Genre Cross-Talk: Translating Poetry into Song

(Part of a presentation at the Co-Requ. Professional Development Seminar on Student Success, Fall 2021)

Rationale: This collaborative assignment is designed to help students build on their existing analytical skills using a familiar genre like music as they are asked to critically analyze less familiar (and possibly intimidating) kinds of texts. In doing so, they practice different kinds of analytical skills they will need in virtually all of their academic classes. By working in collaborative groups to solve an analytical problem, students also learn to identify and gain support from members of the class who may become part of the individual academic support systems our students often lack, but which are crucial in pursuing and achieving their academic goals.

Description: This discussion and/or writing assignment is a small-group collaborative activity where groups of three or four students are assigned a poem that was part of that week's readings. They are asked to show their understanding of the poem by describing in detail how they would "translate" that poem into a piece of music or a musical performance using the poem's lines as lyrics and remaining true to their negotiated interpretation of the poem.

          Each decision the group makes about the possible musical genre, singer(s), voicing, instruments, rhythm and/or rhythm changes, etc., has to be justified by and/or match their negotiated interpretation of the poem. It helps to overtly encourage students to use supporting clauses for their statements or assertions as in : "Beyoncé (or Alicia Keys, Natti Natasha, Taylor Swift, etc.) would be perfect for this song because...." and then make a reference back to some aspect of the poem that makes that choice of singers apt and appropriate. Their descriptive details of the song in turn support their interpretive work, showing their reader how and where they come to the conclusions they do about the poem's possible theme(s), ideas or concepts.  

Outcomes: Students seem to enjoy this interpretive teamwork even though they are asked to work quickly, which makes temporary consensus crucial, and are responsible for their shared results. As many of us have found, "analytical magic" can happen in these smaller collaborative settings. Because students are working with a familiar and enjoyable genre like music, they seem to approach poetry and literary analysis with more confidence as well, though they need assistance transitioning these skills to yet other genres and texts. Students also usually find future collaborators and study partners in these small-group activities who can provide at least a provisional supportive learning community as they practice, strengthen and become more confident of their analytical skills, which are crucial to their success in all academic disciplines.  

Variations: The shorter version of this assignment could simply be small-group discussion where student report on their results to the larger group, but in longer classes a writing component could be added (see below). While this activity might typically be done in a face-to-face class in with selected small groups, it easily converts to break-out sessions online with an accompanying shared document or discussion page in Canvas, or another platform for note-taking and/or submission of a written assignment. This activity relies on students' analytical and interpretive abilities orally and/or in writing, but it could also serve as a scaffold for a longer essay assignment, or even a larger project in which students could create the musical piece using a free online music app. like Soundtrap, AudioTool, or GarageBand.
         A similar genre transformation:  Asking students to describe how they would treat a pivotal scene in a short story if they were directing a short film version of that story.

■  Instructions to students:

As you begin, make sure you have the assignment Discussion page open in Canvas.

Part 1 (Small group break-out sessions, app. 20 minutes):
Work together to analyze and interpret your assigned poem for 20 minutes, discussing how this poem might be "translated" into a song or a piece of music based on your group's interpretation. Find a note taker to put your ideas in the Discussion page post you have open--the writing can be very rough at this point. Analyze the poem first, locating any important themes, ideas, concepts or messages you see in the text. Remember: We can't assume that any narrator, speaker or character is the poet speaking, and that makes things even more complex!

Now consider how the poem might work as a piece of music, using the lines of the poem as song lyrics. Connect your musical choices with the ideas, message or themes you see in the poem. Be as detailed as you can about the singer, the type of voice(s), what instruments or instrumentation you might use, what rhythm (fast, slow, a combination?), how the song might proceed or change as it goes on, and so on. You can create a bridge or chorus if you feel it would be useful. Give enough detail to help a reader or listener actually "hear" this song.
Before returning to the full class group, choose a spokesperson to report on your group's ideas.

Part 2 (Return to full class, app. 15-20 minutes depending on number of small groups):
Give your classmates a short report on your discussion and what ideas you generated, and ask the class for comments and suggestions. As other groups present their ideas, help them out with suggestions and ideas as well. You can respectfully disagree if you feel a group is going in the wrong direction in their interpretation, but this should be more a brainstorming session to share ideas. Classmates from other groups can make suggestions in writing on your discussion posting while we all discuss your song. Your note taker should also write down any suggestions or ideas that seem useful in your discussion page post.

Part 3 (Return to small group break-out sessions, app. 20 minutes):
For this part of the assignment, find the classmate in your group that feels he/she is a strong writer.
Now use the notes that were generated and any ideas & suggestions from your classmates and write your final song proposal in a more polished form. Write app. 300 words (more is fine). Make sure to connect any choices you're making with your interpretation of the poem with sentences like: "The genre should be R & B because in the poem we see...." and "The lines from the second stanza will be a repeated chorus because in the poem they're important to...." The goal here is to show your understanding of the poem and "translate" it to music in a way that would make the poet proud.

