first date, by David F. Shultz

In this post I’ll talk about a creepy poem I wrote called ‘first date’. This poem was published in The Literary Hatchet, issue #18. The Literary Hatchet is available as pdf for free, so I recommend downloading a copy and/or buying a paperback issue for $14.00.

Anyway, I’ll show you the poem first, and then say some things about what I was trying to do when I wrote it:

first date
by David F. Shultz

first date
always an adventure
blind date
I can see
you’re a tad cold.
cold feet?
I’ve got shivers
in the spine
it’s a fine thing
that I’ve got
thick skin
now where to begin
our night?

empty stomach?
(that calls for analysis)
heart on your sleeve?
(or in the vicinity)
can I pick your brain?
(a little prodding will suffice)

but first
there’s the meat
silver platter
take the knife
carve carefully
after that
I’ll find out all
about you
I always do
on first dates
it just takes

This poem is disguised as a “first date”. Or rather, it is a “first date” in the mind of the demented speaker, who is performing on autopsy, an activity that he finds particularly thrilling.

The first stanza is meant to create a subtle awkward note. It’s supposed to give the impression of an overeager person on a date, perhaps off-putting, repeating and stumbling over their words, making awkward and cliche comments, variously either too probing or too self-centered.

You might notice already by this point the body-metaphors piling up, “thick skin” and “cold feet” and “shivers in the spine”. These body metaphors continue in the next stanza with “empty stomach” and so on. The speaker really has bodies on his mind.

The second stanza, besides piling on the body metaphors, is also meant to introduce a more clinical tone. It’s phrased as a procedural question-and-response, like checking items off a list. We also see the introduction of polysyllabic words capping off every second line -“analysis”, “vicinity”, “suffice”- in a poem that has mostly consisted of monosyllables. Each of those words contains an ‘s’ sound, which I hoped would create an insidious, snake-like edge.

In the final stanza the “meat/slab” arrives, which is really the body about to be autopsied. Humans being compared to meat is always unsettling (and maybe especially when there is a demented human standing over them with a knife).

I want to focus in particular on what I was trying to do with the final word of the poem: “precision”. The entire poem was building up to this word, and this moment in the poem. This is the moment that our demented speaker has been waiting for. I tried to do several things to make this word “pop”.

  • content: “precision” is a strange word to cap off the speaker’s thought about what it takes to learn about someone, and this odd word choice might signal that something interesting is happening
  • rhyme: the previous four lines established a rhyming structure that is broken “you/do” and “dates/takes”
  • number of words per line: 2 or 3 words in the previous 4 lines, down to 1
  • length of words: 1 or 2 syllable words in the previous 4 lines, up to 3
  • echoing second stanza: “precision” echoes the clinical words used in the second stanza -“analysis”, “vicinity”, “suffice”- including the ‘s’ sound

The reason I tried so hard to make this word pop was because it is the central moment that the poem -and the speaker- has been building to: this is the scalpel making an incision. I hoped to convey this incision without mentioning it directly, by way of resemblance with “precision”, by drawing attention to the final line (in the various ways itemized above), and by talking about a knife and meat and carving carefully.

As to whether any of those techniques worked, that judgment has to be left to the reader, of course. But either way, I thought some people might be interested in what was going through my mind as I was building this poem.

I hope you liked the poem and that you found my thoughts on it interesting!

Also, please support the publisher of the poem, The Literary Hatchet, by checking out the website and downloading (free!) and/or purchasing a copy of issue #18, in which this poem appears.




Goodnight – by David F. Shultz

In this post, I want to take a look at a poem that I wrote, called ‘Goodnight’. This poem was published in Polar Borealis magazine, issue #4. (Polar Borealis is a Canadian speculative fiction magazine that is available for free; if you’re not familiar with it, you should check it out).

Here’s the poem:

She looks at me
with big brown eyes
Remember, Daddy,
the time we died?

I tuck her in.
She shuts her eyes.
I say goodnight.
She says goodbye.

No, sweetie,
we say goodnight.
But, daddy, it’s
goodbye this time.

I pull up the covers.
She says from her bed,
remember the men
that cut off our heads?

when you were with mommy,
in the village shop,
and they came with swords?
Then she mimes the chop.

I shush her quiet,
ask her to sleep,
hoping she stops
her disquieting peeps.

She’s almost sleeping,
and with a sigh her
tired voice whispers,
we died in a fire

last time, daddy.
What do you mean?
Don’t you remember
the burning dream?

If we should die
before we wake,
I think she will
remember why

This is a poem about a child saying creepy things while being tucked in, as children sometimes do. There is an ambiguity about whether there might be some truth to this child’s foreboding words. I was hoping to generate some feelings of unease.

There are a lot of short lines, small words, and simple, end-stopped rhymes. Normally I would want to avoid this kind of poem because, for my taste, it tends to impart a childish, nursery rhyme flavor. But that was the right tone for this poem, which is really about a child going to bed. I think using simple, end-stopped rhymes works well with this subject matter. It also provides a nice ironic contrast to the creepy feeling I am trying to develop.

The rhyme scheme is pretty straightforward: ABCB. Except for the last stanza, which switches to ABCA. I did this because ABCB feels like it is rolling forward, whereas the closed form of ABCA stops the momentum. I wanted that feeling of stopped momentum to close the poem off, and to complement the lingering thought of death. I was also hoping that the sudden switch in rhyme scheme would signal some change in the father’s mindset, like the child’s words had really gotten to him. (Whether any of those things worked is really the reader’s call, of course).

The poem is ambiguous about whether there is any truth to the child’s strange murmurings. I think that was the right choice, leaving the reader some space to interpret, and hopefully contributing to the sense of unease.

One thing that I like about this poem is the implied metaphysics, if we assume the child is remembering properly. A lot of world-building is carried out by this simple exchange: this is a world with reincarnation, which implies a soul, or something like it; souls evidently have the potential retain memories across the threshold of death; the line “when you were mommy” implies both that souls are non-gendered and that souls travel together, in family groups, reincarnating together and, as it seems for this family, repeatedly dying together; and, some souls -the child in this poem- have foresight of future deaths. None of this is said directly, but we need to understand these premises to make sense of the child’s words.

I hope you liked the poem and that you found my comments on it interesting.

Thanks for reading.