’t.

WEEK 2: Fatimah Asghar

This prompt is inspired by Fatimah Ashgar’s work, Finding the Hamman, which can be found on the Poetry Foundation website here.


In her foreword to the book Halal If You Hear Me, Fatimah Asghar talks about “the Salon” as a space of both safety and magic and her own poetics as “haraam auntie poetics” which strive to recreate “the Hammam”; “where we can come in our real, naked skin, sit in the water, and talk openly”.

-Take 1 minute to brainstorm a list of physical spaces that feel like this kind of space for you

-Take 1 minute and under each of those physical spaces write down at least five objects contained within them

-Choose one of the physical spaces you brainstormed (whichever calls to you the most) and write a poem about that space making sure to include all the objects you listed

-Or pick one of those objects and write about the space from it’s perspective

Fatimah Asghar is a poet, filmmaker, educator and performer. Her work has appeared in many journals, including POETRY Magazine, Gulf Coast, BuzzFeed Reader, The Margins, The Offing, Academy of American Poets and many others. Her work has been featured on news outlets like PBS, NPR, Time, Teen Vogue, Huffington Post, and others. In 2011 she created a spoken word poetry group in Bosnia and Herzegovina called REFLEKS while on a Fulbright studying theater in post-genocidal countries. She is a member of the Dark Noise Collective, a 2017 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship recipient and a Kundiman Fellow. Her chapbook After came out on Yes Yes Books fall 2015. She is the writer and co-creator of Brown Girls, an Emmy-nominated web series that highlights friendships between women of color and the writer of If They Come For Us (One World, August 2018), a collection of poems that explores the legacy of Partition and orphan-hood. Along with Safia Elhillo, she is the editor of Halal If You Hear Me (Haymarket 2019), an anthology that celebrates Muslim writers who are also women, queer, gender nonconforming and/or trans.

WEEK 3: Xandria Phillips

This prompt is inspired by Xandria Phillips’s work Want Could Kill Me on the website, here.


This poem, although laid out with lots of space in between words and stanzas, is so rich. Inviting us to pause and luxuriate in the imagery it conjures up and the sensations it asks us to imagine. It is also an Address in both its dedication and the speaker’s reaching for the “you”. With this in mind…

-Take 1 minute to brainstorm a list of textures/materials. Feel free to branch out into colors and other adjectives as well, especially ones that involve a concrete sensation (aka something you can feel).

-Take 1 minute to brainstorm a list of nouns. Again it may be better to start with objects (things you can hold in your hand/touch) but it could also be fun to experiment with proper nouns.

-Now take a minute to mash these two lists together trying out different combinations of list one and list two until you find five combinations you really like/are excited about.

*Alternatively, hand your list to a partner and have them connect words from the two lists at random/in ways that seem interesting to them and then choose five combinations from the ones they’ve made for you.

-Now think about someone important to you, someone you would want to dedicate or give this poem to and with them in mind start writing! A good place to start might be…”I want to buy you or I want to give you…”

Xandria Phillips is a poet and visual artist from rural Ohio. The recipient of a Whiting Award, Lambda Literary Award, and the Judith A. Markowitz award for emerging writers, Xandria is the author of Hull (Nightboat Books 2019) and Reasons for Smoking, which won the 2016 Seattle Review chapbook contest judged by Claudia Rankine. They have received fellowships from Brown University, Callaloo, Cave Canem, the Conversation Literary Festival, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the Sewanee Writers Conference, and most recently, the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics. Xandria’s poetry is featured in Berlin Quarterly Review, Bomb Magazine, Crazyhorse, Gulf Coast,, and Virginia Quarterly Review. Their paintings have been featured in Kenyon Review, the Poetry Project, the cover of American Poets Magazine, and an amfm exhibition at the silver room in Chicago.

WEEK 4: Paul Tran

This prompt is inspired by Paul Tran’s poem Bioluminescence, which can be found on The New Yorker website, here.


Similar to the bottom of the ocean, there are spaces in our world that seem mysterious, unfathomable, unknowable, or liminal/in between. Take 2 minutes and brainstorm a list of these such places (think about sensations, what places are too hot for you to explore, what things are too small for you to see, what is difficult to “prove”, what is one of your favorite mysteries…).

-Whether understandable or not, real or imaginary or somewhere in between, all of these spaces are populated by something(s). Take 2 minutes to jot down at least two/three creatures/beings/vibes that would live/be in each of these spaces.

-Now pick one of these “places” and one of these beings and write about that place from their/your perspective beginning with the line “I did what I had to do”. (Perhaps consider one of the questions the poem seems to be answering; in order to live in such a place what kind of a thing would you have to be? What would you have to do?).

Paul Tran is a Visiting Faculty in Poetry at Pacific University MFA in Writing and a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University. A recipient of the Ruth Lilly & Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and a Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Prize, their work appears in The New Yorker, The Nation, Best American Poetry, and elsewhere. Paul earned their B.A. in history from Brown University and M.F.A. in poetry from Washington University in St. Louis, where they won the Howard Nemerov Prize, Dorothy Negri Prize, and Norma Lowry Memorial Award. As the Chancellor’s Graduate Fellow (2017-19) and Senior Poetry Fellow (2019-20) in the Writing Program, and as Faculty in Poetry (2020-Present) in the Summer Writers Institute, Paul has taught the introductory, intermediate, and advanced poetry workshops at WashU. From 2013-18, Paul coached the poetry slam teams at Brown University, Barnard College & Columbia University, and Washington University in St. Louis. Paul was the first Asian American since 1993—and first transgender poet ever—to win the Nuyorican Poets Café Grand Slam, placing top 10 at the Individual World Poetry Slam and top 2 at the National Poetry Slam. A two-time winner of the Rustbelt Poetry Slam, Paul has served as Poet-in-Residence at Urban Word NYC and head poetry slam coach at Urban Arts Alliance in St. Louis, which won the Brave New Voices Grand Slam Championship in 2019.” For more of their bio, writings, and contact info visit