What’s the First Thing You Ever Made, Hannah Stephenson?

I have strong memories of making tapes in my childhood home on Hope Avenue. We had a large stereo/record player/tape player in our living room, and shelves of records. I remember looking through the records — The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and Joni Mitchell were my favorites (For the Roses had a beautiful cover, so serene, and I was shocked when I opened it to find an image of Joni, naked, shot from behind).

My mom or dad would get me set up by plugging in the microphone and giving me a blank tape. I would have a list of ideas for songs (usually the titles, which I’d sometimes brainstorm beforehand with my dad). I’d announce the name of each song, and then “sing” it. My “technique” was usually to repeat the title of the song over and over, with a little variation here and there. “White Swan” is the most memorable song (and the title track, apparently) of the tape that still remains. I must have been about five or six. The song goes a little something like this: “White swan……..white swannnnnnn…..white swan white swan white swan whiteswanwhiteswanwhiteswanwhiteswan…….white swan swimming in the pool. With a duck.”

I loved making the percussion noises (usually imitating a drum set — “pssshew psssshhhew pssssh ting!”). I remember thinking I sounded just like the drums.

In the background of this tape, you can hear my sister, Mara, running through the room and making airplane noises, and then you hear me yelling at her: “MARA, I’m recording!!! GO AWAY! MOMMM!!!!” I seemed to take it very seriously (sorry, Mara!).

Other hits from that tape include “Blue Mermaids in the Sea,” “Cute Little Baby Puppy,” “Anything You Want,” “Some People Come From Hawaii” (the lyrics of this one explain that “Some people come from Hawaii…..some people come from New York…..some people come from Tahiti……some people come from Ohio”).

I’ve always loved music, and remember drawing pictures of some of the singers I liked (which, oddly, included Bette Midler and Weird Al, who I invited to my seventh birthday party). We had family friends who would make us mix tapes, which I thought were the most incredible inventions.

It’s strange (and slightly embarrassing) to know that I’m still so enthralled with using technology to record my voice. I don’t consider myself a musician or songwriter, but experimenting with sound and music is still a strong interest for me. I love making songs using Garageband, and last year, my husband walked in the bedroom to find me shaking a pepper mill over my laptop–not so different from my preferred White Swan setup! As a poet, I am constantly recording my process, voice, and video (and footage of other poets reading, too).

I’m always asking my writing students to be specific, and move their observations toward analysis by asking, “So what? What does this detail suggest/imply/reveal?” In order to be fair, I’ll ask myself that question now. I think my desire to record comes from the same place as the impulse to keep journals and write poems—I want to store up a feeling or image, and be able to share it or come back to it later. Even if I just end up laughing at my mouth-drum solo.

Hannah Stephenson is a poet, editor, and instructor based in Columbus, Ohio. Her favorite palindrome is either “Yo, banana boy!” or “Ah, a Mayan on a Yamaha!” To read her poems (or say hello), visit her online at www.thestorialist.com.