Borders Between Us [c/o transom.org]Sendetermin 02.03.2023 19:00 bis 20:00
Borders Between Us / Saidu Tejan-Thomas
Foreword by Jay Allison
Saidu Tejan-Thomas is a young poet. For a long time, he had a story he needed to tell: an homage and apology to his mother. It's a tragic love story driven by the tangled search for a better life. It's personal for sure, but set against the universal perils of immigration--in Saidu's case, from Sierra Leone in West Africa--but by extension, from anywhere.
It uses Saidu's poems as narrative drivers, reveals, and resolutions. These are not easy tasks for poems. When Saidu and Jay identified moments in the story that needed these bridges, Saidu would say something like, "I'll go to the Poem Factory and see what I can do." He always made something perfect.
Saidu's words are grounded and elevated, his voice is strong and vulnerable, his outlook is youthful and wise. We can’t understand how he pulls that off. Maybe you can.
This piece won Third Coast's 2020 Silver Award for Best Documentary.
How the Story Came to Be
I was in the lobby of the company where I work and had just finished pitching this story to a show. At the time, the story I’d pitched was a sprawling narrative told through tape gathered on a trip I’d taken to Sierra Leone earlier in the year. But the tape was bad and the story lacked focus. I thought that lack of focus was what would make this story different. I thought that would be its strength. It wasn’t. My pitch had fallen flat.
So in the lobby that day, I decided to hit up Jay. When I reached him, he was in a cabin somewhere, on a break with his family. I was still unsure how I was gonna make this story work and I knew I should hurry up and tell him my idea so he could get back to his family. I said something like, “I have a song in my head that I need to get out.” I told him I could hear the story in my head. I wanted it to sound like a poem. But I also wanted it to read like an essay. I wanted it to sound similar to the documentary radio I’ve been producing, but also true to my poetry and my voice. I could hear his kids in the background playing; Jay sounded calm, like he’s used to listening to people bare their hearts while his kids are fussing around in the background. He said “Uh-huh, yeah man, that sounds great.” Without even hearing the details of the story . . . Jay said yes.
A really good thing that came out of that initial failed pitch is that it forced me to answer a basic question: what is this story about? I could use poetry in a piece but I needed to figure out what the poems would say. The tape you hear at the top of the story is me trying to figure that out months earlier. I eventually realized that the poems were about my mother. They were always about my mother. Almost every poem I’ve written in the last 10 years has been about her, and this story was no different. That’s when I decided to write the poem, “The Room.” When Jay read it, he agreed that poem would be at the heart of the piece. We positioned the poem at the top and structured the rest of the piece based on that.
How to Use Poetry
On its own, a poem can do whatever it wants, it can make its own rules. But when dropped into the larger narrative of a radio piece, the poems have to work within the rules of the story, and they have to do it without losing the listener. Jay and I agreed that we didn’t want the poems to lose or confuse people. I tried to make sure each poem shined a new light on my relationship with my mother, and at the end of the first two I put a question, something to animate a reason to keep listening, or punctuate a section.
( //But now 10 years later I need to try and take that flag down and put it away// //Was I the reason you died?//)
The last poem had a different job. It needed to comment on the whole piece without being too obvious. I think I captured that by doing the same thing I’d done throughout the piece. I wrote it like a piece of poetic prose and focused on a scene I experienced during the course of producing this piece.
[Editor’s Note: You can read all of the poems from Borders Between Us here.]
There was so much of my voice throughout the piece that we needed to create variety. We saw this as an opportunity to have the sound of the piece also be a kind of poem, an experience that takes you from the loud release of grief and guilt, to the quieter expression of sorrow and disappointment. It was Jay’s idea to do the poems on a stage like at a poetry slam. It was perfect. The asymmetrical crossfade between the two modes of presentation was a happy accident we stumbled across while trading pro tools sessions back and forth over the internet. We liked it, so Jay decided to incorporate it into the mix. Oh, and before recording my tracking for the rest of the piece, I took a moment outside to scream at the top of my lungs as loud as I could. It helped me drop all my nervousness about tracking such a personal piece.
How Tape Helped the Piece
At first, the piece was just a poem and an essay — a prose poem, and it was just my voice. Having one voice in a piece isn’t always a bad thing, especially if it’s short — about five to ten minutes. But as the story developed and the writing expanded we realized we needed another voice, someone who could present new information for me to react to, someone who could disagree or agree, validate or invalidate thoughts I’ve been carrying around for all these years. We needed another voice. Jay asked if I knew anyone who would be good to interview to capture some moments of surprise and conflict, “a sounding board,” as he so aptly put it. I immediately thought of my Aunty Kadi. I knew her personality would bring lots of energy and mirth to the story. So Transom flew me to England that week to interview her, not knowing if it would work. In the end, her voice took the piece to another level; it countered a lot of the grief and weight I carry in my own voice and writing style. Aunty Kadi’s tape took the piece from a short prose poem about my mother to something more like a documentary prose poem. And I think that was more engaging to listen to.
Thank you to Samantha Broun, the very first person I came to with the piece, for gently guiding me in the right direction. Thank you to all my family members and friends who in one way or another helped me tell this story: Aunty Haja, Aunty Kadi, Aunty Fati, Alimamy, Jartu, Uncle BT, Thomas, 2 Lash, All the London cuzos and the Salone nieces and nephews. Thank you to the awesome musicians who helped me score this when the only direction I gave them was that I wanted it to “sound African.” Timothy Ogunbiyi and Bobby Lord, I appreciate you. Thanks to Saeed Jones’ Alright Now,which I read a thousand times to learn how to write about my mother. And All my gratitude to the GOAT Jay Allison and the Allison family for saying yes.
Additional support for this work provided by the National Endowment for the Arts
"Transom bringt neue Arbeiten, Stimmen und Ideen über das Internet und Workshops in die öffentlichen Medien. Unser Ziel ist es, nützlich und inspirierend zu sein. Transom ist ein Aufführungsraum, eine offene Redaktionssitzung, eine Probebühne, eine Bibliothek und ein Treffpunkt. Unser Ziel ist es, den Staffelstab der Mission und der guten Praxis in den öffentlichen Medien durch Werkzeuge, Philosophie und Technik weiterzugeben"
Credits: This is a rebroadcast from transom.org, / Courtesy of Samantha Broun / "Sound School Podcast" is hosted by Rob Rosenthal.
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