From Poem to Clip:  The Evolution of “Tell me”


Often in a classroom a student will suddenly stop my lecture of an analysis of a poem with the question, “What if the poet didn’t intend it to be read this way?”  I laugh, and respond with something like “It's my poem now.  I can do what I want.”


But it has happened to me – frequently – that a poem I’d written that I thought meant one thing is understood by others to mean something else.  And the extreme case is the poem, “Tell Me” because it evolved in many stages and the different interpretations are visible.


I wrote the poem as a kind of experiment.  In studying the lyric one day the narcissism of poetry struck me, and I voiced the question in class whether it was possible to write a poem about ‘you,’ not me.   I took a common experience for me, a conversation in which one person tries to draw out an other.  But after I’d read the poem I’d written, it reminded me of one of my favorite stories about Tallulah Bankhead, that actress of the thirties well-known for her self-absorption, who ended a long monologue about herself with “Well, enough of this talk about me.  Let’s talk about you.  What do YOU think of my latest film?”   I didn’t like this allusion very much, and yet it rang true.  The fact of the writing of a poem about how I’m only interested in ‘you’ is contradictory because no matter how much I say I’m talking about you it is only me talking.


A few people found the poem interesting enough to translate into Hebrew, but I was dissatisfied with the translations and found myself cobbling them together to make my own version.  Even though the words are simple and easily converted, there was a transformation in the translation – The simple ‘tell me’ in English became “Saper Li” in Hebrew.  And there was something sexier about the Hebrew that was missing in the English.


In Hebrew too a certain rhythm crept in, something just a tinge obsessive.  There are more rhymes in Hebrew and because of the structure of the grammar it is easier to get a regular rhythm.  So the ‘tell me’ began to sound more and more like a narcissistic and aggressive piece.


I liked it because of that rhythm, and when I grabbed some poems from my desk to record at Moti’s studio, I took that one too.  It was easy to read.


When Roi and Yishai began working on the music for this poem, they nicknamed it “Shir Hanudnik,” the “Pesterer’s Poem.”  They worked with that incipient obsessivity and brought it to the fore.  The words “Tell Me” turned from an invitation to a command. 


The final transformation of the poem, however, was the hardest one for me to acknowledge.  In the video clip of the song, I play an aging psychologist who tries to seduce her patient and fails miserably.  “Tell me” becomes about a dominating neurotic who frightens a young man with her overbearing and repulsive attention.  Now that’s a long way from the shy invitation to an other to share experiences.  But the clip is so removed from the original that I could have fun with it, to play the grotesque seductress with a little twist. 


It’s her poem.  She can do what she wants with it.

Watch the video