This post began with a tweet, a text, a playlist, &—of course—a tangential sleight-of-handiwork from a larger essay I’m trying to write. Thank you to those of you who helped me put it together, even though you didn’t know that’s what you were doing.
An online acquaintance of mine, writer & editor Lincoln Michel, posted this tweet recently:
It’s a smartly posed tweet for several reasons, not the least of which: people love to argue over what’s best; people love The Sopranos; people love to challenge ultra-specific assertions; people love to talk & argue about their own preferences.
It’s a fun question, to me, for some other reasons, too. It’s interesting to think about if & how a television series reliant on plot-lines that stretch past single-episode containers, & especially through multiple seasons can achieve greatness within an hour’s time.
It’s also interesting to think about the notion that people would know exactly what Lincoln meant by “Pine Barrens”—he doesn’t mention The Sopranos, nor really any other context clues, other than “TV” & “drama.” I knew the title because I like reading about television, & it’s an oft-cited great episode in the proverbial TV Book of Brothers. But even though I could talk about many episodes from many shows, I doubt I could come up with many titles, even though most shows officially title their episodes in some way. The series premiere of Friday Night Lights, for example, made my mental list of top TV hours of drama, but (like Riggins, probably) I couldn’t pass a quiz that asked me what it was called.
(While I’m thinking of it, read this Nico Alvarado poem, “Tim Riggins Speaks of Waterfalls“—mm-hm, you’re welcome.)
Ultra-fine point being: I know plenty of poem titles from memory, & of course song titles too, & all of those are individual pieces that function within a collection, which functions within a body of work—just like television shows.
Poem : collection : complete works :: song : album : catalog :: episode : season : series.
As I’m finishing up my own collection, I’ve necessarily been thinking about what to include, what to omit, and how the book works as a whole. I want to feel like every single poem is the single best hour of TV drama ever, and yet I also want the book to function as my debut season—a whole with no holes. And if there have to be B-sides, let them be as good as these.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 4, Episode 10: “Hush“
After the residents of Sunnydale lose the power of speech, Buffy battles strangely silent assailants alongside an incredulous Riley.
Writing titles is so tough for me. I know that I need them, want them. But they are a beast. Maybe all of my poems could be titled “Tim Riggins Speaks of Waterfalls.” Maybe they could all be called “Girl Goes Missing in the South.” I don’t even quite yet know that they’re not just the same poem, written over & over, all their words just dumped into a slot machine with Microsoft Word’s “Create New Document” icon as the lever.
A fear of titles is likely related to a fear of commitment. What if I’ve chosen the wrong one? What if this one isn’t the best/isn’t saying what I think/want/hope it’s saying? What if the one I choose makes everything that comes after it worse? What am I even doing making out with this one, anyway?
Once you give something a name, you’re also admitting something about what it’s not, what it won’t be. That’s not de facto a bad thing, but it is a choice. In my writing, I’m constantly walking the thin line between overt and obscure. Not meaning, but being. I like the way it feels to set images up against one another and let their own circulatory systems heal the distance between them for the reader. I like reimagining what it means for a poem to have a plot. I like to keep the reader in the thickening of that plot. A poem is always saying & not saying. I don’t want a title to feel like a punchline, or a safety net under a high-wire act. At this point, all I think I know for certain about them is that the body of the poem I write cannot just start up, as if in conversation, mid-sentence. It needs that first flirtatious glance.
I guess that’s it: I want the title of a poem to be like the moment it cuts its eyes over at a reader & looks at them directly. The first-sight feeling of that kind of love. The chemistry of first being seen. Titles are the ones that get away.
Homicide: Life on the Street, Season 1, Episode 5: “Three Men and Adena“
Bayliss and Pembleton bring in Risley Tucker, an Arabber, as the prime suspect in the murder of 11-year-old Adena Watson. With a ten-hour time limit, they try one last interrogation in a desperate attempt to get a confession.
The episode is filmed entirely in “The Box,” the colloquial term for the interrogation room in the Baltimore police department that is the focus of the show. It was revolutionary television for 1993, which coincidentally was the year it’s fair to say I became serious about writing. I wasn’t thinking “I’m going to write a book of poems” at the time. I wasn’t even thinking “I want all my poems to be cohesive,” or “I’m developing a recognizable voice that will sound itself in each poem.” I was just writing, & knew I wanted to keep doing it.
