The Art of the Poetic Playlist
by CAAPP intern Sarah Morris
American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin, Terrance Hayes
Cannibal, Safiya Sinclair
I Think I’m Ready to Meet Frank Ocean, Shayla Lawson
Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, Patricia Smith
The Tradition, Jericho Brown
When Jericho Brown’s new book, The Tradition, was released this week, he took to Twitter to share a Spotify playlist. Called “THE TRADITION Poetry Playlist,” the description of it reads, “This is a list of love songs I seem to have needed when writing The Tradition. Looking at them now, they seem filled with a kind of expectancy and gratitude. I hope they are encouraging in that way. I hope that they show the tenderness and care it takes to live in a hard world.”
The act of constructing a playlist is not that unlike the act of constructing a poem. Maybe it was more so in the days when we made them physically—the song tracks carefully written in sharpie on a CD, moving down the space of the disc not so dissimilar to the lines of a poem sliding down the page. While a song has more obvious connections to poetry—lyrics and music being a kind of poetics themselves—it’s exciting to look at the construction of the playlist as another art form in and of itself. Occasionally I’ll finish a book and offer to pass it on to a friend. “Can I share my reading playlist with you, too?” I’ll ask. Sometimes this is met with a questioning gaze, but other times there is a flash of understanding. A friend will tell me about whatever they may be going through at the moment, and when I don’t have the words to respond in a meaningful way I’ll say, “Give me a half hour.” The result is a text message containing a link to a playlist titled with the friend’s name, constructed to help them in a way my own words might not.
A look at Brown’s playlist shows something that feels as intimate as any poem might. Classic songs about love (Aretha Franklin’s “Baby I Love You,” Diana Ross’s “The Feeling We Once Had,”), each powerful on their own, come together to form a creation that is more than the sum of its parts—and when combined with Brown’s book shapes an entirely new experience. To read his poems in combination with the songs he chose to share adds another dimension to the experience—much of the poetry holds the weight of grief, much of the music contains the tenderness of love, and they mix in new ways that bring the themes and sounds together.
I took to the practice myself, thinking about the poetry that has affected me this year and music that I associate with those works: How Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin left me thinking about the state of the contemporary United States for someone who has spent their life here, and the singer JS Osambra’s album Tales of America left me with some of the same questions from the perspective of someone who came here later in life. How there were intersections between the two that I did not fully understand but felt emotionally. I think of Safiya Sinclair’s book Cannibal and the grit of femininity present in her work and the similar deep connection to femininity I feel when I listen to Valerie June’s album The Order of Time as she spins tales with her voice. I think of how I somehow never encountered Patricia Smith’s poetry until a matter of months ago and when I did I got the feeling in my gut that I had been missing some significant piece of myself—the same feeling I got when I recently heard Aretha Franklin’s version of “Gentle on my Mind” for the first time.
The resulting playlist contains these and songs that made it for similar reasons. The result strikes me as something of a found poem—sure the playlist is constructed from the works of others, but when I listen to it, it stands on its own as a kind of culmination of the experiences I had reading, the way a piece of ekphrastic writing might. And while Spotify’s interface is no notebook and pen—it lacks the personal qualities that writing has—it does the job of letting us experience this music while we read or write, to find the connections between the work and delve into the act of creation.