IMPROMPTU #28: Jenni B. Baker

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Jenni B. Baker Author PhotoHappy National Poetry Month, all! Three of our Found Poetry Review editors will be closing out the month by inserting our own prompts into the mix, and I’m up first.

Right now, I’m particularly interested in poetry intersections. I like to take things – things in my house, things on my commute, things I listen to and things I watch – and ask myself not “How can I make a poem about that?” but “How can I make that a poem?” What would it look like if pill bottles were poems? What about subway tickets? What if I turned my Outlook meeting calendar into a poem?

I recently worked with composer Patrick Greene on Year of Glad, a song cycle featuring lyrics from my Erasing Infinite project, and have been thinking a lot about poetry and music. What are the different ways we can translate poetry into music? What would music look like as a poem? Let’s find out. 

Step One: Find a Source Text

Start by choosing a source text. I recommend working with an e-text from a site like Project Gutenberg, but you can go old school if you’re willing to put in the time. Choose a selection of this text to work with. A few chapters or 8-10,000 words should suffice.

Step Two: Excerpt All of the Words Starting with the letters A, B, C, D, E, F and G.

There are a number of tools available online that can help you with this task. Hop on over to Applied Poetics, then copy and paste your source text into the editor. Under the Oulipian menu, pick “Tautogram,” choose the letter “A” from the dropdown, and click “run” to condense your text to all of the words that start with A. Repeat for letters B, C, D, E, F and G to build your word bank.

Step Three: Craft a Poem

Using only the words from your word bank (those starting with the letters A, B, C, D, E, F and G), craft your poem.

Step Four: Translate the Words of Your Poem Into Notes

Did you notice something about those seven letters your words start with? They correspond to the musical notes on a scale. The first part is simple: the first letter of each word indicates your note. For instance:

  • Example Poem Line: “Boy, bring an apple and daringly eat a few bites.”
  • Corresponding Notes: B, B, A, A, A, D, E, A, F, B

Now that we know what our notes are, we need to determine their length. We’ll do this by counting the syllables of each word:

  • 1 syllable = 1 beat =  quarter note
  • 2 syllables = 2 beat = half note
  • 3 syllables = 3 beats = dotted half note
  • 4 syllables = 4 beats = whole note

Here’s what they look like as notes:

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 10.58.10 PM

So, returning to our example phrase above, we would this have

B (quarter note), B (quarter note), A (quarter note), A (half note), A (quarter note), D (dotted half note), E (quarter note), A (quarter note), F (quarter note), B (quarter note)

Step Five:  Plot Your Notes on a Musical Scale

Visit https://flat.io and create a free account. Create a new score and choose piano as your instrument. Keep the time in the default 4/4.

Use the tool to plot your notes on the scale (focus only on the top scale for this exercise). If you’re new to reading music, here’s a basic chart you can follow:

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 9.59.53 PM

Going back to our example, when we plot these notes on the musical chart using Flat.io, we get:

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 10.26.46 PM

Which, when played, translates into the following. I’m not about win any Grammys, but it gives you a sense of how a single poetic line can be translated into music.

If you know a little bit about reading and writing music, feel free to play around with the tool. For instance, perhaps you want to add rests into the score where there are line breaks, or fill in the bass line.

Be sure to share your poems and links to your corresponding musical compositions in the links section below – I look forward to seeing what you come up with!


Jenni B. Baker is a poet and editor based in Bethesda, MD. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Found Poetry Review, a literary journal that publishes experimental forms of poetry including found, erasure, constraint-based and conceptual pieces. In her multi-year project, Erasing Infinite, she creates poems via erasure from David Foster Wallace’s 1,076-page text, Infinite Jest, one page at a time. Her chapbook, Comings / Goings, a collection of poems generated by applying Oulipian constrained writing techniques to Washington Post articles, was released in 2015. Her poetry has been featured in journals such as DIAGRAM, BOAAT, Quarterly West, Washington Square, and Lunch Ticket. For more information, stop by her website or follow her on Twitter.

46 Comments

  • April 28, 2016

    Nathalie Boisard-Beudin

    Fun! Too complex for me (I can’t bring my head around writing the score) but for zany poem, why not?
    http://spacedlaw.dreamwidth.org/157267.html
    Thanks, Jenni!

  • April 28, 2016

    Amanda Earl

    • April 28, 2016

      Misky

      Lovely, and etherial tune! And such a thorough explanation of method, too. Well done!

      • April 28, 2016

        Amanda Earl

        Thanks!

    • April 28, 2016

      Vinita Agrawal

      Beautiful poem and soft, soothing music Amanda, wow!

  • April 28, 2016

    Misky

    I am so bummed. WordPress won’t let me upload my MP3 file unless I upgrade my plan. The MP3 is here if anyone wants to listen to it.

    https://flat.io/score/5721e3e45db349c53ebd8a43

    • April 28, 2016

      Amanda Earl

      Sounds great. Are you going to post your poem?

      • April 28, 2016

        Misky

        I’ll post it after lunch, Amanda.

        • April 28, 2016

          Amanda Earl

          Eggcellent

          • April 28, 2016

            Misky

            (smile) – I’ve posted the link to the poem (etc) below, Amanda.

    • April 28, 2016

      Vinita Agrawal

      The music did not play, Misky. I wonder why. And I’m thinking the same might happen when others follow my link.

  • April 28, 2016

    Vinita Agrawal

    What a strike back Jenni! An amazing, elegant, creative prompt. It had me completely engrossed until I heard my poem play as music. And then I began to breathe again :) Thank you!
    https://vinitawords.wordpress.com/2016/04/28/society/

  • April 28, 2016

    Esther Greenleaf Murer

    In German, H is B flat. One could extend this to L for the other black keys, creating a chromatic scale.