But now I’m not just trying to put poems together; I’m trying to put a book together. To set poems next to one another and see what their red blood cells
will start to build. I’m almost there. I know there are gaps, & in some cases I even know what exact poems will fill those gaps.
Interrogations happen in The Box. Detectives question a suspect, demand that he tell a story over & over, in order to figure out what’s true. In order to winnow out inconsistencies and details that either belong or don’t. Tell us the story again. But that’s not what you told us the first time. What time did you leave the house? Was it dark or light out? Your fingerprints were everywhere.
It’s not just important anymore that the poems are good on their own. I put images beside one another in poems in order to make something else grow; poems beside one another need to do the same. I want them to be something more when they’re together. I want them to accumulate on a reader in an ever-thickening plot.
I want the collection to be a prime suspect.
Six Feet Under, Season 5, Episode 12 (Series Finale): “Everyone’s Waiting”
David finally embraces his demons; Nathaniel Sr. talks to his younger son; Brenda delivers early and fights Nate’s negativity; Margaret is impressed to see Olivier’s nurturing side; Rico and Vanessa celebrate an investment; the family toast Nate’s memory at a farewell dinner for Claire; Claire’s departure reveals what’s to come for her family members and herself.
There are times we assemble the people we love; we pull pieces of them together like a set list. Times we get to choose from multiple albums. Deep cuts, boring fast-forward tracks, B-sides, hits and misses. But we pull from the ones that stick to us and mix-tape them together. We spin that playlist over and over, until we think it’s the only songs they ever sing.
But the people we love are a kind of box set. They are made up of every song, every album—packaged in the way that tends to make the most sense: divided by time. They are their whole history, not our abridged version.
ProTip: Give songs as gifts. We often give what we’d like to receive, & I’m no different. My favorite offering, coming or going, is a song via iTunes. It’s inexpensive, personal, immediate & important. It is bigger than a breadbox & louder than a bomb, if by breadbox you mean my heart & by bomb you mean my heart. Try it.
Recently, I’ve had to drain some specific songs of nostalgia. Like anyone who grew up listening to music—I think especially of those of us who grew up listening via the radio, when you couldn’t actually be sure when a song might play, so whenever it did seemed to have a special significance—I attach great sentimentality to some songs. They channel certain places, certain people—and times when certain people were in certain places together.
And sometimes, after those times when certain people were in certain places together, those memories are not memorable in the ways they once were. Songs like raised scars we can’t help but finger, to remind ourselves that something happened. Something left a mark.
I wanted to reclaim those songs, divide them up the way friends choose sides after a breakup. These songs are mine. These songs mean nothing to me. These songs mean only to me; they do not mean to you. At first, I thought avoidance was the answer. If a song falls in the roadside forest of my morning commute and no one is around to hear it, it doesn’t exist. And that worked for a while.
Well, I don’t mean a while; I mean a day or two. It felt like ceding too much power to actually cull my playlists; plus, I am often lazy about these things. The momentary anger that surfaced at having to skip forward past songs I didn’t want to experience anymore did not inspire me to make new playlists or delete songs. What it did inspire was what I often tag as the Irish in me: tough it out. Play through the pain—do not fast forward through it. Then, play it again. Again. Again.
Try it: I promise you this will work, and it has now joined the ability to cure anyone of hiccups in my exceedingly short catalog of problem-solving skills I have to offer other people.
The series finale of Six Feet Under is probably the best series finale of all-time. The clutch of the episode is its final moments, just as the series itself dissected the idea of what final moments means.
The score of the last scene is Sia’s song “Breathe Me.” It’s the one song I don’t think I could ever put on repeat enough times to empty it of the emotional weight of that episode it draped so well. And given the sounds it’s capable of making—a piano is an organ, indeed.
And so I keep putting the pieces together, & trying to give them the right name. Everyone’s waiting, & so am I. For now, I’m in the thick of it.
PS: If you have not yet already, please start watching The Leftovers on HBO. It’s sure somethin’. And that piano score…