Instructor's note:  If discussions go longer than expected, then this assignment can continue beyond class time and be completed outside of class.

■  Possible Poems (all of these have been successful)

Kim Addonizio "What Do Women Want?"

Maya Angelou, "Africa"

Gloria Anzaldúa, "To Live in the Borderlands"

Elizabeth Bishop, "One Art"

Teresa Mei Chuc, "Chinese Female Kung-Fu Superheroes"

Rita Dove, "On the Sidelines"

Amanda Gorman, "The Hill We Climb"

Terrance Hayes, "American Sonnet for my Past and Future Assassin" [“Probably twilight makes blackness dangerous”]

Langston Hughes, "Battle of the Landlord"

Alan Pelaez Lopez, "A Daily Prayer"

Naomi Shihab Nye, "Famous"

Mary Oliver,  "Singapore"

Gonzalo Rojas, "Celia"

William Carlos Williams, "The Red Wheelbarrow" (Additional lyrics may be needed on this one)


■   Sample Student Assignments

In Maya Angelou’s “Africa”, she details a “she” that has been through so much.  Angelou uses a woman to paint a picture of what Africa has suffered from other country's invading her lands, robbing it of resources like gold and taking the people as slaves.  The writer starts out showing Africa in all her beauty with “deserts her hair, golden her feet, mountains her breasts, two Niles her tears," before the white colonizers came to take what they wanted. She continues to detail the way strong men were sold into slavery, the way women were taken (raped?), how Christianity was forced upon the continent, and destroyed a culture by action.  The writer makes a point to say that “she” is becoming prosperous again after slavery and murder, but the pain and hurt of the losses will never be forgotten and that “she” should be remembered as prosperous and not as the broken continent where so much pain and hurt began. The writer is saying that the people of this land are strong, resilient and that they can bounce back, but the hand that they have been dealt should not be forgotten or ignored. 

In translating this poem into a song, we suggest that it begin as a slow, sad, ballad whose melody is carried by French horns or an oboe solo. Since drums are an important part of most African music, they could be used but in a slower, more light-sounding way like they are coming from a distance. A listener would get a sense of peace and harmony. The drums would start to get louder and fast as the second part is coming and the "brigands ungentled" come across the cold seas "icicle bold." Here, Maya Angelou repeats the word "white" twice which makes sure everyone knows it's white colonizers coming, and the music would start to sound more scary, maybe like a "Jaws" movie sound so listeners of the song know something really bad is about to happen. The song would build to more harsh sounding instruments that might even sound unpleasant, like clashing symbols, an electric guitar at a high pitch or a piano sounding with off sorts of notes. Then it would turn into a triumphant march as if to convey overcoming hardship and struggle because that's what we see in the end of the poem when the woman is now "striding" instead of lying. The voice needed for the introduction should be similar to Heather Headley in the musical “AIDA” in a tone similar to the beginning of “Easy as life”.  I believe it is important to convey the message of a tired, hurting, but strong and resilient people and culture.  Additionally, the melody would transition from a sad, slow, almost ballad to a more active middle (and here maybe we would use a male voice or a combination of female and male voice that sound like they're fighting), and then go to a fanfare that invokes a feeling of pride and confidence. Africa is now rising so it should sound like a winning victory.  

"From the Sidelines"

By Rita Dove

It seems I have always sat here watching men like you — 

who turn heads, whose gaze is always either a kiss

or a slap or the whiplash of pure disregard. Why fret? All

you’re doing is walking. You’re this year’s It, the

one righteous integer of cool cruising down a great-lipped

channel of hushed adoration, women turned girls

again, brightening in spite of themselves. That

brave, wilting smile — you don’t see it, do you?

How she tells herself to move on; blinks until she can.

Interpretation & Transformation

At first this seems to be about the woman speaker who desires a certain kind of man, but it quickly turns to something else: it's about the powerful male, the alpha male (the sports jock type? the title might indicate that), the "It" guy that all the women desire or desire to be with. It becomes more an examination of that kind of man or all powerful men who know they can command attention and desire from women because of their power, the center everything, while women remain on the sidelines. They can use their "gaze" or attention as a "kiss" that causes joy or as a weapon that is a "slap" or a "whiplash" that causes pain. The speaker of the poem, addressing the man as "you," says he doesn't see his own power and what it can do. But the poem also implies that maybe he does, or at least knows his power as the "integer of cool" just walking along to make women react to him. If he really knows the hurt he causes then he seems a little sadistic; if he doesn't that's just as bad, because he's so unaware of the women's emotions. What's interesting, though, is that the poem implies his power may be temporary. He's "this year's It", the adored one for now, but he may not be next year when the new "It" comes along.