    • April 28, 2016

      Carol A. Stephen

      Sorry I meant Vinita, slip of the fingers, and noticed it too late to stop the post.

    • April 28, 2016

      Amanda Earl

      fascinating. i’d love to see what you create with that in mind.

  • April 28, 2016

    Carol A. Stephen

    Anita yours won’t play and when I follow the link to the tool it says that the score is private. I was able to play Misky’s and Amanda’s though.

    • April 28, 2016

      Vinita Agrawal

      Oh I see ! That’s terrible…let me see if I can fix it. Thanks so much for the feedback, Carol.

  • April 28, 2016

    Vinita Agrawal

    I’ve updated the link by changing the setting to available to public. Please check again.
    https://flat.io/score/5721e47e3dd61bc409ae73fe-society?m=collaborators

    • April 28, 2016

      Misky

      WOW! Both hands playing, too! Well done. :)

  • April 28, 2016

    Misky

    I’ve given up trying to convince WordPress that I don’t want to pay Premium rates to embed an audio file, so if you wish to listen to my little tune, click the Music Link on the blog page. All the other details, including the poem are there also.

    https://thirtydayspoetry.wordpress.com/2016/04/28/day-28-a-wooden-door/

    • April 28, 2016

      Carol A. Stephen

      MIsky, I think I was able to get it working in the free version. When I clicked on the button to make it public, it offered me the option to copy the public version of the link. That went to my clipboard, which I was then able to copy into my post. It worked in the preview…

      • April 29, 2016

        Misky

        Is that the link from Flat or from somewhere like Google Drive or Dropbox? I could NOT get that link to my MP3 or WAV file to load into an audio player in my post. I’ve since learned that Dropbox removed the Public folder from their servers so that now only a Shared link is available, and it’s not a straight link but rather a “wrapper” link. I seem to be the only one who figure this out, and I’m thoroughly annoyed by it. (growl)

    • April 28, 2016

      Vinita Agrawal

      Absolutely loved your poem Misky…but sorry to say I still couldn’t play the notes. The page opens fine and I can press the notes but no sound emerges :(

      Too bad…I would’ve loved to hear the music version of your beautiful poem.

      • April 29, 2016

        Carol A. Stephen

        The link was from Flat itself, not from any other app.

    • April 28, 2016

      Amanda Earl

      love the atmosphere created by the music. i can imagine walking through that “great dark door.” nicely done.

  • […] “Alliteration prompt” QuillsEdge Press’ “Third Wish  prompt” Found Poetry’s “Intersections prompt” Apparatus Mag’s “Humor prompt” Indiana Humanities’ “Exploring Color […]

  • […] To follow this process step by step, go here to the FPR Impromptu #28 […]

    • April 28, 2016

      Amanda Earl

      this is gorgeous. both poem & music, which has the atmosphere of the poem, somehow.

      • April 29, 2016

        Carol A. Stephen

        Thanks, Amanda, it was rather headed into a minor chord. I rather liked that part as it did seem to pick up the darkness of the poem.

    • April 29, 2016

      Vinita Agrawal

      Gorgeous indeed!

      • April 29, 2016

        Carol A. Stephen

        Thanks, Vinita. I felt on very shaky ground. I had a couple of problems with the dotted notes, and one note that needed 5 beats and I did not know how to put that in. Those notes ended up with the odd rests or with the linked notes, which made them sound like new notes (words/beats) when they were merely additional syllables. I admit I got frustrated. I would have loved to add in more percussion and perhaps a woodwind or brass, till I saw that would mean writing more music…!

  • April 28, 2016

    A. Garnett Weiss

    Not enough time in a day to do justice to Jenni B. Baker’s prompt which I will return to. Instead, see the erasure poem I attempted on the basis of another of the prompts yesterday from Greg Santos. Which somehow I cannot import into my website in erasure form. Will consult a tech guru tomorrow.
    http://jcsulzenko.com/irresistible-prompt-to-write-online-erasure-poem-april-27-greg-santos-in-fpr/

  • April 28, 2016

    JM Scott

    Hey all, here is mine. I found if you are using the app side of Windows 8, the song doesn’t really play, but Chrome seems to work. The music link is also on my post page so you can click from there as well. I am going away this weekend, so I wrote some found poems and they are scheduled for tomorrow and Saturday. I will do the new prompts when I get back. I really enjoyed this month with all of you. You all are so kind, talented and innovative. Post: http://candlesticksandcadavers.blogspot.com/2016/04/determination-conspiracy.html Song: https://flat.io/score/57228900cf61e4a11ebc611d-determination-conspiracy
    Take care ~Jenn

    • April 29, 2016

      Vinita Agrawal

      Because esoteric brass
      Colors a galaxy

      Quite lovely!

  • […] from a terrific prompt that asks us to pull words that start with letters that could be musical notes, create the poem, […]

  • April 28, 2016

    james w moore

    oh man…that is too much freakin’ fun. i could have spent all night on this, but i really should sleep. this is “brambles and gratitude” from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – with youtube link to skirt the whole audio problem…http://bit.ly/1SUsARB

    • April 29, 2016

      Vinita Agrawal

      Immaculate execution of the prompt, James! The YouTube video was awesome…like poetry set to music with lyrics flashing after every instrumental rendition. Wow…I’m impressed!

    • April 29, 2016

      Misky

      Love this! The music is perfect.

      I tried doing YouTube also, but when I uploaded it, it said I needed to convert it to a video format… and by the end of the day, I was just too exhausted by all the obstacles. :)

    • April 29, 2016

      Amanda Earl

      that was so great. it had this medieval feel to it. loved that you used other instruments & made that work.

  • […] Day 28: Jenni B. Baker […]

  • […] To follow this process step by step, go here to the FPR Impromptu #28 […]