Passwords for this Moment


New Orleans poet Nikki Mayeux shares daily art prompts to support the essential activity of creation

When quarantine started, I knew I wanted to create a daily artistic practice in the way that you know you should probably drink some water before heading out to Krewe du Vieux. It’s a wise way to care for your future stupidity. And my future stupidity during quarantine, I was sure, was going to be not writing a single thing. Despite my best efforts and a steady diet of pleasure-positive internet memes, I retain a deep Puritanicalism about art that has only galvanized since becoming a parent. I allow myself a little writing time after all the chores are done, as a treat. There is no task so menial that I won’t prioritize it over art. No end to the ways I will deny myself the thing that I love.

However, I absolutely love creative prompts. I love cycles and trails of artistic inspiration–homage on homage on homage, like electricity traveling from carpet to fingertip to doorknob. Art prompts, writing workshops, and other types of community + commitment seem to be able to appease my inner worker bee enough to access the buzzing inside. I knew that, confined to my own house indefinitely, I could easily eradicate my own art. I could label it Non-Essential, and drown in Windex and homeschooling worksheets. Passwords, a daily one-word art prompt that I share every morning on my Instagram and respond to every night, has kept my writing, and so in some sense, me, alive.

By sharing the prompts on my social media, I opened up the project, which I deliberately called an “invitation” instead of a “challenge,” to anyone who wanted to participate. Since then, a small and beautiful group of people have submitted their art each day, and through this simple exercise, we have stoked each other’s fires with what we’ve had on hand. We’ve left offerings on one another’s porch, traded a word for a poem, a poem for a photograph, a photograph for a song. For me, Passwords has been mutual aid for the essential activity of creation, and I say that with all the unflinching seriousness that pre-coronavirus Nikki could have never mustered.

Here are a few of my favorite pieces from Passwords so far…

Follow Nikki at @nikki.mayeux to get your daily prompt. Select contributions will be published here for a spell


A very old man said:

When I was a child, once,
an ice cream truck hit the fire hydrant in
my neighborhood. The kids spilled out of the
houses like fire ants, the water sprayed thirty feet
In the air. You could see rainbows suspended in
the sky and there was no reason then to think
it wasn’t magic. The parents ran after them,
calling them back, pleading, thinking of wet clothes and
nuisance and other pointless things, but
the kids did not listen. The driver, for reasons his and
his alone, began giving all the inventory away,
shoving fudge bars
and push pops
and snow cones
by the dozen into the trembling small hands who
could not believe such abundance, who sat
on the curb glutting themselves
on every sweet solid thing before it
melted, who wailed and threw rocks at the fireman
when he came to shut
the water off.


Rembrandt Tulips

did you know that many of the ornamental features of our favorite plants–variegated leaves, vibrant colors, a pleasant and
dramatic curl–are the result of viral

in 17th century Holland, tulip growers deliberately infected healthy
flowers with the virus that would transform them into
the “Rembrandt tulips” so prized by the Dutch masters for their
contrast, their feverish pigment. as time
went on, they were genetically modified  to emulate the symptoms
without the sickness.

in Victorian Europe, as tuberculosis
ravaged a generation of childless poets in their prime,
women began playing to the ideal of the
consumptive with
emaciated corset waists, citrus juice in the eyes,

in Victorian Europe, as tuberculosis
ravaged a generation of childless poets in their prime,
women began playing to the ideal of the
consumptive with
emaciated corset waists, citrus juice in the eyes,
arsenic wafers nibbled from coat pockets.

this isn’t a poem about making the best of bad things
it’s a poem
about living with complexity,
making it your strange and intricate bedfellow
and if necessary, your bitch.
even if it kills you.

(especially if it kills you)

Day 12: ROOM

My three year old has a certain laugh–or maybe just a certain degree of laughter–that I only ever hear when he is hiding. Under the blankets in his bedroom, while I stomp and stomp and stomp and say WHERE ON EARTH COULD HE BE?, a laugh like a clear bell, like a glitter thrown skyward.

Our whole lives, we never get tired of being found by the ones we love.

Day 15: EMERGE

The Cicadas Humbly But Officially Request to Be Excluded From Our Poetic Metaphors

i don’t know why they chose me to deliver their edict
it could have been simply that I was there at the right time
walking past the live oak tree on my way home, mind empty as a sieve–
they flooded up from the ground in their terrible numbers, pleading.
i told them I would do my best; they were very polite.

the cicadas do hereby require us to cease their unconsenting
involvement in our  symbolism, including but not limited to:
Change, Rebirth, Cycles, Transformation, Immortality, Steadfastness, Ecstasy, Death.

they understand this may come as a shock,
and they are happy to offer
a thirty-day phase out period–an interim that, to them, seems reasonable
for us to scrub their names from our poems,
remove their moltings from our altars,
and trade in our art market jewelry
without undue stress, either financial or mental.

yes, they know it’s tempting.

they know the significance of thirteen in our numerologies,
know our obsession with things that remain beyond view, even moreso
with things that change.
and the exoskeletons! they do leave them so alluringly intact,
so ripe for our machinations. but,
and here they paused, lowering their voices to a more somber hum,

the cicadas implore us to ask ourselves,
is that the type of people we wish to be?
the type that says they were asking for it?
the type that wrests, and takes, and feels sainted in the taking?

the cicadas are taking back their power.
and although they wish this conversation to remain amicable
(we are friends, and such old ones, after all)
they will not waiver; they trust we wouldn’t ask them to.
from now, they need us to know, they will be deciding
what they mean.

and here they paused, seeming to have reached the end
of what they had rehearsed among themselves to say.
the translucent shells even now beginning to pull
from their bodies, cells unanchoring from cells,
becoming and becoming and becoming
and be com ing and b e c o m i n g

a   n  d        b     e    c      o      m       i        n     g . .  .

Day 24: COUNT


A ganglion cyst used to be called
a bible bump
because you would treat it by flattening
your hand on a table
and smashing it with the largest
(more often, the only)
book in the household.

I’ve counted to three
and brought it down on my own wrist
many times, and it’s funny how
you learn to hate
the thing that won’t die
instead of
the killing  tool.