It's time for us to FF not REW

Side A

Thanks for the tape you sent.
It made me think back on
all those good times we shared
last year, here in town and
then up at the lake house.
But I have to tell you,

Side B

I leant it to a friend,
and when she gave it back
there was a bit that was
horribly mangled, where
those tracks start that you liked
to play while we made love.

Having written a blog post about Visual Verse, I thought this week’s Poem of the Week could be something I’d submitted to them. In fact, although this wasn’t the first thing I ever sent to them – my first two submissions being short fiction – it was the first of my poems they published.

The prompt for this month was an old cassette tape on a plane green background, and as with every prompt, the first thing I did was just stare at it for a few minutes and see what thoughts immediately sprung to mind. In this case (if I remember correctly) I wondered why the background was green, and I was interested in the fact that there was no writing on the side of the cassette to say what was on it.

The green made me think of grass. I imagined someone lying on some grass on a sunny afternoon, listening to music. Maybe they were on their own and listening on headphones, or maybe they were with friends and listening on an old portable cassette recorder. What were they listening to? With no writing on the cassette, it could be anything, but I imagined a mix tape. So who made up the tape, and who was it for?

Now I had the start of an idea. The poem could be a postcard sent to someone thanking them for the mix tape they’d sent and all the memories it had brought back from some particular time in the past. It wasn’t necessarily the greatest idea ever, but I was on the clock so I ran with it and scribbled down a few lines, imagining I was writing that postcard.

Thank you for the tape.
It brought back
all those good times
from last year
when we spent
that whole month
up at your folks' house
by the lake.

That was fine. It set the scene and set the tone, but it didn’t go anywhere and I needed some point to the poem. Why was the author writing the postcard? What had changed in the intervening year? The obvious answer was that these were two young people who had been in a relationship that had now broken down. The one sending the tape was still in love, the ‘author’ had moved on and maybe now found the whole thing a bit awkward. So he was going to let the other person down as gently as possible and would use the tape as a metaphor for the relationship.

But I'm sorry to say
my tape deck
was a bit rough with it
and now there's a bit
near the end of side one
and the start of side two
that got all chewed up.

I liked this idea, but the poem was starting to ramble a bit and I didn’t want to make it too long – partly for time reasons, and partly because it was supposed to be something you could write on a postcard. I could have turned it into a full letter, I suppose, but I did like the idea of a postcard as it seemed like the kind of thing someone who was finished with the relationship would be more likely to do – send something short and less personal.

And then I decided to introduce a third person, who would be the author’s new girlfriend. She could be the one who damaged the tape, in the same way that she helped to destroy the original relationship maybe. So I rewrote the second stanza.

But I'm sorry to say
I leant it to a friend
and when she gave it back
there was a bit that was
badly chewed up,
right at the start of those tracks
you liked to play
when we made love.

This now makes it clear we’re talking about a previous relationship that’s now broken down, and that the author has another female friend he likes enough to lend the tape to.

Having got to this point and realising I still had a fair bit of time left before having to submit, I went about tidying the whole thing up. I wanted to keep it at two stanzas, because that would be like the two sides of the tape itself, and if that was the case, then I wanted them to be the same length as each other.

At the same time, I can remember watching cassette tapes as they played, with their central spindles turning at the same, regular speed, no matter what sort of music was being played. It was kind of mesmerising, and I wanted to reference that in the poem somehow without it making the whole thing too monotonous. In the end, I settled on making every line contain the same number of syllables. I liked this idea, because it was something I would find very satisfying, but which wouldn’t necessarily be noticed by the reader. I don’t remember why I settled on six syllables per line and six lines per stanza, but it seemed about the right length to fit in everything I wanted to say and keep me from waffling at the same time.

As I was editing, I noticed something else. Nearly all the words I was using were only one syllable long, and those that weren’t could easily be changed. So partly to reinforce the idea of the regular turning of the spindles, but also just for fun because I like doing things like that, I decided to write the whole thing using only words of one syllable.

The first stanza was fairly easy as all the words I’d written in my first draft were one syllable anyway, and all I needed to do was a small amount of rearranging to get the lines to length. But the second stanza was proving more difficult. I couldn’t fit everything I wanted to say into the six lines available and I was considering abandoning the idea of having both stanzas the same length when it occurred to me that the first line of the second stanza, But I have to tell you, actually worked better as the final line of the first stanza as it created a nice link and slightly upped the tension level. All I had to do was lose a line from the first stanza, and in the end this proved to be quite easy, taking out the reference to your folks’ house which, on reflection, was only complicating things anyway. 

Having said that the whole poem is made up of words of one syllable, you’ll notice that it isn’t, in fact. As the poem is supposed to represent the cassette tape itself, I thought I would emphasise the chewed-up bit by making that the only part of the poem that wasn’t monosyllabic. I then decided to put it into italics as well, just to make sure that it was something the reader would notice.

I generally leave the business of coming up with a title until last thing. Titles are difficult. Well, good ones are, anyway. Here my working title was simply, Tape, and with very little of my hour left it looked like that was how it was going to stay. But then I thought about the poem and decided it was all about moving on. And with a cassette, the way you move on is by pressing the play button. Or you could fast forward. And there it was. The author doesn’t want to rewind his life, he wants to fast forward, away from the past. And using FF and REW instead of fast forward and rewind is just one more little homage to the golden age of music reproduction technology.