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Listen to This, Listen to That: Series Syndrome

by Ashley Strosnider

(Because no one can do bizarro folk-pop like Dan can, I’m taking us on a diagonal route today, a podcast v. podcast tangent that leads us down a different rabbit hole of the iTunes store.)

It’s Friday morning, and the avid listeners of the most popular podcast ever, Serial, likely heard the last episode of the season sometime yesterday. (If not, no worries. No spoilers here.) There's something special about the format, the way the story unfolds, moving backward and forward across wrinkles and obsessions. There's something, dare I say, poetic about the ways the episodes talk back and forth with each other that resonates, too, with the way series of poems work with and against each other, troubling and teasing expectations in what Air Schooner Episode 41 calls "series syndrome." For better or worse, series resist neat closure and straight narrative. Call it anxiety of an ending.

For the uninitiated, Serial has been a weekly podcast from the producers of NPR’s This American Life, in which reporter Sarah Koenig re-investigates, in real time, an old Baltimore murder case--the 1999 murder of a high school girl, and the conviction and life sentencing of her then-seventeen-year-old ex-boyfriend. The most-downloaded podcast ever, it’s raised practical and procedural questions about the case, along with more philosophical questions about the justice system and truth itself, and, perhaps most interestingly, ethics in reporting and how much enjoyment listeners should take from it.

The podcast’s format is unprecedented, unfolding a new piece of a non-fiction story week to week. It isn’t strictly journalistic, but it pretty successfully avoids the sensational, while taking a few storytelling liberties. (I'm talking poetry, today, but if you’re interested, Michael Nye considers “What the Serial Podcast Teaches Us About Writing Novels” on the Missouri Review Blog.) Listeners are just as likely to have their previous assumptions overturned as to have them affirmed, every time Koenig learns a new fact, vets a new possibility, consults a new expert, talks through a new angle. It’s the serialization of the story that allows this round consideration; as Koenig turns and turns it again, like dough, the story expands, condenses, stretches thin, rises again.

In Air Schooner Episode 41, Series Syndrome, poets Jamaal May, Ross Gay, and Grace Bauer take up the question of working poetry in series—that is, writing groups of poems with repeating titles, themes, or premises. Poems that talk to each other, these series take on a life, en masse, that ripples beyond the meaning of each poem individually.

Jamaal May’s work takes on phobias, what he calls “normal fears with the volume turned up.” Gay works a similar angle in looking at syndromes, while Bauer takes stances against things we typically support—for example, lawns, or progress. What’s interesting here is how un-resolvable these topics are. Anyone who expects that “after reading these poems against X number of ‘good’ things, I’ll finally know what to support” will almost certainly be disappointed. “I don’t want people staring at me, but I also don’t want to be forgotten,” says May, “as if I don’t exist.” These contradictory phobias set up a sort of echo chamber in his work, where multiple positions talk back and forth, inform one another. There’s no straight and narrow narrative.

When asked what working on a series enables him to do with his poems, Ross Gay muses, “I’m not a good finisher in ways, I think.” Is this every writer’s phobia? Every podcast producer’s? In the last episode of Serial, Adnan Syed, whom Koenig has interviewed throughout, asks her “If you don't mind me asking," you really don't have an ending? He's half-curious, half-incredulous, and he gives her his advice to take the middle of the road, and let people decide what they think. Whether Serial’s ending offered enough closure, resolution, or (insert ethical qualms) satisfaction to listeners remains to be seen, but Gay would argue this ambiguity of closure is part of the beauty of a series. “I want the opportunity to tinker with a thing, even when it’s quote unquote finished.” And sometimes, maybe, the series keeps writing itself. Koenig’s Serial certainly gives this impression—halfway through, listeners still aren’t sure if there will be ten or twelve episodes. (At least a collection of poems offers a little clearer expectation than this.) Plenty of investigative pieces are self-contained. So why does Koenig’s keep unfurling?

Grace Bauer confesses that her series sometimes sneak up on her, as an awareness dawns that this a thing she keeps doing, a thing that keeps showing up in her work. The challenge becomes then “think[ing] up the larger architecture of how I might put this together.” She orchestrates the resonances, then, to maximum effect. The Serial producers had plenty of architecting to do, too, particularly as the listeners catch up to the writing, in what some media critics have called “reverb.” One interview down, one narrative lined out, and then the phone rings. Someone remembered something, or someone just found out about the podcast, just in time for the final episode, to offer a new, late-game perspective that troubles the waters. You get the sense that this may not be how the investigation went the first time around, may not be how the justice system tends to work. Once the prosecution lines out its narrative, Serial suggests, it’s sticking to it; bad evidence that may not support that story gets swept under the rug.

Bauer argues that working on a series of poems is a way of deepening and shifting perspective. Pieces harmonize or scrape together in a way wholly different from a straightforward narrative—already one of poetry’s great liberties. When poets work in series, Bauer suggests, “we’re asking our readers to look at something from a slightly different perspective.” In her poem, “Against Lawn,” Bauer writes: “I am right not to manicure my patch of grass into a dull carpet of uniform green, but to allow whatever will to take over. Somewhere in that lace, lies luck, though I may never stoop to find it.” Whether it’s a four-leaf clover, a key piece of evidence, or a sense of closure we’re looking for in these series—these obsessive and recursive considerations and reconsiderations that so fascinate us—Bauer’s anti-lawn stance is a compelling one. I’ll take a multi-faceted consideration over a forced narrative every time, lace over a dull carpet of uniform green any day of the week. Even on Serial Thursdays.