If this were a song, R & B seems a good musical genre and the singer Beyoncé a great choice since her voice has depth and range. This poems goes back and forth between women's desire and pain, then the man's ability to use his power to cause their emotions. R & B allows for this kind of switch from love, longing and desire to in-your-face aggressiveness, which Beyoncé often uses as a way to sing about women's empowerment. Beyoncé also has a knowing power that matches the speaker who knows the games that men play and is making this "It" man (or all men) know that she's aware of their game. That aggressive "you" seems to pin him down, and now he's the one like a bug on a pin being looked at in a cool, rational way by a woman. The music might be softer and more slow (guitars, piano, even oboe or flute) when it talks about the women's desire and their hurt, but it could get more loud and rhythmic using drums and a more aggressive beat when it focuses on the man's gaze as a "slap" or a "whiplash." The phrase "You don't see it, do you?" might be a good repeating chorus, maybe followed by back-up singers saying "But you do, don't you?" since the poem seems to imply both. The song would put men on notice that smart women know what's up, so powerful men should be on their toes.

"What Do Women Want," by Kim Addonizio

The possible theme of this poem would be women’s expression, boldness, and freedom.

The first line of the poem says, “I want a red dress”. A red dress symbolizes different things to

different people but the most popular is that a woman wearing a red dress is more sexually

appealing. This has become a kind of stereotype, that when a woman puts on a red dress, she

desires a man for sexual satisfaction. This perception has made women uncomfortable wearing a

red dress even if the dress looks good and comfortable on them. The “red dress” is a physical

representation of how people’s perception has restricted women from being themselves, free to

express themselves and their sexuality in whatever way they feel. The narrator of the poem used the

desire for the red dress to symbolize her desire to be able to love and express herself, be bold and

daring to challenge the status quo, and at the end gain the freedom to being whomever she wants

to be--and not be judged by what she wears.

          The second and third lines of the poem go on to describe what the red dress should look like.

“I want it flimsy and cheap” means she should have no significant reason to wear it, no motive,

wear it because you love it. “I want it sleeveless and backless, this dress, so no one has to guess

what's underneath”. This part of the poem means wearing this dress fashionably that people

would not have to guess the motive behind wearing it. The next eight to ten lines talk about

being about to wear it anywhere or passed anyone without being judged. “I want it to confirm

your worst fears about me”, means boldness and the next few lines that followed talks about not

being affected by what others think about her, she is unperturbed by whatever opinion people

have about her wearing the red dress, in other words, her persona or personality.

Song Details

Voicing: The vocalist is a female with a mezzo-soprano voice. A mezzo-soprano voice is a middle soprano voice that sweet, strong, dramatic, and airy. It is best for this song because the song is about a confident female who is who wants to express herself without fear or concern. A high soprano will be too soft or too weak for the message the singer needs to pass across.

Genre:  a combination of reggae and pop,  reggae because reggae seems masculine, when a female sings reggae, it seems she is challenging a status quo.
Rhythm: the chorus is the first and it has a moderate rhythm that allows the listeners to get into the song. The first verse has a higher modulation that helps the music flow into the fast rhythm of the bridge. The bridge is where the singer expresses living life as a female without care of being judged by society and this would be faster to depict liveliness and boldness. 

Instrument: Piano and guitar are the main instruments that give the reggae sound

Chorus:

I want a red dress.

I want it flimsy and cheap,

I want it too tight, I want to wear it

until someone tears it off me.

Verse 1

I want it sleeveless and backless,

this dress, so no one has to guess

what's underneath

Bridge:

I want to walk down

the street past Thrifty's and the hardware store

with all those keys glittering in the window,

past Mr. and Mrs. Wong selling day-old

donuts in their café, past the Guerra brothers

slinging pigs from the truck and onto the dolly,

hoisting the slick snouts over their shoulders.

Verse 2:

I want to walk like I'm the only woman

on earth and I can have my pick.

I want that red dress bad.

I want it to confirm your worst fears about me,

to show you how little I care about you,

or anything except what I want.

chorus

Verse 3:

When I find it, I'll pull that garment

from its hanger like I'm choosing a body

to carry me into this world, through

the birth-cries and the love-cries too,

and I'll wear it like bones, like skin,

it'll be the goddamned dress they bury me in.

Voicing: The vocalist is a female with a mezzo-soprano voice. A mezzo-soprano voice is a middle soprano voice that sweet, strong, dramatic, and airy. It is best for this song because the song is about a confident female who is who wants to express herself without fear or concern. A high soprano will be too soft or too weak for the message the singer needs to pass across.

 Genre:  a combination of reggae and pop,  reggae because reggae seems masculine, when a female sings reggae, it seems she is challenging a status quo.

Rhythm: the chorus is the first and it has a moderate rhythm that allows the listeners to get into the song. The first verse has a higher modulation that helps the music flow into the fast rhythm of the bridge. The bridge is where the singer expresses living life as a female without care of being judged by society and this would be faster to depict liveliness and boldness.

Instrument: Piano and guitar are the main instruments that give the reggae sound