Welcome back to POEMHACK! This column looks at poems that have been rejected for publication, and tries to figure out why they’re not working. I welcome reader-submitted poems; deets are at the bottom of the post.
Original Poet writes:
This one has been rejected by quite a few journals, and certainly it’s not everyone’s cup of tea: it’s weird. It’s also one of my favorites, though it’s unlike any of the poems I’ve published (including poems from the same submitted batch). To me, it’s a maximum-fun extension of my most motor-mouthed, language-y, Freud-bothering tendencies.
The first draft was autowritten prose, but it’s been so revised that only the colors and brain chemicals remain. It sat for a few months and I decided it was satisfactory as-is, plus there wasn’t an obvious way forward. Let me admit, however, that murdering darlings is not easy for me, absent an accomplice.
I’m into so much about the language of this poem. “…a shade of byzantium” “tongue-pink inside of my dress” “lantern head sway” “opioid receptors heavy as Jupiter”…. So into it! What’s “gel pigmented strata”? I don’t care I don’t know! I’m sitting here thinking about different colors of weird gel glistening in the overexposed moonlight…, and that, my friend, is how I like spending time. The blending of realities in metaphor, of supersaturated feelings, words (“strobe strobe strobe strobe”) breaking through the grammar… And most of the associations are distant enough to feel new, and still with enough synapses between them to stay real.
And the prismatic imagery is in line with the subject matter – amphetamines – which – and this is total personal bias here – is a way excellent subject for a poem.
What about Shampoo? Otoliths? WTF PWM? There’s plenty of poets and editors who are primarily interested in surprising uses of language; regardless of what you end up doing with this poem, if you’re not already plugged into that scene, get.
What’s not working
The main problem with the poem is that there’s too much surface-level difficulty for all the enjoyable stuff to actually be enjoyed. I’m spending time parsing where I am in the sentences, wading through a dozen new-but-not-killer images, and wondering about why “Jupiter” is important enough to warrant a capital letter and “byzantium” ain’t, and I could be getting killed. Surface-level difficulty can certainly be a fine thing – it’s often an effect of a poem’s ornamentation (Dream Songs, for instance), and many great poets do their real work on or near the surface – but this poem’s going for pleasure, and this difficulty is not the pleasure here.
Part of why it’s hard to get the payoff is everything is pointing in the same direction. The poem’s subject is a heightened experience, the imagery and the grammar are both similarly heightened, the long lines are jam-packed, etc. etc. “PH: Concussed” had a similar problem. But in this case, more than feeling like the poem thinks I’m maybe a little stupid, without a conflicting source of tension to force me into the poem, I’m left to get into it or not.
So, because I’m already into this kind of thing, I’m into it. I’m delighted. And yet I find myself having the same heightened experience, being delighted in the same way, all the way through; it doesn’t change. The stanzas, even the long lines are contributing to this stasis. While it would be pretty effing fantastic to experience such a solid and prolonged state on speed, even on feel-good drugs this would be totally antithetical to desire. And, thankfully or not, no drug is so constant.
I’ve heard it enough times to feel it must be some kind of MFA-school adage (anyone know the source?) but, “Okay, write about drugs, but don’t write like you’re on drugs” is, if not straight up BS, a little broad. Sometimes, yes, person on hour 2 of their cocaine-fueled “Let’s All Examine How Great I Am” talk can get a little grating, but even people who would never do drugs think they’re a little fascinating, and as far as surrogates for the drug experience go, whacked-out writing is up there with Enter the Void. The challenge when writing about drugs (or on drugs) is remembering that you’re in some way talking to people who don’t know what they’re like, and maybe consciously hate them.
Most of your readers are not going to be importing their experience into your poem, probably because unless you’re speaking in the broadest terms (see: all country songs), they haven’t had that experience. Give them an access point. Hold their hand. Pretend you don’t see them shiver, but keep in mind they’re a little outside their comfort zone.
What I’d do
Original Poet has no problem finding cool words and associations, so I just delineated the whole thing and started dragging stuff around, looking for pleasing new combinations. After I had some phrases I liked, I started ordering them in a way that seems to build momentum. The increasing line and sentence lengths are a cheap and dirty way to do this, but it’s the repetition of “dear”s that are doing the real work. To add some further structure, I held off on explicitly introducing the first person until about halfway through the poem, where the “my” in stanza 2 line 3 further highlights my favorite of OP’s phrases. I doubt too many people would call this “accessible,” but I do think most would agree it’s a bit more “approachable.”
That the poem doesn’t directly address drugs anymore doesn’t mean they’re not there. Certainly they are, but working now as drugs work best: behind the scenes.
As more general advice, I think OP should focus now on the larger systems at play in poems; OP’s language is great. You’ve got that skill. You can write a thing totally proving that. Now, how to murder a reader?
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 (email@example.com) 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.