Hey y’all, welcome to another POEMHACK! I am IN NEED of some more poems to look at! If you’re wondering, “Should I send Donald a poem?” the answer is yes! If you’re wondering, “Is Donald gonna tear my poem up and make me feel like shit for a couple days?” the answer is probably not! Unless you write an “Ode to Hitler” or an “Ode to Stalin” or something!*
This poem has gone through several drafts and 15 or so journal rejections over the past 3 years. I used to like this poem, but it’s rejection has made me not enjoy it at all anymore and the revisions most likely killed any original spark it had going for it, though at least the overbearing anaphora is gone.
I wrote the first draft of this poem at a generative workshop with Ellen Bass. When we shared our work, I read this poem and another. There was an editor of a lit journal there, and afterwards she asked me to publish the poem. I said that it wasn’t ready, that I’d like to let a poem sit for a few months before sending it out. Six months later, I’d lost her contact info, so I was sending it out into the world blindly. Nothing but rejections even from journals who accepted other poems in the same packet.
On first glance, it’s difficult to see why this poem wouldn’t get picked up in a few, much less 15 tries.
The light, shuffling rhythm alone is more than I can find in many poems published in many fine journals. Those last three lines of the second stanza, for instance, have an internal tug of war that draws the payoff-image (“and kiss her like it’s a language”) out from the hesitancy of the echoing of “She’s…she…touched…she….touching.” And it’s in that image that the expectation of regular iambs that “She FINDS | it TOUCH | ing AS | you SAY” imparts gets screwed a little. “it’s oKAY, | and KISS | her like | IT’S a | LANguage.” This added speed – unstressed syllables go quickly! – propels us into the next stanza, which is rhythmically a lot rockier, in keeping with its content. There’s moves like this throughout the poem.
For me, the other standout element here is how the imperative voice is used. Getting commanded to “Find a used coffee maker; make coffee” is puzzling in a way that draws me into the poem; maybe it’s just I’ve never gotten direction to do that before? Maybe because, like, I was gonna do that anyway? In any case, the imperativeness kinda phases out twice in the poem, once when the barista becomes the subject, in effect passing the reader’s attention onto her for the bottom half of that second stanza, and once, sorta, at the very end. “Let her love you” is a command, but by two lines later when the bird is down in that sagebrush, both the characters and the speaker have disappeared
These moves are interesting in themselves, but that the rhythm keeps me on my toes, and that I’m kind of seduced away from the imperative (into her, and into an image of a bluebird, presumably far away from the town) show the poet using these moves for effect, not just showing off.
What doesn’t work:
There are three reasons nobody has put themselves on the line for “Scavenger Hunt” around the editorial table:
First, there’s at least one too many or at least three too few things trying to happen. There’s a scavenger hunt, there’s creepin’ on a barista, there’s love, there’s a reference to sexual abuse, there’s loss, there’s a pastoral scene…. I just don’t get how most of these things go together.
Who’s put me on this scavenger hunt, and for what purpose? What does finding things around town have to do with getting with the coffeeshop girl? What do either of those things have to do with that bird? If they’re not meant to explicitly have all that much to do with each other, why’s there not so much more?
With such kinetic technique, a wider scope or a quicker step through image and thought would turn out killer. As it stands, the move into the bluebird’s descent doesn’t resonate, but references. See: “Put a Bird on It”
Second, we’ve all already had this lost love. Whether it happens in the poem for real or only in the character’s caffeine trip, a sweet affair with someone who ain’t able to love him/herself is a special time in all our lives that happened about when we learned to take a glass of water to bed with us after a night of drinking. Falling in love with the barista happened before we got our fake IDs. If we’re going to hear about it again, it’s got to be a crazy or brutal or particularly bittersweet experience.
“Scavenger Hunt” is leaning on the inherent tragedy of love lost, without giving us time with the characters to care, or a situation that isn’t already too familiar.
Third, and probably the actual reason this hasn’t gotten picked up: the characterization of the girl is male-gazed. Attempting to keep the poem efficient, lines like “tell her she’s the one” and “She’s had a hard life; she was touched” come off as placeholders for the real deal. They’re not, “You’re the One,” and “She says she can forgive her father everything but his hands,” which address her like a full human, but thoughts fully processed by the presumably male character, slightly fogged with mythology and love.
There’s an irony about the dude – that this relationship is over and done with implies lessons have been learned – but not enough, and not brutally enough to complicate his simplified view of the woman.
Because the poem is technically sound, my markup is just some kinda-out-there associations; ideas to knock around with what’s already there. If this were my poem, I’d either dig deeper into the story and characters and let it become a narrative, or I’d go hyperreal on it, splicing in things the characters saw on TV together, parties they attended, things happening in the world at large, and what drifted out of the neighbors’ window and into theirs. As it stands, the text is too complete to mess too much with, and the song that sparked the original has been paved over.
Remember, kids: Perfection is DEATH.
Props to Anders Thomas and Part Everything for winning the first ever POEMHACK contest! A $20 gift card is headed your way, Anders, once you send me your address, and a copy of my book Eyelid Lick is headed to you, P.E., once you send me yours!
More contests to come once I can afford them / once I find some sponsors!
If you’d like me to take a look at a poem of yours that’s getting no love but you don’t know why, please send it to me (firstname.lastname@example.org) with the subject “POEMHACK”. By doing so you acknowledge that it’s your own unpublished work, that you give me the right to post it here and do whatever I like to it, and that I am just a dude talking about one poem of yours, not your entire career or potential as a poet! Any poems I choose to write about will be posted anonymously, but feel free to out yourself in the comments.
*note: If you’ve got a steamy “Epithalamion to Hitler and Stalin and Andrew Jackson and the Better Part of a Horse Carcass” I am probably going to love it.